While the total off-trade wine market is down 3% in volume, Bordeaux is riding the crest of a wave, with an average bottle price of £6.37 per bottle putting it more than £1 above the norm.
But all may not be quite as rosy as the figures suggest. A distinct trend emerges when you speak to retailers: young people don’t buy Bordeaux.
“We are selling Bordeaux to old boys,” said Jon Bennett, wine sales advisor at Laithwaite’s. “If I look at my friends and the ones that buy all right wines, none of them buy Bordeaux.”
If the region cannot appeal to younger consumers, sales will soon start to dwindle as the older generation is replaced by those that have grown up with New World styles.
Producers are starting to recognise this: they are putting grape varieties on labels and trying to create more approachable wines to appeal to younger drinkers.
MAKING IT SEXY
Leading producer Mouton Cadet recently told OLN of plans to conquer the UK market by attracting younger consumers with an easy-drinking Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc in a screwcap bottle that sells at £7.99 on promotion.
Export director Philippe Koch said he wanted to make Bordeaux “sexy”.
But a sexy and accessible Bordeaux is a difficult sell due to the stuffy “old boy” connotations, the stiff formality it conjures up in comparison with places like New Zealand and Chile, the complex nature of the different appellations and classifications, and the fear of ignorance that arises when people don’t know when each wine is supposed to be drunk.
To find out more about whether Bordeaux can fight back against the New World and its marketing budgets and woo younger shoppers, OLN tagged along on a trade trip to the world’s most prestigious wine region with the people that are on the ground trying to sell its wines, and asked them about the challenges they are facing and the opportunities to boost sales.
Robert Holliday, wine specialist at Waitrose in Chichester, said: “Nationally French wine isn’t the most popular, but it is at Waitrose. We give it more shelf space than other countries.
“We have an older clientele who are more traditional in their wine buying habits so they like traditional blends.
“Younger people are more predisposed to New World wines – although places like Italy are popular – and they are a little bit unsure about the word claret.
“They have heard of the big names from the New World, Chile and places like that, and they are more influenced by the big advertising.
“It is hard to sell white Bordeaux as people are so used to New Zealand and they try something French and it’s more subtle without that fruit flavour. You have to try to get them to understand that they make it in a different way.
“Educating consumers is key. That’s why Waitrose puts so much money into in-branch specialists, and the launch of Waitrose Cellar online will help give people more knowledge. The new website is leaps and bounds better than the old one. There is more information now and great video snippets and it gives people confidence to buy wines.
“Bordeaux is becoming more popular. The fact that the French have started putting grape varieties on the labels has helped for the whole generational thing. They are taking a leaf from the New World on it.”
Paul Salter has been selling Bordeaux over the phone to Laithwaite’s customers for 15 years, and is pleased to see it becoming more relevant to younger consumers – but he believes it still has a long way to go.
“I don’t think there’s so much of an element of ‘this is how my grandfather did it’ any more,” he said. “The wines are more modern and approachable. But people are hesitant to buy Bordeaux. They don’t understand grape varieties and what the vintage means and when you can and can’t drink it.”
His colleague Jon Bennett added: “We are in a good position because we have good, loyal customers that trust what we say.
“But it’s difficult to sell Bordeaux at the cheaper end, like Cotes du Bordeaux. I have seen how good Côtes de Bordeaux is now [on this trip] but people have been wowed by big sweeter wines from Australia and Chile and to get them to move to French is tricky. For the older generation there was France, Spain, Germany and that was about it. Now there is competition from the New World.
“People are probably a bit scared of better Bordeaux. There is a fear of ignorance – people don’t want to seem ignorant so they go for something much easier to understand. But explaining grape varieties on the labels helps.”
EN PRIMEUR A TOUGH SELL
Bennett also believes en primeur is becoming a tougher sell as consumers tighten their belts and are less prepared to buy wine they haven’t tasted. “People are more careful with their money nowadays,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have the same loyalty to Bordeaux any more and they don’t just trust that the wine is good.
“The Bordelais target the trade with en primeur tastings but they could do more with consumers.”
Salter said: “It would be a shame if en primeur went because of the tradition and because it releases capital for the Bordelais each year.
“The Bordelais could help themselves by being more proactive rather than relying on something as antiquated as the 1855 classification. Clearly explaining the benefits of en primeur, why it has worked and why they want it to continue would help.”
