You don’t get to the size, scale and influence of Les Grands Chais de France (GCF) without knowing a thing or two about how to make wine for virtually every kind of wine consumer. Responsible for what it claims is around one in four bottles of French wine sold in the UK, and one in five of every bottle of wine exported from France, Les Grands Chais de France is hugely important to the overall French wine category. Ahead of its first all channel portfolio tasting in London on October 4 and 5, featuring all its international wines and spirits too, Chris Davies, UK sales director for on-trade and independents, explains how its premium wine strategy is driving the company forward with a new range of Signature wines representing the best of what France can do.
Les Grands Chais de France Private Wine Days tasting takes place over two days – October 4 and 5 – in London. Click here for more details on how to register.
“GCF has evolved so much since I first joined the company in 2007,” says UK sales director Chris Davies.
Crucially it is still family owned with Joseph Helfrich and his family at the helm after taking it over from his father. Helfrich started his journey in 1979 with a loan of 5,000fr. Fast forward four plus decades later and it has grown to be what it claims is the number one wine producer in Europe and France’s biggest wine exporter. In 2021 the business sold some 44m 9 litre cases, 80% of which were exported to the 178 countries that GCF now operates in. It’s not just how many wines – and bottles – it now produces that is so impressive, but the pace of that change that has taken the business into the Champions League of global wine producers. Davies claims GCF’s current €1.2 billion turnover makes it the fifth biggest wine company in the world.
All hugely impressive numbers, but Davies stresses GCF’s recent success has come by investing in and acquiring premium estates and châteaux in all the major wine producing regions of France and now increasingly overseas too. The first of which was Domaine de la Baume in 2003 in the Languedoc which really started their journey down the premium wine path, he adds.
Properties are key
GCF owns and manages some 3,760 hectares of vines, spread across the 75 wine estates, all of which are either organic or biodynamic, or in the process of becoming so. Of which 73 are in France, one is in Spain, Aresan in Castillo Vino de la Tierra and one is in Chile, Las Niñas in Colchagua, with a further recent investment of 150ha in the Leyda Valley.
That’s what has made the group focus its growth and strength around understanding the different terroirs and climates that make each of its properties unique and why they are in the family business, says Davies.
“We now manage the whole journey of the wine from start to finish,” says Davies. “It’s what makes it such an interesting company to work for. It is changing all the time, but every decision it makes is always about how it can produce better quality wine.”
In order to prioritise and make wines to suit the needs of its vast customer base, GCF has segmented its estates between the 28 that are making major high volume off-trade and online wines, the 24 that are focused on making premium wines for independents and the on-trade and then a new tier, its top 22 properties that are now going to be making what it calls its Signature Range and the best of the best wines it can produce.
Davies is particularly excited to see the focus and investment being placed on what is being termed the Signature Range of estates, properties and the respective wines they make produce. This very much sits in the Famille Helfrich side of the business that Davies helps to manage and will represent a portfolio of around 79 wines.
“Signature is all about quality and terroir,” he explains, with 10 of the properties in Bordeaux like Château Cantin and Château Faizeau, three in Burgundy like Domaine Michaut and Domaine Marguerite Carillon, five in the Languedoc including Château des Jaume, two in the Loire like Château de Fesles and then one each in Provence, the Jura and Alsace.
“These are the estates and wines that Joseph and the winemaking team have picked out for their wine making excellence which will be destined for the premium on-trade and independents. It also allows us to flag up particularly properties to our independent customers and suggest wines for them to try. We talk about them as separate properties in their own right.”
The Signature strategy was first launched at the end of 2021, but the October tasting will be the first time it has been formally introduced to the UK trade. “We are doing similar tastings in our other key markets like the US and Switzerland,” says Davies.
One for all
In terms of the October 4 and 5 tasting Davies says it is the first time GCF is hosting an all-channel tasting and inviting all its customer base to attend, from the major retailers, on-trade and specialist independent wine merchants. This goes to show the scale of the business in the UK and just how broad its customer base is here, he adds.
Crucially, though, each part of the business has its own dedicated range, carefully selected to ensure they have the exclusivity and channel management that is so important. Independent wine merchants and premium on-trade customers share the same portfolio as there is so much cross over between the two with many independents also operating as significant on-trade wholesalers in their own right, he adds. “This approach that we first set up in the UK is what’s now followed around the world.”
It is also opening its doors to the trade and consumer wine press for the first time and Davies is really looking forward to talking through not just the range, but how GCF operates – particularly its emphasis and investment in quality.
“I think it will provide a really good exposé into what GCF is doing now and just how much it has changed in recent years.”
It will, for example, have each of their Crémants available as it now produces in every crémant region in France, giving buyers the chance to taste right across the country. “Crémant is a big topic for us,” confirms Davies, as we have 38% of Crémant production in Bordeaux, 34% in the Loire and 32% in the Jura, which all together adds up to some 35 million bottles of Crémant a year.
“You can taste all eight regions in one day at the tasting,” says Davies. “Consumers are looking for something a little different now from sparkling wine and our on-trade and independent customers are rising to that challenge realising that Crémant can offer more than a great quality price ratio and a whole range of different regional styles.”
Then there is the work that GCF has been doing in the no and low alcohol category and the success of Nozeco, which Davies claims is the number one low alcohol sparkling wine brand in the UK. Produced using spinning cone technology, Davies says which enables the wine to “retain a lot of it’s freshness and aromas” and it is a wine that can work in both the on-trade and independents. It now has single serve formats available, it has a rosé already in the market and will be introducing a red at the tasting. It is also vegan and won an IWSC silver medal with a score of 90 points in 2021.
“There are going to be more opportunities for no and low as we go, particularly for the younger generation who are looking for healthier options.”
Spirits buyers can also make the most of GCF’s tasting as it will have highlights from its extensive spirits and liquors range covering all the major categories, including flavoured products. In fact it was Cognac that first gave the Helfrich family its initial success in the drinks industry and it still has the license today to age Cognac in Alsace – which is as rare as it sounds.
“Ten percent of GCF’s volume is spirits,” says Davies, “and we have three bottling lines just dedicated to it and over 400 different recipes to work to. There is a hell of a lot there. We will be showing a good selection of what we can offer at the tasting as well.”
It will also be an opportunity to shine the light on what GCF is doing outside of France and the 10.5m 9 litre cases it is producing around the world for global distribution – some 25% of its total volume.
The Helfrich family started their premium international acquisitions with the purchase of Castillo de Aresan in Spain in 2017, followed by the purchase in 2021 of Viña Las Niñas, with 40 hectares of organic vineyards in the Colchagua region of Chile, fueled by their desire to build up businesses in the New World.
“The Chile deal is an evolutionary step into the country and makes a lot of sense as GCF has been bottling Chilean wine in France for some time”. The additional 150 hectares in Leyda will come on stream in 2023 and enhance its Chilean operation still further.
“Having that international reach means we can flex and give so many options to our customers,” says Davies. “But that is GCF. It is never standing still and always changing.”
With so much to offer and talk about Davies sums GCF in one line: “If you think you know us – think again.”
Go to the GCF Private Wine Days tasting on October 4 or 5 and find out for yourself.
- Click here to register for the GCF Private Wine Days tasting.
- GCF is a partner supplier of The Buyer. Click here to find our more about what it can offer the premium wine sector.