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What’s Your Bordeaux Strategy?

Posted on  | July 22, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Selling wines from this iconic region can pose challenges— but the effort pays off.

For many casual wine consumers—and not a few experts—the news coming out of Bordeaux these days sounds like the place is a total mess.

**The British wine merchants and journalists are declaring—again—that if the Bordelais don’t change their greedy ways, gloom will fall along the Gironde and perhaps even frogs – grenouilles – will rain down from the heavens.

** Robert Parker is—again—making it well-known that he is quite miffed that his friends among the châteaux owners are not taking his sage pricing advice.

**And the 2014 vintage is seeing—again—price increases over comparable vintages, even though the Chinese have sobered up from their long buying binge.

As a result, many retailers continue to express concern that buying and selling Bordeaux ain’t what it used to be.

All this in spite of the fact that Bordeaux wines have been a cultural touchstone to a generation of American wine drinkers; in spite of the fact that technical improvements in Bordeaux have produced stunning vintages during this century (and that only people of a certain age can remember a truly rotten harvest); and in spite of the fact that there is quality, affordable Bordeaux in red, white and sweet offerings at all but the lowest price points.

“We are trying the get across the message that everybody can drink Bordeaux,” says Mary Gorman-McAdams, North America market advisor for the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), the Bordeaux Wine Council. “It doesn’t have to be that complicated.”

But in many ways it is complicated. While most Bordeaux by volume is sold directly to importers, as is standard for most wine produced outside the U.S., much top classified Bordeaux is sold through a complex system known as futures. In this, brokers and negociants buy wines en primeur for future delivery, hence the term “buying futures.”

The Bordeaux futures system has existed for more than 30 years, so it is well-known to the trade and connoisseurs, says Matthieu Bordes, Director of Château Lagrange. “But it is probably much more difficult for the new generations who have grown up with new technology, web and internet where everything goes faster with less and less intermediaries,” he adds.

We talked to a number of people in Bordeaux and the U.S. about how retailers can develop better strategies for selling more Bordeaux and for giving their customers a better appreciation of the region:

**Look for quality, low-price wines in satellite regions and in second wines. Bordeaux is so much more than Médoc, Graves, Sauternes, Pomerol and St-Émilion. Great quality and value exist in the satellites of St-Émilion, the various Côtes and in Entre-Deux-Mers. For those who want an affinity with great growths, most of these châteaux have “second,” even “third” wines that are often a bigger step down in price than in quality. As Bordes notes, “We often hear that Bordeaux classified growths are expensive, but we are talking about only 150 very well-known châteaux out of 10,000 Bordeaux wines.”

**Think of small estate producers the way you would “grower Champagne,” advises Kristina Sazama, French portfolio manager for Michael Skurnik Wines, a really clever approach. Choose four or five good-for-the-price estates and promote the “grower” angle.

**For entry-level customers, treat Bordeaux like a new product, says Stephan Adams, owner of the Liquor Store in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “People want to learn about new products, and for many Americans brought up on California wines, Bordeaux is a new product.” 

This also why several distributors suggest mainstreaming Bordeaux into tastings featuring Cabernet and Merlot. Bordeaux usually fares well, plus everyday Bordeaux is often less expensive than California counterparts.

**Counter lower internet pricing by emphasizing safe sourcing. Some retailers shy away from selling great growths because they are often cheaper on the internet. Jean-Louis Carbonnier, director for the Americas for Château Palmer, counters that “much of that wine was purchased in previous years and is being re-sold into the market.” Thus its provenance and condition can be questionable. Buying through a recognized distributor is much safer, he says, and the customer can appreciate this. “Don’t try to sell just on lowest price,” he says, but sell on assurance of source
and quality.

**Use vintage variation to your advantage. Everyone we talked to emphasized two things about vintages: they are of good quality regardless of year, and the variation in vintages can appeal to different tastes and pocketbooks. So-called “classic vintages” cost less than “century vintages” and make great food wines for on-premise accounts, Carbonnier says.

Selective Origin’s Thomas Lambert-Laurent, who consults Bordeaux wineries on U.S. marketing, flatly says, “There aren’t bad vintages, only bad winemakers”—and he is probably right.

Hortense Bernard, manager of Millisema retail store in New York City, an offshoot of the Bordeaux negociant, emphasizes the importance of retailers having a few recent vintages available—some ready to drink, some big and bold, some elegant and all at different prices. “You sell every vintage differently,” she says.

For Peter Zavialoff, Bordeaux “scout” at the Wine House in San Francisco, futures remain important, but, like many retailers, he loads up on less-expensive years to have a constant inventory for consumers who love Bordeaux.

**Make Bordeaux a must for everyone starting a wine cellar. Many regions have caught the fancy of critics and consumers in recent decades, but red Bordeaux remains a gold standard for aging because of its grapes, terroir and winemaking style. And that’s true not just for the classified growths. A few cases of petit châteaux at $20-$30 a bottle is a great investment for future everyday drinking.

**Look for Bordeaux-trained experts to help close the sale. There are experts eager to assist retailers in getting customers educated and excited. Gorman-McAdams says the CIVB has 32 trained Bordeaux tutors in the U.S. Many large, classified growths regularly have their people here working the trade. Bordes says he is often in America doing “tasting events to meet customers, sommeliers, trade and also doing some winemaker dinners, university tastings or press lunches.” 


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