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Liquid dreams: The Lafite’s of the future?

With top-end cuvées proving an opportunity for consumers to tap into a luxury lifestyle, winemakers across the globe are creating highly priced wines to satisfy demand.

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WE’RE IN the business of selling dreams; something that lifts you from the everyday and transports you into another realm, if only for a moment,” says Hugues Le Marié of Champagne houses Perrier-Jouët and GH Mumm.

He’s right – Champagne has hung its hat on successfully selling a luxurious lifestyle to its public, who, on popping a cork, can fleetingly glimpse into a world they long to belong to. Lily Dimitriou, corporate communications manager of Santorinibased Tsantali Vineyards, agrees: “Luxury brands combine craftsmanship, attention to detail, pedigree and paucity, allowing the buyer to become the ‘owner’ of an exclusive experience,” she says.

Feeding a want rather than a need, luxury products are linked to the pursuit of pleasure. But wine is a slow moving industry where reputations have to be earned, so how does an ambitious winemaker or estate owner go about creating a luxury wine brand? Given the current economic climate, the question seems more pertinent than ever.

While many consumers continue to feel the pinch, at the top of the money tree, the world’s super-rich still seem willing to pay for what they perceive to be the “best of the best”.

Denis Dubourdieu of 4G Wines
Denis Dubourdieu of 4G Wines

Eyeing up the middle of the market at the moment is a mistake – winemakers should be seeking to target top earners with hand-crafted prestige blends, which, if made using artisan methods in tiny quantities from old vines, then handpicked and aged in high quality oak, could give a serious return on the investment required to produce the wines.

Add to this a strong name and a striking label linked to a powerful story and you’ve got a luxury wine brand on your hands. Interestingly, many of the most lusted after wines to have emerged on the market in recent years didn’t start life with luxury in mind.

“I never planned for Pingus to be a luxury product; the idea was to find a top quality site and take it as far as I possibly could,” explains Danish-born, Ribera del Duero-based Peter Sisseck, founder of Spain’s most expensive wine, Pingus, which sells out en primeur for over £500 a bottle.

The fate of the wine, which is made from two tiny old-vine plots in the village of La Horra, was sealed in 1996 when powerful US wine critic Robert Parker hailed the inaugural 1995 vintage one of the “greatest and most exciting” wines he’d ever tasted, giving it a 96-100 point score.

Sisseck openly acknowledges the importance of that early Parker score on the consequent success of the wine: “It would be foolish and arrogant not to accept the influence Parker has had on making Pingus and other ‘new’ wines known to a large audience,” he says.

‘ALL ABOUT QUALITY’

It’s a similar story for Jacques Thienpont, owner of 2.7-hectare estate Le Pin in Pomerol, the 1982 vintage of which received 100 points from Parker, propelling the wine to global fame. “I didn’t set out to make a ‘luxury’ wine; that was never my goal – I expected to make wine on the level of Vieux Château Certan, but I was told by my uncle that the soil at Le Pin had great potential,” says Belgian-born Thienpont, who believes Le Pin’s unique selling point lies in its exoticism.

“Le Pin is always soft and easy to drink from the beginning, wit good freshness and supple tannins. It has a roasted coffee bean taste, even before the juice begins to ferment,” he observes. Producing just over 5,000 bottles a year, a sign of how seriously Thienpont takes the pursuit of excellence was his decision not to produce a vintage in 2003 as the Merlot was overblown due to the extreme heat in Bordeaux that year.

“Luxury is all about quality; it can’t be created in an advertising agency. We have no marketing plan, the taste and ageability are the two most important factors,” he says. Often referred to as a “garage” wine, Thienpont objects to this description, arguing that Le Pin existed long before the garagistemovement formed in Bordeaux in the mid 1990s.

Thousand Candles’ winemaker Bill Downie
Thousand Candles’ winemaker Bill Downie
“There is nothing artificial about Le Pin; it was never made to respond to a gap in the market. The garagistescame afterwards, they wanted to imitate Le Pin,” he says. Founded in 1998, shortly after the aforementioned Pingus, in the neighbouring Spanish region of Toro was the 49ha, LVMH-owned Bodegas Numanthia, whose £120 a bottle Termanthia, made with foot-trodden Tinta de Toro grapes from pre-phylloxera vines, was given a perfect 100-point score by Robert Parker for the 2004 vintage.

