The second of our three debates, held in partnership with the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), to help mark #BourgogneWeek examines the relationship between key specialist wine importers and the producers they work with in such an important region as Bourgogne. To help us we turned to Jason Haynes, co-founder of Flint Wines, widely regarded as one of the most important Bourgogne players in the UK market, and Thibaut Marion, owner of artisan producer, Domaine Seguin-Manuel, in Savigny-lès-Beaune.
We have all lived up through a year like never before, but what impact has it had on relationships between importers and producers? We find out in this head to head debate between Jason Haynes of Flint Wines and Thibaut Marion, owner, Domaine Seguin-Manuel, in the second of our Bourgogne Debates in partnership with the Bourgogne Wine Board and #BourgogneWeek.
(Click here to watch the full debate)
The wine industry as a whole might be a gigantic global machine shipping millions of litres of wine around the world, but strip it down to how it actually works and it is essentially thousands of individual relationships between growers, négociants and co-operatives and the myriad of different businesses – and their buyers – who want to sell their wine.
It is the strength of those individual relationships that will largely determine just how successful you are either making wine, or selling it. It is no different for such an important, and influential, region as Bourgogne.
Yes, it might have international acclaim and respect for its wines, established over hundreds of years, but it is the constant negotiations that go on between its producers and their buyers, importers and distributors in all their key markets that will determine how successful the region is year by year.
That was the premise for the second of this week’s debates held by The Buyer and Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB). An opportunity to really drill into what impact Covid-19, in particular, has had on the relationships between producers and their key suppliers.
For Jason Haynes, co-founder of Flint Wines, even a global pandemic was not going to get in the way of its support for a region that it has deeply invested in since it first started out in 2006. It has now built up one of the UK’s most important Bourgogne portfolios and works with around 80 different producers right across the region. A range that was enhanced even further in 2020 with its acquisition of Domaine Direct, another Bourgogne specialist.
“The popularity and demand for Bourgogne wines has never been greater and the quality of wine has never been as good,” he says.
Haynes is also very much taken by what he calls the new generation of “motivated, driven, ambitious” winemakers in the region that are helping to raise the standards even higher. “That’s really exciting for us and gets us out of bed in the morning.”
Whilst Thibaut Marion can’t claim that Domaine Seguin-Manuel is in any way a new producer, as it dates back to 1824, he himself took ownership of the property in 2004.
Over the last 16 years he has built up the estate to cover eight of its own hectares, all organically farmed, stretching out from its base in Savigny-lès-Beaune to take on vineyards in Beaune, Puligny-Montrachet, Pommard, Meursault and Vosne-Romanée. Together they account for up to 40% of its grapes, it then buys in the rest to ensure it can make wine from entry level up to Grand Cru. Marion, though, very much describes himself as an artisan producer making the equivalent amount of wine as a 20 hectare domaine.
(Domaine Seguin-Manuel’s Thibaut Marion: how producers are developing different areas of Bourgogne)
What impact did Covid-19 have on importer/producer relationships
Both have had to face up to the enormous challenges that Covid-19 has thrown in everyone’s way.
Haynes says that ironically the Bourgogne sector had gone into 2020 with a “sense of optimism” on the back of the success of the 2018 en primeur campaign – and then Covid struck.
Having got over the initial shock of suddenly having to close the office and get all its team working effectively from home, the first issue was what to do with all the wine it now had on its books, but with the on-trade in lockdown – around a third of its turnover – a large number of its customers were unable to buy it. And were in a stop, start pattern for the rest of 2020 with all the series of further lockdowns and restrictions.
Thankfully the retail sector, specialist merchants and online have had a “cracking year” and that has helped to keep the Bourgogne market moving and effectively balanced Flint’s books through the year, he says.
Haynes says the biggest issue has not been able to get out and visit and taste the wines. The initial lockdown at the end of March was certainly the longest that he had not been able to go out to the region. In an average year, he would initially go at the end of May, early June to get an early assessment of the producer.
The situation was even more frustrating in that it had, in June, taken ownership of Domaine Direct, and he was not able to go out and see the 30 to 40 Bourgogne producers that it worked with.
“That was really frustrating,” he says.
(Flint Wines’ Jason Haynes & Domaine Seguin-Manuel Thibaut Marion on good working relationships)
Chance to visit
Flint was potentially better placed than other UK suppliers, adds Haynes, in that many of its Bourgogne partners are close friends and it was able to keep in close contact with regular phone and Zoom calls to work out the day week by week logistics of moving, selling and tasting wines.
As well as also keeping them up to date with what was happening on the ground in the UK. “That was important too,” he stresses.
He was, though, able to make two important trips, one initially in July and then a four-week visit from October 20 where he was able to see all his key partners. In fact he had to rush back to avoid being caught up in France’s own lockdown.
Haynes says it was actually an ideal time to have gone as it was naturally the “quietest” he can remember to taste the wines and an opportunity to “really focus on the wines”. One grower told him that he would normally be doing six or seven tastings a day at the end of October, and he was doing three a week. “So they were pleased to see you, full of energy, very generous with their time and appreciative of the effort you had made to come.”
