French producers started to return to their estates this week after their annual August holidays. I was on the news desk at Decanter.com and here’s the highlights of this week’s news.
It was a busier week than anticipated with the harvest beginning unusually early in Bordeaux. Sauternes star Chateau d’Yquem and rose producer Chateau de Sours started to pick the first grapes on Wednesday.
On Friday. Champagne producers in a number of villages were also permitted to start the harvest. The only harvest that has ever been earlier was the sweltering 2003 vintage. Grape growers and Champagne houses came to a compromise to allow 12,500kg to be harvested per hectare this year – more than 20% up on 2010, in response to growing demand
Heading to the southern hemisphere, New Zealand was covered in snow. The white stuff even fell in Auckland for the first time since 1939. Unhappily for one winery, it wasn’t just the weather that was gloomy. Gisborne winery Amor Bendall has gone into liquidation. The company has faltered amid the oversupply situation, the strength of the New Zealand dollar, and tough competition. The question is, who’s the next victim?
Over the Tasman, Australia is also struggling with its oversupply problems, and change is not happening fast enough, according to its generic body, Wine Australia. Its chief executive has been brutally honest, admiting many players are still in denial that the problem is long-term and requires major change. The new realities reshaping the industry include depressed trading conditions in its two main export markets: the US and the UK; the continued strength of the Australian dollar, higher production costs and tougher competition in all markets. Bulk wine sales and ‘opportunistic brand trading’ have also eroded margins, said Wine Australia’s Andrew Cheesman.
Following the demise of Sauternes property Chateau Broustet and its sale to an Italian buyer in late September, it’s all guns blazing for the family’s other property Chateau Saint-Marc.
Export and marketing manager, Guillaume Forcade had fought valiantly to save his family’s chateau with savvy marketing and sales. He had packaged some of the estate’s wines in test tubes and the brand had become involved in Vogue and Mercedes parties but it was too little too late and he is now concentrating his efforts on Saint-Marc.
The wine will be available in tubes during French Tuesdays in San Francisco. Whether you drink it “from the tube or slipped inside a handbag”, it’s certainly a different approach for a very traditional appellation. No glass; no foie gras? God forbid, the wrinklies won’t like it.
However, the whole sweet wine market faces an uphill battle with sales in freefall. The French have cut their Sauternes consumption from 83,536hl in 1999/2000, to 54,477hl in 2008/09. The appellation’s vineyard area has fallen from 4139ha to 3773ha in the same period. At the very least, it’s going to take young blood with new ideas to stem the tide. Good luck to them, they are going to need it.
Guillaume Forcade is a dynamic young man who has spent the past year trying to save his family’s chateau from going under. He was too late.
The Barsac estate was sold on September 30th to an Italian buyer, Taillan, which owns wine merchant Ginestet and a number of Bordeaux chateaux including Gruaud Larose and Chasse Spleen.
It is sad for the company since Forcade had been working his butt off to raise the company’s profile and injecting a breath of fresh air into the appellation. He had packaged some of the estate’s wines in test tubes and the brand had become involved in Vogue and Mercedes parties.
Forcade said: “It is difficult to accept the end when the latest developments we made to improve the quality, the brand and the export market were finally giving extremely good results.” It was too little too late.
The sale reflects a malaise in Sauternes/Barsac. The domestic market is the most important for Sauternes, representing more than 70% of all sales. The French have cut their Sauternes consumption from 83,536hl in 1999/2000, to 54,477hl in 2008/09. The appellation’s vineyard area has fallen from 4139ha to 3773ha in the same period.
Forcade added: ‘It is incredibly sad but selling Sauternes has been very difficult for all of us in the appellation. For a grand cru classé owner like my family, who bought the estate with the help of banks, the huge debts have been just too difficult to face with the economic downturn the whole region of Sauternes has endured for the past ten years.”
The average consumer is over 60 years old (CIVB research) and it needs to find new drinkers. It also needs to encourage all consumers to see sweet wine as a year-round drink – not just for Christmas. Sweet Bordeaux is trying to do this. But with little marketing money, limited awareness of their consumer base and a plethora of marketing/organisational bodies within the small appellation, it’s not going to be an easy task.
The Forcade family are still the owners of Château Saint-Marc, the immediate neighbour of Château Broustet, an estate in the family since the 18th century.
Despite the setback, Forcade is not giving up. He promises blog pages, video teasers and launching Saint-Marc wine in tubes in the US at the end of November. The sun may have set on Broustet but I suspect Saint-Marc is entering a new dawn if Forcade has anything to do with it.
Sauternes is not just for Christmas – or to drink with foie gras. That’s the message that the sweet Bordelais want to tell the world with a marketing budget under 500,000 euros each year.
The old foie gras/blue cheese and Sauternes are so deeply entrenched that it’s going to have to take one enormous effort to alter perceptions.
Thomas Dejean of Chateau Rabaud Promis, admits: “Sauternes, foie gras, Sauternes, foie gras. It’s a reflex. We have to create more moments. As an aperitif, it’s fantastic – like a Sauvignon Blanc it’s incredibly aromatic.” Yes, but it’s not dry Thomas – and that’s the issue.
There certainly are plenty of other occasions that you can drink Sauternes but it’s a bit of a push to serve it at every course. Similarly, the Champenois try and force fizz down your throat at every course too, and that gives you really bad guts and makes you yearn for a still wine.
Nevertheless, I have to admit that there were some fantastic combos thanks to ex-sommelier and consultant chef, Georges Gotrand. He works his dishes around the wines – not something every chef would do for a sweet wine but then he’s getting paid to do it.
Nevertheless Chinese-style chicken marinated in sesame oil and soya sauce with coriander was sticky and viscous and a lighter-style Cadillac worked famously with it.
Likewise curried monkfish with dried coconut and an ‘04 Sauternes both married well. The sweetness complementing the delicate spices and the viscosity of the wine working with the creaminess of the sauce.
There were plenty of surprising matches and I have to say it did change my mind but will I get a bottle of sweet Bordeaux out next time I have a coconut-based curry? I’d like to say yes but then I’d probably be lying.