Bordeaux is at last starting to court consumers. Alan Spencer meets the négociants who typify the new mindset.

There is a profound sea change taking place in Bordeaux and this, claims Christian Delpeuch, is helping the region maintain its leadership in the wine world. He is president of the Bordeaux négociants’ syndicat, which markets almost 80% of the Bordeaux trade. While the wine world, consumer taste and distribution were undergoing a fundamental transformation, Bordeaux remained complacent. Now it is racing to catch up fast.

Wine consumption per head per annum in the UK leaped from two litres in 1965 to 16 litres today, and these new consumers with a taste for the fruit and consistency of New World wines have sent Bordeaux a warning signal. Nicolas Gailly, managing director of Barton & Guestier, now part of Diageo Château and Estate Wines, is grateful for the warning: ‘Thank you consumers, we heard your message.’ B&G now has 30 pilot wineries, which he describes as life-sized laboratories developing innovative techniques in response to new consumer taste. Jean-François Mau, head of long-established négociant Yvon Mau, which was recently sold to Freixenet, believes, ‘every new consumer represents a golden opportunity for Bordeaux’. He is convinced that young consumers who come to wine through easy-drinking varietals will inevitably move on to a more sophisticated Bordeaux style.

Eric Dulong, president of the Bordeaux Wine Trade Council, has been promoting a new attitude. ‘What we must bear in mind,’ he says, ‘is that nothing can ever be taken for granted, especially in Bordeaux.’ He points out that Bordeaux benefits from three assets – its renown, its image and its history – but only the négociant, with one hand in the vineyard and the other with the consumer, is in direct touch with changes in drinking habits. ‘Over the last, say, five or six years, the Bordeaux négociant has returned to his true vocation – selecting top-quality wines, ageing them in his cellars and producing the blend which is the hallmark of Bordeaux.’

Putting his money where his mouth is, as chairman of négociant Dulong-Huet, Dulong recently overturned tradition by buying grapes directly from the grower, as a Spanish bodega or a Californian winery would. His firm’s new winemaking complex represents a very heavy investment but enables the full process to be carefully controlled, from the way the grapes are grown right through to bottling and distribution. Other négociants, such as CVBG-Dourthe-Kressmann, have adopted a similar approach. Says chairman Jean-Marie Chadronnier: ‘Last year we bought 60ha (hectares) of vineyard and we will be doubling the planted area this year.’ The idea is to make sure the grapes bought are of superior quality, from vines planted at a minimum density of 5,000/ha, and harvested at a maximum yield of 60hl/ha. The wisdom of this policy seems to be borne out by results, as No1 de Dourthe has been won praise as one of Bordeaux’s top brands.

As general manager of the négociant Ginestet, Christian Delpeuch doesn’t believe his own winery is warranted, saying: ‘Since 1992, we have been going much further in the preparation of wine for our brands.’ Strict specifications have been laid down on canopy management, grape growing and winemaking. ‘We don’t just buy grapes,’ Delpeuch points out. ‘We go right to the source through a contract system with about 60 vineyard owners, covering roughly 1,500ha and producing 80,000hl – the equivalent of a large winery.’ Négociant Mau follows the same policy for brand wines such as Yvecourt and Premius, buying from a selected group of vintners. The grapes are grown in accordance with very strict procedures, controlled by Yvon Mau staff. ‘Wineries require very heavy investment,’ Mau explains. ‘Trucking grapes long distances can be dangerous and paying for grapes according to quality is not easy.’ Yann Schÿler, the eighth generation to head Schröder & Schÿler, has gone even further. ‘Innovative products are not easy to produce in Bordeaux on account of the fickle climate.’ In addition to its Signatures en Bordeaux range, S&S has produced a new Vin du Pays d’Oc, called Altera. This is made from half Bordeaux, half Mediterranean grapes and is ‘crafted to please those who enjoy young, simple and convivial wines.’ For years now, Barton & Guestier, in addition to its famous Bordeaux blends such as 1725 Founder’s Collection, has been producing varietals from the Pays d’Oc, carefully blended to suit new tastes.

Varietals are a blend of a single grape variety from different terroirs but, with the exception of Sauvignon Blanc, varietals are forbidden in Bordeaux. Bordeaux brands must be an assemblage of several Bordeaux grapes, mainly the two Cabernets and Merlot for reds, Sauvignon and Sémillon for whites. Grape varieties from other French regions are proscribed, but in deference to new consumer taste, Dulong outlines a dual strategy for the Bordeaux trade. Without abandoning the traditional image of château wines, he believes, ‘the future of Bordeaux is in brands aimed primarily at the younger generation and the feminine market’.

