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Features for UK wine business magazines & websites

Including the Canary Islands, Languedoc rosé red & white, 'Roussillon Identity Parade', Southern French Muscat, Languedoc & Roussillon, 'Once upon a time in the South', 'Is there a d'Oc in the house?', Pastis production and brands in Marseille, Rhône Valley report, and Manchester bars & restaurants.
As the titles above suggest, here are several features on the Roussillon, Languedoc, Rhone Valley and beyond that were published in Off Licence News and Harpers wine & spirit from 2002 and 2007 (other earlier pieces were also published in OLN between 1998-2002). The latter date being when I temporarily lost interest in writing wine business articles, which was obviously a mistake income-wise (but not much) although using words like 'category', 'product development' and 'brands' ad nauseum can get a bit tiresome. Anyway, these words probably still have some relevance and informative worth, especially since the same old themes just seem to keep coming up and up...
And here are links to a few pieces written for Harpers' website in more recent times:
Spain: Canary Islands (Nov 2015)
Languedoc rosé (May 2015)
Languedoc red & white (April 2015).

Vineyards near Banyuls-sur-mer,
the Roussillon by Vi Erickson.

'Roussillon's Identity Parade'
An edited (and occasionally inaccurate, oops) version of this was published in the 11th May 2007 issue of Harpers.

The Roussillon, apparently permanently chained to its larger and more talked-about sibling the Languedoc, isn’t perhaps the obvious place in the ‘new South’ to come up with popular brands and innovative labels that will take the UK by storm. There are less than 30,000 hectares (ha) under vine – below 10% of the surface area of Languedoc-Roussillon as a whole – with over one third of this dedicated to production of Vins Doux Naturels sweet wines. In addition, average yields are relatively low at 35-40 hl/ha (all CIVR figures for 2006 vintage). Fifty co-operative cellars – dwindling in number yet increasingly dynamic – account for 70-75% of the region’s volume. On the other hand, around 450 independent growers are blazing an alternative trail making ‘artisan’ wines; and in-between sit certain high-profile estate owners cum merchant houses.
The most ambitious brand project from the Roussillon to date is arguably the colourful Fruité Catalan range. Launched in France in June 2005, sales reached 1.8 million bottles at the end of last year according to Christophe Palmowski, Marketing Director at Vignerons Catalans en Roussillon, with a target of 10m longer term. Catalans is a Perpignan-based producer group backed by (rather than a merger of) powerful co-operatives such as Cave de Baixas/Dom Brial, the united Rivesaltes/Salses cellars as well as Vignerons Catalans (VC) themselves.
VC went back to basics at the concept stage for Fruité by asking themselves simple questions: “how to increase the proportion of wine people consume as opposed to other drinks; how do you create a brand in this context then apply it to the Roussillon specifically?” Palmowski explained. Their research led to the same kind of conclusions reached by other new label creators and choosing those target groups - women, young people, 25-45 year old occasional and low-interest wine drinkers – without the baggage.
“All the rules, culture, ritual that goes with wine has nothing to do with 21st Century culture,” Palmowski continued, “that’s the 5% of top labels.” With a backdrop of looming crisis and producers merging, the heads of the partner co-ops realised they had to reposition the Roussillon in French supermarkets while ensuring their grower-members could continue earning a living. “Although the market seemed at a dead end, global consumption is increasing. The ideas were missing.” The problems they had to tackle are all too familiar: huge choice, lack of clarity, too focused on provenance, wine stuck in ritual around a meal.
What plus points does the Roussillon have? The VC’s consumer research threw up a few positives, in particular Catalan culture and character as well as the more predictable sun, south etc. It’s perhaps questionable whether longer term the Côtes du Roussillon, with smaller production and lower yields than say Vin de Pays d’Oc, could sustain the volumes necessary for a brand with global pretensions. Palmowski cited an available pool of 300,000 hl: at the moment, the red and rosé (both Grenache/Syrah based) are AOC and the white, a Muscat, Grenache blanc and Macabeu blend, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes. Labelling under the latter moniker could even be an advantage over sticking to appellation.
According to Palmowski, their tests showed people were buying Fruité just from the packaging. “They wanted something simple and modern… the brand defies ‘classic’ perceptions of wine.” With pink corks, capsules, matching logo and butterfly motif (a legal sore point against the owners of Chamarré, as VC claim to have used the butterfly first); it’s not hard to see why. The flared bottle has mostly vertical, etched lettering with no label, which adds impact. The advertising and POS material feature ‘grape’ bunches made up of different fruits, reflecting the wine’s name, colour and likely flavour. They retail for €2.99 in France (grocery sector average price for Côtes du Roussillon is said to be around €2) supported by gondola-end stacking and occasional ‘3 for 2’ promotions. The brand has also become a major sponsor to local rugby team Les Dragons Catalans, a formula they hope will work in the UK with the forthcoming Rugby World Cup.
What are the Catalans chances of success in the British market, where the multiple off-trade is already full of similarly priced, new wave brands offering hot deals? Fruité Catalan is pitched at a crowded £4.99 price point, promoted at £3.99. Asda’s decision not to list the wines was an initial setback; however, test marketing conducted in Sainsbury’s stores has resulted in the retailer taking on the Fruité Shiraz Grenache rosé. Target sales for the UK are half a million bottles, ambitious but not impossible if a couple more key listings are clinched.
The Catalan name and styling could prove an asset, as the Roussillon appears to lack any real image for English-speakers. Justin Howard-Sneyd MW at Waitrose believes that “Roussillon is a distinctive area but not at all well-known in the UK. It’s probably the most exciting and dynamic area for red wines in France. There are, however, still a lot of badly made, ordinary wines.” Philippa Carr MW at Asda added: “Regions are only known as ‘brands’, like Chablis, and Roussillon does not have clear differentiation for our customers.”
Two other examples of forward thinking in the Roussillon both involve long-term partnerships between co-operatives and estate/brand owners cum merchants, who have established international distribution and marketing experience. The Gérard Bertrand Group, whose impressive portfolio recently expanded to five Languedoc estates with the purchase of a domaine in Limoux, signed a ten year contract last year with four co-ops within the Tautavel Côtes du Roussillon Villages appellation. And Domaine Cazes / Jeanjean have entered into a similar project with all the co-ops in Latour de France, Côtes du Roussillon Villages AOC. This original approach should prove mutually beneficial if successful: Bertrand and Cazes don’t need to buy more vineyards and can develop higher priced, ‘sense-of-place’ brands; and it provides the co-op growers with new incentives and hopefully stable income.
Bertrand has set itself targets of over a million bottles (all markets) within three to five years for these wines. Working with UK agent Thierry’s, the company has recently secured shelf-space for their Tautavel ‘Sang et Or’ at £6.99 in Asda (currently on promotion in 50 stores at £4.98), Somerfield, Tesco (exclusive label) and a Côtes du Roussillon in Thresher; plus the £7.99 Reserve label in Waitrose. Howard-Sneyd commented: “We listed the Tautavel because I really believe in the future of the AC, both as a distinctive style and because Bertrand has a vision for how to forge regional identity. Sales so far are steady, not spectacular.”
Cazes, who formed a négoce operation with the Jeanjean group in 2004, have been working on vineyards, wines and labels with the Latour de France co-ops since launching their joint initiative earlier this year. Lionel Lavail, SAS Cazes’ General Manager, commented: “After expanding our range and export sales, we decided we needed a product that represented the Roussillon more closely and would help local growers. Latour was a logical step as we were already buying grapes there and it’s a great terroir.” Lavail reported that Wine Intelligence has been conducting research on behalf of retailers such as Sainsbury’s, who he said are “very interested if the packaging is right.” Intriguingly, one of the key findings indicated the Latour de France name didn’t have much resonance (maybe too suggestive of Bordeaux?), hence the focus on their Château Triniac label positioned at £5-£6 as well as the ‘Excellence’ blend at £6.99.
Some cult estates are asking upwards of €15 a bottle, and for certain wines €25 to €100. While you can hardly knock these growers’ success, and they do draw attention to the region, it must overshadow others offering comparable quality at more reasonable prices. The new Tautavel and Latour labels are pitched at the kind of price point, where the Roussillon could really excel in terms of quality and Med-red style. Stephen Crosland, Associate Director Purchasing at Tanners Wines, appears to agree. “Some of the wines I’ve seen have been just too expensive. You really have to over-deliver here, not charge £20 for something no-one has heard of. Once you’ve got that reputation you can build up. I don’t think there are enough really good value wines in the £7-8 region.” Simon Taylor of Stone, Vine and Sun issued a similar warning: “The Roussillon must be careful not to be categorised among informed wine drinkers as specialising in wines over £10 a bottle, or there’ll be no market for the key £5-8 sector. The Roussillon is not Priorat!”
The Roussillon may not yet have acquired the enviable profile of its not too distant neighbour in ‘southern’ Catalonia, but impressive progress is being made across its production spectrum. If brands such as Fruité Catalan can attract new consumers to the region at everyday level and enhance its own identity independent of the Languedoc or ‘south of France.’ Then mid-market and top-end wines, from areas such as Tautavel or Latour and the increasing number of quality-focused estates, could find their place on the tables of serious British wine drinkers.

