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Breaking through

Published:  23 July, 2008

After a difficult few years Vins de Pays appear to be turning the corner. Jo Burzynska looks at new initiatives and what is needed to enable the category to stand up to increasing New World competition

A great vintage, hectares of potential and a consumer-friendly style - Vins de Pays have a lot to offer the UK market. But in recent years, their performance has been disappointing, as increased and consolidated competition from New World brands has given the free-spirited but fragmented face of French wine a run for its money. It might take time, but Vins de Pays producers are starting to think seriously about how they are going to let the world know about their natural strengths. The potential of the various terroirs within Vins de Pays has been increasingly exploited by wine companies, which have been working hard to educate growers on how to make the best of it. Philippe Tollret of Languedoc Vins de Pays pioneer, Les Vins Skalli, commented: "We have special contracts with growers who are paid by the hectare to ensure quality over quantity, and we give advice on pruning and harvesting. Fifteen years ago it was difficult for growers to accept advice, as they believed we couldn't teach them anything. We've had to show them the reality of what they do and what we want, but everyone knows that there's a lot of wine about now and that quality is crucial." This resultant quality, combined with variety and value, has proved attractive to buyers such as Tim Ranscombe of Safeway. "There are good strong varietal wines coming out of Vins de Pays, thanks to regulatory freedom," he said. "Value is good and there is clear diversity of styles, from cooler Jardin de la France Loire whites to rich spicy d'Oc reds and full Chardonnays." Ranscombe added: "The most exciting aspect is the prevailing view that these are areas to develop commercially and not to be afraid to experiment in. This means that wines are developed starting with the customer, rather than what can be produced. Consequently, packaging, price point, liquid and budgets all come together to reach a group of customers. This covers buyer's own brand generics at the lower end, to targeting more experimental consumers with Viogniers, for example, further up the price brackets." This freedom to tailor styles to suit markets and use varietal labelling has attracted companies such as IWS to the appellation, which has recently formed a partnership with the Rhodanienne co-operative near Nmes to produce Vins de Pays for the UK. IWS winemaker, Alastair Maling MW explained its benefits: "Vins de Pays is seen to be very much the in' category in France. This is partly because it gives you freedom and flexibility. If you want to you can irrigate, allow the grapes to ripen earlier or later, tartaric acid is permitted and use of oaking from an experimental point of view. You can decide the style you're trying to achieve - it's up to you." He added: "The benefit the southern France Vins de Pays areas give us is a favourable climate with less vintage variation. Vins de Pays allow us to create a more modern style; not to say you can't in Bordeaux, but it gives you the flexibility in all areas to achieve that style." As well as flexibility, there is a great potential for expansion, as noted by Waverley's senior buyer, Mark O'Bryen: "The South of France is France's New World, and could produce three or four times more than Australia. It has the varietals, the sunshine, the technology and the will to compete. In 2000 it also enjoyed one of the best vintages for over ten years, and the wines are getting better all the time."

New World threat

Yet despite all these positive factors, Vins de Pays have been having a hard time in the UK marketplace in recent years. Increased and well-organised competition from strong New World brands has nudged their volume share of the UK off-trade down from 10% to 9% in the last year. At Asda, buyer Sara Brook acknowledged: "Vins de Pays have struggled a lot after the success they saw a few years ago. At Asda, although sales of Vins de Pays are fine and business is growing, they're not performing as we'd like or expected. We are consequently changing our range." She added: "There are so many brands from the New World which are making things harder for Vins de Pays to get promotional slots. With strong brands from Australia, new brands being developed from countries like Chile and South Africa, it's harder for Vins de Pays to compete. There are so many alternatives - you can get Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot from any part of the world now which are aggressively marketed. We've actually just introduced a dry Muscat and a Cabernet Franc from the South of France, which are interesting and something you generally don't get in the New World." Brook's experience suggests that Vins de Pays could be being cannibalised by areas closer to home. She observed: "One area in which we've seen quite a lot of growth is Bordeaux. Perhaps when customers are looking at France they are going for classic regions rather than grape variety." But Vins de Pays might at last be turning the corner. At Producteurs Plaimont, area sales manager, Fabien Oliaz, noted: "The first five months of 2001 have been good for Vins de Pays. We've seen our sales up by about 8-10%. People are coming back to Vins de Pays. There has been such an intense focus on the New World in the last two to three years, now people are taking another look at France and Vins de Pays are becoming more important." This is supported by bi-monthly figures from AC Neilsen for January/February 2001, showing that the category had gained 3% on the same period last year. And the fact that exports of Vins de Pays for January and February 2001 are up 50% in volume and 35% in value compared with those months the previous year suggests that their position in the on-trade is looking healthy. Continuing good value is one strength that could still be the key to Vins de Pays' success. Robert Skalli, president of Les Vins Skalli, said: "I think we can be between 50p to 1 below wines from other countries in the world. We have good Cabernets and Chardonnays at 4 a bottle, while wines from Australia are generally closer to 5 than 4." But good prices, it would appear, need to be supported by good marketing. To combat this erosion in the UK, Vins de Pays' generic campaign has been stepped up. In March, the first Vins de Pays trade tasting for four years was held in London, and is set to become a more regular event. In July a visually redesigned version of Vins de Pays' "Keep Life Simple" media campaign will be hitting the broadsheets, men's and women's lifestyle magazines and the London Underground, while a regular Wine Wrap newsletter targeting the trade is now being circulated to keep Vins de Pays visible in this important group.

