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Languedoc Newcomers Raise Their Sights

William Echikson
Posted: March 15, 2000

Languedoc Newcomers Raise Their Sights

By William Echikson

When Robert Mondavi Winery first started buying Languedoc wines in the mid-1990s, it aimed to flood the world with good $9 to $10 varietals. The ambitious Napa Valley-based wine company bought an astounding 440,000 cases a year and slapped on the Vichon Mediterranean label.

But local cooperatives supplied Mondavi with mediocre wines, and the market wouldn't swallow more than half the production. This year, Mondavi is cutting his prices to $7 to $8 and switching tactics, aiming in the future to produce much more expensive but higher-quality Languedoc wines. "Ouch -- the midpriced varietal is Dead Man's Land," says David Pearson, general manager of Vichon Mediterranean. "In order to survive in Languedoc, you have to move upmarket."

Languedoc's other prestige immigrants, from Australia's BRL Hardy to Michel Laroche of Chablis and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux, are also changing tactics. Instead of just buying wines produced by local cooperatives and relabeling them, they are investing in their own vineyards and production facilities.

Here's how some of the leading players are faring:

Michel Laroche: The leading Chablis producer bought Domaine La Chevalière, just outside Béziers, in 1995. Since then, he has poured about $7.5 million into a state-of-the-art winery with stainless steel vats, oak barrels and temperature controls.

Laroche still buys most of his grapes and much of his finished wine from local cooperatives, and he admits that his early harvests were often disappointing. "It's been hard to change a culture based on quantity rather than quality," he explains.

But Laroche is trying hard. He has hired a full-time winemaker to keep an eye on farmers and co-ops. He has also signed long-term contracts with 50 growers, offering them monetary incentives to keep down their yields, and he bought 50 hectares of his own land, much of it in the hills above Béziers. "This is much more promising than in the plains" near the sea, he says.

Domaine La Chevalière produces eight whites and eight reds, including single varietals such as Syrah and Grenache, retailing for about $10 a bottle, and blended wines such as the Première Cuveée (both red and white), at about $13. In his latest harvests, Laroche has moved away from Cabernet Sauvignon to an emphasis on Syrah and Merlot, which he thinks are best suited to the Languedoc.

BRL Hardy: When this Australian company bought Domaine de la Baume, a 61-hectare estate near Peézenas, back in 1990, it marked the first large-scale foreign investment in the Languedoc. "This was our gateway to Europe," recalls director Ashley Huntington.

The Australians tore out all the old Merlot and Grenache vineyards, replacing them with Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. They also renovated the cellar, putting in giant stainless steel vats. Although the domaine purchases 98 percent of its grapes, it vinifies its entire output. "That's our difference from other Languedoc producers," says Huntington. "Other operators buy wine. We just buy grapes."

Huntington, who arrived three weeks before the 1998 harvest, has overhauled the domaine's marketing. It now markets its entry-level $6 and $8 varietals -- Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah -- under the de la Baume label. It will also be launching a Viognier soon.

Robert Mondavi: The celebrated American winery came to Languedoc out of fears of a grape shortage, after phylloxera hit California. "We looked around the world and said, 'Where can you get excellent grapes at reasonable prices?,'" says Pearson. "The answer was Languedoc."

But Mondavi miscalculated. Initially, the firm didn't buy a property or send a permanent staff to France; it just bought wine from cooperatives and shipped it in bulk to be bottled in Napa Valley. The results were mediocre wines that were hard to sell. Last year, Mondavi took a $4 million write-off for unsold Vichon Mediterranean product.

The company is now shifting strategy. Pearson has spent the last year looking for properties that can produce premium $50 to $60 wines. "If you get great land and control the production from A to Z, you can produce world-class wines here," he insists.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild: Mondavi isn't the only top-flight producer gearing up to make world-class wines in Languedoc. The famed Bordeaux firm recently bought 90 acres of vines near Limoux, in the far west of the region, and aims to produce a superpremium Bordeaux-style wine there.

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