For the latest The Buyer Debate we teamed up with Business France to bring producers from different regions of France together with key buyers from across the premium on-trade to look at two key growth areas not only for French wine, but the premium wine category as a whole: organics and sparkling wine. It was an opportunity to meet, taste the wines and then explore why French winemakers are increasingly turning to organics and sparkling wine production. Whilst assessing just what it is leading UK wine distributors, merchants and restaurant and bar owners are looking for when taking on a new French wine supplier. There was a lot to cover. So much so that we have broken down the report into two parts. First up we look at the rise in organics and both the opportunities and the challenges there are in making and selling organic wine.
Business France was able to bring a good mix of French wine producers from different regions of France all looking to widen their distribution in the UK premium on-trade to the latest The Buyer debate.
The interest in and demand for products that can claim some level of environmental, sustainable or health credentials has “crashed” into mainstream consumer shopping behaviour over the last 12 months. What’s more this is not just a fad, but a clear change in direction and pendulum swing over to products, brands, retailers and businesses that can prove their environmental credentials, claimed Marie Stafford, European director of the Innovation Group of the advertising agency, J Walter Thompson at last month’s London Wine Fair.
It’s also clearly happening in the wine sector. Latest research from the insights body, Wine Intelligence, into the kind of alternative wines that consumers are looking for puts organic wine top in terms of what both the trade and consumers are looking to buy.
Move further down its top five list and you have ‘sustainably-produced’ coming second both for trade and consumer, and environmentally-friendly wine joint second amongst trade buyers and fourth for consumers.
Which made The Buyer’s latest industry debate particularly well timed. Teaming up with Business France, the body that represents and promotes all aspects of French business, we looked to put two of the fastest growing and important wine trends under the spotlight: organics and sparkling wine.
Now the case for sparkling wine has been more than made in recent years as it continues to be the pin up star of the sector recording double digit growth year-in-year-out. But whilst the bulk of those sales have been driven by the extraordinary rise in Prosecco, where does the sparkling wine offer from a traditional wine producing country like France come into the reckoning amongst both trade buyers and consumers?
Consumer and trade surveys might put organics wines top of the agenda, but is that what is really happening out in the market, and on the restaurant floor?
To find out Business France recruited a diverse selection of producers from different regions of France who could come and show their wines to a panel of leading buyers including distributors, importers, wine merchants and sommeliers.
The buyers included:
- Doug Wregg, sales and marketing director, Les Caves de Pyrene.
- John Graves, on-trade channel director at Bibendum.
- Jonathan Kleeman, sommelier and ‘director of hydration’ at Twisted Cellar, a new wine merchants in Bishop Stortford.
- Rebecca Palmer, associate director and wine buyer at Corney & Barrow.
- Dawn Mannis, co-founder, The Sampler.
- Andrew Gray, Grays & Feather, a new West End London bar that specialises in sparkling wine
- Ashika Mathews, head of buying at 31 Dover, the online wine business.
- John Chapman, operations director, Oxford Wine Company.
- Tom Gilbey, founder of The Vintner.
Producers taking part:
- Emmanuel Vergely from Bestheim a large Alsace producer, including 8 million bottles per year and 6 million sparkling. Regarded as a pioneer of Crémant d’Alsace.
- Thomas Fonteyreaud from Tich & Grava, a family run Bordeaux domaine producing red and white wines and Crémant de Bordeaux Rosé 100% Cabernet Franc.
- Pierre Coquard from Vins des Broyers, craft wine producer including Jeu de Bulles Brut Nature, Extra-Brut, Extra Sec & Bulles Sec are Burgundy Rosé wines made from 100% Gamay.
- Adrien Cavalli and Arnaud Martin from Domaines Auriol a fully organic range of Languedoc wines AOP and IGP including red, white, rosé and sparkling including AOP Limoux.
- Cécile Thomas of Escher & Thomas an organic producer from the Loire Valley (Melon B, Sauvignon, Chenin, Gamay).
- François Reverdy of Orchidées Maisons de Vin, Loire Valley AOP Touraine, AOP Saumur, AOP Crémant de Loire.
- Jean-Pierre and Adrien Guibergia of Domaine de la Grande Pallière organic producer in Provence since 1998, AOC Côte de Provence red, white and rosé.
All we now needed was a setting and you could not get much more daring or different than the basement of Maison Bab, the gourmet kebab restaurant, in London Covent’s Garden where you sit surrounded by the shop fronts of typical high street kebab restaurants. One of which contains a live kitchen – which helped produce snacks and dishes to pair with the various wines – the other a hidden away kebab speakeasy that you reach through a secret entrance.
The debate opened with a question to the buyers about how important they see France for their general buying needs, and where it sits for organics.
Ashika Mathews at 31 Dover immediately pointed to the Languedoc-Roussillon as being such a key region to source a wealth of interesting, independent producers, that equally have largely been following organic practices for decades. “The Languedoc is very useful. It has such a wide variety of quality, prices and styles,” she said.
Tom Gilbey said France was crucial for the Vintner’s trading model, which means it only has 100 wines available to buy at any one time. “It means France is incredibly important for us. No other country has such a diverse range of wines, particularly now that demand for organic and biodynamic wines are opening up,” he explained.