Southern French Muscat
An edited version of this report was published in OLN on 9th March 2007.

The ‘Rencontres Mediterranéennes du Muscat’ might sound like a dating agency for southern European winegrowers; but Perpignan’s second Muscat showcase prompted further investigation into the variety’s current standing and future potential in the UK. Firstly: traditional ‘vins doux naturels’ or other sweeties from the Roussillon - the leading producer - Languedoc and southern Rhône. Secondly: developments in dry Muscat styles and what retailers think of them.
With over 9000 hectares (ha) of Muscat planted in France, most of it in the south, it isn’t a grape to be sneered at. This isn’t far behind those other versatile, ‘noble’ varieties Chenin Blanc and Semillon; and much trendier Viognier has a mere 2500 ha (estimated). First and foremost, Muscat is used and perceived as a sweet wine variety. On a local level, a quick look at the production figures in table 2 reveals how important Muscat vins doux naturels (VDN, see table 1) are to the winegrowing economy, especially in the Roussillon. Here they account for about 10% of the total and 20% of appellation (AOC) wines. After several years of decline, hitting crisis point in 2003-04 with serious stock and price issues, sales of Muscat de Rivesaltes finally stabilised last year.
France is still by far the main market for these wines, as Eric Aracil, export manager at the CIVR (Roussillon trade body) pointed out: “VDNs are only just starting in export. Overall they represent something like 3 to 5 % in volume.” So what progress has been made and how might they appeal to British wine lovers? Cave de Baixas’ Dom Brial label was a victim of Morrison’s takeover of Safeway. “We sold 30,000 half-bottles,” sales manager Claude Sarda claimed, which demonstrates there was a following for this type of wine. “Now it’s more like in France, you have to do tastings in wine shops or supermarkets. The styles are fresh and fruity, when people try it they like it.” Brial has been innovating in France with a range of more accessible Muscat products (le Pot sec, Fizzy, Daisy, Rozy; see later), which could work well over here too. Mont Tauch is launching Muscat de Rivesaltes at ‘France under One Roof’ in 50cl bottle at £4.99. Export manager Katie Jones believes “there is a market as long as it’s on tasting and clearly described for the consumer.” Vitally, the words ‘sweet Muscat from the south of France’ will feature on the back label.
For Charles Lea, joint-owner of London’s Lea & Sandeman shops, the market for sweet French Muscats is “small, price-conscious and possibly suffering from a rather naff image, after the explosion of Muscat Beaumes de Venise in the 70s.” He rightly made comparisons to what are regarded as similar wines: “there are more sophisticated sweeties - Coteaux du Layon, for example, with botrytis to give complexity and better acidity, barely more expensive. The Brits will not think of these other than as pudding wines.” Stephen Crosland, Tanners’ purchasing director, thinks “St. Jean (de Minervois) does represent very good value and Beaumes de Venise is still well recognised. We’re looking to more in the Roussillon but feel Muscat is maybe a bit dated, and are also looking to Grenache based wines. 50cl or smaller is important; the Samos (see table 2) has moved to halves with good success.”
Kenneth Vannan from Villeneuve Wines in Scotland praised Vignerons de Beaumes de Venise: “We’ve been buying the Muscat for 20+ years, it has a loyal following. I’d say it’s more recognisable than Rivesaltes and Frontignan.” Simon Taylor, Stone Vine & Sun, agreed: “I would say Beaumes-de-Venise was a very successful brand in French terms.” He described the Roussillon as “a very positive area, we list 4 VDNs from here. We always finish a Languedoc-Roussillon or Rhone tasting with a VDN, and people are often delighted by them.” Rivesaltes producers sell a big chunk of their latest vintage in France labelled as Muscat de Noël, which might work in the UK. Jo Ahearne at M&S commented: “We sell a Rivesaltes as Christmas pudding wine with that as its title, so the customer isn’t really buying VDN.” Taylor wasn’t so convinced: “We’ve toyed with Muscat de Noel but to me Muscat is a summer drink (strawberries).” M&S winemaker Gerd Stepp added: “In general there’s good consumer demand for ‘pudding’ wines, it’s just that the customer is a little uncertain about regions and styles.”
Does the Dry Muscat style suit British taste and is it beginning to register interest as a varietal wine? Given the concentration of plantings in southern France, and particularly Roussillon, this could be an area of untapped potential if they get their marketing right. “The name is not a seller on the label,” Lea remarked. He and others mentioned confusion over taste: “It smells like it’s going to be sweet and then is slightly bitter-dry, while having little in the way of refreshing acid - so may be better blended.” Vannan has tried various dry Muscats and finds “they usually lose their ‘aromatic-ness’ and ‘Muscatiness’ quite quickly.” Taylor added: “I keep wanting to buy cheap dry Muscat from the Roussillon - some of the co-op wines aren’t bad - then realise we have enough to hand sell. Even Alsace enthusiasts leave Muscat sales well below Riesling etc.”
Majestic is currently the only multiple specialist to list a Muscat sec, from Gérard Bertrand at £4.99. Chris Hardy described the style as “more in-line with English taste.” Waitrose’s Justin Howard-Sneyd MW was also optimistic: “I have a personal conviction that dry muscat styles have huge potential, if only the kind of customers who respond to them (maybe the semi-sweet drinker whose palate has become drier) could learn what to look out for.” He’s listed a Roussillon red and white from Domaine Lafage for their April/May ‘wine showcase’: “I just wish we could persuade customers to buy their fantastic Muscat.” Dourthe’s Domaine de Sérame won best Muscat in OLN’s vins de pays d’Oc shoot-out; the new vintage will be unveiled at ‘France under One Roof’.
Returning to Muscat’s shortcomings, which mostly stem from vineyard and winery techniques geared to VDN styles. These are being overcome by picking earlier without forsaking phenolic ripeness and avoiding protracted skin contact, which account for that light bitterness. Blending is another way and can add weight to Muscat’s aromatics, such as the Domaine Cazes or Fruité Catalan Muscat-Viognier wines. Taylor thought “it should be possible to make fresh, unoaked blends from Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Muscat, Maccabeo etc. for £5.50-£7.00.” Sparkling, rosé - Dom Brial’s bikini-clad ‘Rozy’ is a surprisingly subtle Syrah/Muscat - and even alcohol-free Muscats provoked mixed reactions among retailers; yet show other areas where the variety can develop if price, taste and packaging match. Sweet Muscat may eventually break the mould, with a clearer message and in-store tastings, as an alternative aperitif, dessert or cheese wine. Dry varietals or blends could prove to be the biggest opportunity of all. Whatever their form, southern French Muscat producers must keep innovating and really get behind their wines, if they want to create a potentially exciting opening in the UK.

