Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Can Bordeaux turn the tide?

Bordeaux is probably the most famous wine region in the world, producing some of the most expensive and prestigious wines made anywhere – if you have £500 to spare then you too can treat yourself to a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 2005. Mouton-Rothschild, along with the rest of Bordeaux’s élite wine producers, are onto a good thing it seems. But what about the rest of the region?

Bordeaux produces more wine every year than the whole of Australia – that’s a lot of wine. And the trouble is fewer of us are buying that wine now than we used to: France used to occupy the number one spot in the wine import chart for the UK, seemingly by right. They have slumped to number 2, losing out to Australia – and the United States looks set to push them down into third place before too long. Looking below the level of the classed growth châteaux, all is not well for today’s Bordelais wine makers.

What’s the problem?
As UK wine consumption has increased, France’s share of that consumption has shrunk. Why have we gone off French, and specifically Bordeaux, wine?

Complexity – just look at the countries which have benefited from France’s falling popularity: Australia and the US: both English-speaking New World countries. The Australian and US wines that have done best here are usually lower priced, varietally-labelled wines – by that I just mean that the grape variety is on the label. Bordeaux, by contrast is more complicated: their wines are based on blending grape varieties and the name of the region, or one of its many sub-regions, or even the individual château name, is the most prominent thing on the label.

Value for money – at the price that UK wine consumers want to pay (just over £4 a bottle on average) Bordeaux’s wines just cannot offer the same straightforward ripe, fruity flavours that the New World can. If you read this column at all regularly, you’ll know that spending more on wine is one of my favourite hobby horses. Upping the amount you spend by a couple of quid does give the winemaker much more scope to put quality in the bottle.

Lack of quality – it’s a frustrating truth about Bordeaux that you can spend, say, £7-8 on a bottle and still be disappointed with the wine. There’s no getting away from the fact that too much thin, green, unripe Bordeaux is made – and this can probably only be addressed by ripping up substantial areas of poor quality vineyard.

We don’t understand Bordeaux - it’s not as easy to understand as Aussie Shiraz and never can be. We don’t drink wine the way the French do: there are deeply embedded cultural links in France between the food they eat and the wine they drink and their styles of wine are best understood and enjoyed with food. We Anglo Saxons are more northern European in our drinking habits and often our wines need to be TV or DVD-friendly rather than food-friendly.

So what’s the answer?
If I knew that I wouldn’t be writing about it here! I’d be making a fortune advising the French government and wine authorities on how to regain their place in the UK market. However, here’s a look at how one company is going about trying to win back the affection of the country that, let’s face it, was the original market for claret (the English word for red Bordeaux) and helped to make it the wine it is today.

The company Baron Philippe de Rothschild owns two major concerns in Bordeaux: first growth Château Mouton-Rothschild and Mouton Cadet. The Château is the jewel in the crown, with incredible attention to detail and every care lavished on hand-made, stratospherically-priced wine. Mouton Cadet produces a range of branded wines from Bordeaux. You can pick up the basic red and white versions at Sainsbury’s for £7.19. The Mouton Cadet label is Bordeaux’s biggest brand, selling 12 million bottles each year (compared with Château Mouton Rothschild’s 300,000 in 2007) in 150 countries. The idea is that some of the glamour, exclusivity and expertise of the Château rubs off on Mouton Cadet, giving their brand a unique appeal. The Mouton Cadet operation is certainly large-scale and impressive, with scrupulous quality control in its state-of-the-art winery.

Mouton Cadet is designed as an entry level wine, bringing new consumers to Bordeaux, giving a consistent, reliable claret experience – all the things a brand should do. But will it help to win back UK wine drinkers? I’m not sure. It does offer a consistent taste of what Bordeaux can offer and tastes better now than it did a few years back, with more fruit and a subtle lick of oak. But, selling at over £7 a bottle, it cannot and is not intended to tap into the true mass market. And at that price the competition from the New World is fierce. Yes, it’s food friendly wine – but that’s never going to be as important here as it is in France.

What it does offer is the safe haven of a brand, which we consumers have shown we like. I salute Mouton Cadet (and its smaller competitors such as Calvet and Dourthe) for their willingness to create a brand which tries to take on the New World, without forsaking its own sense of place – it is still unmistakably claret. But UK wine consumers have increasingly turned their backs on this style of wine and even mighty Mouton may not be able to turn back the tide.

No comments: