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Old 04-21-2006, 03:23 PM   #1
madrean
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Default Bordeaux Winemakers Reveal What's in the Bottle (WSJ Article)

Bordeaux Winemakers
Reveal What's in the Bottle
To Court Casual Drinkers,
Labels List Grape Varieties;
Merlot 55%, Cabernet 45%
By VANESSA O'CONNELL
April 20, 2006; Page D1
Wine lovers may notice something unusual on the labels of new releases from Saint-Emilion, Médoc and other Bordeaux areas this spring. Bottles whose labels in the past displayed little more than a fancy crest and a bunch of French regulatory gobbledygook now reveal something else: what's actually in the wine.

CVBG Dourthe-Kressmann recently placed "Sauvignon Blanc" prominently on the label of its Dourthe No. 1 wine, now hitting retail shelves. It previously hadn't disclosed the varietal, or grape type, it uses. Yvon Mau added "Merlot Cabernet" and "Sauvignon Blanc" in large type to the current releases of its Premius wine. Diageo PLC's Barton & Guestier will put "Merlot-Cabernet Franc" on the front of its forthcoming gold-label Saint-Emilion.


The moves reflect a concerted effort among Bordeaux winemakers -- a group best-known for producing some of the most highly sought after and expensive wines on the planet -- to more fully disclose their varietals. They also reflect an emerging eagerness on the part of French wine producers, which have struggled with declining world-wide market share for years, to reach out to Americans, who are drinking more wine overall -- but generally fewer bottles from France. Indeed, dollar sales of French table wine represent about 11% of dollar sales of all the imported table wine sold in U.S. grocery stores, mass merchandisers and liquor stores, according to the research firm ACNielsen. Today, many Americans base their wine-buying decisions on the type of grape in the wine, rather than the vineyard or region.

For casual wine drinkers, knowing varietal composition makes wine seem less intimidating. It tells them what they can expect, and makes it easy to compare broad categories of wines from around the globe. But for wine producers, there are some risks. Varietals can go in and out of style quickly -- witness the pinot noir craze, and the growing demand for trendy pinot grigio and shiraz. Merlot -- lately fallen from favor with some American oenophiles -- is a vital component in many Bordeaux blends. "The danger of using varietals [to market a wine] is that it makes your product more generic and opens up the possibility that anyone can compete from anywhere in the world," says Michael Quinttus, president of Vintus, an importer of Chateau Margaux and other Bordeaux chateaux wine.

The labeling change affects all Bordeaux wine including that which is regulated under France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, a system that lays out strict guidelines. (Any French wine that is marked as a Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion or Médoc is an AOC wine.) The change presents a particular challenge for high-end Bordeaux producers, who need to balance the desire to make their wines seem more accessible with the need to protect their cachet.

"Wine producers need to connect, to make it as simple as possible to shop this category, without making people feel like they have to be a connoisseur just to buy what they like," says Dustin Longstreth, director of strategy at Wallace Church Inc., a brand-identity consultancy in New York.

So-called New World wines -- from Australia, Chile and California -- have long marketed themselves based on their grape varieties, such as chardonnay. But French wines, as well as many Italian and other Old World wine producers, have emphasized the so-called terroir of a wine -- a term that encapsulates a vineyard's soil, geography and climate. For centuries, the French have adhered to the notion that a vineyard's specific site and ecology have more to do with the flavor and character of the wine than the grape variety used.

Producers of Bordeaux AOC wine also traditionally followed strict French wine rules forbidding them from disclosing varietals on labels. The rules, which were a part of French law, were that only wines that happened to be 100% merlot or 100% sauvignon blanc could specify their grapes on the front. Most Bordeaux wines are blends. Created in 1935, France's AOC system also guarantees that when consumers buy a Bordeaux, the grapes came from the Bordeaux region and were treated in a specific way.

Concluding that the existing French rules were too restrictive, some producers are choosing to follow far more lenient standards set forth in 1999 and 2002 by the European Economic Community, a predecessor of the European Union. EEC rules not only allow appellation blends to disclose varietals on front labels, but also allow wines to characterize themselves as say, cabernet, as long as a mere 85% of the wine was made from that grape, according to Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du vin de Bordeaux in France, a group of Bordeaux producers.


