How scared should we be of the French?

Friday, 19 July, 2013
Claire Hu
How worried should South African wine producers be about the increasing targeting of local consumers by their French counterparts? Claire Hu investigated at a tasting of Gallic winemakers in Joburg, which showcased a newly-rejuvenated and determined trade.
There was a time when French winemakers would raise their eyebrows heavenwards and grumble "bof" (loosely translated as "talk to the hand") every time someone mentioned marketing.

How the great have fallen. After unprecedented hard times for the French wine industry, when everyone from Chile to New Zealand took advantage of its complacency, a fresh generation is making an impact with great-looking and tasting products. South Africa is increasingly on its radar, with the French going to some lengths to market their products to a newly-affluent and inquiring consumer.

I popped into an event at the Saxon Hotel in Joburg, where restaurateurs, retailers and importers had been invited to sample the wines and spirits of producers from 10 French regions, all seeking to break into the local market.

Tatiana Miron, senior trade advisor from the French Trade Commission, told me French wines were still a small part of overall consumption in SA. However, French wine imports into the country had increased in value by 19% between 2011 and 2012, and by 40% between 2007 and 2012. Cognac had done very well, as had Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, while the highest value wines sold in SA were from Burgundy.

"French wines have a really good profile in South Africa," she said. "The potential is huge, with such a wide range of drinkers from Zulu to Afrikaans speakers. The consumer is changing; there is your new generation that wants to try new products. All French wines have potential as they are so different, there are so many varying styles in the many regions. For regions like Sancerre and Alsace, it may take a while but education is key."

Because of a reciprocal trade agreement between SA and the EU, imported French wines could be surprisingly good value, stressed Miron.

This was certainly the case, with wines from Buzet in South-West France intended to be sold for less than R50 and a premier cru champagne from Gardet in the Montagne de Reims with a recommended price of around R350. A sparkling crémant de Loire from Domaine de la Petite Roche, made with the champagne method and three years on the lees, would sell for around R120 - R130, putting it on a par with local Cap Classiques. "It's exotic and French and the quality is fantastic," stressed sales director Johandie Poupard.

Patson Mathonsi, wine steward at DW11-13 restaurant in Joburg, was looking to fill gaps for well-priced Cognac and Bordeaux and said he had been pleasantly surprised. "You assume everything is going to be really expensive, but I’ve seen a good 2008 Bordeaux that we could sell for 150 rand," he said. Education is key to persuading consumers to splash out on French wines, he believes. "People aren't going to spend 400 rand on a bottle when they don't yet have the palate or the knowledge for it," he said. "We still need more sommeliers in this country - you need to be able to talk to clients about the wine and terroir makes a huge difference for French wines."

Benoît Bruot, export director of Henri de Villamont in Burgundy, was hoping to make headway with introductory level pinot noir and chardonnay selling for less than R100, before luring drinkers up the pricing ladder to the likes of a R500 Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru. "South Africa is not a big market but it's quite interesting and because people know more and more about wines, we think there is potential," he said.

French houses are increasingly coming up with tailored products and eye-catching packaging. Gardet champagne, for example, was showcasing Byzantine, an off-dry bubbly aimed at nightclubs in a dark bottle with stars that show up under UV light. Export director Linda Fiel said: "We feel there is a gap for a family-owned company that still has volume (we produce one million bottles) but is a change from the usual Moet et Chandon brands you find here."

Buzet, a region in South West France near Bordeaux that uses the same cultivars, was hoping stylish labels featuring flower and cloud designs, low prices and a quality drive would help attract SA consumers. Area manager Catherine Deltreil said: "There's a huge opportunity for Buzet in South Africa because people understand the concept of a Bordeaux blend and we use the same grapes. We have restricted production to 45 hl per hectare. For us what is important is the content of the bottle, but we are always trying to be innovative with the way we market and label the product."

Best value picks (all prices approximate):

Baron d'Ardeuil 2012, Buzet: an interesting and intense white blend, with tropical and citrus notes. Around R50;

Les Vignerons de Buzet, Red Badge Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2010: Shows what the French can do in a cheap and cheerful brand. Rich and fruity; incredible value. Less than R50;

Champagne Gardet Brut Tradition: This blend of pinot noir and pinot meunier is opulent, fruity and showing its four years on the lees with biscuity aromas. R350;

Domaine de la Petite Roche Crémant de Loire 2009: Well-rounded, refreshing and lemony fizz. R120;

Domaine Henri de Villamont Prestige Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2011: Entry-level Burgundy with notes of strawberry and a textured mouthfeel. Less than R100;