Rebecca Palmer at Corney & Barrow says the business has always been inextricably linked with France, and she is actively looking to introduce a more “balanced” organic and biodynamic range in terms of style and price point.
Doug Wregg at Les Caves de Pyrene has long been a supporter of the small, off-beat, independent French wine grower from the Jura to Cahors. You would struggle to find a more diverse range as it is currently working with 250 different French domaines, covering 450 estates stretching across 1,000 wines.
“We are looking for wines that truly express their terroir, but are also gastronomic, great to drink and are wines with a personality and story to tell,” he explained. “We want to find wines that have a true sense of place whether that is the Loire, the Jura, the south east. But we are not just buying places, we are buying because they are good.”
Bringing wines to life
Jonathan Kleeman at Twisted Cellar, said it was important for its business, as a new wine shop and bar, to find things that are different, and France from that point of view was the country that kept on giving.
Andrew Gray at Grays & Feathers, that is a sparkling specialist that purposefully does not sell Champagne or Prosecco, says France is a key country for him as it represents around a fifth of the wines on its list. The key for a bar like his is to be able to bring the wines to life through their stories and personality, which again is where France comes in as it has such an immediate “kudos and reputation” amongst its customers and makes the wines easier to hands sell.
Dawn Mannis at The Sampler says France is also essential to how it works. “We import directly 80% of our wines, and 50% of those come from France. We specialise, for example, in grower Champagnes. People are becoming more interested in where their wines come from.”
The Oxford Wine Company is also increasingly sourcing more wine directly, said John Chapman, and its approach is much more about finding the right style of wine and ones that really express the typicity of that particular variety. Which means France, along with Spain and Italy, is high on his buying radar. “Although the sales of our French wine are static, they still account for a fifth of what we sell,” he said. “There is terrific interest in regional France amongst our customers.”
As for organics? “They add a little extra element to the story and the wine. It also gives a certain re-assurance as well,” added Chapman.
Growth in organics
The session returned time and again to the organics debate. For the producers it was now seen as an essential way for them to be making more of their wines.
Emmanuel Vergely at Alsace producer, Bestheim, spoke for many when he said it was also a case of responding to industry needs. “More and more markets are asking us for organic wines and it is important for us to be able to respond and give them what they want,” he explained.
It also gave producers a new edge and a different way of talking about their wines, said Jean-Pierre Guibergia of Domaine de la Grande Pallière that has been producing organic wines from its Provence vineyards since 1988. “We have certainly seen the increase in demand for organics,” he added.
He said it’s a challenge working in such a sunny, hot area of France and working with the right varieties to still make clean, fresh and vibrant wines. Like the Grande Palliere Côte de Provence AOP rosé that it makes from Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache.
Arnaud Martin of Domaines Auriol said he was proud to be one of the “leading producers for organic wines in the Languedoc” since the 1970’s, and is now one of the biggest organic producers in France. “The opportunity and growth in organic wines is huge. But as a producer you have to realise that your production could be very different each year. You have to work hard to keep the same quality and price point, that’s the most challenging part of being an organic producer. It is why it can be hard for smaller producers to do organic wines.”
It is more of a balancing act, he added, where some producers might have to produce more non-organic commercial wines to compensate.
Adrien Cavalli at Domaines Auriol said it was good for the Languedoc in general to be seen internationally as a major organic wine producing region as it can help it compete globally. “It’s been in our roots as a company since the beginning. It’s our identity and the market is now coming our way,” he said.
Pierre Coquard, owner of Vins des Broyers in southern Burgundy, said it was important for producers to understand different markets and countries and what messages around organics they understand. The UK, for example, is far more open to organics and what it means than other countries.
But it was not easy, stressed François Reverdy of the Orchidées Maisons de Vin in Loire to make organic wines. Whilst he recognised the opportunity it was not as easy to turn your viticulture over to organics in all regions in France. The Loire, for example, and its turbulent weather conditions meant it was much more of a risk than in other southern areas of France, where there was less of a risk of frosts and harsh weather. “It’s harder to do organics where we are,” he said. “It’s a big challenge to grow organic grapes for us compared to the Languedoc or Bordeaux.”
He certainly had Doug Wregg’s sympathy: “There is a big difference between growing grapes organically in Provence where you have all the elements on your side, to producing grapes in such a difficult growing area as the Loire.”
Kleeman said it made obvious sense for producers, importers, merchants and restaurants alike to be taking on more organic wines. “There is going to be a bigger push towards organics. You only have to look at all the campaigning amongst the younger generation for climate change. They are also the next generation of wine drinker. They are a lot more experimental, willing to try new things and follow brands and products they feel are doing things in the right way,” he said.
Mathews agreed: “Younger millennials are really interested in organics and where the food and drink comes from. They are also willing to pay a higher price for them.”
It is also an area that the producers had seen a big change. Arnaud Martin from Languedoc producer Domaines Auriol said: “People are changing the way they drink. So we have to keep up with our customers. We are seeing more smaller producers and growers moving over to organics and we are encouraging people to do so. But it is important we keep the quality in our wines at the same time.”
