Posted on | October 23, 2014
Written by | W.R. Tish
by W.R. Tish and contributed by W. Blake Gray
With focus, creativity and affordable quality, suppliers of new Vin de France brands take aim at American wine drinkers
Simplicity and French wine, sadly, are not often in the same sentence. But Vin de France—VDF, the country’s freshly minted wine designation—is ready to change that. Shedding the complexity and rigidity of the traditional region-based AOC system, this new wave of French wines exude a sense not only of simplicity, but also creativity—without losing a drop of authenticity. If ever a type of French wine should appeal instantly to Americans, it is Vin de France: it’s based on freedom. Freedom to source from multiple areas, freedom to blend without restrictions, freedom to sport friendly and inviting labels.
A group of 10 suppliers—some negociants, some producers—recently visited the U.S. with the Vin de France trade organization, Anivin de France, to raise awareness of the category. Their insights reveal that behind the simplicity of the Vin de France designation lies some serious market-savvy brain power. “They understand the U.S. market and share a commitment to translating authentic French wines into appealing, competitive wine brands,” says Valérie Pajotin, Managing Director of Anivin de France. “Vin de France wines will truly please Americans, especially in delivering value for the price.”
Who they are: Based in New York, Tri-Vin has a network of 144 distributors in 44 states. “We’re brand creators,” says Marc Oliveira, National Sales Director. “We work with suppliers who are flexible, offer great quality, and can offer cork or screwcap.” The Tussock Jumper Vin de France Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are part of a global portfolio of 17 wines from iconic regions in 11 countries. More recently, they have added Les Alliés, a strictly French label.
On Vin de France: “For a long time, regional French wines have seemed complex and difficult. People might like Sancerre but did not understand that it’s Sauvignon Blanc. The idea behind Vin de France is to get over that intimidation factor. It’s the first time the French have tried to change their marketing approach.”
On brand goals: “We’re looking for wines that are serious but still have that commercialness. They’re approachable, not gimmicky. They’re not sweet or forced. Tussock Jumper is more for off-premise because of the screwcap. Right now it’s on special for Whole Foods in the Midwest. Les Alliés is more for on-premise because of the look.”
Who they are: Sacha Lichine is already known for success with Provence rosés in particular. “Sacha’s father Alexis Lichine was the pioneer for teaching people in America about France. Now Sacha’s reteaching a new generation,” says Paul Chevalier, National Fine Wine Director.
On Vin de France: “France has a lot more vintage variation than the New World. Sacha is very good at blending wines across vineyards, even not in the same region. You need the name but you also need consistency. Vin de France gives you consistency.”
On their wines: “The new younger consumer doesn’t want things that are too rough and tough. Not necessarily that light, but fruit-forward, easy-drinking. The idea was to try to go down a path which was a little bit different. The white is Chardonnay, Vermentino, Sauvignon and Semillon. You get something that is aromatic with good fruit. The rosé is only made of Grenache. Grenache produces the most elegant style of rosé; there’s no Mourvedre, no Syrah, no Cinsault in this wine. There’s a reason for that. The red wine is Grenache, Syrah, Merlot. We like that cherry sort of ripeness, but with more body.”
Who they are: Having already excelled with Roncier selling about 2 million bottles worldwide, Maison Tramier just launched Le Petit Panier Vin de France. “We’re from Burgundy. Vin de France is a way for us to find new customers who can discover what we do without having to spend $20 for Burgundy,” explains Export Director Olivier Negraz.
On Le Petit Panier: “The concept is to have something French and natural. The idea of the label is to have a basket and pick the grapes that the Earth is offering. Here we’re looking for the typicity of the grape. That’s why Vin de France is so interesting for us. We’re allowed to use the best from everywhere in France, to do good and affordable wines. Our winemaker’s experience with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is great. His style is very Burgundy, even if the grapes are from the south of France. The style is for the freshness. No oak, nothing. They are not sweeter. Very natural. If we’re able to do a Grand Cru Musigny, we’re able to do a Pinot Noir Vin de France.”
Who they are: Created in 1995 by Catherine and Laurent Delaunay, Badet Clément & Co is “a pure family-owned winery,” explains Managing Director Frédéric Pacaut. “Catherine’s family were growers in Beaujolais; Laurent’s family were negociants in Burgundy.” They specialize in creating branded French wines geared to international markets; their first hit was Les Jamelles, in the 1990s, from Languedoc.
On Vin de France: “Vin de France is a fantastic quality opportunity which is price-conscious.”
On blending: “Suppose we have some wonderful Chardonnay we source in the Languedoc. In some years it has wonderful fruit but it doesn’t have enough crispness. If you blend it with Chardonnay from Gascogne, that has the right profile. You can add the qualities you need.”
On their brands: “La Belle Angèle we created for all markets; it allows a good price point if you want to sell it by the glass. It allows a good case price if you want to stack it. La Villette we created for the U.S. Alto Stratus we created to do a top, top Carignan, which is 100% old-vine fruit. Alto Stratus is more on-premise. But the category doesn’t need to be on- or off-premise.”
Who they are: Rooted in Gigondas, the company started by Gabriel Meffre in 1936 grew to be one of the largest landowners in the southern Rhône. “Today we make 22 million bottles a year, about 60% Rhône wines and about 40% southern France,” notes Jacqueline Cole, export sales manager.