1. Muscat-ology
Muscat d’Alexandrie (MA) – AKA Muscat à gros grains, Moscatel de Malaga, Hanepoot (SA), Zibibbo (Italy & north Africa)…
Muscat à Petits Grains (MPG) – AKA Muscat d’Alsace, Moscatel de Douro, Moscato d’Asti, yellow Muscat (Germany & Hungary)…
Muscat Vin Doux Naturel – made by ‘mutage,’ adding neutral grape spirit (96% ABV) to the fermenting must, giving a “naturally” sweet wine with 100-125 grams per litre residual sugar (g/l RS) and around 15% alcohol.
Muscat moelleux – medium-sweet with up to 45 g/l RS, made from late picked grapes or (cheaper) by sweetening after fermentation.
Muscat effervescent – medium-dry/sweet sparkling wine (15 to 45 g/l RS) made by traditional method (bottle fermented) or in tank.
Muscat sec – regular dry white with less than 5 g/l RS.

2. Mediterranean VDN Muscats at a glance

AOCWhere?VinesHow much?
RivesaltesRoussillon + small area in southern Fitou/Corbières5900 ha MPG & MA20 hectolitres (hl) per ha = 119,500 hl or 1.33 million cases (9 litre)
St. Jean de MinervoisNorth-eastern Minervois160 ha MPG only28 hl/ha = 5200 hl or 58,000 cases
FrontignanNortheast of Sète800 ha MPG only28 hl/ha = 22,200 hl or ¼ million cases
MirevalSouthwest of Montpellier270 ha MPG only28 hl/ha = 7850 hl or 87,000 cases
LunelBetween Montpellier & Nîmes300 ha MPG only28 hl/ha = 11,700 hl or 130,000 cases
Beaumes de VeniseSouthern Rhone430 ha MPG only30 hl/ha = 14,000 or 155,500 cases
Cap CorseNorth Corsica peninsula103 ha MPG only26 hl/ha = 2700 hl or 30,000 cases
Samos ‘Grand Cru’Greek island  of Samos, NE Aegean2300 ha mostly MPG30 hl/ha = 70,000 hl or 780,000 cases
Others:Tunisia: Muscat de Kélibia (dry)Catalonia e.g. Miguel Torres’ Moscatel OroMoscatel de Valencia

