For many young drinkers, Bordeaux is old-fashioned and irrelevant. GUY WOODWARD meets a group determined to inject the X-factor into the region’s international image

Close your eyes, sit back and think of Bordeaux. What came to mind? Luxury, class, austerity? Borre-dohhh… Even the word’s gloriously round phonetics seem to go on for ever, inviting you to wallow endlessly in its majesty.

But as with all established greats, there is a danger that familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least indifference. Borre-dohhh soon becomes borre-domm, at least in the eyes of promiscuous wine drinkers seduced by the alluring media campaigns of the New World. So cast out any images of ornate, historic châteaux which may have sprung to mind. Look instead at the image below and think ‘dynamism, passion, youth’. Not words that are natural bedfellows of the Bordelais, but these wine professionals are using them liberally in an effort to sex up this most aristocratic of regions.

Bordeaux Oxygène is a group representing 18 estates who have come together to project a younger, more vibrant image of the region, specifically on the international stage. Its members, most of whom are from notable wine dynasties, and many of whom studied oenology together, hope to breathe fresh life into the image, and sales, of Bordeaux. They will focus chiefly on non-winemaking issues, notably marketing, in an effort to increase the region’s appeal to young drinkers.

‘BO2’ has been dismissed by some commentators who point out that few of the group wield any real power in terms of winemaking. But this isn’t about winemaking. At cru classé level, where most of the group’s members reside, the quality of wine isn’t a problem. Communication is. And communicating is what this group is all about.

‘Bordeaux has a very bad image,’ says the group’s secretary, Sylvie Courselle. ‘Everyone thinks it’s only old guys who make wine here. We want to say to people, “There are lots of young people involved, and this is what we’re doing.”’

What they are doing is as yet unclear, since the group’s good intentions vastly outweigh its achievements, or even its stated initiatives, thus far. But the desire is there, and the validity of its premise – that Bordeaux needs to make itself more attractive to young drinkers – cannot be denied.

In the autumn, Le Cercle du Rive Droite and L’Alliance des Crus Bourgeois du Médoc came together to host a tasting combining two regions of Bordeaux who have traditionally had as much to do with one another as neighbours in dispute over the garden fence. It was a vibrant, forward-looking event, held in Bordeaux’s ultra-cool Museum of Contemporary Arts. Appropriately enough, the focus was vins livrables, which is to say wines which are ready to buy, and – in many cases – drink. Open to the public for one day in an effort to transmit Bordeaux’s new accessibility, there was just one problem. The marketing was botched, with brochures not properly circulated, meaning that the public tasting attracted only 300 people.

Thierry Gardinier, president of the crus bourgeois alliance, used the event to address the need for modernisation. ‘We need not just to bring wine to the consumer, but also a way of life – to get across the enjoyment of wine,’ he said. ‘Bordeaux has been slow to realise this in the past. We have been arrogant and out of touch with the consumer. The people who have been most successful over the last few years are those who have been behind their bottle, travelling abroad to promote their wine.’

To many Bordelais, ‘outside Bordeaux’ means merely other French regions, such as Burgundy and the Rhône, rather than further afield. Dining in one of Bordeaux’s best restaurants, I was handed a typical wine list, composed entirely of claret. Out of interest, I asked the sommelier if he had any ‘vins étrangers’. With a dismissive shrug he sneered: ‘Nous avons quelques vins de Bourgogne.’

Rather than cocking a snook at competitor regions, Bordeaux Oxygène believes that there are lessons to be learned from them. Rather than frowning at the aggressive marketing of New World competitors, it embraces the approach.

Theirs is the first generation to have travelled extensively to winemaking regions outside the Old World. In some cases their upbringing has been away from the claustrophobic, self-obsessed Bordelais trade. Members of the group are drawn from Paris, Champagne and Cognac, and have experience of wineries in South Africa, Australia and California.

The group is drawn from all appellations, across all classifications, with no apparent bias. As Gardinier says: ‘It’s important to show a united front. First, I’m a Bordelais. Then I’m [from] the Médoc, then I’m St-Estèphe.’ Certainly the members of BO2 seem to share a common, modernising goal – in four days spent with members of the group, not once did I hear talk of hectolitres per hectare, or malolactic fermentation. Instead, they use words like ‘energy’, ‘action’ and ‘image’.

