Ask most wine buyers what would make their lives easier and somewhere near the top of their wish list would be able to work with fewer suppliers who could meet more of their needs. Which is very much what Famille Helfrich, the independent merchant and on-trade division of the Les Grands Chais de France group, wants to offer. It’s a message that Chris Davies and his team will be getting across to restaurant buyers, sommeliers and wine merchants at the company’s first standalone trade tasting later this month. Here he explains what else is going on at the group, including more wines from around the world and an exclusive new on-trade wine range from Calvet.
Chris Davies is looking forward to showing the full scale and capability of the Famille Helfrich wine offer to on-trade buyers and independents at its first trade tasting in Birmingham between February 25-27.
We might like to think we are all open minded and make decisions based on clear, rational thought and are not influenced by preconceptions, the reality is often very different. Particularly when it comes to judging and assessing whether we are going to like a wine or not before it is even poured, never mind tasted.
“A wine from a first growth Bordeaux producer?” “Yes, please.” “Fancy sharing a bottle from a super Tuscan winery?” “Please, hold me back.” “Can I offer you a glass of the UK’s best-selling supermarket wine?” “Mmm. Not sure, hang on. What is it?”
It’s why on paper – or on first impressions looking at the label – so many wines are often overlooked or dismissed without even tasting them. Yet the very same wines can be the ones that walk away with the Gold medals and are picked out as the star buys when tasted blind alongside some more prestigious contemporaries.
It is a scenario that is very familiar to Chris Davies, sales director at Famille Helfrich, the on-trade an independents division of Les Grands Chais de France. Even if you don’t know Les Grands Chais as a company, you would know or would have seen its wines in most major supermarkets and countless wine lists across the country. For it is one of France’s biggest wine producers with a number of properties in every major wine region in the country. It is also a family-owned, independent business with all the principles and values of any other family-run winery, albeit on a much larger scale.
Yet for all its size and significance Davies knows only too well that being big does not mean being good in the eyes of some wine buyers. No matter how hard you push the family credentials.
The bigger picture
That, though, says Davies is not necessarily their fault. It’s more a case of them not fully understanding how the company works and what opportunities there could be to do business together once people realise just what is possible within the Les Grands Chais stable. Or when it comes to the on-trade and independent sectors, Famille Helfrich, the dedicated arm set up to look after their needs.
This, after all, is a company that can provide a genuine one stop shop for France with wines at all price points and quality levels. Wines that are available exclusively to merchants, wholesalers and on-trade buyers via mixed pallets, covering different properties that can all be picked up from a single collection point in France.
Wines that come from the family’s own properties, that stretch over 3,000 hectares, across all the major French wine regions, where it acts as the grower, the private co-operative and the producer. Including a number of Premier Cru and Grand Cru properties, with 15 in Bordeaux and 12 in the Languedoc alone.
This one stop approach is already working for a number of major independent buyers across the country. The key, he says, is simply getting the right people out to see the business, the properties and to taste the wines for themselves.
The Oxford Wine Company, several key members of the IWBC Group and St Austell Brewery are just a few of the regular buyers thanks to trips they did a few years ago visiting a selection of Les Grands Chais properties.
Davies is aware he can hardly take every prospective buyer and lead out to France to weave some similar magic. But he can certainly do his best to show the wines and what the company can do to interested operators in the UK.
It’s why, for the first time, Famille Helfrich is to host its own standalone tasting over three days in Birmingham, at the Edgbaston cricket ground, between Monday to Wednesday, February 25-27.
It is also interesting to see a tasting of this scale taking place outside London. But for Davies it makes perfect sense. Not only is the core of the UK business based around the Midlands, but it is close to the heartland of other key strongholds such as the North West (and North Wales) and Scotland across a wide range of independents and regional wholesalers.