Languedoc-Roussillon feature
21st July edition of OLN, 2006

Limitless, dramatic: the Languedoc-Roussillon is a wild landscape of contrasts. Demos and dynamite, dynamic estates and brave new brands. While we should, of course, sympathise with stranded growers asking for more help from a distant Paris; it was Vinisud, the showcase for Mediterranean wines held in February, which took Montpellier by storm in the most constructive sense. Unfortunate use of words perhaps, in light of the isolated desperate acts that scar the region. But it’s clearly the numerous creative winemakers, who are signposting the future path for the South. This report looks at some of the new success stories from the region and latest developments in building a cohesive approach to marketing in the UK.
The idea of ‘South of France’ has been doing the rounds for a while, and Languedoc-Roussillon producers did come together on one very visible stand at this year’s London Wine Fair. There’s already a proactive ‘SOF’ campaign orchestrated by Westbury Communications, although as yet only representing Languedoc and Vin de Pays d’Oc: Roussillon is handled by Focus PR. However, a couple of weeks ago the Fédération des Interprofessions des Vins du Languedoc et du Roussillon (FIVLR) or ‘Inter Sud de France’ was officially formed. This should supersede the existing bodies to better coordinate quality control, technical research and, tellingly, sales, marketing and distribution. Inevitably there’ll be teething problems, but the main thing for the UK is to show simplicity through unity yet hold on to their diversity. The very fact that AOCs and Vins de Pays can work together is already a landmark and unheard of in France.
For some in the region, this is almost too late. According to Katie Jones, export manager for the go-ahead Vignerons du Mont Tauch: “Fitou is actually coming out of the CIVL (Languedoc association) but we’re all in favour of South of France. We’ve got to have the budgets to promote and need one good professional body.” The looming crisis had already focused minds in Fitou – Mont Tauch, who produce 60% of the AOC, was an amalgamation of 4 co-operatives – with new partnerships being built with ‘maritime’ or coastal Fitou growers, and a possible merger with another local co-op. New launches include the top of the range ‘3V’ wines (Vins, Vents, Vignerons) comprising Fitou, Corbières and Vin de Pays “micro-vinifications” – initially aimed at on-trade but a future opportunity for independent specialists – and colourful Le Village du Sud varietals. The cartoon labels depict “actual characters from the village of Tuchan linked to the grape”: they’re screw-capped, supported by attractive POS and the Merlot, Chardonnay and rosé have just gone into the Co-op at £3.99.
Returning briefly to developments in appellations and subzones, the catch-all Languedoc AOC will surface this year allowing more flexible blending for traditional styles and umbrella labelling. The jury’s still out on creating more ‘cru’ areas: some believe it complicates matters further, others that it’s essential if true ‘terroir’ wines are to flourish. Two examples are Boutenac in Corbières and Tautavel in Roussillon, where the Bertrand group is investing in the future. He’s president of the Boutenac growers’ body and is working with four co-ops in the latter region to create a premium red range starting at £6.99. It’s intimated that the Corbières name would be eventually dropped, which seems unwise from a consumer point of view.
‘Les Aspres’ subzone of the Roussillon has been criticised for covering too wide an area to say anything meaningful. So far, the 2004 reds on the market show a rather samey barrique-influenced style, but it’s early days. Pic Saint Loup (north of Montpellier) appears to have gained a mini-following with its Syrah based reds in the £6-£10 segment. As long as the result is truly excellent individual wines, and even at relatively niche prices, perhaps the best way to label these zones would be the more recognised formula: region + ‘Villages’ + village name, e.g. Côtes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel?
Delving deeper into Corbières, this huge region has been witnessing an impressive transformation with several very serious investors on the scene. Château de Sérame is an extensive property straddling both Corbières and Minervois, who went into partnership with Bordeaux magnate Dourthe four years ago. With 120 hectares in production and 10 being replanted every year, “our aim is benchmark wines” commented winemaker Vincent Bernard. The range shows exciting potential: at the top, L’Icone Corbières 2003 is a powerful limited series red followed by very solid Corbières and Minervois, classic blends of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. From their Réserve vin de pays varietals, the Muscat sec (a relatively recent style in the South and one that could catch on), Viognier and Merlot stand out.
Château de Lastours is a breathtaking estate perched high up in the Corbières hills and changed hands in 2004. The new owners are investing heavily (at least €5 million) in upgrading and reducing the vineyard area and an amazing landscaped winery. This is already apparent in the high quality of their 2004 reds (the wines had been going downhill for a few years). Les Crus pour Joie is the fetching name coined by this merry band of mostly young, small estates in the wild country around Lagrasse: Domaine Baillat, Clos d'Espinous, Château Roquenégade, Domaine la Rune, Château Prieuré Borde-Rouge, Clos de l'Anhel and Château Cascadais. Watch out for them and other hands-on producer groups.
Growers in the Fenouillèdes area, bridging Corbières and French Catalonia, are also actively promoting themselves. Their recent trade fair revealed a number of up-and-coming quality estates keen to export. Richard Case of Domaine Pertuisane, who’s working with Planet of the Grapes on New Oxford St, described the pull of the area: “The Grenache is unparalleled anywhere in France; the best three places are Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Priorat and Maury.” Other names to look out for include L’Edre, Clos Origine, Karolina, Terre Rousse, Duran, Balmière, Rivaton and Soulanes. Nearby between Millas and Estagel, Jean-Paul and Cyril Henriquès have done sterling work restoring Domaine Força Réal. Their ‘entry level’ label is Mas de la Garrigue, and the superb 2003 Les Hauts de Força Réal is listed by Mark Hughes’ Real Wine Company for £10.
There’s an increasing trend of former co-operative growers setting up their own wineries, turning grape growing skills into personalised bottles. Some star examples are the organic Coston brothers in Coteaux du Languedoc (down the road from Mas Daumas Gassac), Jean-Michel Arnaud of Château Faiteau, Minervois La Livinière and Julien Fournier’s Serrelongue in Maury. Organic is another of the South’s plus points, and the region had a strong presence at the Millésime Bio show earlier this year – Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and Corsica account for 53% of the surface area of French certified-organic vineyards. Saint-Chinian is home to a clutch of excellent organic domaines such as Borie la Vitarèle and Siméoni. The latter has also launched La Tete à l’Envers (100% Syrah) and a 100% old Carignan called ‘Vin de Crise.’ Jean-Claude Mas recently purchased organic vineyards near his Pézenas estate and introduced perhaps the first Marselan, apparently a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, into the UK at Waitrose.
English couple James and Catherine Kinglake put their money into a dream and bought Domaine Bégude near Limoux, south of Carcassonne, in 2003. Describing their philosophy as “turbocharged lutte raisonnée” (as environmentally friendly as possible without being full-blown organic), Bégude is making very good Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay priced £5.99 to £8.99; the top oak aged one is listed by Waitrose. Mas also has a winery in this area supplying Chardonnay and Viognier for his Arrogant Frog and other labels. Dom. la Sauvageonne (north of Montpellier) is the brainchild of Gavin Crisfield and new to the Boutinot portfolio. Deborah Brooks said: “It’s been really well received by independent retailers, who can hand-sell them due to the fact that they taste like “real” wines.” The range is priced from £5.99 to £15.
The Vin de Pays d’Oc category continues to show the way, as confirmed by the quality of entries in OLN’s Top 100 competition. Exports now account for 57% of overall sales, up 6% this year, with the UK occupying 14% of that. Oc has become the designation of choice for many of the up-front brands, established or about to be unveiled, in the off-trade.
The high profile Chamarré brand is actually sourced from an even broader area than Languedoc-Roussillon and brings together large co-ops and wine companies across the south, Bordeaux and the Loire. OVS, the operation behind it, certainly means business “aiming for 12 million bottles in the UK within 5 years,” commented export manager Vincent Norguet. “We’re investing around 5 million Euros per year.” Chamarré hit Thresher stores last week, and buyer James Griswood is enthusiastic: “I’m excited to finally see a French brand that not only has the financial backing, but also an understanding of total support required to build a top 20 UK brand.” He sees its trump card as “being able to blend across regions within France (for the VdT wines)… giving them the extended options open to USA and Australian brands that are so successful in our market.”
Other new concepts include Esprit Med, a 14 strong varietal and AOC range from Alastair Cassie Wines pitching at £3.99-5.99; and Domaine Belles Eaux vin de pays bag-in-box from this Languedoc property transformed by AXA and now represented by Paragon. Obviously the demand for rosé is something the South can capitalise on. Gabriel Meffre and Guy Anderson’s Chasse du Pape has been bolstered by a new Syrah rosé, £4.99 in Asda & Sainsbury’s. And Laroche has introduced the Mas Chevalière 2005 rosé. The Roussillon excels at the big yet balanced styles coming onto the market: Cave de Terrats’ Rosé de Terrassous, Rasiguères rosé, Le Pot from Dom Brial/Vignerons de Baixas and Château Mossé’s would all sell for around £5.
The challenges of overproduction (of the wrong wines) and uniting the region will remain very real for some time to come. But the sheer range of styles and quality now available in the UK off-trade, plus an enthusiastic generation of people and attitudes aiming to offer the right wines with proper backing, demonstrate (without the Molotov cocktails) that the future’s very bright for the south of France.