Impact of Covid-19 in Bourgogne
The initial impact of Covid-19 in the actual region was quite limited, says Marion. As it is a rural area, it was relatively easy to introduce social distancing measures and vineyard life continued pretty much the same, thanked by the great weather it enjoyed in spring right through the summer.
“That’s the parodox of Covid. Nature gives us this disease, but on the other hand it gives us a great vintage,” he says.
Bourgogne has certainly seen a big drop in the number of trade visitors throughout 2020 and it has been a case of using Zoom and email to keep in contact. But in terms of working in the vineyards, making the wine and transporting it out to its key markets, then business has been able to function pretty much as normal, other than for a short time in the initial lockdown, he explains.
“We may not be able to see people physically, but we are still connected to them.”
So for the 2019 vintage, for example, producers worked hard to send samples to key trade partners and buyers so that they could host their own tastings that way, he adds.
It has all meant that business in the UK has actually increased by 11% in volume between January and September 2020, which was a welcome surprise for everyone in the region, says Marion, particularly as US sales have been hit so hard by the “Trump tariffs”. “The British market has been very buoyant. I would not have believed the performance it has had at the beginning of the year.”
The UK will, in fact, replace the US as both his and Bourgogne’s overall number one export market in 2020. “We are very pleased about that.”
What importer looks for in a new Bourgogne supplier
(Jason Haynes, Flint Wines, how do you go about finding a new Bourgogne partner)
Haynes says the process of taking on a new Bourgogne supplier is “probably less organised than you might imagine”. As it already has a pretty full portfolio any new partner tends to come through “organically” and comes on the back of them being out in the field, tasting new wines and just “trying to be aware of any exciting developments” be it “within existing domaines or with new young producers”.
He believes that is a much more “healthier” way of doing things than purposefully going out to fill a perceived gap in their range. The most overriding criteria, however, for taking on a new producer always comes back to quality.
“We are looking every day, really,” he stresses. “If we get really excited by a producer and their wines, we would hope to do business and start buying them whether at that moment we particularly needed them or not. We would take the long term view that this is someone who is doing something really exciting, we want to work with them maybe before someone else has to,” he explains.
As “there are so few secrets in Bourgogne these days” and the region is so well understood and explored, there is only now “a very short window” of “a few months” that a supplier like Flint has the opportunity to “snap someone up, before someone else does”.
He believes it is also important for Flint’s profile as well to be constantly updating and refreshing its range, as it is for himself and their sales team. “Ultimately it is much more interesting to the customer.”
Once it has taken on a new producer, it is then a case of working on a bespoke basis with them to determine what the right route is for them into the UK market.
(Jason Haynes: how Flint Wines decides to distribute which wines to different channels of the market)
“Ultimately producers want their wines to be visible. That means on tables and on shelves. There is something exciting for a producer to walk into a top restaurant in London, Manchester and Bristol and see your wine on the list. There’s the fruits of your labour.”
The challenge for Flint is to make sure they are placing domaines and theirs wines in the right outlets, retailers and restaurants for their wines. It is that “quality of placement” and “quality of distribution rather than volume” that is key for a business like Flint Wines.
That equally throws back the challenge to the producer, the domaine owner, to be willing to work with them in market trying to sell the wines through tastings, events and meetings. “Any modern winery must have an understanding of marketing,” he adds. “The current generation is very aware of that need, both nationally and globally.”
That said he would not turn down a producer that was making great wine simply for the fact they were not willing to do Zoom tastings. “You find other ways to make their wines work.”
What Bourgogne producers look for in an importer
(Thibaut Marion, Domaine Seguin-Manuel on what he looks for in a new wine importer)
Marion says his priority when looking for a new importer is to find one he can develop a “long term” relationship with. A partner who can help him develop his brand and introduce more of his wines to key customers in that market.
It is also important, he adds, to work with a merchant who is able to place the wines in the right restaurants and work with the most influential sommeliers. “Some merchants have better distribution than others. So that is something I consider.”
The last year has shown just how important those close relationships are and how importers like Flint have been able to work with their producers to “generate as much connection” as they can between them and their customers and “bring Bourgogne a little closer to the market”.
He also agrees with Marion that those relationships need to be for the long term – “it’s hugely important” – and that it would not “embark” with any work with a producer that he did not envisage going on for “decades”.
It is also not helpful for a customer to be buying a wine from you that suddenly disappears out of the market.
Part of that relationship means working with each other through good and bad vintages, stresses Haynes. Both between the producer and the importer, but also how their wines are then allocated into the trade and working with their customers around that. That long-term importer and customer relationship is equally important, he stresses.
Marion agrees and says it is important for producers to have that assurance from their merchant partners that they are not “going to skip a vintage” in its more average years. “This continuity is all very important to us.”
