The Buyer
The French debate: putting France under the spotlight with Foncalieu

The French debate: putting France under the spotlight with Foncalieu

France might be the best selling country in the UK on-trade, but that does not mean it could not sell. To help better understand the opportunities and challenges facing French wine in the premium on-trade, The Buyer linked up with Les Vignobles Foncalieu and leading buyers from the different types of operator, including high end restaurants, independent wine merchants and national wholesalers all working the French category in the north west of the country.

Richard Siddle
5th December 2016by Richard Siddle
posted in Debates,

The Buyer puts France top of the agenda for its latest business debate with leading buyers, sommeliers, wholesalers and independent wine merchants. Our thanks go to the team at The French restaurant in Manchester and Les Vignobles Foncalieu.

It is one thing being happy to order a bottle of First Growth Grand Crus Classé Bordeaux in a West End restaurant in London, but are customers likely to do the same in other parts of the country?

That is why for our first French Debate, The Buyer decided to bring together key buyers and operators in the north west of the country to see what differences, challenges and opportunities they face. With a particular focus on how our partner for the event, Les Vignobles Foncalieu, can best succeed with its range of Languedoc-Roussillon wines.

The full report from the roundtable can be downloaded here.

Taking part were:

  • From The Midland hotel’s Adam Reid at The French restaurant was head sommelier, Filipo Zito and sommelier, Wilfried Goutorbe.
  • Tamas Czinki, head sommelier at the Northcote
  • Ben Stephenson, owner of Manchester independent wine merchant, Hangingditch.
  • Noel Reid, head wine buyer for Robinsons Brewery.
  • Nigel Wilkinson MW, fine dining account manager and wine educator at Boutinot.
  • Mark Newton, senior category development manager, CGA Strategy.
  • And from Les Vignobles Foncalieu was Marie-Annick Consola, UK and Ireland sales manager and Jean-Michel Sire, winemaker.

The main objectives from the debate were to:

  • To discuss how well France is performing in the premium on-trade and independent merchant sectors with leading buyers, sommeliers and consultants.
  • To look at the styles of wine, the blends, the regions and the price points where France is performing best.

  • To look speci cally at the main French wine regions, with a particular focus on the Languedoc-Roussillon, home of our partners, Les VignoblesFoncalieu.

  • To give leading buyers the opportunity to meet, network and share their experiences.

  • To give the wider trade an opportunity to better understand how other buyers and operators are working and succeeding with French wine in the premium on-trade and independent sectors.

To help set the scene Mark Newton from leading on-trade research business, CGA Strategy, was able to set out quite how significant a role France has to play in the on-trade and why it arguably deserves a little more of our attention. The headline figure for France is that it still accounts for one in four bottles of wine sold in theUK on-trade. Which breaks down to an impressive £10,000 for every outlet in the country.

That said France is facing fierce competition from the New World and whilst it had enjoyed a sustained period of “significant value and volume growth in all channels of the on-trade” two to three years ago, since then the likes of Australia, Chile, South Africa have been fighting back.

Whilst Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot dominate the overall sales, CGA has been seeing marked growth for Viognier, Grenache and Muscadet. Interestingly Newton pointed out that French Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc sales were performing better for value than volume which fits in with the wider consumer trend of drinking less but better.

France is also able to command a slightly higher price point than its competitors, with, for example, an average glass in a casual dining chain selling for £5.10 compared to £4.85 for the rest of the world.

A point that was quickly picked up on by the rest of the panel. Filipo Zito said French wines are the benchmark for all other countries to aspire and work around. “It has a very important role for us. It is very good for entry level wines, but then at also all the other different price points through our list. Customers will certainly spend a little more for French wine.”

Nigel Wilkinson MS says it is important to be selective and not get carried away with the choice of wines from France

For Wilkinson at Boutinot it is about being very selective with your French wine range. With so much availability it can be tempting to over stock on French wine, but “you don’t need four Alsaces on your list”.

France also has so much more choice at those key price points, stressed Goutorbe.

Manchester’s Hangingditch renown for how good the wines look as well as how they taste

For Stephenson at Hangingditch it was important to “focus on the classic regions”. “That said we have had some success with regional France, but it depends where those wine fit in to our range,” he explained.

Noel Reid said he works region by region to ensure it has enough coverage in each area. “Being a family brewer, we look for good family winemakers.”

It is at that top end of a wine list where France is still king. And rightly so, said Reid. “At the very top end it is very hard to beat wines from France, particularly on the whites.”

It is why, agreed the panel, that when you get in to the £50, £60, £70 and £80 price ranges that France dominates on white wines.

It has, though, a lot more growing competition from both the Old and New Worlds for red wines at those prices.

Czinki at the Northcote agreed that the New World was certainly making its case at both the lower and higher ends of the wine list for their fruit forward, easy drinking styles. “But at the higher end it is France where customers will often look to.”

Wilkinson urged on-trade buyers and leading restaurants to look more at cash margin than GP at the higher price points for French wine.

Opportunity for Languedoc-Roussillion

Turning to the Languedoc-Roussillon and the panel agreed there was still so much potential for the region. Providing the right wines were offered for the UK. Wilkinson explained why: “Twenty years ago no-one was buying wines from the Roussillon, but it is now France’s answer to the New World. Its wines are varietal driven at good price points.”

Stephenson agreed that it was the price versus value equation that attracts wine buyers to the Languedoc. “But you are also going head to head with the wide choice of wines now coming out of Spain,” he stressed.

Robinson’s Noel Reid is excited about the offer from the Languedoc

Reid added: “Over the last five years we have seen a big change and a lot more suppliers who are customer focused and not production focused.”

Marie-Annick Consola from Les Vignobles Foncalieu said it was pleasing to hear because the region was trying hard to make both classic style wines that offer great value for money, but also offer new and different things, like its new Albarino wine. It is potentially why Foncalieu has an edge over lots of its competitors in that it is able to buy grapes from producers right across the Languedoc. Hence why it was so important for her and her team to hear the views of UK buyers so that they can go away and look to make the style of wines that they are are interested in buying.