Once upon a time in the South…
OLN July 22nd 2005

Once upon a time in the South… there were wines called Corbières and Coteaux du Languedoc. Now sweeping changes are afoot to both rationalise and diversify the AOC hierarchy and names across the Languedoc-Roussillon. An unenviable task for a region covering 300,000 hectares, where entrenched (and occasionally dangerous) tradition goes hand in hand with progressive export-driven producers. So watch out for La Clape, Grés de Montpellier, Saint-Chinian Berlou and straight Languedoc. Confused? Well, there is admirable logic behind all of this.
The detailed new regulations and proposals appear to be heading in two clear directions – broader, more flexible and simplified at the volume end; and more distinct and terroir-focused for high quality wines. All appears perfectly reasonable and reflecting the way the market is going? In terms of Coteaux du Languedoc, this appellation “should become” just Languedoc - this is essential to avoid confusion over the use and meaning of the Languedoc name - and will embrace the existing areas of Minervois, Corbières, Fitou, Côtes du Roussillon etc. if producers choose to. Thus they could take advantage of more flexible rules (although in theory still strict) and umbrella ‘generic’ labelling to make and promote more punter-friendly wines.
Alongside this, AOC sub-zones will continue to be developed based on climate, soil, varieties, history etc. So specific regions such as La Clape et Quatourze, Terrasses de Béziers, Pézenas et Cabrières, Terrasses du Larzac, Grés de Montpellier and Terre de Sommières will supplement already established Picpoul de Pinet (whites) and Pic Saint-Loup (reds and rosés). In addition, recognised Languedoc communes could follow suit e.g. Montpeyroux and St-Christol. Jacques Fanet, Syndicat des Coteaux du Languedoc boss, confirmed: “Our job is to distinguish between particular terroir zones and, on the other hand, to open it up from Nimes to the Spanish border to offer decent quantities under the Languedoc banner. We’re focusing on Languedoc first, as in export markets people don’t know where these places are.”
For a vast varied (and variable) region like Corbières, village appellations seem to make sense. Producers in areas designated in the future aspiring to quality, individuality and better prices will therefore be able to differentiate from mass market wines. The terroir of Boutenac is on the cards for 2005; 10 further possible sub-zones include Lézignan and Durban. Interestingly Carignan must comprise at least 30% of the blend, potentially allowing those with old vines and faith in this maligned variety to shine. Similarly, two distinct sub-appellations have been created in Saint-Chinian: Berlou and Roquebrun (even if the communes in each overlap!). Yields are set at 40 hl/ha (with buffer of 50) featuring an elevated proportion of Grenache, Mourvèdre and/or Syrah. The quality achieved by many in the existing sub-zone of Minervois La Livinière shows it can work. The difficulty will be in trying to communicate the message to wine-interested consumers.
Other developments include the appearance of Limoux AOC red and white (e.g. some of the best Chardonnay in the South) running alongside this region’s sometimes excellent sparkling wines; and white Faugères and Saint-Chinian, of marginal interest even if occasionally good and different.

'Is there a d'Oc in the house?'
From the 4th February 2005 issue of Harpers.

