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Château Routas: from Scotland to Provence – and back

Family businesses are nothing new in the wine world. Many of its most respected producers, merchants and retailers have been passed proudly through the generations. But few families manage to straddle the full supply chain, from grapes in the vineyard to global distribution and then standing face to face with the end consumer.

That’s exactly what the Murray family has achieved since expanding its business interests more seriously into wine with the 2005 purchase of Provençal estate Château Routas. A year later came the acquisition of Scottish wholesaler Wine Importers, followed in 2010 by the addition of Scotland’s oldest wine merchant, Cockburn’s of Leith. Naturally, it’s useful to have such a friendly route to market for your wines, but it’s also clear that the Murray family’s strategic ambitions for all sides of their wine business run considerably deeper.

Keith Murray, second generation company director and general manager of Château Routas, highlights the significant shift in production at this estate in the Côteaux Varois en Provence, a hour’s drive inland from Toulon. “Rosé hadn’t really taken off then,” he recalls of the international appetite for pink Provençal wine in the early days of the family’s involvement here.

Instead the previous owner, Swiss-Canadian businessman Philippe Bieler had skewed output significantly towards reds. Even the single rosé in the portfolio was, recalls Murray, “definitely marketed towards red wine consumers as really more of a light red. It was fuller bodied and darker in colour.” These days the Routas rosé is not only fashionably pale but, after a steady replanting programme, accounts for at least 95% of production.

Since the previous owners had already made useful inroads into the US market, this was a logical first distribution focus for the family. Despite this head start, Murray recalls several years of resistance to rosé that was both pale and dry. “It was definitely still a challenge convincing Americans it wasn’t Zinfandel and it wasn’t sweet,” he recalls. “Then certain big players like Whispering Angel came into the market and turned it into a totally different category to the point where we now don’t really have enough wine.” Today North America accounts for two-thirds of sales, while Routas has built up a network of 30 distributors across 35 US states.

Currently about 15% of Routas’ production is channelled towards the UK market, where it is distributed not only via the Murrays’ own businesses, but also other regional firms, usually with a complementary family-run ethos. Next year will see Routas take a prominent spot in the display of a brand new bricks and mortar shop for Cockburn’s of Leith, the latest step in the reinvigoration of this historic brand.

“We’ve had ambitions over the years,” remarks Murray, “but with Covid we really saw an opportunity to get into the direct to consumer side of the wine business, which will culminate when we open a retail shop next year.”

Centrally located on the Scottish capital’s George Street, the new shop will add a physical dimension to the company’s existing online business. “Could we just go online?” poses Murray. “Yes, but that’s even more competitive.” Instead, he sets out: “By using the shop as an educational and tasting tool, we will hopefully embrace the community and people will put trust in our brand. Bricks and mortar really amplifies everything else.”

From riding the rosé revolution to restoring one of the country’s most venerable merchants, this is a family whose love of wine combines harmoniously – and all too unusually – with its strong commercial antennae.

See below for tasting notes on the wines from Château Routas by Patrick Schmitt MW:

Château Routas white:
White fleshed peach and apricot combine with bitter lemon, pear drop and nectarine to give layers of flavour in this oily, ripe white with a chalky, gently grippy dry finish.

Château Routas rosé:
This pale salmon pink coloured rosé has a soft mouthfeel with delicate flavours of peach, pear and red apple, along with a touch of palate-refreshing grapefruit zest.

Château Routas red:
A cherry and blackcurrant-scented red with flavours of crushed raspberry, cassis, fresh plums, and a hint of dried herbs. While ripe, it’s a medium-weight wine with plenty of firm tannins to give a dry, palate-cleansing finish.

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