But beyond the talk, what can the group actually achieve? The aim – to get occasional wine drinkers talking about, and comfortable with, Bordeaux – is laudable. As for how to realise it, there will need to be more imagination shown than a series of tastings around Europe, the first of which, planned for London, was postponed when the group realised it didn’t yet have the necessary point of difference to attract sufficient media coverage.

There are signs, though, that the members of Oxygène are more media-savvy than previous generations. Ideas such as tastings based around speed dating, where journalists have a five-minute ‘date’ with each member before moving on to the next, are likely to appeal to a weary wine press corps drawing its breath after countless identikit tastings. Equally, seminars to tackle such issues as ‘Why New World Bordeaux blends are charlatans’ would be likely to attract far more media attention, and consumer recognition, than hackneyed comparative tastings.

The group has the clout to attempt such initiatives. ‘People say we’re just the children of established names, so we’ve been provided with status on a plate,’ says Courselle. To a large extent, she’s right – after all, names like Rolland, Bécot and de Boüard should have little problem in persuading the movers and shakers of the wine trade to take their calls. But such names must be used as a weapon further afield.

Individually, members of the group have shown such awareness. Florence Lafragette, who hosts a regional TV programme bringing the nuances of Bordeaux to the masses, is marketing her family’s Château Loudenne rosé as ‘Pink’, to appeal to the UK market. It is, however, still available as La Rose de Loudenne, ‘for more traditional markets’. At the cru bourgeois tasting, Lafragette was one of the few owners to distribute not the technical data for her wines, but information on visits to the picturesque Loudenne. She is, in short, creating a brand for the international market, based around a recognisable, accessible image.

Jean-Christophe Mau, the group’s vice president, and head of Châteaux Brown and Preuillac, has launched his ‘Emotions de Preuillac’ cuvée with an attention-grabbing back label featuring a pair of shocking red lips, and detailing the grape varieties. Such an approach would not be permitted on the front label, but Mau will not demur if retailers ‘mistakenly’ display the bottle back to front.

Comparing older Bordeaux vintages with current releases, notably at cru bourgeois level, is instructive from a marketing perspective. Several estates have changed the appearance of their offering in recent years, to project a friendlier, simpler image on the label.

There is little doubt that such an approach is needed if the region is to widen its appeal to younger drinkers. Lafragette explains that the group opted for the name Oxygène because it is looking to breathe new life into Bordeaux. The moniker ‘Bordeaux Blend’ was considered, but rejected as it wasn’t thought to have sufficient international recognition.

For decades, the Bordeaux cépage was the benchmark of fine wine. For many wine lovers, it still is. But today’s emerging generation of drinkers

prefers a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. It’s taken time for the owners of the original trademark to realise this. Now that they have, the real work has only just begun.

Florence Lafragette

The Lafragettes’ Alize Cognac business bought three Bordeaux properties in 1996 and 2000. Florence Lafragette, 29, became manager of the family estates (Château Loudenne, a cru bourgeois supérieur in the Médoc, Château de Rouillac in Pessac-Léognan, and Château de l’Hospital in the Graves) in 2001. Having completed degrees in law and business administration, Lafragette had little wine experience, bar working in the family cellars and vineyards during college holidays and four months spent working at Phelps in Napa Valley.

‘We don’t want to change Bordeaux, we just want to show we can be creative, dynamic and that we work differently. We want to project another image. It’s too soon to talk about effecting legislative changes, but yes, issues like labelling laws need attention. But to achieve such things, we need credibility, so we need to be taken seriously. We have to earn that. And we have to travel to achieve that.’

Caroline Frey

Caroline Frey, 27, studied under Denis Dubourdieu at Bordeaux’s faculty of oenology. In 2002 she won a scholarship to Dubourdieu’s Floridène property in the Graves. Her first vintage as winemaker and manager at Médoc third growth Château la Lagune – bought by her family’s Ayala Champagne business in 1999 – was in 2004.

