Sauvignon blanc 2011, a competition and much more besides Marketing – Sauvignon blanc, popular but for how long ?
Marketing – Sauvignon blanc, popular but for how long ?
On a completely different level, a round table debate amongst participating industry members and focusing on market trends for this fashionable grape variety also took place during the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon. Creating both opportunities and challenges, Sauvignon blanc might well head up the current white varietal league table, but this hasn’t always been so. Other varietals have had a place in the limelight and subsequently fallen from grace. So what steps should be taken during the good years to avoid the inevitable ebb and flow of the marketplace ?
The debate gave Bernard Farges, chairman of the Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur growers’ organisation the ideal opportunity to stress the competition’s three-fold objective – technical, ‘tasting’ and marketing. It was moderated by British journalist and BFM radio host David Cobbold. In his introduction, David Cobbold highlighted the elusive, complex and indeed fickle nature of consumers – the industry’s lifeblood - begging questions such as, what do we mean by quality ? Who are the wines aimed at and at what price points ? And ultimately, what is the purpose of a competition dedicated to a varietal that apparently sells itself ?
The purpose of a competition
For Paul White, an American journalist living in New Zealand, it is essential to remember that change comes fast. All producers must therefore aim for excellence, constantly glean more knowledge to respond to change and above all, be wary of the transient nature of demand. Sauvignon blanc may well meet the same fate as other acclaimed varietals that have subsequently suffered from ‘consumer fatigue’. Other varietals may therefore steal a march over Sauvignon blanc in consumers’ hearts.
His viewpoint is shared by Alan Limmer, a consultant and former New Zealand wine grower, who stressed that when a varietal becomes popular this sparks an increase in production which ultimately causes quality to decline. Particular attention must be paid to the natural tension between two concepts – producing a wine versus creating consumer loyalty. A competition dedicated to the varietal is therefore a totally legitimate means of keeping up one’s guard.
For Rumanian enology professor Constantin Crotoriou, the idiosyncratic characteristics of Sauvignon blanc, its specific aromas which make it unique and inimitable form a natural protection. They also justify a dedicated competition for Sauvignon blanc wines from across the globe.
In Switzerland, home to the specialist journalist Yves Paquier, Sauvignon blanc is a newcomer to the wine industry. The Concours Mondial du Sauvignon has therefore sparked genuine interest amongst Swiss wine producers who can compare home-grown wines with the global Sauvignon blanc proposition. The competition thus provides an opportunity for benchmarking amongst producer countries (David Cobbold).
For Bordeaux journalist Florence Varaine, “the competition is also an opportunity to discover the extensive range of wines made from this multi-faceted varietal, which varies considerably depending on the host country or specific site. In addition to being a competition, CMS is also conducive to sharing expertise. It promotes education on white wines in France and around the world”.
Varietal and origin set to bury the hatchet ?
With such an archetypal grape variety, carrying a strong local imprint, getting communication right is a fundamental challenge. In the competition’s host region of Bordeaux, a household name for wine – red wine that is - engaging with consumers raises the issue of whether to focus on Sauvignon blanc or white Bordeaux.
For Bordeaux winemaker Christophe Olivier, other regions face the same challenge. Vineyard acreage increases commensurate with a varietal’s popularity, Chardonnay being an obvious example. However, Sauvignon blanc is a less hardy, less flexible grape variety. Its characteristics are site-specific but should origin take precedence over the varietal itself ? Sauvignon blanc’s current reputation is stronger than that of any region but this may change and varietal-led communication is therefore venturing into dangerous territory.
This opinion is supported by Thomas le Gris de la Salle, quoting his own personal experience on his family estate. He believes in dual communication involving both the varietal and its origin. Adding the name of the grape variety on labels has led to a significant rise in sales of his white wines in export markets. Bordeaux is not renowned for its white wines but using the world famous Bordeaux umbrella brand is a way of offering an alternative to the more prominent Sauvignon blancs.
Baudouin Havaux is chairman of Vinopres and the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, co-organiser of the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon with the Bordeaux growers’ organisation. He reminded participants of the specific characteristics of the Belgian market where consumer approach to a wine is often dictated by the food it accompanies and food and wine pairings tend to favour varietal-led communication.
However, as Alan Limmer pointed out, varietal-driven communication tends to give wines a generic focus. Origin is the only statement that really adds value and underpins prices as competition intensifies.
Paul White concluded that Sauvignon blanc is perceived as a cold climate variety and use of oak often causes it to be mistaken for Chardonnay. This image does not square with consumer perception of Bordeaux as a producer of red wines aged in oak. Referring solely to its Bordeaux origins therefore makes engaging with the consumer more difficult.
Every market is different though and in the case of Germany, as Walter Eberenz explained, highlighting the varietal is a positive cue because a single varietal is synonymous with quality, unlike blended wines. Bordeaux’s association with red wines, however, requires thorough consumer education to explain that Bordeaux also produces white wines from Sauvignon blanc.
Auchan wine buyer Xavier Leclerc pointed out that “we all share the same ambition, namely selling more wines and more Sauvignon blancs. However, the time factor should not be overlooked – a consumer spends 3 seconds choosing a wine and 3 seconds deciding whether he or she likes it. My profession stands on the boundary between producers and consumers… Consumer trends change – before, people wanted concentration and oak ageing, now they want freshness. A consumer can change tack, this needs to be anticipated and new choices accompanied. A competition like the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon is essential because a consumer needs advice at point of sale. A wine’s dual identity – its origin and varietal - must be highlighted and food pairings should be provided”.
For Yves Paquier, the consumer is more and more educated and the impact of a prestige label is tending to decline whilst greater value is given to the discovery aspect. However, the Swiss writer believes that a varietal statement is more important than a wine’s origin on the label.
A passing fad or a deep-rooted change in consumer taste ?
White wine is increasingly replacing traditional aperitifs in France, explained Xavier Leclerc who stressed that Sauvignon blanc is reaping the benefits of this trend because of its popularity. It is fresher, elegant, fruit-driven and basically more “cool”. It is a more elegant, lightweight alternative to Chardonnay and is made for sharing.
Yves Paquier shares this viewpoint. Tastes have changed and the consumer wants contrast and character not blandness. Sauvignon blanc is part of this overall trend, as are the cheeses that are increasingly served with it.
For Paul White, greater diversity and changing tastes also illustrate a new era of winegrowing in the Old and New World. What could be described as a fusion or reconciliation between the two is emerging with Cahors now being sold as Malbec thanks to efforts by Argentina to popularise the varietal. Conversely, New World countries are developing the notion of ‘terroir’ in their sub-zones and valleys whilst at the same time in the Old World varietal-led communication is a moot issue ! Winegrower Thomas le Gris de la Salle confirms the trend: “there is undeniably an ongoing merger of production ethos in the New and Old World”.
Competition founder and spiritual father Bernard Vincent reminded participants of Denis Dubordieu’s teachings which show that Sauvignon blanc acts as a ‘terroir enhancer’. As the world’s leading grape variety ahead of Chardonnay, it conveys an image of diversity, youthfulness and strong personality. “My ambition for the competition is to rally people around the varietal and encourage collective thought”. A competition like the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon provides a good overview of the industry every year and allows changes and new trends to be anticipated. A purpose wholeheartedly supported by Xavier Leclerc (Auchan) who pointed out that a medal multiplies sales by 15 or even 20. With 80 to 85 percent of wines retailing in multiple grocery stores, endorsement is essential for the majority of under-informed consumers. “A medal offers reassurance during those all-important 3 seconds when a choice is made”.