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Opinion: appellations as brands

The other day I was standing on a station platform thinking my usual vague early morning thoughts, and I was struck by the appearance of a train going in the other direction: all eight carriages had been painted  a vivid red with the current Côtes du Rhône advertising campaign on its side – the irritating and rather banal hedgehog drawings with the slogan ‘think red, think Côtes du Rhône’. I don’t quite get the connection between hedgehogs and Rhône reds, but someone has clearly been spending a lot of money trying to boost the sales of French wine in response to the popularity of the new world brands. But does such a generic campaign – in effect, using appellations as brands – work?

 I’ll state my position from the outset. I’m not sure that the marketing of appellations is a great idea. In principal, the idea of pooling the marketing budgets of all the producers in an appellation (for one big, visible marketing push, rather than many tiny initiatives) is supposed to benefit all members of the appellation equally.

In reality, though, those who gain the most from this approach are the poorer producers, and the relative losers are the most conscientious, better-performing domaines. Why? Because this sort of marketing doesn’t discriminate against cheats. The vignerons who cut the most corners and have the lowest costs (usually producing the lowest quality wines) benefit the most. 

Let’s illustrate this concept. Look at the famous appellations of Champagne and Chablis. Most consumers aren’t aware that the key to buying French wines is the producer’s name, not the appellation, yet the wines are being marketed generically. Thus when a supermarket offers Champagne at £6.99 or Chablis at £4.99, these wines fly off the shelves. The producers who have managed to make wines that they can sell at these prices benefit from the cachet that Chablis and Champagne have as brands. In reality, these cut-price classics usually do little to boost the image of the region. Usually, just the opposite…

Appellations with a cachet

  • Champagne: the ultimate brand. The average consumer isn't worried by the quality if the price is right.
  • Chablis: high consumer awareness, and a neutral Chablis at under six quid will fly off the shelves
  • Châteauneuf du Pape: the name on the bottle guarantees £9, even if the contents taste no better than an average Cotes du Rhone
  • Sancerre: the ultimate restaurant wine (producer often unspecified) 
  • Pouilly Fuissé: Macon's most famous name guarantees £10 a bottle
  • Muscadet: it may be cheap, but it's a name people recognize, so it sells
  • Meursault/Chassagne Montrachet/Puligny Montrachet: famous white Burgundy appellations that will sell for high prices simply because of the name

The principle behind appellations is sound. They preserve the regional styles that have been officially recognized as being the best that the region has to offer, and guarantee authenticity of the product. Crucially, however, they have consistently failed to guarantee quality. Rules governing grape variety, maximum yield, and pruning and picking techniques don’t guarantee quality, no matter how stringent they are.  For example, while lower yields are more or less essential for producing better quality wines, they are not a guarantee of quality. Many producers prune for the maximum permitted yield, and then in a high-yielding year they just leave the excess grapes unpicked. This makes a mockery of the regulations. If you produce 90 hl/ha grapes and only pick 40 hl/ha, you’ve still got 90 hl/ha quality grapes. Even the statutory tasting tests (where they are required) don’t work in practice. No, it’s the dedication, motivation and skill of the vigneron/winemaker that is the key to quality, and this can’t be legislated for. Ironically, the appellation-as-a-brand concept ends up encouraging mediocrity.

French producers are acutely aware of their need to regain market share lost to the new world brands. On paper, it looks like a generic marketing attempt based around appellations will be a solution to their problems. In reality, though, I suspect this generic approach is proving to be an obstacle to raising the quality of the average French wine. The typical consumer thinks in terms of the appellation when buying French wine. I have a non-geek friend who declares how much he loves Volnay, but isn’t aware how crucial the grower is in determining the quality of his favourite wine. In a similar vein, someone recently told me that they’d had a great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and seemed a bit perplexed when I asked them who the producer was. This concept of the appellation as a brand creates a strong incentive for less conscientious growers to cut corners; it rewards producers who can knock out large quantities of inexpensive Chablis, Châteauneuf, Sancerre, Pouilly Fuissé and Champagne – wines that are unlikely to do their appellations any favours. Of course, within each region there are a few superstars with reputations that mean they can command high prices for their wines, but for the average producer this system gives them no incentive to raise their quality threshold, because even if they don’t they will still benefit from generic marketing campaigns and the cachet their appellation enjoys. 

Agree? Disagree? Respond to jamie@wineanorak.com

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April 2002