Taking on the big boys
The Rhône is starting to muscle in on Bordeaux and Burgundy with its well-priced quality wines. Rebecca Evans reports
As Burgundy and Bordeaux prices climb ever higher - even in a less-than-stellar year such as 2006 - Rhône wines are increasingly seen as good-value, high-quality alternatives.
Suppliers and retailers talk of the Rhône's ability to produce both accessible easy-drinkers and refined and complex wines from the top crus, and believe the area has plenty more to yield.
Over the past couple of years, a growing number of French brands have been launched and the Rhône has been quick to capitalise on the trend.
Guy Anderson Wines has the UK off-trade's top-selling Rhône brand in La Chasse du Pape, which grew sales value by 2 per cent in the year to May 19 (Nielsen).
So what is it about the Rhône that makes it right for branded wine? "The Rhône as a brand has got a certain resonance with consumers," says managing director Guy Anderson. "The style of the wine, the Syrah/Grenache blend, works well with UK consumers because you can get nice, ripe styles with a softer palate."
Bottle Green - which has traditionally supplied a lot of Rhône wine, mostly for own-label ranges - decided to launch its own Rhône brand, Palais des Anciens, at France Under One Roof back in March. Wine director Nick Butler says the company realised a lot of good wine was simply being siphoned off to use in blends. Butler says Rhône wines are doing well because UK consumers' tastes are moving away from oaky Australians. "I think medium-bodied wine styles are on their way back - Rioja is doing well and so are wines from the Rhône."
Bibendum's off-trade sales director Richard Cochrane agrees: "I think what stands out is the number of consumers starting to come back to the Old World and we're starting to see a resurgence in some of the classics such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the premium end. That trickles down through Crozes-Hermitage to the Côtes du Rhône level."
Cochrane says: "When you look at the price to quality ratio, Rhône has an unerring ability to deliver, particularly when they get the ripeness at the basic level and the sophistication and credibility at the higher end".
Retailers are also enjoying strong sales of Rhône wine. Alun Griffiths, Berry Bros & Rudd wine manager, says: "We feel as if we've done pretty well in Rhône in recent years. For years we put a lot of focus on Bordeaux and Burgundy, but then Simon Field - who buys our Rhône - spent a lot of time in the region and found some top-notch small producers. Those are finding favour with our customers."
Griffiths has so far tasted northern Rhône wines from the 2006 vintage and describes them as "very fine, with good acidity, freshness and minerality".
John Arnold, owner of independent A&B Vintners in Brenchley, Kent, says sales of Rhône wine have been strong during the past 12 months and describes wines he's sampled from the 2006 vintage as "exciting". "The whites are possibly better than 2005 and the reds at this early stage are rivalling 2005," he says.
While current taste trends may be working in favour of Rhône wine, suppliers still feel consumers - particularly those of entry-level wines - need more education.
A recent online survey by Winebrand Research for Thierry's Rhône brand Caves Saint-Pierre found only 66 per cent of regular drinkers knew Côtes du Rhône wines were from France.
More than 75 per cent of those surveyed had heard of Côtes du Rhône and 55 per cent were aware of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, although only 29 per cent linked it to the Rhône valley. Rhône wine was considered better value for money than both Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Despite the knowledge gap, suppliers are unanimous in their praise for Inter-Rhône's marketing efforts.
The generic body - currently under the stewardship of Florence Boubée-Legrand in the UK - has focused on maintaining leadership of the French red wine segment in the UK and has also pushed rosé wine. Its highly visible Think Red, Think Côtes du Rhône campaign is to continue for the foreseeable future, and trade marketing work on the top crus is planned, starting with sommeliers and filtering through to the off-trade.
Bibendum's Cochrane says he has been pleased to see "proper investment" from the generic body through the campaign. "The challenge will be linking that up with the individual wines," he says.
Guy Anderson believes Think Red, Think Côtes du Rhône has been very helpful. "Any campaign needs longevity and the secret is almost to keep going until the industry is tired of it. Part of its success has been sticking with one theme," he says.
So far, so good, but there is potentially trouble brewing as Rhône producers perhaps look to their neighbours in Bordeaux, see the prices they are commanding and want a slice of the action. Châteauneuf-du-Pape pricing in particular seems to be causing some disquiet among both suppliers and retailers.
Bottle Green's Butler says: "Prices for the 2006 vintage will definitely go up. There's pressure on us all the time. Some of our big customers are looking for deals for Christmas but their expectations are out of line." He adds: "It's got to stay below £15 a bottle or we'll drop on volumes."
