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Blazing a trail

An ambitious exercise in cooperation is making the wines of Burgundy easier to understand and is winning shelf-space for its lesser known appellations, says Patrick Schmitt

IT STRIKES you on first hearing news of the Blasons de Bourgogne initiative, that this is not a typically French project.  Here are four cooperatives actually working together, and not just to create a common export department – although that’s how it all started – but to build a brand (even blending wines specifically for the UK consumer).

Surely this is New World wine territory? Then throw in the fact that they’re based in Burgundy and the plan seems not just unlikely, but highly ambitious.  Certainly the region is famed for some of the best wines in the world, but it’s also home to an excessively complicated patchwork of miniscule vineyards and, as a consequence, somewhat less than uniform levels of quality.

How could this complex if wonderful jewel in the French wine-producing crown form the basis of a supermarket brand? It has taken dedication and cooperation, but it has been proved possible.

The elegantly designed bottles by CorpBrand can be found in UK supermarkets Tesco, Waitrose and Asda – the planned homes for the wines – and, since the brand’s first listing in February last year, Blasons has managed to sell in excess of £3m.

And what’s pleasing about the Blason range of wines, which are sourced from two cooperatives in the south and two in the north of Burgundy, is that they still exhibit a true expression of terroir.

Blason is the umbrella brand, but the Saint Véran is a very different proposition from the Petit Chablis, or the Bourgognes Chardonnay.  In other words, thankfully, character has not been eliminated in the quest for consistency, or in the urge to please all palates.

The character doesn’t just originate from the wines, however, but from the expressive personalities behind the project.  Alain Cornelissens from La Chablisienne, Rémi Marlin from Cave de Buxy, José Martinez from Cave de Bailly, and the most recent member, Michel Gonthiez from Cave de Prissé, have all made a powerful stamp on the scheme.

Yes, they are united by a common goal to create a brand that could simplify Burgundy, but one senses strongly that none of them would ever consider sacrificing the essential nature of the region they represent.

Then, at the centre of this gang is Marc Vachet, export manager, whose spoken English and understanding of foreign markets, not to mention almost constant travelling, is helping to bridge the gap between Britain and France.

Lastly, helping to ensure the wines get on the shelves in this country and providing the expertise on the marketing, as well as blending, is HwCg.  The agent’s already strong relationship with La Chabilisienne and Caves de Buxy form the background to developing the brand in Burgundy, while its blender, Robin Kinahan MW, has ensured the wines appeal to British palates while remaining true to Burgundy’s roots.

Key to the quality of the wines, however, are the cooperatives, and each one is top of the pile on a France-wide scale.  Furthermore, as Buxy’s Martinez says, "The success of Blason is partly because the ACs chosen are not easy to find."

By this he means an area like Montagny, or a wine style such as Crémant de Bourgogne, are  not well represented on UK shelves.  In fact, citing Tesco’s decision to list Montagny, Cornelissens notes, "They see themselves as alone in stocking it, they can price point, and it draws people in."  Consequently, Blason has been instrumental in increasing sales for lesser known appellations within Burgundy. 

"The market for Saint Véran has been driven by Blasons de Bourgogne," says Gonthiez, supporting such a view. "In 2002, 170,000 bottles were exported of Saint Véran, by the end of 2003 there were over 600,000. People know Pouilly-Fuissé and Macon Villages but Saint Véran has been struggling for 35 years.

Now it has found a position and a price bracket."  And one hopes a similar situation will develop for the Blason Crémant, recently taken on by Tesco. 

On the other hand, such an argument does beg the question why a Chablis? Well, as Cornelissens says, "Blason needed a Chablis to give it credibility, but we [Chablisienne] needed Blason.

We only sell one product, Chablis, which means it’s difficult to extend our market. We wanted to develop a new commercial product."  He adds, "We will preserve the name Chablisienne for our traditional sector, restaurants and wine bars, but the Blason brand is for retail multiples."

While the Blason brand is helping to achieve increased sales for those involved – helping them break into a sector of the market that, without collaboration, would have proved nigh on impossible to crack – it is also helping Burgundy as a whole.

"We are giving confidence back to Burgundy," says Cornelissens and, as noted above, the brand is also encouraging people to buy into lesser-known appellations.  And the next step? Well, there’s little point in Blason adding yet more wines to its range as it will end up in the same trap it is trying to avoid – complexity – but it is worth noting the four cooperatives are hoping to collude when it comes to logistics.

But if you think they’re going to share a bottling line, then think again. "We are a team," says Cornelissens, "but we might divorce," he adds with a shrug.

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