Languedoc may well mean ‘tongue of the Oc’, but growers in the region have only just begun to speak the same language. To cynical eyes, the recent creation of a mega producers’ association representing the whole of Languedoc-Roussillon, as well as the new regional Languedoc AOC, might look like more bureaucratic hurdles for embattled French wine exporters. However, a fresh spirit of cooperation and desire to simplify things have emerged, as illustrated by the ‘Printemps du Languedoc-Roussillon’ tasting in London on February 15th, also held in conjunction with Vins de Pays d’Oc producers.
The catchily-named Fédération des Interprofessions des Vins d’Appellation d’Origine du Languedoc et du Roussillon (FIVLR) was born on 17th December 2004, with the common goal of representing the interests of all members across this vast region stretching from Nîmes to the Spanish border. Despite a historic press release, details are as yet a bit thin on the ground. But the broad areas of cohesion will be in quality control/traceability and technical issues, marketing (France and export) and financial management. Whether the FIVLR will replace or further supplement the two existing bodies remains to be seen.
Another significant change is the cross-regional Languedoc appellation. Again, the full implications aren’t clear but producers all the way from Fitou to Coteaux du Languedoc can opt to use it. The ‘Coteaux’ will thus be dropped from the latter AC, except those already in this zone who want to continue labelling as such (there always seems to be an exception to muddy things). The new regulations open up the possibility of inter-regional blending but may just prove to be a marketing tool.
At the same time, a joint export campaign has been agreed with the Syndicat des Producteurs de Vin de Pays d’Oc waving a ‘South of France’ flag. This refreshing penchant for simplicity and flexibility should favour sales of consumer orientated wines and development of larger scale brands at convincing prices. In contrast yet complementary to this, distinct subzones and terroirs are emerging offering high quality niche wines, such as Fenouillèdes, Minervois La Livinière or Pic Saint-Loup (more on this later). You could argue there’s room for both in the UK and other open-minded markets, if you know who your audience is and how to communicate the message.
The Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL) is supporting their 2005 marketing strategy with a budget of €4 million, including a 30% increase in expenditure allocated for export promotions. Pooling their resources with the Roussillon (CIVR) and Oc teams, brings the total kitty for export to €2.7 million. All sounds impressive but will it work? According to Ubifrance stats, shipments of Languedoc-Roussillon wines for the first eight months of 2004 were down 7% in volume and 3% in value. The UK recorded a similar decrease in volume but, encouragingly, grew by 3% in value. Canada, Japan and the US show positive trends surpassing all other countries, albeit from a smaller base.
However, actual sales in the UK off-trade (Nielsen MAT Oct. 04) were up 10% to 735,000 cases, the lion’s share being Corbières, Fitou and Minervois. The supermarkets commanded 71% of this (+17%), multiple specialists 14% (+31%) and independent retailers a mere 3% (-39%). Surprisingly, AC wines from Languedoc-Roussillon only account for 6% of total French wine sales, which suggests much greater potential.
The new Languedoc AC ties in with plans to publicise all the different appellations under one umbrella. The advertising campaign focuses on the distinctive cross logo, which is also embossed on the bottles, and the slogan ‘Fine French Mediterranean wines’. Does this mean more to the average wine drinker than south of France, and is Languedoc more precise or less well known? Michel Laroche, who owns Mas la Chevalière near Béziers, decided five years ago to label their varietal range ‘South of France.’ “There’s too much complexity and we need to simplify things. We found consumers didn’t know where the Languedoc was – south of France is less tangible yet has more meaning.”
Katie Jones, Export Manager at Mont Tauch in Fitou, said: “It’s not easy to make passionate wine growers of the south realise that the average British consumer doesn’t understand the word Languedoc, doesn’t understand the word Oc and doesn’t understand the word Roussillon.” Optimistic about recent developments, she added: “they still have to put their pride in terroir, individuality and political differences behind them… for the construction of a long term marketing plan.”
Jean-Claude Mas, whose family owns Domaine de Nicole near Pézenas and Domaine Astruc near Limoux, is more hesitant about coining South of France. “Consumers equate this with Nice and the Côte d’Azur! So Languedoc could deliver a simpler message. We still need to keep separate identities for both classic styles and branded cépages.” Mas is a good example of the diversity the region can offer, producing single and blended varietals at different quality/price levels with names such as Hidden Hill, La Forge, Michel Mas Winemaker and Arrogant Frog; complex cooler climate Chardonnay, and top of the range Les Faïsses Coteaux du Languedoc red (click on the pic and the link at the beginning to see some notes on some of them).
He also made a pertinent comparison to Southcorps: “We have a great opportunity; this region is the best placed to make terroir wines and New World wines.” Gérard Bertrand, based near Narbonne, is another quality-focused operation offering this kind of range across several ACs, single estate wines and classic varietals.
Total exports of Vin de Pays d’Oc in 2004 are estimated to be 2.3 million hectolitres, about 25.5m cases (source: Ubifrance). This makes a 2% decrease in volume, thanks to a slide in bulk sales as bottled wines were actually up 2%, but overall +3% in value. Germany is the leading export market showing growth of 9%. The UK is no. 2 representing one fifth of Pays d’Oc exports, and recorded a drop in volume of around 15% (first 6 months 2003 v 2004) yet apparently the average price increased by 5%.
Despite this blip, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the Oc and the future looks bright. Christine Pullara, Sales Manager at Les Collines du Bourdic (one of the biggest producers of Vin de Pays in the Gard département) certainly thinks so. “Our efforts are finally paying off, the region now has a dynamic image. Working towards quality step by step… today we’re united under the banner of Languedoc-Roussillon, the largest vineyard area in the world. The success of the region is down to the rich diversity of its products and the strength they represent coming together.”
The buying price of the different varieties is a sound indicator of demand and quality trends. The average price of Chardonnay increased 14% in the 2003/4 campaign; Sauvignon Blanc by 18%, Cinsault 12% (due to demand for rosé) and Syrah & Merlot both up 2%. Cabernet Sauvignon prices fell slightly. It’s clear to everybody who cares that “we have to get out of this ‘more volume means greater turnover’ mentality, as it leads nowhere,” as Jacques Gravegeal, President of the Oc Syndicat, put it. “We shouldn’t be proud of the quality of some of the wines sold in France and export.”
Technical support services and quality tracking are something all the Languedoc-Roussillon associations claim to take very seriously. Apparently 9% of Vin de Pays d’Oc was refused approval on quality grounds in 2003/4, and over 10% of wines that underwent technical analyses. As is becoming the universal norm, there’s strong emphasis on quality control on the ground, parcel by parcel. Richard Lavanoux, director of Laroche ‘South’, explained their philosophy: “we use a team of winemakers during the vintage to pick exactly what, when and how we want. Sometimes we don’t take certain parcels.” The advantage for growers who work under contract with operators like Laroche can be seen in the condition of their vineyards and prices achieved for their grapes.
Pulling up vines, replanting rights and subsidies is a subject that provokes angry debate, and complicated enough to justify an entire article. The gist appears to be that EU funds allocated to France have been tied up in red tape, causing delays, penalties and consequently loss of unspent subsidies. Frustrated growers just want to get on with it and do the right thing. This program has and should be playing an important part in the transformation of the region and the move away from mass volume production.
Another ongoing hot potato is the use of oak chips. After eight years of official trials, Jacques Gravegeal is a vocal supporter. “Enough of this nonsense, we need a freer hand in winemaking to help us be more competitive. I won’t be part of a cult of mutual suicide.” Richard Lavanoux agrees (as do many producers of good quality vins de cépages): “Some chips are good, some are bad. They can be useful but aren’t a miracle cure – it’s about the winemaker knowing how to use these tools. They won’t replace barriques but could give us an edge for entry level wines.” More flexible winemaking practices should fuel the advance of consistent style and quality brands and also the burgeoning bag-in-box format.
And what about the Côtes du Roussillon? The region appears to lack a commanding identity in the UK, and it’s dubious the creation of new appellations like Côtes du Roussillon des Aspres will make any difference. Perhaps the Vin de Pays Côtes Catalanes designation is more suitable, as Richard Case at La Perpuisane in Maury wryly pointed out. “We decided to go for Catalanes, as Oc doesn’t mean anything geographically and this implies ‘near the Spanish border’.” They also weren’t allowed AC status because their focus has been on old vine Grenache and Carignan, whilst appellation rules dictate a proportion of Syrah.
There’s no doubt the region is capable of making and promoting high quality wines, especially concentrated yet complex reds. Christophe Palmowski, Marketing Director of Vignerons Catalans based in Perpignan, highlighted the significance of influential figures such as Bordelais Bernard Magret moving into “this new eldorado.” Growers in the Fenouillèdes, a stunningly beautiful area of northwest Roussillon taking in the villages of Tautavel, Estagel, Caramany, Latour de France, Maury and Lesquerde, have organised themselves into a lobby group with a broadly similar philosophy.
Newcomers and young ambitious growers/winemakers are still able to buy superb parcels of land here at relatively reasonable prices, some already planted with very old vines, or replant other abandoned vineyards. This area used to primarily produce Vins Doux Naturels but with dwindling demand for these products, logically people have moved to red, white and rosé wines. Naturally low yields, high quality fruit and barrique ageing are inevitably resulting in ambitious prices of €10-20 per bottle for certain wines. A limited, hand-sell market but potentially a profitable one, if you can attract the right kind of distribution and wine enthusiast customer.
Picwines.co.uk, based north of Montpellier, sell small family owned domaine wines – from areas of the Languedoc such as Pic Saint-Loup, Faugères, St-Chinian and Picpoul de Pinet – by internet mail order. “After 15 months in operation our impression is that there’s most definitely a market for these wines,” commented Julie Statham. “Most of our sales fall into the £9-£13 price bracket. As most of our wines aren’t terribly well known, we find that sales tend to be driven by tasting events.”
The organic wine fair Millésime Bio recently held in Narbonne demonstrated yet another strength of the Languedoc-Roussillon. With 31% of the surface area of registered organic vineyards in France, as well as an increasing number of biodynamic growers, the region is perfectly poised to capitalise on this growing sector. Although quality can still sometimes be erratic, estates such as Château Pech-Latt in Corbières, Château Malavieille in Coteaux du Languedoc and Siméoni in St-Chinian prove the point.
If France is to claw back market share in the UK – and I believe it can in the long term – then the Languedoc-Roussillon really should be the region that can achieve this. After all, the necessary tools seem to be in place: willingness to work together and moving towards a rationalised infrastructure, focus on quality, diversity and flexibility of wine styles and better understanding of the UK market.

