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.
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.