On Vin de France: “We started making Vin de France as soon as the category came out. We really like the ability to grow across the different regions. With Vin de France, if you have a difficult vintage in one area you can look further for grapes.”
On their brands: “La Châsse is more of a traditional, classically coded wine for people who like the European profile. Le Cirque has a slightly higher residual sugar level, just about 6-8 grams. These wines are definitely for off-premise.”
On blending: “Vin de France allows you to make fun blends. Le Cirque has a Sauvignon Blanc-Muscat blend. We like the floral aromatic tones you get from the Muscat with the bracing acidity from the Sauvignon Blanc. We do a Chardonnay-Gros Manseng. The Gros Manseng is a nice offset of the Chardonnay. Our winemaker loves the category for the freedom it gives her. She likes wines that are easy drinking and round.”
Who they are: With four-plus decades experience, Languedoc-based Val d’Orbieu remains the largest still wine cooperative in France, its 2,500 members spread over 11 wine cooperatives and 60 estates. More important, they are standard bearers as French brand-makers (most notably Réserve St Martin). Interestingly, to market their four Vin de France labels in the U.S., the large co-op has teamed with a small, young U.S. agency—Vintage Epicure, headed by three partners who had worked at Pasternak Wine Imports. “Our take-to-market strategy is vineyard to bottle. We act as an importer but we do not take possession of the goods,” explains Gregg Mutschler, Director of National Accounts for the U.S.
On their VDF brands: “We are thrilled to be working with Val d’Orbieu,” asserts Richard Genova, Vintage Epicure President. “It’s not just their size and vineyard holdings. They really get it. This is the first French producer I have worked with that has vision from the market backwards, rather than the vineyard forward. Their enologist judges his own success by us selling more wine in our market.”
Who they are: Groupe Taillan was created in 1961 by Jacques Merlaut. The first company he founded in France was Rhodanienne (Rhône), followed by Ginestet (Bordeaux) and Joseph Verdier (Loire Valley). “We sell 60 million bottles a year,” says Patrice Lancien, Director USA. “With our group, we can offer a full package for importers.”
On developing French Kiss: “We have one of the best enologists in France. We tasted a lot of popular samples in America with our importer, in order to understand consumer expectation. Then we selected the 10 best and we sent them to our enologist. He made three profiles and we picked one, and that is how French Kiss was born. American people like it a lot. And they love the name.”
On their other VDF brands: “In addition to French Kiss, we have several brands that deliver great value at different price points. Voiturette is more of a French profile; it is straight varietal, not oaked. Le Faisan is a Rhône-style blend. Grenache/Syrah for red, Grenache Blanc/Marsanne for white.”
Who they are: Founded 10 years ago by Didier Grandeau, an export director in Bordeaux, Grandissime began offering Bordeaux wines, then progressively added wines from other regions. “We started making Vin de France wines two years ago,” recalls Nicolas Dufour, America Sales Manager. “Our wines were so successful that we had to find grapes from additional regions. Now it’s possible to make specific blends for customers. We call ourselves ‘Exclusive Wine Stylists.’ One-third of the business is private labels.”
On house style: “We want to make wines with a modern twist. We work on the tannins to make sure they are very smooth, very silky. We try to extract a maximum of fruit. Everything is stainless. We don’t use any oak on the Vin de France wines. We could. If somebody asks for a wine with oak, we can add it. But this is not the trend. We put the grape varieties on the labels of the Vin de France wines because it’s easier for the consumer to understand. France is the only country where people are mainly drinking wine with food. Most places people are drinking wine by itself. Our wines can be enjoyed by themselves.”
Who they are: The company started in 2010, but Export Manager Pierre Courdurie explains, “We have more than 20 years experience. Lionel was at Maison de Vin de Jurançon. Something was missing in our region. There was no negociant covering all the different places in south France. We were looking to bring something to the market with a more modern approach.”
Their approach: “We don’t have the money to buy vineyards. The idea was doing a negociant in the south of France, but having a deep impact on the growers. We are dealing with about 35 producers. We know all the best vineyard sites and know all the growers. We can choose the section of the vineyard we want. We do the winemaking in their cellars and then we bring the juice to a central warehouse.”
On Heart of Darkness: “The idea came from studies about resveratrol. Tannat is the grape that contains the most resveratrol. We have a whole range of Darkness: Heart of Darkness for the Tannat, Deep Darkness for the Malbec, Pink Darkness for the rosé made from Negrette.”
Who they are: “We are based in Perpignan. We are about 20 people sourcing the wine and bringing it to the consumer,” says Emmanuel Montes, Export Director. “One of our specialties is organic. We export 1 million cases, 20% of it organic. We are one of the top organic producers in France. That’s based on our relationship with the growers. You have to know where the organic wines are.”
On Vin de France: “Vin de France is the way for France to be in competition with other countries. We can use the varietal name. We can blend across regions. We can compete with Argentina and California on the same level. We can adapt the quality for the market, which is very unusual. Vin de France is the future. It’s a young, friendly, hip new thing. It’s super exciting.”
On their brands: “Le Carla is a little forest near our main estate; we stole the name from our region. Montmija is the main brand for our wines. We extended the range to include varietal wines in Vin de France.”