Bordeaux is a big place, winewise. It’s France’s largest and arguably most famous wine region. It counts over 298,000 acres of vines, 8,600 growers and nearly five dozen appellations. In 2009 alone, Bordeaux accounted for more than 3.5 billion euros in sales. The U.S. gobbled up 1.2 million cases in imports valued at more than $179 million last year. That’s a lot of moving pieces.
And now, Georges Haushalter is tasked with trying to get them all moving in synchronicity, so that all the pieces benefit. I sat down the other day with the newly elected chairman of the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) to discuss his plans for Bordeaux going forward. The CIVB plays an important role in Bordeaux, responsible for data collection on vineyards, exports, weather and more, as well as technical development and a little thing called marketing, which for Bordeaux means worldwide promotion of its wines.
If you’re a classified growth enjoying strong name recognition, you probably don’t have much need for the CIVB’s help. But out of those 8,600-plus growers, many are struggling—they’re either too small or can’t raise quality enough to compete on the open marketplace. For them, Haushalter has an ambitious proposal: Get better, or get out (granted, Haushalter delivers the message in more politically conciliatory terms).
“We realize that we need to reassess, 360 degrees, at all price points and with a global perspective,” said Haushalter. “But we have an excellent window of opportunity now, because finally there is less resistance to change than ever before in Bordeaux.”
Haushalter has let the CIVB’s winery members know how he views the Bordeaux world—there are the high-end classified growths that for the most part are succeeding very well, despite a global economic slowdown. Below them, are three tiers of wines, cru bourgeois and petit châteaux that retail for $25 to $50; large-volume, value-priced generic AOC wines such as Mouton-Cadet; and then there's a bottom rung of bulk and plonk that barely breaks even. [Note: for more on the new strategic plan, see The Bordeaux Diet.]
“The tier of $25 to $50 wines is where Bordeaux has its toughest competition, but that is also its best asset. The cru bourgeois and petit châteaux can deliver terrific value and quality at their range. But we need to get more consumers to realize that.”
While Haushalter see potential strength in the $25 to $50 segment, he's also targeted the bottom rung, though his plan might be a surprise to some.
“That tier needs to be eliminated,” he said. “It makes up approximately one-sixth of all Bordeaux production and it’s simply not viable anymore.”
So what to do? The CIVB can’t force growers to pull up vines. It needs to bring in government or financial assistance to help those growers improve quality and get a better price for their grapes on the open market, or move on to other lines of work altogether.
In addition to removing the bottom rung of the region’s production, Haushalter also wants to streamline some of the appellations, putting the Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Blaye and other "côtes" AOCs under one Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, for example.
“We don’t want mega brands. We want to keep diversity,” he said. “But 57 appellations is too much for consumers to understand. Instead, we need to take that difficulty and make it an asset. We need to simplify things, but not oversimplify them."
It sounds like a slash and burn approach, but Haushalter isn’t a hatchet man. He’s a career businessman and marketer with a nose for quality—he also happens to be the general manager of Compagnie Médocaine des Grands Crus, a major négociant in Bordeaux. He understands that a smaller pool of better quality wine can compete better than the large volumes of indescriminate wine trying to cash in on the glory of the name Bordeaux. To his credit, Haushalter wants to do it all, and now.
"If we don’t fix all the issues at the same time, we will miss the target," he said, softly, but assuredly.
It’s an ambitious target for Haushalter and the CIVB, but it’s the kind of strong medicine that a wine region such as Bordeaux, which produces an ocean of wine often out of sight of mainstream consumerism, needs. No matter how strong a region's flagship wines are, maintaining diversity while improving quality from top to bottom is the only way for a region to succeed as a whole.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]
Colony Wine Market — madison, ms madison — September 20, 2010 2:18pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — September 20, 2010 2:54pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — September 21, 2010 9:19pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — September 22, 2010 9:18am ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — September 22, 2010 8:29pm ET
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