AIX Rosé feels like a Provencal brand with a long tradition. And yet it was just 12 years ago that Dutch marketeer Eric Kurver bought 75 hectare Domaine de la Grande Seouve, turning it from an unprofitable estate making red and white wine into one of France’s top rosé producers. The gall of going for the name AIX and successfully registering it under the noses of the French and a belief in larger formats are just two facets of its success – that sophistication comes from keeping it simple. Peter Dean got the story.
The new AIX vintage was tasted and the bulk of this feature was based on the Mentzendorff tasting on March 5. Because of Covid-19, at the end of the feature we have added what has happened since then and what Lockdown means for AIX.
A few years ago Sean, an old business partner, called me asking for a tip about buying some rosé. He wanted to send a case to ex-ASOS CEO Nick Robertson whose yacht he had been staying on in Monaco harbour to watch the Grand Prix from (as you do). “We were drinking this top-of-the-range Provence rosé all weekend and I want to send a case to say thanks…what could it be?” Sean asked.
d’Esclans? Minuty? Ott’s Coeur de Grain? says I. Turns out it was AIX Rosé.
The story behind the success of AIX is a remarkable one – how it found a gap in the Provence rosé market of all things and how it has been marketed hugely successfully as the wine to suit those chasing an Ibiza lifestyle – affordable bling, if you will. If Domaine Ott is ‘old money’ Provence, AIX is very clearly ‘new money’.
Dutch owner, winemaker and head of sales, Eric Kurver knew he was on the right track when his very first vintage 2009 won the prestigious Medaille d’Or in Paris – judged to be the best rosé wine in Provence – and the first-ever order in the UK – 3,000 magnums from Majestic – sold out in two weeks. Given that this first vintage was just over 10 years ago it is remarkable that AIX is currently the biggest producer of rosé magnums in Provence.
The secret to Kurver’s success has been to do one thing and to do it well – being highly selective and knowing what to leave out. He makes just the one wine which is very well made, the name is genius, the brand is bold and works across a number of channels, and it has aspirational lifestyle marketing driving the footfall – in fact AIX looks more like a strong spirits or FMCG brand than a wine brand with clean, simple brand messages that (in marketing parlay) ‘fish where the fish are’.
“In these challenging times we better understand the importance of strong brands. People are scared and want to buy something they have a positive feeling with, whether they remember the brand from a high-end restaurant or from an exclusive event they attended. They want to take this part of ‘holidays’ home with them,” Kurver says.
So part of his selective distribution strategy has been to be seen in all the right places – top restaurants whether they be in St Barts, St Moritz or St Tropez. In London the wine listings include Chiltern Fire House, and retail includes Harvey Nicholls and Handford Wines.
‘’Rosé is everything that we do’’! It’s one of our strengths but we always have to protect it therefore we work with selective distribution and base this on the trade promise: ‘great rosé @ great places’. But, again, like quality spirits, strong brands work well in the on-premise as well as in the off-premise.”
Helping to capitalise on this distribution strategy is a well-worked social media campaign – the company embracing Instagram and Facebook in a way that very few wine companies have to date. The social media ‘team’ is based in house and AIX is clearly sticking to a good sense of its own identity – if it doesn’t have a brand-book it clearly looks like it does… you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at LVMH social (for Moet Ice for example) but with a more ‘kicked back’ approach.
“Social media for B2C has become very important to explain what the brand is about. It will become even more important in the future we think. It’s one of the best tools that there is at the moment and very helpful that we’re able to track the success of a post,” Kurver adds.
Did I mention he spent 20 years in marketing before entering the wine business?
What’s in a format and a name?
Two things Kurver has got ‘spot on’ is to push larger formats and get the name right.
For AIX’s first vintage Kurver had 350-400,000 bottles of rosé with no name. One thing for sure it wasn’t going to be called the original name of the estate – Domaine de la Grande Seouve – that was even if you could pronounce it.
“To be honest it is easy to do it on your own rather than with a family, where you would have to convince your father and grandfather that their name was wrong,” explains Kurver, “so we looked for a name that was as typical as possible. We wanted to help people with a name they would understand and could remember. A simple and visible name with a very positive feeling.”