With Sisseck having ceased the practice for Pingus, Termanthia is still aged for up to 21 months in “200%” new French oak due to it being fermented twice in 100% new barrels.

“Termanthia without 200% new oak is one dimensional,” says winemaker Manuel Louzada. With only 6,000 bottles made each year, Termanthia has become something of a cult wine in the US, where tattoos of the wine’s logo are becoming increasingly popular among its fan base, while in China there is a six-month waiting list to get hold of a bottle.

And with domestic production on the rise in China, the country’s top producers are responding to a consumer thirst for luxury products with homegrown icon wines.

Inner Mongolia-based Chateau Hansen recently launched a €500 (£426) luxury label, Red Camel, aimed at domestic consumers. Made from organically grown Cabernet Sauvignon from a single parcel of 15-year-old vines in Ningxia, then aged for two years in 100% new French oak, winemaker Bruno Paumard describes the wine as “the best we can do”.

Thousand Candles.
Thousand Candles
Named in honour of a huge clay statue of a camel in the middle of the Gobi desert, 10,000 bottles of the inaugural 2010 vintage were produced.

“I wanted to create a luxury terroir-driven wine in order for Chinese consumers to understand that it is the unique parcel of land the wine is made from that makes it rare rather than its extensive ageing in oak,” says Paumard, who reveals that €500 is the “common market price” for China’s finest wines.

LONG-TERM HORIZON

Meanwhile, aiming to reach the rarified eights of Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace in Australia is highend newcomer Thousand Candles in the Yarra valley.

Made from selected plots within the 40-hectare Killara Park Estate, owned by a Singaporebased entrepreneur, Thousand Candles is the brainchild of consultant winemaker Bill Downie, previously of De Bortoli, and former Wine Australia general manager Paul Henry.

Chateau Hansen’s Red Camel
Chateau Hansen’s Red Camel
Named after an ancient Aboriginal ceremony granting freedom of the bush, which concludes with the lighting of firesticks, of which one observer in the 19th century remarked:

“Suddenly, it was as if the twilight was interrupted by a thousand candles”, the label, designed by Adelaide based artist Melanie Terrett, is formed of hundreds of white dots interspersed with a few red dots clustered in the centre. “Given the brand’s owner, we had to check that the name had cultural resonance in China.

White candles are funereal, while red are for emembrance,” says Henry. With much of the 650-case annual production, which is distributed by Negociants, destined for the Asian market, the inaugural 2011 vintage, priced at AU$100 (£61) a bottle, is formed of 92% Shiraz, 6% Pinot Noir and 2% barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, though there are plans to add Cabernet to the blend down the line.

With its distinctive savoury edge, Henry admits that Thousand Candles is something of a “Marmite” wine consumers will either love or hate. “It’s a polarising wine that people will either get or they won’t.

Bill’s very comfortable with that,” he says. Passionate in his plight, Henry believes there should be more AU$100 wine coming out of Australia.

“The country merits more $100-a-bottle wine, but you can’t just conjure up a price without any substance, so, to some extent, it comes down to courage, credibility and availability,” he says, adding: “The international market is conservative and considers provenance, pedigree, longevity and critical success over timeas paramount. From that perspective, true fine wine status is usually a longterm horizon.”

Armand de Brignac’s Brett Berish
Armand de Brignac’s Brett Berish

That may be true, but it doesn’t stop ambitious entrepreneurs from creating luxury wine brands from thin air. Seven years ago, Bordeaux-born Sacha Lichine changed the fate of rosé forever when he bought Château d’Esclans in Côtes de Provence from a Swedish pension fund for €12 million and quickly set about making “the best rosé in the world” with startling conviction.Lichine primarily uses Grenache and employs Burgundian techniques previously unseen in Provence, such as fermentation in new French oak barrels and bâtonnage.

At £70 a bottle, his luxury cuvée, Garrus, is the most expensive rosé on the planet. “Garrus is the tail that wags the dog,” says d’Esclans’ communications director Tom Schreckinger. Half of its 10,000-bottle annual production goes to super yacht owners in Cannes and St Tropez, where large-format bottles, delivered to clubbers by bikini-clad waitresses, are proving particularly popular at Nikki Beach.

