Producers across the sweet wine appellations of Bordeaux are busy exploring stylistic, packaging and marketing initiatives to safeguard their commercial future.
Largely untouched by the attention and price hikes associated with the red classed growths of Bordeaux’s Médoc or Right Bank, producers across the region’s 11 sweet wine appellations are making both individual and shared efforts to expand their customer base.
At a generic level, the Sweet Bordeaux campaign was launched in 2009 by the Union des Grands Vins Liquoreux de Bordeaux. Representing around 530 estates with a combined production of about 15 million bottles, Sweet Bordeaux has been targeting both consumers and trade in markets as diverse as Asia, Canada and the UK.
In a bid to attract a younger audience to the region’s sweet wines, activities have ranged from nightclub events and cocktail ideas to recipes encouraging consumers to drink these wines alongside a wide range of dishes.
According to chef Georges Gotrand, who works closely with this latter element of the campaign, sweet styles can suit everything
Georges Gotrand shows off some of his recommended food and sweet Bordeaux pairings
from salads to seafood, spicy Asian dishes and cheese. “The only thing that doesn’t work is red meat,” he suggested.
In addition to participating in the Sweet Bordeaux programme, a number of producers are pursuing individual efforts to broaden the appeal of their wines.
For some, one solution is to increase production of dry styles. Although these must by law be classified as Graves rather than Sauternes wines and are likely to sell for a lower price, they offer prospects of a broader customer base, higher yields, quicker financial returns and do not rely on the unpredictable arrival of botrytis.
Having worked with Clos des Lunes, a nearby Sauternes estate which has focused on dry styles since its recent acquisition by the owners of Domaine de Chevalier, Jérome Cosson of Château D’Arche is now keen to expand this side of this own operation.
“Sweet wine is a little bit tough,” he told the drinks business. Although currently all but one of his 50 hectares is currently dedicated to the traditional sweet wines of Sauternes, he confirmed: “We want to produce a little more dry wine next year.”
While Cosson’s average yield for the sweet wines is around 18 hectolitres per hectare – although in 2013 it was only 10hl/ha – he suggested that for dry styles he can raise that productivity as high as 45hl/ha without compromising on quality.
This dry route is already proving a success for the owners of fellow Sauternes property Château Gravas, who launched their dry wine “Absolu de Gravas” in 2007. With just 3,000 bottles currently produced, it “sells very quickly,” according to Florence Bernard, whose husband is the sixth generation of his family to run the estate.
As for the prospect of expanding this production, Bernard told db: “We think about it – dry white wine sells very well so we may in the future. I’m sure we would sell it without any problem.”
Not all producers are convinced by this route, however. Stéphane Wagrez, co-manager of Château La Bouade in Barsac has no plans to extend his range into dry production. “With dry wines you have the grape variety and the barrel aromas, but it is not very evolutionary; this wine changes all the time as it ages,” he said in defence of the sweet tradition.
Nevertheless, Wagrez acknowledged the challenges currently facing Sauternes, despite the fact that it enjoys the highest profile of Bordeaux’s sweet wine appellations. “There are 170 producers here in Sauternes at the moment, but there were 240 when I was a stagiaire here in 2004,” he remarked. “The big châteaux are getting bigger.”
An alternative, or even additional, option evident among several producers, especially in Sauternes and Barsac, has been a shift towards lighter styles, either in the grand vin itself or through the introduction of a second wine.
Within his core sweet wine production, Cosson is particularly keen to increase sales of the lighter second wine, Perle d’Arche, which relaunched two years ago with a more modern name and label. “In the beginning it was sold in the US, but now we are trying to develop sales in France,” he explained.
The pre-poured glasses of Sauternes offered by Château Gravas
Cosson also highlighted an opportunity to use the faster returns on this cheaper style, which in 2013 will represent 60% of production, to strengthen his estate’s top-end offering. “Perle d’Arche is important for us because if we increase sales then we can improve the quality of Château D’Arche and so improve our position in the luxury market,” he outlined.
This lighter focus is also in evidence at Château Gravas, Last year the property launched a lighter style, Esprit de Gravas, which is produced from 10ha of rented vines in the next door village. “There is more and more demand for this type of Sauternes wines,” explained Bernard.
Across the Garonne in the appellation of Loupiac, Catherine d’Halluin of Château du Cros emphasises the ability of the limestone here to create wines with “more nervosity that are not too heavy” compared to their more famous Barsac and Sauternes counterparts.
In addition to promoting her appellation’s suitability for people seeking “a more modern style of sweet wine,” d’Halluin is keen to update the approach to drinking these wines. “I don’t like the word ‘dessert wine’,” she remarked. “It is very good as an aperitif, with seafood and some meat. For us Chinese food is the best because it has a lot of spices.”
An alternative option proposed by Château du Cros is an old family cocktail recipe, which sees its lighter second wine, Segur du Cros, served with equal measures of Perrier and grapefruit juice.
Alongside these efforts to adapt the style or drinking occasion for a contemporary audience, a few producers are exploring creative approaches to packaging.
The spirit-style bottle created for Château Padouën
Five years ago Château Gravas introduced a perfume-style bottle format for its grand vin. “It works very well,” said Bernard. “There are many similarities between wine and perfume – the nose, the balance and, for Sauternes, the colour.”
As a result of this initiative’s success the producer has just added a smaller 50cl version. “Most people buy it as a present – they like the surprise,” remarked Bernard. Gravas also offers its Sauternes in 187ml pre-packaged glasses.
Likewise Cosson is busy demonstrating a similarly open-minded approach at his other Sauternes estate, Château Padouën. On the request of a Belgian client, this wine has now been bottled in a shape more commonly associated with upmarket spirits brands and is expected to reach the shelves before Christmas with an RRP of around €20.
Previous efforts have seen Cosson package his Sauternes in test tube-style containers, this time he explained “for gifting in Asia and night clubs.”
Despite all these efforts, Xavier de Pontac of Sauternes estate Château Myrat noted the challenge for his region of making its voice heard above the larger or more influential regions of Bordeaux.
“Sauternes is 2% of the Bordeaux vineyard area and 0.7% of its production,” he remarked. “It makes the marketing difficult.”