Marketing sans critters, s’il vous plaît

by Tom Fiorina on May 6, 2013

La Revue du Vin de France (RVF) recently published an online article [before you click on the link, please know that it’s in French] about the success underway in the Côtes de Gascogne wine region (a doubling of sales, for many wine estates, in the past decade, and exploding export sales—70% of the region’s production is now sold outside of France).

The Domaine de Joÿ is just one of several estates mentioned in the article as an example of how the region has changed. In ten years, the domaine has doubled in size (it now has 140ha of vines), and it sells a million bottles of wine annually. First-quarter sales in 2012, the RVF says, experienced “double-digit” growth compared to the same sales period in the previous year.


At least it doesn’t have a cute critter on it…

Other estates are having the same success. The 140-ha Domaine Uby is building a new cellar to keep pace with a projected 30% sales increase this year. Ten years ago it sold all of its wine en vrac (in bulk); it’s now launching products like the sparkling, über-hip Uby O2 wine, a blend of Sauvignon and Gros manseng with 20 grams of residual sugar. This aperitif/dessert wine could have been created by a Coca-Cola brand marketing team: heavy, Burgundy-shaped bottle with deeply-recessed bottom—Check; distinctive, black-type logo with a superscript “2” raised above the “O” and stylized bubble motif—Check; easy-to-open screw cap—Check; not-so-subtle, slightly-exaggerated, passion-fruit-grapefruit aromas—Check.

The 900-lb gorilla in the Côtes de Gascogne region, which is located in the Gers department west of Toulouse in southwestern France, is the Domaine de Tariquet. We’re talking Marvel-Comics-Hulk-sized huge here. At 900ha, Domaine de Tarriquet is the largest vineyard in any one particular French wine appellation. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and tracing its history back, astonishingly, to 19th-century bear trainers, this estate has almost single-handedly made the Côtes de Gascogne a brand-name for lively, easy-drinking white wines.

Côtes de Gascogne, which is an IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée), indicating wine produced according to strict specifications and certified to have been produced in a defined geographical area), is among France’s most exported wines; over 100 million bottle of it are sold annually, with over 75% of it being exported. Over 90% of Côtes de Gascogne wine production is white.

It’s hard to argue with success, and it’s nice to see a wine region where optimism, rather than the pessimism that many French winemakers often express, predominates. Outside of Grands Crus classés Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, many winemakers throughout France are struggling to make a living.

Now, just like I have no desire to write about over-extracted, fruit-bomby, over-oaked wines that are willing to sell their souls for 100-pt marks, it’s unlikely that you’ll see articles here about Tariquet (or similar) white wines made for, as the French say, “grande consommation.” To put into operation their lowest-common-denominator strategy, Tariquet, I’ve heard (please note that this is only hearsay; I haven’t seen any laboratory results to confirm this), makes three “dry” white wines. The one for the French market has 4 grams of residual sugar. The one made for “Anglophone” markets (the U.K., Australia, the U.S., etc.) has 8 grams of residual sugar. And then there’s a “super-pop” Russian version that comes in with a whopping 18 grams of residual sugar. I was told this by southwestern wine professionals whom I trust and believe, so I have no doubt that although these figures might be off somewhat, they largely represent reality.

OK, “So what,” you’re probably thinking. “What difference does it make? Tastes vary all over the world.” My problem with this a-wine-for-all-tastes strategy is that it is more fitting for a global soft-drinks company than a wine estate using the environmentally-respectful-vigneron-descended-from-bear-tamer story.

In defense of Tariquet, I must say that they make, along with the Domaine Joÿ, some of the best Armagnac available, and in quantities that make it possible to find even in export markets. But somewhere along the way, the Armagnac and wine strategies diverged. Or maybe wine sales are paying for Armagnac losses.

And apart from my personal preference for real vin de terroir, there is another reason why the entire Côtes de Gascogne strategy frightens me; what I’m going to call the Yellow-Tail-sans-critter problem. By explanation, think back a decade or so when Australia flooded foreign markets with inexpensive, fruity wines with cute animal labels.