PRETTY IN PINK

Despite the brand’s “bling” associations, Lichine couldn’t be more serious about his four-strong fleet of rosés, and his ambitious undertaking has done much to raise the profile of Provençal rosé and prove that pink wine can be made with the same attention to detail as top-end white or red.“We use a Champagne house marketing model offering four different tiers of rosé, from Moët nonvintage at one end with our £15/bottle Whispering Angel, to Dom Pérignon at the top with Garrus,” says Schreckinger. Looking to capitalise on the white-hot popularity of provençal rosé is energetic entrepreneur Brett Berish, CEO of New York-based Sovereign Brands and creator of rapper Jay-Z’s favourite fizz, Armand de Brignac.

Montes Taita from Chile
Montes Taita from Chile

Having burst onto the prestige cuvée Champagne scene in 2006 with what is now affectionately known as “Ace of Spades”, made in collaboration with Champagne Cattier, Berish’s next trick has been to create an entirely new category that taps into three of the biggest trends in the wine world at the moment: a demi-sec sparkling rosé from Provence. “Sparkling wine is a growing category, rosé is one of the strongest growth categories within the sparkling wine segment and Provence is the birthplace of the world’s finest still rosés. With this in mind, we set about creating a new category in the market,” Berish explains.

Christened Luc Belaire and housed in a sleek black bottle with a bold white and fuchsia label, the recently released brand, made from a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah at a Provence estate dating back to 1898, has already caught the eye of rosé-loving rapper Rick Ross, who has featured the fizz in his music videos and gifted bottles to fellow rappers. Hip hop aside, Berish is hoping to attract everyone from casual sippers to Champagne connoisseurs with Luc Belaire, though he acknowledges that its £29.99 “affordable luxury” price tag makes it a completely different proposition to the £300-a-bottle Armand de Brignac.

Le Pin’s Jacques Thienpont says he never set out to make a “luxury” wine
Le Pin’s Jacques Thienpont says he never set out to make a “luxury” wine

IN WITH THE NEW WORLD

While many of the world’s top wines hail from classic regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy, icon wines are far from being the sole preserve of the Old World.  Ambitiously seeking to set a benchmark for quality, price and rarity in South Africa through the production of a “First Growth of the Cape” combining New World power and Old World finesse is 4G Wines, a quartet made up of Bordeaux consultant Denis Dubourdieu, ex-Meerlust winemaker Giorgio Dalla Cia, and emerging South African winemaking talents Mari de Jager and Mia Fischer. Working from 10 different vineyard sites across the Cape, the resulting £250-abottle wine, called simply “G.”, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, is matured in 100% new French oak for 18 months. Just 3,400 bottles of the debut 2010 vintage and 1,943 bottles of 2011 were produced.Mirroring the Bordeaux model, there is even a second wine, “The Echo of G.” Having long been in on the icon act with the likes of Seña and Almaviva, the latest luxury cuvée to emerge from Chile is the £180-a-bottle Montes Taita, made in collaboration with terroir expert Pedro Parra and described by the estate’s coowner and chief winemaker Aurelio Montes as a “super icon” wine.

4G Wines’ G at £250 a bottle
4G Wines’ G at £250 a bottle

Launched last month, Taita, named after a word used in South America to mean both “wisdom” and “father”, is being specifically aimed at Asian consumers. Three-thousand bottles of the Cabernetdominant inaugural 2007 vintage were made, and future vintages of the wine will only be produced in exceptional years from a dry-farmed six-hectare plot within a 700ha farm in Marchigue in the Colchagua Valley.

“The blend won’t be the same every year – nothing is set in stone. It depends which varieties performed well in the given year,” says Montes, who predicts that the wine will age gracefully for at least 15 years.

As eager entrepreneurs look to create new high-end wine brands and estate owners seek to make ever-more complex cuvées, fixing their eyes on Asia as a target market, where the mixture of money, a new-found enthusiasm for fine wine and a desire for luxury goods is proving intoxicating, there is still one major factor that will always hold wine brands back: it remains an agricultural product at the mercy of Mother Nature, whose ability to wreak havoc through hail, frost or extreme heat can wipe out a vintage in one fell swoop.

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