A&B Vintners' Arnold shares concerns over the pricing of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "Prices have run away a bit," he says, adding that while A&B's London-oriented client base would tolerate price rises to some extent, the recent volatility of financial markets meant this could not be taken for granted.
He adds: "Relative to top-end Bordeaux, top Châteauneuf-du-Pape is still fairly priced, with the very best at £30-£35 a bottle. The price rises are a general fine wine trend, but domaines should be aware there has also been a succession of very good vintages, so cellars are getting full."
Thierry's buying director Dominique Vrigneau says: "Pricing on Châteauneuf-du-Pape is tight, however we are maintaining the retail pricing structure on the Caves Saint Pierre Préférence Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the foreseeable future."
Berry Bros' Griffiths says: "One particular trend that has caused that is the tendency of some producers - possibly seeking Parker points - to produce super-cuvées from the top 500 cases and those were fetching very high prices. That trend is beginning to fall back a bit. I think that, overall, prices are not a problem."
Griffiths adds: "There are seasonal factors that will affect pricing - in Côte-Rôtie there has been a huge amount of hail that has reduced the crop enormously, but I'm not too bothered about Châteauneuf-du-Pape." Serious producers are "being very sensible", he says.
While Châteauneuf prices continue to rise, there is a general feeling that there are plenty of smaller appellations and areas ripe for discovery and exploitation.
For future potential, Griffiths rates Crozes-Hermitage. "There's quite a lot of Crozes-Hermitage because it's a big AOC so there's some very indifferent wine. But where you've got growers with good soil, they can make wines not a long way short of Hermitage but half the price, and they are exciting wines," he says.
Griffiths also tips southern Rhône AOCs Cairanne and Vinsobres as having good potential for future sales in the UK.
Bibendum is developing a range of Côtes du Ventoux wines with winery Terra Ventoux. Cochrane has been impressed with the quality coming from the area and says up until now the wines have been "pretty lost" in the UK market.
He says: "Prices achieved have been quite modest so that's an interesting opportunity. The mountain is an iconic image - if you had a hill of that size in Bordeaux they would have made the most of it. It's an iconic image and there's a lot of history that the consumer can get, but for some reason Châteauneuf has captured the imagination."
Cochrane also continues to be impressed by Crozes-Hermitage: "It has the potential to offer great quality, but not for stupid money."
The only other issue he has with the Rhône is the ongoing north/south divide and the relative poverty of the south. "It will be interesting to see to what degree there can be some migration south of what's seen to be successful in the north."
Bottle Green's Butler also identifies Côtes du Ventoux as a potential source of high quality wines at reasonable prices - "there's some stonking Grenache" - and adds there's "always work to do on the whites, it's just so hard to get hold of good parcels because volumes are limited".
Caves Saint-Pierre brand manager Marie Michalas would like to see more Rhône whites made available to the UK off-trade, and would also like consumers to branch out and try AOCs such as Vacqueyras and Gigondas.
A&B Vintners' Arnold says Northern Rhône crus Saint-Joseph and Cornas are underrated and showing potential for development.
While there may be concerns about Châteauneuf pricing and the north/south divide, the overall impression from the trade is of a real and continuing enthusiasm towards Rhône wines as an interesting and value-for-money proposition across all price points.
Suppliers and retailers can be confident of unearthing some real gems - with a little effort and imagination - for many more generations.
Guy Anderson Wines has redesigns and range additions planned for La Châsse du Pape . "We have
a number of things - a new label design that we're working on at the moment to freshen up the design and make more of its core features. We've got some potential range extensions including a sparkling wine. Just generally more activity. Our single varietals are going very well and we've pretty much got full distribution," says managing director Guy Anderson.
Winemaker Stéphane Vedeau will launch off-trade range Les Deux Rhônes at the Autumn Exclusive French Wine Fair
at Lord's cricket ground
on Sept 12. The four-strong range - supplied by Free Run Wines - includes Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Crozes-Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Bibendum is working on a joint project with winery Terra Ventoux. Off-trade sales director Richard Cochrane describes wines from Côtes du Ventoux as an "interesting opportunity".
Bottle Green has secured a listing with the Co-op for Palais des Anciens Châteauneuf-du-Pape and will focus on expanding listings across off-trade channels. It will also look to expand the range into other areas, including AOC Lirac and Tavel.
Thierry's will launch northern Rhône range extensions for its Caves Saint-Pierre brand this autumn. AOC Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Condrieu will be the three latest additions to the range. Thierry's is also planning more media investment for 2008.