Maison Sichel is adding "Merlot 55% Cabernet 45%" or "Semillion 65% Sauvignon 35%" to Sirius red and white releases that will hit Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Georgia and other states this summer. The wines sell for about $12. "In the past, it wasn't in the philosophy of the Bordeaux producers to do this. But one has to admit that our AOC system is quite complicated," says James Sichel, export manager for Maison Sichel.

Diageo's Barton & Guestier will clearly indicate varietals on the front next to the appellation of its gold-label wines not just from Bordeaux regions such as Saint-Emilion and Médoc, but also from Chablis, Côtes du Rhône and Pouilly Fuissé. The changes take effect with its gold-label wines that will be released to stores in the coming months. Yvon Mau, a Bordeaux wine specialist with roots that go back more than a century, added varietal information to newly released wines under its key brand Premius, but only for bottles sold in English-speaking countries.

Jean-Francois Mau, president of Yvon Mau, and other Bordeaux producers say that today there are two distinct, and increasingly divergent, markets in wine: the high-end niche market in which Bordeaux remains a clear leader with its highly respected appellations and its grands crus classés; and a $15-and-under "premium" wine market which is increasingly dominated by New World brands.

In this $15-and-under sector, "Bordeaux is no longer a player," says Mr. Mau, whose company has distribution contracts with around 30 chateaux. "We have come to the conclusion that the appellation contrôlée is no longer perceived as a priority for consumers of the premium wine category."

Although the new marketing efforts largely concern $15-and-under wines, even chateau wines in the $16 to $19 price range are revealing new information about their blends. One of the top-selling chateau-bottled wines in the U.S., Chateau Greysac changed its back label several years ago to list its grapes. The 2001 vintage, now on store shelves, says Greysac is first a "well-balanced wine which reflects the planting of its vineyard -- 50% cabernet sauvignon, 40% merlot and 10% cabernet franc."

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Old 05-11-2006, 02:51 PM   #2
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Thanks for posting this. I wonder how much of the buying changes are anti-French sentiments (which I've heard lately) and how much is that people have access to inexpensive but good wines. letting them learn what varietals they like. Knowing what varietals they lke causing them to be less willing to risk what they don't know.

Food for thought.....

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Old 05-11-2006, 02:55 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SpinDance
Thanks for posting this. I wonder how much of the buying changes are anti-French sentiments (which I've heard lately) and how much is that people have access to inexpensive but good wines. letting them learn what varietals they like. Knowing what varietals they lke causing them to be less willing to risk what they don't know.

Food for thought.....

I think the arietal thing is really a big deal. I remember reading *at least* 15 years ago that wine-shop owners consistently reported that American consumers often did not know what varietals were in Bordeaux and therefore didn't consider them, even though they were purchasing others cabs, merlots, cab/merlot blends, etc.
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Old 05-11-2006, 05:17 PM   #4
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And then there are the people that are shocked to find out that Bordeaux isn't a varietal, because they know only varietals are worth drinking and French varietals at that. (I really one of these).

I like to got to wine fests and sample the blends. Making a wine out of one kind of grape is a little like painting with one color. Very limiting.

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Old 05-11-2006, 05:58 PM   #5
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As my Mamaw used to say "Nothing funnier than people!" Wine seems much more approachable now than I remember it being in the past. There was all this esoteric, mystical stuff that one had to learn to drink wine 'properly'. All sorts of steps one had to go through. Most of which I now know aren't needed, or only needed in certain situations.

But how is a young person to know, especially one for whom wine isn't a family tradition? Nowdays there is so much variety (pun intended ) and a lot of the mysticism has been removed. It has become a matter of choice, not a matter of There Is One Right Way.

That said, while I love some varietals, I also dearly love some of the blends. We are very lucky in making wines to have so much variety with the kits, too. I like making wines from fresh fruits, but I also like the kits. I guess what I like most is the opportunity to choose, because I like different things different times.

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Old 05-14-2006, 05:27 PM   #6
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I think the Continental wine makers have been hit real hard by the Chilean and Australian producers, who have managed to consistently make far better wine by some standards than the thin, acidic stuff that dominates the "imported by Tartinelli and Co" Euro stuff. The American market has embraced the big, bold wines and the non culture-snobs can know that Chile, for instance, has possibly the best climate for wine grapes in the world, and any French vintner would kill to have a season of such weather for his wines.

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