The crisis facing swathes of the French wine industry could provide a springboard for its reinvention, according to the new executive director of CA Grands Crus, the winemaking arm of the Crédit Agricole bank.
“I think that we’re moving away from a wine industry that was really organised like a pyramid, with big structures and small structures, but all selling to the same customers,” says Anne le Naour, who oversees the management of four Bordeaux properties, plus Château de Santenay in Burgundy. “I think that is going to get more organised in the future and for a simple reason, that erosion of margins makes it natural. You can’t keep looking after the vineyard and producing your wine, then selling it for €1-2 a bottle.”
She adds that some people are “already in huge, huge difficulties. But it’s also in a crisis that we can reinvent ourselves.’
Le Naour sees a multitude of inter-connected challenges ahead for the industry, from global warming to evolving consumer tastes and generational changes.
In a trend that affects French agriculture more broadly, many children of wine growers are unwilling to keep working the land. “We’re facing a new period where we are transitioning from one generation to another, and it’s not so easy,” says le Naour. “There are social reasons for this, but also fiscal and tax reasons.”
However, this same generational shift also has a positive side, she believes. “There is a long list of new challenges, but I think we have a good chance to succeed, if we think collectively. That’s very hard – and especially, maybe, in France. But the new generation is more sharing about those new challenges and ideas of how to meet them.”
Philippe Magrez, son of Bernard Magrez, once said that “many small châteaux just exist because there is a French bank named Crédit Agricole”, and there’s no doubt that CA Grands Crus’ parent company has a vital role providing financial support to many vine growers and small producers, as le Naour acknowledges. “Of course they are conscious of that and helping their clients to face these new challenges … Having a solid financial partner is a key point to guarantee the durability of the system.”
Divestment of properties
Meanwhile, CA Grands Crus is undergoing its own period of change as le Naour’s tenure begins. Having divested its controlling stake in Sauternes property Château de Rayne Vigneau in 2015, the company announced earlier this year that Château Blaignan in the Médoc and Château La Tour de Mons in Margaux were also up for sale.
La Tour de Mons is being sold for a reputed €60m to the Perrodo family, billionaire owners of Margaux Châteaux Labégorce and Marquis d’Alesme Becker, while a buyer is still being sought for Blaignan.
“It’s a strategic decision of the group,” explains le Naour. “It’s not their first aim to be vineyard owners, but they are really attached to the wine industry. The idea was to focus on a shorter list of properties to be able to help their development.”
Once Blaignan is sold, CA Grands Crus will control Grand-Puy Ducasse in Pauillac, Meyney in St-Estèphe, Clos St-Vincent in St-Emilion and Château de Santenay in Burgundy.
The proceeds will fund a new winery at flagship property Grand-Puy Ducasse, which will enable separate vinification of the vineyard’s 63 blocks when it opens in 2022. A massal selection of Petit Verdot, taken from Meyney, will be planted at Grand-Puy Ducasse.
Meanwhile, Château de Santenay’s winery will be expanded under new director Jean-Philippe Archambaud – who moved from Simonnet-Febvre in Chablis in May – following the property’s first vineyard acquisitions in the Côte de Nuits: pockets of land in Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Clos Vougeot totalling 7.5ha.