Raising the profile

As well as by direct ways, Vins de Pays have also had their profile raised by the interest they are generating among foreign wine companies. Last year saw one of the sector's strongest brands, James Herrick, bought by Australian giant Southcorp, while Robert Mondavi had plans to create a "great" Vin de Pays d'Hrault. For winemakers such as Tollret in the Languedoc, this trend can only be good news: "Foreign interest is a good thing. The Languedoc is a very big region, and we need more stars. We have lots of good wine, but don't have industrial vineyards. Production is very artisanal. We need these to help us become recognised." However, local objections to Mondavi's plans - which forced them to be scrapped - recently drew attention to this major Vins de Pays-producing region in a more negative way, which could deter future foreign interest. The region's newly elected Communist mayor disagreed with opinions held by the likes of Tollret on the halo effect provided by foreign investment in the region, claiming it would benefit the US company's shareholders rather than the local community. Another local winery, Daumas Gassac, added its voice to the opposition. This withdrawal happened against a backdrop of general unrest in the region due to the perceived threat from New World wines. This resulted in the destruction of more than one million litres of wine in Nantes and Carcassonne in March, while more recently, in May, 250 protesting winemakers in Montpellier demanded a FFr10 million emergency aid package from the French Government to help them fight off this competition. Commenting on the protest, Pierre Fabre, head of the Languedoc-Roussillon branch of the farming group CRJA, explained that many of the producers had been trying to produce more premium wines, but had run into debt as a consequence.

The next step

Despite the risks, a move to higher quality is seen by many as the next step in the evolution of Vins de Pays, which already boast a number of premium wines. One, Val d'Orbieu's cult Cuve Mythique, has even been so bold as to follow the Bordelais' route by offering its 2000 vintage en primeur. Val d'Orbieu's director, Jeremy Roberts, explained: "En primeur only works if you've got a really good vintage, not a secondary one. 2000 was a wonderful vintage all over. This means that the new vintage will be sold at 20% less, allowing the trade to be given a significant discount on prices." Roberts added that en primeur sales were already going very well. Another image-raising initiative has been the recent creation of Grand d'Oc, a superior category within the Vins de Pays d'Oc appellation. Yields are set lower and the red or white wines are awarded the classification after a tasting by a panel comprising regional, national and international judges. The chosen wines must then be marketed at a higher price, suited to their elevated position. While some feel that the time is ripe for segmentation of the appellation and that these wines can truly act as ambassadors for the Pays d'Oc, or indeed the entire Vins de Pays category, others question whether more regulation is appropriate in a system that has thrived on its freedom. Ashley Huntingdon, winemaker and manager of BRL Hardy's Pays d'Oc winery La Baume, is wary of this concept of pricing: "The Grand d'Oc classification could give the wrong impression of the Languedoc, as these wines can't be sold under a certain price. The Languedoc is all about vineyards and this price-oriented approach is sending out the wrong message - that expensive equals quality." While Roberts feels it is basically a good thing, he has some doubts: "There's definitely room for separation within the Languedoc, and if we're all singing from the same hymn sheet it will work. However, you don't want to make things too complicated and let separation confuse the public, although it might work for the trade." Despite its grand ambitions, Brook believes that customers will not notice the new classification: "Customers don't know the Languedoc or Pays d'Oc as it is. When customers are buying wine they haven't picked up a Pays d'Oc wine, rather it's the varietal. This separation is not going to help the customer who is looking for a specific grape variety at a specific price point."

Branded options

What Vins de Pays do need, according to Brook, is greater marketing support and a strong brand: "Above-the-line support through marketing and advertising can only help. Ideally you need a big brand to really develop the area and there's nothing at the moment. It needs the equivalent of a Gallo or Jacob's Creek." Skalli agreed: "It's my feeling that the future of Vins de Pays will be more for strong brands with good-quality marketing and PR activity supporting them." And with approximately 85,000 Vins de Pays producers in France, communicating a cohesive message is no easy feat. "There is some confusion, as there are too many producers with too many different concepts and visions of the future. The strength of a country such as Australia is that it promoted a vision shared by many companies, focusing on one collective mission. In France there is too much individualism. It's our weakness," said Skalli. In a region such as the Languedoc, sales and marketing strategies are lagging way behind the great progress made in its vineyards and wineries. Skalli added: "I think we need some time, maybe five years or so, to develop a good balance between production and the organisation of sales and marketing. This region moved quickly from table wines to quality wines and we need to organise ourselves. Between 1975 and 1980 the Napa Valley had exactly the same problem." This fragmented identity is something that concerns Ranscombe: "The main problem with Vins de Pays is identity, in a word. It has tried to market itself as a brand in Sunday glossies etc without focusing on specific products to gain recognition for Vins de Pays as an identity. This is too distant from consumers at the moment and quite confusing, given the diversity of products produced under this banner." He added: "Also, if you consider the most successful products, they tend to hinge on something other than Vins de Pays, with Vins de Pays being incidental in customers' understanding. For example, price and trust of supermarket brands are the lever for buyer's own brand products, and further up it has been brands and varietals that have been successful, such as Domaine de la Baume." Vins de Pays have a major brand, Piat d'Or, in 11th place in the UK brand charts. However, although identified as French, it is arguable whether its popularity has helped the Vins de Pays category overall. Piat d'Or's brand manager at Percy Fox, Emma Chamberlain, commented: "I don't think retailers see it as specifically a Vins de Pays champion'. My view is that consumers are confused by AOC and Vins de Pays, but generally believe that Vin de Pays is better than Vin de Table and that AOC denotes even better quality, as well as defining region. Their primary signposts, however, would be a brand/country of origin and grape/colour, as well as price point." If brands are not, and possibly will not be, the ambassadors for Vins de Pays, we will have to wait and see whether their emergence will compensate for a lack of perceived generic identity. Perhaps Vins de Pays could look to their main competitors for pointers to future success. Ranscombe concluded: "Australia has made itself famous for being at the forefront of wine development, without so far having regions identified in the consumer's understanding. Vins de Pays could take this further."