French regional brands return

Once the backbone of the trade, négoçiant blends were eclipsed late last century by estate wines and the ratings game. Now they are making a comeback, says Roger Morris.

Diane Flamand, oenologist, Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)
Diane Flamand, oenologist, Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)

About a dozen years ago, Christian Moueix, president of Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix and owner of such stellar properties as Château Pétrus in Pomerol and Dominus Estate in the Napa Valley, introduced into the US market three Moueix-branded regional wines in the under-$20.00 price range. Moueix was keen to branch out beyond the high-priced wineries he owned and the high-priced châteaux he represented and wanted to test the waters to see if the market for regional blends was ready for expansion. 

It should be noted that regional wines from large French wine merchants (négoçiants) have been around forever, leveraging the négoçiant’s buying power to acquire blending grapes or raw wines from across a large region, such as Bordeaux, or a smaller one, such as Médoc. But the category had been in eclipse for a generation and, after a couple of vintages, Moueix pulled his toe back out of the water and withdrew from the business. 

Branded regional wines – primarily from the stellar French appellations of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley – were in their US heyday between the end of the World War II and the late 1970s. During this period, the majority of French wines served in US country clubs and fine restaurants were listed by region – Médoc, Graves, Côte de Beaune, Pouilly-Fuissé, Hermitage, Côtes du Rhone – followed by their brand – Drouhin, Latour, B&G, Cruse, Mouton Cadet. Drinkers were so used to buying the “region” and the “brand”, rather than a specific château or domaine, that US producers of cheap jug wine used copycat names such as “Burgundy, “Claret” or “Rhine,” although these wines were made in California or New York state.

This world order was shaken by a series of events, the first of which was the Bordeaux wine scandal of 1973, when the négoçiant business run by the prominent Cruse family was accused of taking lesser wines and selling them as more expensive ones. Historically, however, consumers have forgiven and forgotten such lapses within a few vintages, just as auto buyers drift back to brands which have suffered embarrassing recalls for defective performances. But this time there were other, less-traditional events disrupting the international wine trade that prevented this from happening.

“Most of the Bordeaux wines forty to fifty years ago were négoçiant wines,” explains Allan Sichel, head of the négoçiant firm Maison Sichel and leader of the Bordeaux Wine Council. “But then we had the advent of châteaux-bottled wine. That changed everything.” Until this time, wines resting in barrels were taken in bulk to Bordeaux city where they were often further “elevated” and bottled by négoçiants for sales abroad.

At the same time, these new châteaux-bottled wines caught the attention of ascending US wine critics such as Robert Finnigan and Robert Parker, who began rating these châteaux, Parker with his 100-point scale. Before this, most wine books were written, often with glowing evaluations, by British and US wine merchants. Additionally, a new wave of US consumers became fascinated with fine wines, avidly following Parker ratings and even buying “futures”. This new attention to estate-bottled wines reduced regional brands to secondary, even entry-level status.

But now it appears that Moueix’s intuition that branded regionals were ready for a comeback was correct, if premature. In recent years, several négoçiants in Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley have been adding to, or beefing up, their regional offerings, in most cases charging more and trying to reclaim the quality high ground.

“We want to get out of the inexpensive, supermarket wine business,” Sichel said, over coffee and croissants at Vinexpo New York earlier this year. He notes Bordeaux’ long, continuing struggle to compete in the low-priced supermarket wine arena with New World regions with lower cost structures, often damaging Bordeaux’ historic quality image. “Seven or eight years ago, we [Sichel] had a broader range of regional wines, but in the last few years we’ve reduced the number, but increased the quality and the price.” That means, Sichel says, producing Bordeaux wines “from our home base – Margaux and Sauternes as well as Saint-Émilion. Our goal is to maintain a consistent level of quality and price, while reducing the variability.  It will take a while to get these wines established in the US.” He notes, hopefully, that younger buyers, including Millennials, have shown a propensity for brand loyalty that older generations have not.

Nowhere is this excitement for expanding regional wine business more evident than at Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). At its Bordeaux headquarters in the old Chartrons warehouse district in Bordeaux city a few blocks from the new Maison du Vin, oenologist Diane Flamand discussed her stocks of the 2017 vintage, a year that saw significant crop loss due to spring frosts which devastated many vineyards.

“The 2017 vintage was actually less difficult than I expected,” says Flamand, who purchases stock for the company’s Légende line of regional wines, which includes Bordeaux blanc and rouge as well as three premium red regions. “I began purchasing wines a lot earlier than my competitors, and I’ve been impressed by the vintage’s quality.”

DBR (Lafite) started its regional wine program in the 1990s, well after its cousin competitor, Château Mouton Rothschild, launched its Mouton Cadet brand in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until two years ago, Flamand says, that Lafite introduced its upscale Légende brand into the US market. “The Légende Médoc is already a bestseller at Sherry-Lehmann,” Flamand says, referring to the prestigious New York City wine retailer. 

