Monday, 7 July 2014

From bags to Bordeaux - a chat with Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe of Cru Bourgeois

The French Appellation Contrôlée system is famously based on guaranteeing the geographical origin of a wine, rather than focusing on the quality of what is actually in the bottle – something that causes a headache for those who are trying to sell French wine and the consumers who wonder what the difference is between a bottle of Bordeaux at £4 and one at £24.

Six years ago, the châteaux who were members of the then rather moribund Cru Bourgeois classification of the Médoc decided to break with tradition and to let their wines stand or fall on the basis of an objective measure of the wines’ quality.

Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe was in London recently to help spread the word about the Bordeaux classification that is unlike any other. With her background working for Tom Ford at Gucci, she knows a thing or two about building and protecting a brand.

The term Cru Bourgeois has been around for many years, but its new incarnation began with the official selection from the 2008 vintage. The latest selection, from the 2011 vintage, was published in September 2013. All independent châteaux in the Médoc are elegible to participate from the eight appellations of Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Julien and Saint-Estèphe.

Whereas the appellation rules guarantee the geographic origin of a wine, Cru Bourgeois is a measure of a wine’s quality. Cru Bourgeois acts as an overlay to the existing Appellations, rather than attempting to replace them.

In 2011 256 producers were selected as Crus Bourgeois out of a total of 350, representing annual production of 28 million bottles, which is around 30% of total Médoc production. The average price of a bottle of Cru Bourgeois is £17, with prices ranging from around £10 up to £47.

The truly radical aspect of the new Cru Bourgeois is the way wines are awarded the right to use the name. Under the old system, if your château was lucky enough to have been classified as Cru Bourgeois, bingo – you had the right to use the name, year in year out, regardless of the quality of what was being produced. Now, in the new Cru Bourgeois system an annual blind tasting by a group of professional tasters is what determines the ability of a château to use the name.

Each year producers have to maintain quality levels in order to be awarded Cru Bourgeois. There is no automatic qualification based on previous years’ performance and no grace period to regain form after a dip.

Feedback from retailers, at least in France, is that they have seen a huge rise in quality in the short time that the new system has been operating. The number of Cru Bourgeois with distribution in the US has risen by 25% in the past year and around 40% of Cru Bourgeois have a retail presence in the UK.

So far so good – but how many of you, as wine consumers, are aware of the Cru Bourgeois system? Here Frédérique has a job on her hands, “The term Cru Bourgeois has been in existence for many years, but has been something of a sleeping giant. Our job is to reawaken it in the consumer’s mind.” she says.  Without an unlimited marketing budget, it’s difficult to reach out to every consumer. However, social media is a key part of any brand’s marketing mix nowadays, allowing them to connect directly with the public: they use QR codes on the Cru Bourgeois bottle sticker, for example, which links to information specific to the particular château.

There used to be around 500 Crus Bourgeois under the old system, so the current crop of just over 250 represents a significant pruning of dead wood. And 250 may still sound like a lot (and it is), but when you think that there are around 8,000 châteaux in the whole Bordeaux area, it does help to sort the wheat from the chaff. We often forget just how big a wine producing region Bordeaux is – it produces more wine each year than many countries do.

Frédérique’s previous experience at Gucci means she has a deep understanding of how to manage a brand. As she puts it “We treat the Cru Bourgeois name as a brand and take care to reinforce use of the logo, ensuring it is always used on bottles, at events and in all our communications. 25-30 million bottles of Cru Bourgeois are produced each year – and each bottle is a marketing tool. Our name can help consumers to choose from the vast array of wines on the shelf, providing confidence in the quality of wines from some of the world’s most famous appellations.”

Bordeaux is experiencing its fair share of wine woes. There is still too much poor quality, dull stuff produced at the cheaper end of the market, dragging down the reputation of Bordeaux with it. At the other end of the scale, the internationally successful classed growth châteaux and stars of Pomerol and St Emilion have seen their prices rise beyond the reach of many traditional claret drinkers. In the middle sits Cru Bourgeois, hoping to appeal to disillusioned classed growth buyers who are trading down and to newer Bordeaux drinkers who are able to trade up from the stubbornly low amount (still around £5) that we are prepared to pay for a bottle of wine in the UK.

Cru Bourgeois picks from the current 2011 selection:

Château Mongravey Margaux 2011 – around £20 from 3D wines
This is nicely defined, with sweet, ripe and juicy fruit from Margaux, renowned for producing the Médoc’s most charming and “feminine” wines. Call me shallow, but I find the name irrestistible too.

Château Beaumont 2011 - £18-20 from The Wine Society, Justerini & Brooks

Haut-Médoc’s wines can be some of the most traditional claret; traditionalists will not be disappointed with this wine of classic Bordeaux proportions, present tannins and fresh fruit. As you would expect, this will mellow over the next five years and promises plenty of enjoyment to come.  

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