So if it was going to hold its own event, then it had to be located somewhere central and easier to get to for everyone, he added. There is also the added bonus of being able to attend a special dinner for all its customers, on the Monday night, which will be an opportunity for the team to say a big thanks for their support. Not the kind of thing you get on a weekly basis at the major London distributor and producer events.
The final day of the tasting will have a special focus on sommeliers with invites sent to some 150 Michelin star restaurants. It also features a special food and wine pairings master class by Michelin chef, Glyn Purnell.
Glynn is the owner of local Michelin Star restaurant Purnell’s and has recently been appointed as the new Calvet brand ambassador. He’s also a TV Celebrity Chef and a regular on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.
He’ll be cooking up some of his favourite French food memories to celebrate the launch of the new Calvet on-trade and independent range.
“We have been toying with the idea of holding our own tasting for a while now, it’s a big commitment, but we feel the time is right for the business based on the level of distribution and reputation we now have in the trade.’’
A reputation that has been earned on the back of building up a premium portfolio that offers so much to on-trade buyers looking for something different, says Davies.
A range that is constantly being upgraded as the company brings more chateaux and properties into the business. “It’s an exciting time and we have so much more new properties and wines to show people,” he says. “The key for us to be able to offer true value at all levels.”
Famille Helfrich is also not just about France. It is starting to stretch its wings into other countries where it believes it can provide a good alternative. Like Hungary where it has taken on the Danubiana winery, and Domaine Aresan in Spain and through its Germany operations centered in Mainz.
It also has exclusive partnerships with producers in the New World, covering Chile, California, Australia and New Zealand, offering both bottled and bulk solutions.
“That way we can offer more of a one stop service outside of France as well,” explains Davies. As well as the 40 plus winemakers based in France, Les Grand Chais now has its own New World winemaker, Nick Butler, who works with its different property partners around the world. “Nick will also be at the tasting along with several of our other key winemakers on hand to discuss requirements,” says Davies.
Calvet for the on-trade
It’s an important time for the business as the tasting will also be an opportunity to show the newly released on-trade exclusive Calvet range. “We will have on show three tiers of the range aimed exclusively at different sectors of the on-trade and indies,” says Davies. “We have spent considerable time getting the ranges right, talking to the trade and seeing what styles are going to work best.”
They include a new appellation range, Heritage that will feature wines from 7 of the major French wine regions in a portfolio that stretches from £12 to £200.
The initial range, which covers Cahors, Malbec, Chablis, Côtes du Rhône, Rosé d’Anjou and Sancerre, will be added to as and when the time is right and the demand is there, says Davies.
Heading the new project will be the Calvet Cuvee 1818 which has been created to commemorate Jean-Marie Calvet establishing the Calvet Winery in Tain L’Hermitage in the Rhône 200 years ago. “It is an AOP Bordeaux blend made from a selection of the best parcels owned by Famille Helfich’s partner growers across the region,” says Davies.
Alongside its appellation launch will be a new range of varietal Calvet wines, including a Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose and Malbec, aimed more at the managed on-trade.
Davies believes certain more mainstream parts of the on-trade are “crying out for a big French brand” with the gravitas and backing to really make a difference. Particularly as it can build on its profile and reputation within the off-trade where it is the UK’s biggest French appellation wine brand.
As for other key trends and growth opportunities, Davies points no further than Crémant. Which is not surprising considering. Les Grand Chais is the number one supplier of Crémant into the UK with a presence in all of France’s AOP sparkling producing regions; Burgundy, Bordeaux, Limoux, Loire, Jura, Die and Alsace.
“Crémant is more than an emerging category in the sparkling wine sector, made using the Traditional Method it offers true regional provenance and a wide spectrum of styles. The tasting will give our customers the chance to compare the styles side by side,” he says.
* The first Famille Helfrich Portfolio Tasting takes place at Birmingham’s Edgbaston Cricket Ground between February 25-27, 10am-5pm, featuring over 300 wines. To register contact Chris Davies at firstname.lastname@example.org.