Report on Rhône valley wines published in OLN on August 6th 2004.

France’s second longest river has inspired us to ‘think red’, ride with Rhône rangers and even roam with goats. Côtes du Rhône wines have, over time, won a place in the hearts of British buyers, but their current hit-or-miss performance has exposed the fickle nature of this relationship. If overall volume trends for the last year look a little alarming, then the rise in value and of certain appellations and brands – particularly from the southern Rhône – paints a rosier picture.
As is happening elsewhere in France, wine export body Inter-Rhône recently united with other producer groups to agree an action plan to combat falling sales. This focuses on decreasing yields to bring production in line with demand and increase quality; and provides extra cash for promotion and struggling companies. Philippe Verdier, Director of International Marketing, believes “Côtes du Rhône imports have been swept along by the negative flow for French wines, but we should see a turnaround in the months ahead… Côtes du Rhône will be a key player in the off-trade in the second half of the year with a big push in 15 chains.” This is being supported by a high-visibility poster campaign in London.
As the figures in the table below confirm, AC Côtes du Rhône is bucking the trend, which seems largely due to the success of a few proactive producers and agents, and solid sales of their brands through the multiple grocers, who shift over 80% of all Rhône wines. The performance of La Chasse du Pape – made by Gabriel Meffre and handled by Guy Anderson Wines – is particularly noteworthy, moving up to 30th place in the recent OLN/Nielsen ‘Top 50 Brands’ chart. The range includes Côtes du Rhône Réserve at £4.99 and two premium wines, Grande Réserve red and white with RRP of £6.99. “The brand is forecasted to hit 250,000 cases this year, a growth of 34%,” comments Richard Evans, MD of GAW. “This has been achieved by increased distribution, range extensions and continued marketing support. Our aim is half a million cases within three years.”
Bottle Green, who work closely with Du Peloux, have “turned our attention to our French Connection Classic Côtes du Rhône, which offers excellent quality/value at £4.99,” says boss David Gill, because “we’ve seen the big volume, generic own label business get whittled down in cost by retailers to an unsustainable level.” Xavier Logette, Export Director for Caves Saint Pierre (represented by Thierrys), also talked about pricing and the need to launch new brands. “How do we attract the younger consumer and generate the capital for promotion by selling at higher prices? At £3.99, Côtes du Rhône is super quality; buyers won’t pay +25% to help develop brands but they do it for the New World.” Cellier des Dauphins is in wide distribution in French supermarkets yet doesn’t have such a strong following here, although it’s listed by Tesco at £4.53. The brand is owned by the mighty Union des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône, who also purchased the family firm Louis Mousset in 1996, whose wines are now distributed by Freixenet (DWS).
Waitrose stocks Mousset’s organic La Colombe label (£4.99) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos St-Michel (£11.99). Buyer Simon Thorpe MW is enthusiastic about the outlook thanks to the 2003 vintage: “Even down at the cheap end, there seems to be great texture and body in the reds, which makes them perfect for early drinking.” He adds: “2002 was a very difficult vintage in the area and this had an impact not only on prices and quality, but ability to promote as well. Overall we trade strongly in the Rhône, and I think the coming 12 months will be very encouraging.” James Griswood at the Thresher Group expands further: “Volumes for us are looking good year-on-year. With a large volume stripped out by the conditions of 2002 vintage, the bottom end of the market looks particularly bad value for money. I expect most retailers have been sourcing their ‘volume’ promotions from other countries… and, without these discounts dragging down the average retail, the value won’t drop by the same percentage.”
Problems with quality and a steep reduction in quantity available of 2002s may also partly explain why Côtes du Rhône Villages sales nose-dived over the last year. Image conscious producers were able to downgrade wines to maintain consistency, labelling them as ‘lesser’ appellations. Anthony Borges, proprietor of Great Horkesley Wine Centre, confirms this: “At the premium end, Guigal 2002 Châteauneuf-du-Pape was scrapped and declassified to good reliable Côtes du Rhône Villages. But what of the lower end wines? Where do they go? So long as the producers both protect and invest in the name ‘Rhône’, they’ll continue to retain a good reputation and enjoy a sustainable future.” Côtes du Rhône Villages reds such as Rasteau, Beaumes-de-Venise, Séguret and Cairanne can offer great value for money and exactly the right kind of style for the UK. Yet the figures show these wines aren’t making any progress, implying the average punter remains ignorant of the village names and hierarchy.
“Except the most sophisticated and knowledgeable, consumers wouldn’t know that CNDP is a Rhône wine let alone Gigondas or Cairanne,” says Deb Worton at HwCg, who work with Jerome Quiot in Châteauneuf, Cave St-Désirat in St-Joseph and Louis Barruol in Gigondas. “French producers have to stop being so preoccupied with this appellation v that appellation, this grape v that grape; and start trying to understand what leads consumers to make the decisions they make.” In contrast, the so-called ‘Crus’ such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are the real success story, albeit in a smaller way. The latter already commands consumer confidence and is recognised as a quality choice. A quick glance along the shelves of the high street market leader offers one possible explanation why the other appellations are on the up. As Worton points out: “I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Tesco have introduced Finest Gigondas, Finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Finest Crozes-Hermitage.”
Similarly, GAW are launching the new Gabriel Meffre range of Rhône Villages covering the major ACs, e.g. Côtes du Rhône red and white (£6.99) and Gigondas (£9.99). “These are really exciting premium wines that are very well presented,” states Evans. “The message to the consumer is simple: Gabriel Meffre are steeped in the Rhône; if you liked Chasse du Pape, why not try their premiums?” Domaine Bellane – an organic Valréas from Bottle Green selling for £7 - “has enjoyed a steady level of sales growth and is well distributed in various guises” according to Gill. Paul Boutinot has long been active in the southern Rhône making diverse wines in several regions, from the appellation-focused Signature range to New World-leaning red Les Hauts du Mont and the popular Old Git brand, both sourced from Côtes du Ventoux. This region, along with fellow ACs Tricastin, Luberon, Costières-de-Nîmes etc. included in the ‘other Rhône valley’ figures, suffered a 27% downturn in volume. Considering these areas are overrun by holidaying Brits and the great value the wines offer, it’s not obvious why.
“Ventoux & Luberon tend to be strong and reliable in that ‘middle’ range, both red and white,” Borges believes. Pierpaolo Petrassi at IWS agrees: “Those good value satellite appellations really struggle to get past gatekeepers, although the wine styles stack up well.” There’s also much debate about varietals and whether leading with Syrah or Grenache in classic blends is the way forward, depending on desired style or winemaking philosophy. Despite the recent blip, the future could still be bright for the region’s wines. Worton summed up the mood: “we’re great believers in the potential for the Rhône. Its time will come again!”