Maison Saint-Aix as the domaine is now called is one of the largest domaines in AOP Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, and the name was staring them right in the face – AIX – a shorthand that simply means Provence Rosé whatever language you speak, which is handy given that 90% of the wine is exported.
The name is also a graphic designer’s wet dream, turned into a brand that, on a label, can be made to be seen a mile away, especially on large formats.
“People were surprised that we could register the name,” he says with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. Not half! This is like some upstart forming a Champagne brand and calling it RHEIMS.
There were obviously objections to the trademark application but Kurver successfully argued that he was referring to Aix as in Aix Galericulata the Latin for Mandarin ducks the reason why the label bears two stylised ducks on it (bit more of a twinkle). The ducks symbolise happy and enduring love, apparently, which is the key driver behind the company’s notion of sharing large formats….. Long story short, they were able to register AIX as a brand.
The next major piece of the jigsaw was to make large formats a key to the sales strategy – go big on magnums and, to keep it simple, make the price of a magnum twice the price of a single bottle when material costs and tradition tell you that you should charge more than twice for the magnum.
“So we tell sommeliers that if there is a group of five or more and they want a bottle of rosé, offer them the magnum ‘do you want a glass or are you going to have a party’?”
AIX now sells 10% of all of its rosé in magnum, more than any producer in Provence.
“We have bottles available for all kind of different moments. If you enjoyed this 15L bottle at one of our events or in a beautiful beach club in Ibiza, you should be able to remember the name and buy the bottle again in other restaurants when AIX is available.”
The wine’s not bad either
Of course none of this would work unless the wine is first class. And it is. It is the classic Provence blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault with a dash of Carignan for good measure. 30% of the wine is bled and 70% direct pressing. As you would expect, they try and keep the style consistent and are not looking for vintage variation.
AIX sits in a sweet spot between being unashamedly summery, with a bright pink colour and balance of crisp acidity and ripe summer fruit – and being altogether more complex and serious.
The colour is bright and pale rosé, the wine itself pure, fresh, crisp and youthful with some serious undercurrents – some star anise on the nose, watermelon, citrus zest, a decent structure to the wine. Quite apart from being a regular medal winner, its high scores from the critics are as consistent as the way the wine delivers.
The wine wouldn’t look out of place on a serious wine list, paired with a variety of dishes, or surrounded by a gaggle of ladies who lunch. The UK’s Secret Sommelier paired it with a vegan red lentil daal, when he chose it as one of his top 5 rosé wines for the Lockdown, although the estate’s marketing team may have gone for something just that little bit more more lobstery….
Eric, how are you adapting to life in France under Lockdown?
Life has changed a lot for all of us the last few months and will have its direct consequences in the upcoming (18) months which will change our way of living forever. In the short term it might change in a negative way but for the long-term I think there could be many positives. The measures of lockdown have been different all over the world. The French government chose for a strict lockdown where people weren’t able to leave their houses even for a run in the park or a walk into the forest.
But the vines won’t wait until the world restarts. Nature’s life is continuous. Our team in the vineyard is working day and night to manage our vines on a daily basis and these investments are already for the harvest mid-September to make sure our next vintage is as good as our 2019 vintage which I think might have been our best ever so far.
How is business? Sales – up or down? And by how much?
We ended last year with the news of the US tariffs and uncertainty regarding Brexit. So we knew already that this year would be a very challenging one. A few months’ later lots of events like Prowein were postponed and later cancelled because of Covid-19. Our vintage introductions were cancelled and were replaced by virtual tastings. Orders were postponed some were cancelled. We know for sure that this year won’t be our best year in terms of sales. But in challenging times, creativity arises! Some of our partners started immediately with creative solutions, sales for some of them are very successful. We are there to assist them where we can. Of course the volumes won’t compensate the loss in the On Premise trade but there are some real entrepreneurs out there. We are obviously very grateful with these customers.
Are you managing to service your export markets?
Because of lockdown we have only a small team available to prepare incoming orders. Our team members are working long hours to keep lead times as short as possible. Everybody should be flexible in these challenging times. We need to grab all little opportunities we get with both hands and try to keep our scope for the future. We are distributed in 35 countries worldwide. From San Francisco to New York, St Barth to Ibiza, London to Dubai, from Hong Kong to Sydney. We try to stick to our long-term strategy in every one of these markets.