Bernard Magrez, chairman of William Pitters, whose Malesan label is now the top-selling domestic brand, disagrees. ‘Like it or not,’ he says, ‘Bordeaux’s greatest asset for the last two centuries has been its famed grands crus – the envy of the rest of the wine world, new and old alike.’ This is the image Magrez is trying to project with his Malesan. ‘In wanting to be the wine for every age, Bordeaux could become the wine for no age,’ he warns. However, Yann Schÿler, believes both markets are valid. ‘The majority of those who buy Bordeaux are looking for its traditional quality. In this segment châteaux that achieve quality will survive.’ At the same time, he believes, ‘tomorrow’s clientèle will be different from those of today’. Looking towards that future, Mau would like to target today’s non-consumers – those who drink beer, soft drinks or even water! He believes every new wine consumer is a potential Bordeaux customer. ‘Their taste will become refined,’ he suggests. ‘New consumers eventually seek a more elegant lifestyle in line with French gastronomy, and finer food requires finer wines.’

Patrick Bernard, managing director of Millésima, has built a mail-order business dealing exclusively in top grands crus, mostly via the internet. All the wines are bought directly from the châteaux and some three million bottles lie in a huge, carefully climatised warehouse down on the quays, the time-honoured Bordeaux shop-window. ‘We are at a crossroads,’ he says. ‘Everything seems to have changed in the last few years. Prices of top growths have rocketed and where there is big money, there are bound to be swindlers.’ The recent scandals that have rocked Bordeaux prompt him to suggest a reform of the whole system.

Cases such as the scandal of the fake Pétrus and instances of wines being incorrectly labelled come under the scope of the INAO, the national body that administers appellations, yet its statutory constraints are regularly criticised. Barton & Guestier wanted to produce a top premium wine using grape varieties from other regions, but INAO’s rigid legislation would relegate this to a table wine, which would be impossible to sell at premium prices. Dulong, on the other hand, criticises not the rules but their application. ‘Before new rules are made, let’s make sure those that exist are applied,’ he says. ‘That’s the INAO’s responsibility.’ Allan Sichel of Maison Sichel, which produces the exclusive premium brand, Sirius, agrees. ‘Legal constraints, INAO legislation and rules of production are here to stay,’ he says.

Basing their approach on the renown of Bordeaux’s traditional grands crus, market-conscious négociants are trying to prove that brand wines can be produced at grand cru quality. Small parcels of old (30+ years) vines that produce top-quality grapes are carefully selected and cultivated to produce low yields (35hl/ha). These are manually harvested and vinified in the manner of a top growth to produce small, premium-quality cuvées. Demonstrating what can be achieved through quality viticulture and winemaking, they personify the quintessence of the brand name they represent.

Yvon Mau started by preparing the premium brand, Exigence d’Yvon Mau, for the 2000 vintage. The 2001 (1,000 cases) was tasted in spring. Similarly, Essence of No1 de Dourthe from CVBG-Dourthe-Kressmann (500 cases) is made by Michel Rolland and scored 89–91 on the Parker scale. Magrez at William Pitters is also producing a new cuvée, Hommage de Malesan, to promote his Malesan brand. Delpeuch has built a quality pyramid with Reference de Ginestet, which is aged in oak, at the pinnacle (750 cases of 1999, 1,000 cases of 2000) and Mascaret par Ginestet, also oak-aged, one step down.

Schÿler prefers to concentrate efforts on his main brands and not attempt to produce cult wines that attract publicity but, due to short supply, may frustrate the would-be connoisseur. Whatever the strategy, quality and value for money have become the main objectives and Chadronnier at Dourthe-Kressmann sets the tone. ‘We are not going to make mediocre wines,’ he says. ‘We will concentrate on exceptional quality.’ This is a sentiment echoed by Schÿler, who comments, ‘quality is the only thing that interests us’.

So, stimulated by the quality of wines produced in other parts of the globe, Bordeaux is evolving. ‘The main change is in attitude,’ suggests Sichel. ‘The Bordeaux trade is realising that being named Bordeaux is no longer sufficient to sell the wine!’ Exports last year rose steadily until October, when there was a sharp drop, partly due to the events of 11 September and partly due to the economic slowdown. Jean-François Mau sums it up: ‘Bordeaux has been in a crisis situation, off and on, for the last 50 years, but we never had any alternative but to win through.’

Written by ALAN SPENCER