Following up on my somewhat controversial post on the coming wine war last week, here are some thoughts about what the wine world can learn from the current success of high-end Bordeaux wines.
Of course, Bordeaux, the world’s most famous wine region, has a split personality. On the one hand we have the wealthy classed-growth Châteaux of the left bank, as well as the famous right bank estates in St Emilion and Pomerol. These are the wine world’s elite. On the other, we have the producers in less exalted parts of the region, selling their wine very cheaply, and struggling to make a living. Here I’m going to focus specifically on the high-end properties, and discuss what other wine regions can learn from their success.
1. Perception. First, I’d emphasize that this success is not solely a result of wine quality. Bordeaux makes some fantastic wines, but so do many other regions in the world, and yet they don’t get as much for their wines as the Bordelais do. It’s about perceived wine quality: how people, in general, regard the wines. Bordeaux has managed to position its top wines in the luxury brand category. And, as recent research has shown, if we think of a wine as great or very expensive, this will change our actual perception of the wine – we’ll enjoy it more.
2. A simple marketing message. Bordeaux is easy for people to get their heads around. The Chateaux act as brands. And they don’t have a complicated range: usually just a Grand Vin and then a clearly marked second wine. There’s no Reserve range; no single-vineyard designates. The Grand Vin is the top wine. This is hugely important, because it makes Bordeaux accessible to non-wine geeks. You just have to learn the names of a few famous Chateaux.
3. Scale of production. Each classed growth Château makes its top wine in quite large volumes. This is really important. It means that people can actually buy the stuff, cellar it, taste it and talk about it. The major Bordeaux Chateaux are reasonably large – typically around 50-80 hectares. This means there is plenty of wine to go round.
4. A clear hierarchy. An easily understood ranking system helps. The 1855 classification of the left bank properties, with a very few minor modifications along the way, has been really important. It’s a clear ranking system for those with lots of money but little desire to learn lots about wine, to help them identify immediately what is best.
5. A clever mechanism for distributing the wine. The system of courtiers and negociants, with no direct sales, is unusual, but it works very well for the Bordelais. The en primeur system acts strongly in favour of the producer, and perhaps its greatest skill is in helping to shift even modest vintages. Many critics give poor to middling vintages the benefit of the doubt, and as much of the wine is sold so early, people don’t realize that lesser vintages really aren’t very good before they’ve already bought the wine.
6. The compliance of wine critics and publications. Bordeaux is where the money is in the world of wine. And because of this, critics and publications have – on the whole – been quite supportive of Bordeaux, choosing not to rock the boat too much or be critical of the en primeur system that works in favour of the Chateaux and not the consumer. The way that the Bordelais court the press and wine merchants is very clever.
7. Reaching beyond the wine trade bubble. Most wine regions reach the wine trade and the heavily involved consumers very well. But what they find more difficult is selling themselves to the non-involved consumer. Bordeaux, along with Champagne, is very skilled at this. Even some of those who aren’t really into wine know quite a bit about Bordeaux, are aware of its presence as a fine wine region, and probably know the names of a few top Châteaux. Very few wine regions have this sort of visibility to the non-wine community.