Australian wines were the hottest around. Consumers couldn’t get enough of muscular shirazes with quirky names, such as Koala Court, Roo’s Leap, The Mad Hatter, Ball Buster and a zoo’s worth of other cute labels.

The problem is that Australia became synonymous, in the minds of many wine drinkers, with cut-rate, mass-produced, mass-market, generic wines. No matter that the winemakers down-under were producing some excellent Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Shiraz (Syrah), Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir wines. Premium Australian wines suffered because of their association with these low-cost wines.

Efforts to acquaint wine drinkers with Australia’s quality terroir and its enormous viticultural diversity are starting to pay off, and sales are coming back. However, certain are loath to let go of critter-themed marketing. Yellow tail is releasing a pink Moscato in the U.S. this year, and it has a second new wine, called Sweet White Roo, billed as a “refreshing, white wine with flirty tropical notes from a blend of Pinot grigio, Sauvignon blanc and Semillion grapes…” Apart from the grape varieties, the taste profile could be right in the center of Côtes de Gascogne white wine positioning.

If I see any Mousquetaire Merlot labels coming from the land of d’Artagnan, or anyone profiting on back of the southwest’s favorite comfort food with a Clos de Cassoulet, I’ll be certain that the marketers have finally wrested control from the vignerons here.




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Per-BKWine May 7, 2013 at 10:29

Not sure I understand what your issue with their marketing strategy is. That they make wines that are uninteresting? A lot of people like drinking that. That they use alluring (for many consumers) packaging and branding? That they adapt their product to the consumers’ tastes?

Not everyone can be a small scale, hand crafted, “terroir driven”, niche producer.

Being “a yellow tail” or ” Tariquet” must surely be better than being an old fashioned coop that can hardly spell to “customer”, don’t you think?

Tom Fiorina May 7, 2013 at 11:10

I agree, Per, that not everyone can make “terroir driven” wines, and that not every customer is prepared to pay the premium that they demand in the marketplace. My point is that there is a danger in building a brand–“Côtes de Gascogne”–for the white wines in the Gers that is based on marketing low-cost wines. There’s precedent, obviously (“Yellow Tail”), of the danger in associating your name to a mass-produced, mass-market product. I participated in the Guides Hachette dégustations for Côtes de Gascogne wines this spring. It was difficult to find any wines that stood out (that guidebook’s famous “coup de coeurs“). Do you know why? Well, it’s obvious that the producers are caught up in a sales frenzy, and they’re going for quantity (high yields that make them more money) rather than quality. Any quality producer in that region is going to have difficulty convincing customers that his or her wine is a quality product. Maybe by just avoiding the Côtes de Gascogne moniker completely, and using the vineyard’s name on the label would be the answer. It’s something that I see in Corsica (which I write about often), where producers using grape varieties not included in the appellation’s guidelines are marketing their wines under their names, e.g. Domaine Comte Abbatucci. A secondary point is that this blog post is my personal opinion, which obviously reflects my preference for wines that taste like they come from someplace and not from anyplace… And having worked in communications for Coca-Cola for five years, I feel qualified to call a mass-market product a mass-market product. And knowing something about your marketing experience and education, and your knowledge of French wines, I respect your opinion and believe that what you say about French winemakers needing to market their wines more aggressively makes a lot of sense. How to do it without denigrating the reputation for French wine that has taken centuries to create is the problem.

craig May 7, 2013 at 11:26

Thanks for the translation of the main message of the article. Do you know if its the same thing for the other appellations of the south west (Jurançon etc)?

Tom Fiorina May 7, 2013 at 11:27

The only other region in the southwest where this might hold true is Plaimont. The cooperative there has taken an aggressive (and very effective) approach to marketing its wines abroad (particularly China). Where it differs is that they have a range of products (from entry-level to age-worthy wines, to those made from indigenous grape varieties. I think that this would be a better approach than to what I’m seeing with Côtes de Gascogne.

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