Bordeaux plans a turnaround

The vignerons of Bordeaux have been hit very hard by a number of things at once. Allen Sichel from the CIVB tells Felicity Carter what they plan to do about it.

Allen Sichel, CIVB
Allen Sichel, CIVB

The physical shutdown of Bordeaux had a severe effect on the sales of its wines, particularly in Spring.  

“We don’t have figures up to June,” said Allan Sichel of the Bordeaux Wine Council (the CIVB), “but we know that March and April were very severely hit.” Even when there were orders they were difficult to fulfil. “No containers were coming in from China and so we had no empty containers to ship back.” Not only that, but the on-trade also came to a complete standstill.

Yet the pandemic was not a totally negative experience. “It’s been a fantastic accelerator for all of us,” he went on, speaking over Zoom.

The backdrop

While the pandemic has had, as Sichel said, “a severe effect on business”, Bordeaux’s producers were already grappling with many problems at once.

At the end of 2019, The Times of London reported that the heads of Bordeaux’s wine syndicates had demanded a 20 percent cut in production to offset falling sales, in part because French consumers were abandoning red wine for rosé. “We should be aware that about a third of production doesn’t have an outlet at the moment,” Marc Médeville, chairman of the Union of Bordeaux Wines was quoted as saying.

There has also been a dramatic slowdown in exports to both China and Hong Kong. “The China market is so important and it is 25% of Bordeaux exports – that has had a severe consequence on our overall figures,” said Sichel, though he noted that exports were up in markets like Germany.

The US was also challenging. “We’re suffering from the Trump taxes and they hit us quite badly at the end of the year,” said Sichel.

Then there’s Brexit, about which Sichel is surprisingly sanguine. “Our performance in the UK has been quite good,” he said. “Stable and the value is up.”

He said that while nobody knows what the impact of Brexit will be, he suspects the main effect will be “extra paperwork”. That’s something Bordeaux exporters are used to, he said. “If the economy goes well and the pound is strong, they will import a lot of Bordeaux wines. If the economy collapses, so will the pound. That’s my main concern.”

But, perhaps above all, there has been the loss of the on-trade.

“There was very little we could do to make things better,” admitted Sichel. He did say, however, that as soon as Bordeaux’s restaurants were open, the once-empty streets filled. Now, “we want to make it easier for people to have access to Bordeaux, so we are very strongly focused on the trade.”

The road ahead

One thing the CIVB wants to overcome is Bordeaux’s cold and rarefied image. Their market research shows that “people often feel a bit distant from Bordeaux,” because they associate it with its iconic wines, rather than the “very vast array of artisan wines which is the very great majority of what Bordeaux offers”.

Before the pandemic, the CIVB had begun to roll out initiatives to get closer to both the public and the trade. Most recently, on 22 January – Saint Vincent’s Day, the patron saint of winemakers – the CIVB put vignerons in front of the public. Winegrowers would choose a “point of sale –a restaurant, supermarket or other physical point in France where consumers come and buy wine,” where they could meet consumers face to face.

“It was very well organised and the result was fantastic,” said Sichel, saying that 1,500 shops across France participated. “There was very good feedback from the growers, from the consumers, and also from the retailers who were very pleased to have this kind of support.”

Another initiative is the 100 Bordeaux Selection, organised in Germany for several years, and now – in a modified form - slated for a wider roll-out elsewhere.

Importers submit their Bordeaux wines to a local jury, who select the 100 they rate most highly. “We’re changing it a bit to give it a new dynamic,” said Sichel, saying that the selection will be cut to 50 wines, to make it easier to communicate. “They are going to be categorised into four separate spaces: one is ‘ethical wines’ that are organic, biodynamic or anything that is environmentally certified; the second is ‘fresh and crisp’, so here we want to put forward the white wines and Crémants de Bordeaux; the third is ‘smooth and fruity’,” a category aimed at easily accessible wines. “The fourth and last is ‘rich and complex’ and here, of course, we have more full-bodied and structured, but also sweet white wines.”

Listening to the trade

While the image of Bordeaux may be that of an aristocrat behind high walls, Sichel said that the region is actually engaged in a lot of listening. “We’re organising a series of round tables called Bordeaux Uncorked and the idea there is we want to be entertaining a discussion in small groups of 10 to 12 people in different cities in Germany,” said Sichel. “The idea is to explain the messages that Bordeaux wants to put forward and also spend a lot of time listening to what these buyers, retailers and influencers have to say about Bordeaux.”

And, of course, Bordeaux has embraced digital, with plenty of webinars and tastings on the calendar.

“Bordeaux is very ambitious,” Sichel finished, before adding, “now that I’ve got used to Zoom, I am going to do these chats more often.”

While the pandemic may have closed Bordeaux physically, it seems to have paradoxically opened it up as well.

Felicity Carter

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