One of the benefits of producing and selling branded wines, she says, is that vintage is less important in marketing than it is with châteaux wines. Not that she blends one vintage with another, although up to 15% is allowable. Rather, Flamand buys up a lot of wine in some vintages, as she did in 2016, and merely keeps it on the market longer. For example, until the 2016 Médoc became available earlier this year, the US market was still buying the 2012 vintage. “I work with about 25 suppliers in Bordeaux with each vintage,” she says, “and do the blending in March.” The wine is bottled a year later, but is often held in stock until the market is ready for a new supply.

Flamand is eager to extend the Légende portfolio, beginning with a Sauternes, and thinks the timing is right for DBR. “We have a younger management taking over,” she says, referring to 31-year-old Saskia de Rothschild’s assumption of the company’s reins earlier this year from her father, Baron Eric, who held that position since 1974, “and I think they are ready to make more changes.”

For its part, the venerable Mouton Cadet brand has also been refreshing its line. Last year, it introduced at the ProWein fair both its new packaging and a new style, beginning with the 2015 vintage, which it describes as “rounder, smoother and more succulent”. Like most regional producers, Mouton has used its line to introduce once-ignored rosés. Mouton has also engaged in co-marketing at worldwide sporting events, making official regional Bordeaux cuvées for the Ryder Cup golf series and the America’s Cup yachting series.  Most of Mouton’s grapes – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for the reds, Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc for the whites – come from the fairly new Côteaux de Bordeaux appellations.

About 10 years ago, Domaine Clarence Dillon, owner of a third Bordeaux first growth, Château Haut-Brion, began marketing its Clarendelle regional Bordeaux around the same time Moueix dropped out. At first, these wines flew under the US radar but are now being marketed in about half of the states. Another Bordeaux stalwart, Barton & Guestier, or simply B&G, was once the most-famous of the regional Bordeaux brands, but went through a series of new owners before it landed with Castel Frères in 2010. In its latest iteration, B&G makes a stunning 19 different regional wines, not only from Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley and Burgundy (and its sub-unit, Beaujolais), but also from the Loire Valley and Provence, where branded regional wines are less common. “We love the concept of having châteaux wines, but often the consumer is totally lost by all the names and their locations,” says Hubert Surville, who heads B&G USA.

If things have been busy in Bordeaux, they have been even busier in traditionally staid Burgundy. A few years ago, Louis-Fabrice Latour, who heads the family’s Maison Louis Latour franchise as well as the BIVB trade group, commented that Burgundy needed more regional Bourgognes at entry level, wines that sold for less than $10.00, €10.00, ¥10.00 and £10.00.

These wines have been found in part by formally integrating the resources of Burgundy’s sibling, Beaujolais, into its production schedules. Although Beaujolais’ primary red grape is Gamay, not Pinot Noir (the white is Chardonnay), limited amounts of it can be blended into regional Bourgognes – up to 30% in Bourgogne Rouge. Additionally, Latour is planting substantial Pinot Noir vineyards in southern Beaujolais to source its regional wines. “We strongly believe that the taste profile of Gamay is trendy,” says Frédéric Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, which makes several regional wines. “It has good color, nice fruitiness, black fruit, suppleness and light spices – just delicious!” 

If there is one wine that has long preserved its presence in the US, it’s the Rhône Valley’s Côtes du Rhône red, white and, increasingly, rosé. One of the most-recognised Côtes brands in the US is La Vieille Ferme, owned by the Perrin family of Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape fame. “La Vieille Ferme was our first brand,” recalls Danny Haas, whose family owns the importer Vineyard Brands. “It was in 1972 or 1973, and we started it as an exclusive for Sherry-Lehmann. Since then, it’s had its peaks and valleys,” Haas says, “but it really took off about 15 years ago. Today, we sell about 600,000 cases, and it’s the best-selling rosé in the US.”

In addition to these entry-level wines, some of the best values in Rhône regionals come from places such as Gigondas, Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. For example, the venerable E. Guigal, headquartered in the Northern Rhone, sells its vineyard-specific Côte Rôtie La Mouline for more than $400.00 per bottle, while its red Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, both also Syrah-based, sell for $31.00 and $24.00 respectively. “Saint-Joseph is the appellation with the most potential, more so than Crozes-Hermitage,” says Philippe Guigal. “Its terroir is the equivalent to those of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage.”

Bordeaux’ Sichel sums up both the difficulties and the opportunities that négoçiants across France face with the growing interest in branded regionals. “It is difficult for some négoçiants to get out of the supermarkets, struggling to keep prices down while being able to pay their sources,” he says, “but even in France, the younger consumers are more interested in drinking less wine, but higher-quality wines.”

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