(Flint Wines’ Jason Haynes & Domaine Seguin-Manuel Thibaut Marion on good working relationships)
Key sales trends for Bourgogne wines in the UK
In terms of what are the driving trends in Bourgogne, Haynes says he looks at the market as a pyramid where you have the most prestigious and in demand wines at the top, where there is very little volume available, through to the more Village appellations where there is access to so much more volume.
The skill for an importer like Flint is to make sure it cherry picks and selects the right level of that pyramid for the right customer. So you are not trying to “force feed” wines on to a restaurant, say, for which it is not suitable.
Which, in turn, means it is important Flint has routes into as many channels of the market as possible in order to give them access to the most appropriate wines. “It’s about a diverse market.”
When it comes to specific wines and regions then Haynes says there has been a clear shift in recent years to those areas that are now making much better wines thanks to climate change – like in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits, where previously lean wines are now “rich and intense”.
Then it is the rise of the individual winemakers themselves and their “reputation” that people are wanting to buy into.
The good news for the market is that the quality of Bourgogne wines overall has never been greater, but they are available at the same prices that were in the market 10 years ago.
(Jason Haynes, Flint Wine, how do you build a profitable partnership with new Bourgogne partner)
The rise in quality of some regions on the back of climate change is a key driving factor in Bourgogne, agrees Marion. It has made the area as a whole far more consistent.
Which, in turn, has placed less emphasis on Grand Cru status as there are now so many more “opportunities” thanks to the “diversity” at other levels for buyers to go to.
It’s why his strategy is to take around 60% of his grapes from other regions, depending on the vintage and demands in the market. Which has seen him set up grape contracts with growers in the Cote Chalonnaise and villages in the Mâconnais.
“This is something I can do easily as you can still find contacts in the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais and it is easier than in the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.
Even if you were born in Bourgogne, there are still new appellations to find, he adds. “It makes our lives different every year.”
His move to organics is something he not only strongly believes in for the future of the vineyard, but is also that buyers are increasingly asking for every year. It is also helping to bring more freshness to the wines, and less extraction, that is in tune with what the market and consumers are looking for.
What can we expect from the Bourgogne 2019 vintage?
(Flint’s Jason Haynes on the 2019 Bourgogne vintage)
The starting point for any year in Bourgogne is the release of the next vintage and there is much excitement about what is in store with the 2019s coming into the market.
Haynes says it is “very rare to have such richness of fruit and freshness in the glass” on the whites, but the structure and intensity in the wines has carried through to the acidity to give a “wonderful freshness”. So whilst they are both “rich and powerful” there is also the right “balance” even above 14% abv.
He describes the reds as having a real “crunchiness and freshness” to them which belies the hot summer there was in 2019. Which came thanks to the grapes achieving phenolic ripeness earlier in the growing cycle. “The reds have this lovely Pinot Noir character, perhaps more so than the 2018.”
“It’s a great vintage and the only sad thing is there is not much wine,” he adds
Marion is also excited about the quality of the 2019 vintage and says although it was a relatively easy to make the wines, the region was fortunate to avoid the dangers of frost and drought.
“The quality of the grapes means we were able to make great wines,” he adds. “The wines have kept their freshness and the classic characters of Bourgogne. It is not something we would not have expected with such a warm period of weather.”
Haynes believes the region has really “learnt its craft” from handling previous hot vintages in years such as 2005, 2009, 2015 and 2018, 2019 has really benefited from that experience. The fact so many more vineyards are farmed organically has really helped that quality come through.
(Thibaut Marion, Domaine Seguin-Manuel, on the 2019 Bourgogne vintage)
How is the 2020 Bourgogne vintage looking and thoughts on 2021
Marion says the trade can look forward to an “even more classic” balanced vintage from 2020 than in 2019. The whites are “live, crispy, with good aromatics” and the reds have “structure and good acidity for ageing”. Another easy drinking vintage, but with great ageing potential.
Haynes says the big immediate challenge for 2021 has been “logistically” and all the “boring” stuff of getting the wines imported ahead of Brexit. But, he did what he could to ship early.
His big hope is that not only can the on-trade come back fully as soon as possible, but when restaurants do open again their customers will continue to trade up and buy the styles and kinds of wines, particularly from Bourgogne, that they did so much during 2020.
“If all that comes together it will make sure the UK remains the number one Bourgogne customer.”
- The Buyer is working with the Bourgogne Wine Board throughout #BourgogneWeek.We have two other UK importer and buyer debates to share:
- On January 11 we published the “Leaders Debate” featuring UK importers and key buyers looking at the opportunities for Bourgogne with Louis-Fabrice Latour, president of the BIVB and head of Louis Latour.
- On January 15 our third debate is on “How e-commerce is now key for wine merchants and producers with John Townend, House of Townend & Manoël Bouchet Maison Roche de Bellene”.
- We shall also be sharing new releases and vintages from importers and and their Bourgogne producers on The Buyer’s social media feeds at @TheBuyer11 on Twitter and @TheBuyer11 on Instagram.
- You can also follow all the activity that is happening during #BourgogneWeek on the main Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) website in its #BourgogneWeek here.