PEOPLE SEE BORDEAUX as very much Old World and traditional. That tradition is important – when visitors come from the likes of Japan and America, they are inspired by it – so we mustn’t let go of that. But we have to communicate that it isn’t the only part of our make-up – there is also a young generation looking to the future.

‘I come from Champagne. People there are very good at marketing. In Bordeaux, it’s the opposite. We need tastings for sommeliers and consumers, as well as press and importers. It’s about our image – we need people to be talking about us, and to do that, the winemaker has to be visible – that’s the person people want to meet. Some people here have been complacent and ignorant of the threat. That’s very dangerous.

‘I hope we can look at the political side, the labelling regulations and so on. We are more powerful as a group than individually.’

Sylvie Courselle

Sylvie Courselle, 27, of Château Thieuley, Entre-Deux-Mers, did an MA in technology in Toulouse before studying oenology in Bordeaux. She then spent two years gaining technical experience in the Languedoc before travelling to estates in California and Spain. She is responsible for commercial activity, sales and marketing, while her sister Marie, 29, is responsible for the winemaking. The estate’s reputation was built by their father, Francis, who still retains authority over final winemaking decisions.

‘We’ve been to many New World countries to gain experience and want to use that to promote the best aspects of Bordeaux. We don’t want to adopt New World techniques, but it’s useful to see how they do things, notably marketing.

‘We’re not all grands crus, so we need a different way of communicating, particularly when it comes to the commercial side. We need a more accessible image, with young winemakers presenting wines in a more dynamic way. We want to get across the pleasure of drinking wine. In the UK, young people take pleasure in drinking Chilean and Australian wines. We want them to do the same with Bordeaux.

‘It’s difficult because we don’t have the same freedom to put grape varieties on the labels or use certain winemaking techniques. There’s a major problem when it comes to French laws and it’s very frustrating. It’s down to us to lobby for more freedom.

‘The main aim is to learn from each other’s experience and to inject some energy into the market. It won’t be a revolution, but it’s a start.’

Jean-Antoine Nony

Jean-Antoine Nony, 27, of Château Grand Mayne, is the commercial manager at the St-Emilion grand cru classé. He did his apprenticeship at Châteaux Beau-Sejour Bécot and Grand Pontet in 1997. In 1998, he worked for Bordeaux Index in London. He started at Grand Mayne in 1999. Two years later, his father Jean-Pierre died, leaving his mother Marie-Françoise to manage the estate.

‘Some of us are making garage wines, but some of us are from grand cru châteaux, so even though we want to project a younger image of Bordeaux, we have to respect and uphold our tradition. After me, there will be someone else, but Grand Mayne will still be here.

‘Having said that, we don’t want people to think of Bordeaux as aristocrats on horseback. We want to get closer to the people who matter – the consumers. So it’s good to get together and discuss issues – it’s like a laboratory of ideas. Who knows where it will end?’

Alice Cathiard

Alice Cathiard, 28, is manager of Les Sources de Caudalie, the hotel and spa owned by her parents, at their Graves grand cru classé estate, Smith-Haut-Lafitte. Jérôme Tourbier is her husband.

Benoît Trocard (left), 27, studied marketing and international exports, and spent time at Tarrawarra winery in Australia’s Yarra Valley before working with his father, former CIVB president Jean-Louis Trocard. His family has been in the wine business since 1620, and bought St-Emilion grand cru Clos Dubreuil, which Trocard heads, in 2002.

Trocard and Cathiard are the founders of BO2, and met doing their wine-tasting diploma at Bordeaux’s faculty of Oenology.

WE WANTED TO project a new image for the region. We were frustrated by the lack of forward thinking. We went to an event at the Académie du Vin for the younger generation, but it was very traditional and they didn’t talk about selling or promoting wine, just [technical] things.

‘So we decided to do something. All the press is saying Bordeaux is in crisis, so we want to stand up and change that perception. Our parents have made their (and our) names, so it’s even more important for us to stand on our own two feet.’ Alice Cathiard

THE AIM AND motivation of our group is to communicate the freshness of Bordeaux – to say to people that you don’t have to be old, rich, knowledgeable or aristocratic to drink Bordeaux. It’s about passion and fashion.’ Benoît Trocard

Written by Guy Woodward