Bordeaux Wine: The Class War

“It’s a good marriage between the history of the name but the requirement of châteaux to improve every year, explains Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe, director of Cru Bourgeois Alliance. “They have to work very hard to be a Cru Bourgeois. We are trying to improve the visibility of the classification in new markets and have launched each of the new vintages in the last three years. It’s working well.” Cru Bourgeois wines also have to don special labels, complete with hologram and QR code, which have been limited to 50,000 per winery to prevent over-production.

For many Petit Châteaux the approach is about offering quality and value for money. Standards have generally leapt in Bordeaux over the last couple of decades but particularly in the last five years. Grapes are coaxed into ripening with advanced vineyard management and optical sorting is starting to be introduced as a further fail-safe. Production costs are higher in Bordeaux than in most parts of the world but châteaux are leaner in other areas – they tend to outsource bottling and marketing is generally left to negociants.

Some châteaux see the negociant system as a disadvantage – claiming their wines are lost in a portfolio of similar brands, controlled by a marketer inclined towards easy sales and thick margins. With his Yvon Mau cap on, Richard Bampfield talks us through what is a very French system. “The advantage is that for smaller producers there is tremendous reach – each negociant has strengths in different parts of the world. If there is an appetite for Bordeaux, the negociant will reach it. If châteaux were doing the selling themselves they would need many more sales people. There are strains from time to time – when the market conditions favour the negociant or the producer, but if the wine is in demand it sells. The good properties give distribution to the negociant and look after marketing themselves.”

Beatrice Marrayd de Grottes, marketing and communications manager of CA Grands Cru agrees that more responsibility lies in-house but says some châteaux struggle in the area. “We’re used to talking to professionals, not to wine drinkers. Sometimes Bordeaux can be intimidating and complicated to consumers. More châteaux are trying to put together marketing departments to simplify the [brand] message.”

Margrez says: “The problem is not the negociant it’s the châteaux. If you want to change the method of distribution you must change the châteaux to be more like wineries in South America and Australia.”

Yvon Mau occupies all of Bordeaux’s wine classes, and is now introducing new mid-market line, Revelations. The company has teamed up with winemaker Hubert de Bouard to create Revelations, a range of six wines that will retail for around £8-£12. Bampfield explains: “Generally Bordeaux is criticised for not being fruity – the interesting aspect here is that the emphasis is very much on the quality of the fruit.”

Margrez warms to the subject: “In Bordeaux there are no brands, just 14,000 châteaux,” he says. His father’s company has set about changing that. “Everybody needs security so we added a signature to our range. At the beginning it is just a name, not a brand – it needed noise and advertising. 

The solution is repetition, repetition, repetition. By creating demand we
are making it much easier for the negociants to sell. In many countries châteaux are seen as naff – I say to people I am not a château owner I am a brand builder.”

There are three kinds of producer, he says. “Those that push their wines, those that know there is a problem of reputation but don’t have the money to push, and the great majority that think their wine is the best in the world and don’t have to push.”

The working class 

By popular agreement, somewhere around £8 and below exist the volume wines of Bordeaux. Normally labelled Bordeaux AC and sometimes Bordeaux AC Supererior, these wines make up around half of the region’s production.

The volume end of the business is also an area of focus for the CIVB, who began the Bordeaux Tomorrow initiative in 2010. The project’s premise was that “sales performance [is] not in line with potential” and that Bordeaux is “a damaged brand, notably with respect to quality standards, coherence between price and perceived value and counterfeit products in certain markets”. Pretty strong stuff but, as they say at Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to admit that you have a problem.