Chapman said organics and sustainability were very much on the agenda of the average consumer in Oxford. But again it was important to make sure you were offering a quality product at the same time. “We get people all the time coming in asking for organic wines. Some won’t buy a wine unless it is organic. But you have to be careful. You can get some amazing organic wines, but you can also get some atrocious ones. So it’s not just being organic that is important. It also has to come down to how it is being made. But there is definitely a bigger pressure to buy more organic wines.”
Mathews agreed wine buyers still needed to look for quality as well as the fact a wine might be organic. “The good news is there is now such a huge choice to go and look at.”
Kleeman also said it was not always clear how organic wine was over another due to the myriad of different schemes and initiatives in France, never mind the rest of the world. “It can be a buzz word that goes thrown around,” he said. “There is a lot of misinformation out there.”
“That said our biggest wine tasting class we have had so far at the shop was for organics and biodynamics. So the interest is there.”
Wregg agreed and said sometimes it can be just important for a grower to be farming organically even if they are not actually certified. “It is really important for wine importers to be on top of this and to know exactly how a wine they are stocking is being made. At the Real Wine Fair we don’t ask to see certification, we just want to know how it is being made.”
For him it is about creating a virtuous way of working for the vines, the soils and the long term future of the vineyard. “It benefits the growers in the long run to be working in this way.”
There is an opportunity with organics, claimed Wregg, for each region that suits organics to have even more of its own identity, its own style be it wines from Alsace or Sancerre.
When you throw biodynamics into the mix then it also allows producers from across regions to start building their own communities, through their shared experiences of winemaking.
Rebecca Palmer at Corney & Barrow said the trade was right to be cautious about all the organic claims which sometimes can be “entire crap”. “There is so much abuse when it comes to organics. Some are doing it purely for marketing reasons,” she explained. “We have created a monster with organics and vegan wine. There are always going to be those who work at the edges who abuse it the objectives for other people.”
Palmer believes working sustainably is more credible and likely to work in the long run. “Otherwise it is hard to know what is organic or not. But there is a lot of interest in sustainability amongst our customers, some of whom feel very strongly about it,” she added. “We need to see ourselves as the intermediaries. The people who can tell these producers stories. How we know they are behaving sustainably.”
John Graves at Bibendum believes organics makes much more sense when talking about smaller growers and producers and it becomes harder to really make a difference when looking at bigger producers. “It certainly helps as part of telling the story, but it does not mean it is going to result in more sales,” he said.
“It’s about the relationship between the grower and their vines,” said Wregg. “How can I get the best grapes from my land is the key. You would be crazy, for example, not to be making wines organically in the Roussillon. When we work with growers there, they see the world through different eyes. They tend to be working with older vines and with old winemaking traditions.”
The producers were certainly able to demonstrate not only the quality of organic wines being made in different regions of France, but the diversity. That was the key for the wine buyers. It is one thing to be farming organically and making wine in a sustainable way, but ultimately the wine has to be of a quality and standard to stand out and deserve its place on a wine list in its own right. It was that variety of styles that really stood for both the still and sparkling wines shown during the panel debate.
Wines and food
The debate also included the chance for the panel to taste through a selection of wines chosen by the producers, that were served by matching dishes from the Maison Bab menu. They included:
Bestheim, Crémant d’Alsace Le Brut Hopla – AOC Crémant d’Alsace (NV, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois)
Bestheim Crémant d’Alsace Brut Bio “Fourmidable” – AOC Crémant d’Alsace (NV, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois)
Smoked beurre noisette hummus
Escher & Thomas, Melon B. Méthode Traditionnelle Extra Brut, Loire Valley, 2016
Escher & Thomas, Vouvray Brut AOC, Loire Valley, 2015
Doner beignet with smoked chilli sauce and garlic mayonnaise
La Grande Pallière Blanc, AOP Côtes de Provence, 2018
Domaine Tich & Grava, AOP Sainte Croix du Mont, Bordeaux, 2015/2018
Roasted broccoli with iskender sauce and almonds
Jeu De Bulles Brut-Nature, Bourgogne, 2016/2017
Jeu De Bulles Extra-Brut, Bourgogne, 2016/2017
Maison babaganoush with green chilli relish and house flatbread
Touraine AOP Blanc Cuvée JM Brut Monmousseau, Loire Valley, AOP Touraine (NV, Chenin Blanc).
Saumur Mx AOP Royal Ackerman Blanc Brut, Loire Valley,AOP Saumur Mx, 2016 (Chenin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc).
Cod cheeks with lemon hummus, wild garlic and crushed peanuts
Crémant Rosé 1854 Domaine de Grava, AOP Crémant de Bordeaux
La Grande Pallière Rosé, AOP Côtes de Provence, 2018
Jay’s mutton curry with dates and labheh
Akene CAB, IGP Pays D’Oc, 2018
Herdwick lamb adana with Mustafa yogurt, pickled onions and dill.
- Part two of our debate report will look at the opportunities for French sparkling wines with a particular focus on Crémant.