But Bennett still sees a positive future for Bordeaux as “a lot of the wines are now more approachable in their youth”.
He said: “Most people haven’t got the patience to keep their wines for years. People are getting stuck into their 2010s straight away. Five years ago they weren’t getting into their 2005s.”
With the confusion among consumers over how to age claret, approachable dry whites could be the trailblazer for the region, hooking young consumers who will then go on to discover the different appellations and learn more about how to drink the reds that make the region so famous.
Dry white represents just 7% of Bordeaux production, according to Bordeaux wine bureau the CIVB, but it now accounts for 18% of sales in the UK off-trade (IRI).
Douglas Morton, UK consultant to the CIVB, said: “Dry white Bordeaux provides a strong marketing opportunity. These easy to drink, often Sauvignon Blanc-based wines are a means of attracting more young and female drinkers to the Bordeaux category.”
The CIVB is targeting UK retailers and wholesalers by sending them samples from the four dry white AOCs – Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves and Pessac-Léognan – to “demonstrate the full range of dry whites available from the region”.
“People often see Bordeaux as an exclusively red wine region,” said Morton. “However, dry white Bordeaux now accounts for 18% of all UK Bordeaux sales because they are modern and palate-friendly, excellent value for money and are a good way to recruit new drinkers.
“Many people are still unaware that these wines are predominantly made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. With this mailing our aim is to show the diversity and quality of Bordeaux dry whites and show the trade why they are increasing in popularity.”
Daniel Redmond, trainee manager at Majestic in Twickenham, south west London, believes more sub-£10 claret would help attract younger shoppers, who could then be traded up.
He said: “You have got to have Bordeaux but there is so much emphasis on New World wines these days. The young, cheaper wines from Bordeaux tend to come from big co-operatives and aren’t that impressive. We could do with more quality claret for under £10 in the UK.”
But Matthew Horsley, members' services adviser at The Wine Society, said: “I don’t think a good Bordeaux under £15 exists. It’s great for the top stuff. But the price means it struggles to compete against the New World, and people like the big, bold, oaky flavours of the New World.”
Another question is whether the Bordelais really need to bother with struggling to appeal to the younger UK drinkers when Bordeaux wines are such a status symbol among affluent young shoppers in places like the Far East, where sales are surging.
But Bordeaux has such strong historic connections with the UK – it was under UK rule throughout the Middle Ages after Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II, opening up the UK market to the Bordelais – that the producers are reluctant to turn their back on it.
“The UK market is the first [export] market in value for Bordeaux wines,” said Frederique de Lamothe, director of the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Médoc. “We get the sixth highest number of visitors to our website from the UK market. We are confident in this market.
“Younger people have maybe lost the historical attraction to Bordeaux but in an economic downturn they look to the classic wines their parents were into for the guarantee of quality.
“They are looking for something reassuring that they can rely on. From the 2011 vintage of the Crus Bourgeois classification we have 55 wines in the UK and the average price is around £17, ranging from £9 to £45 – and it is wine ready to be drunk. You can keep it for a few years, but you don’t have to keep it. And the price offers good value for money.”
Phil Maddison, trainee manager at Majestic in Sunningdale, Berkshire, is encouraged by the willingness of younger shoppers to take advice.
“It is more the older people that drink Bordeaux,” he said. “The young ones are more into New World and the challenge is to get them into Bordeaux and Burgundy.
“But young people are looking at Bordeaux and they are more willing than older customers to take advice and try new things based on recommendations. They don’t think they know it all. You can get them to explore.”
Matthew Fijalkowski, manager of Oddbins in West Dulwich, south east London, said: “The trip has completely changed my opinion. I was here 10 years ago and I only went to the big chateaux like Angelus and Mouton and I thought Bordeaux was arrogant and unfriendly, but I found the smaller chateaux we visited this time much more open and friendly and down-to-earth.
“It all makes me more predisposed to sell Bordeaux. We sell a fair amount – it’s solid. But being here and seeing the local colour adds a lot of vim and enthusiasm to your selling techniques.
“I found them more innovative and forward thinking – playing Paul McCartney to the vines to stave off disease is very innovative. That bodes well for the future of Bordeaux. It’s always the older drinkers that go for it. But it’s up to us to explain it to the younger drinkers. It has a good future.”