Nielsen stats MAT March/April 2004 for GB off-trade
Volume                       % change        Average price
(9 litre cases)                                    (03 v 04)
Total Rhône valley               1,276,600                  -5.7                 £4.10  £4.30
Côtes du Rhône                     895,200                     +3.7                £3.60  £3.70
Côtes du Rhône Villages      156,400                     -32                  £4       £4.30
Côtes du Rhône Crus           123,400                     +2.2                £8.50  £9.30
Other Rhône valley              101,500                     -27                  £3.60  £3.80
Volume by sector, total Rhône valley
                                                Share              Change 03/04           Average price (04)
Mult specialists                     6.6%               -17%                           £6.40
Independent specs               3.2%               -16%                           £5.60
Mult grocers                          82%                -3.8%                          £4.20
Indep grocers                        3.6%               -24%                           £4.20

Pastis: Pernod, 51, Ricard, Janot, Boyer, Bardouin, LaPouge, Guy, Girard... Published on 28 November 2003 in retail trade paper Off Licence News.

It’s an old cliché – "it just doesn’t taste the same back home..." – but this seems so true when applied to pastis. Best enjoyed sitting outside a bar in the south of France, soaking up the rays and partaking in the full ritual: slowly add water from one of those cute oh-so-French jugs, watch the ice swirl and the drink turn opaque. But this cultural flavour experience doesn’t appear to translate as well to northern Europe and beyond. So who’s drinking pastis – and which brands – in the UK and other countries?
A recent trip to Pernod’s production plant in Marseille revealed some of the secrets to making these legendary anise-flavoured drinks, and an insight into better appreciating their mysterious flavours. The city is home to two of the leading brands, Pernod and 51 (the classic local tipple); Ricard, despite its claim ‘Pastis de Marseille’ is actually now made in Lille. Images of the Provençal city perhaps also re-enforce those surrounding its very own aperitif: that café-terrace moment overlooking the Vieux Port, early evening drinking in macho smoky bars…
Marseille asserts itself as the birthplace of commercial pastis. Henri-Louis Pernod set up in 1805 initially as a producer of absinthe, which became very popular in France by the 1850s. At the turn of the century, excessive consumption of absinthe was believed to surpass wine prompting its ban in 1915. This allowed the production of pastis to really take off, as people changed the ingredients focusing on anise. By the 1930s, there were many small-scale illicit manufacturers, each using a different recipe and mix, working around the Vieux Port and fines were common. Ricard was the first to put his name on the bottle and one of those who influenced the government into sanctioning pastis as a legitimate business.
The Pernod factory is impressively automated and surprisingly low-key with technology dominating any romantic image you might have of pastis. It’s basically made from pure alcohol – which arrives in tankers at 96%, is analysed and nosed to make sure it’s neutral – flavouring extracts (made elsewhere), purified water and sugar. The strongly scented cuverie and laboratory are controlled by just three people, the process being mostly mechanised.
The ingredients are added together by weight – each brand or product has a particular recipe – which is calculated on the computer system. It’s all in code: nobody knows the exact constituents (apart from star anise, liquorice and essence of herbs including mint, coriander and fennel) to safeguard the Ricard family’s secret formulae. The mix in each vat is then ‘brewed’ for 20 minutes. The next most important element is the filtration, which affects density, colour etc: 51 has a specific type, there’s another for Pernod. In addition to lab analyses, samples of all products and ingredients are taken from each stage of production and tasted every day.
They produce 6 x 200 hectolitre (hl) batches per day of 51 (about 17 million bottles per year including larger sizes); 4 or 5 x 200hl per week of the different Pernod products (4 million bottles); and 30hl every two weeks of Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’Absinthe, Oxygénée and other small-run specialities. Different bottlings are done for different markets with the recipe varying accordingly: the Pernod for France is “heavier and stronger,” for Britain “more aromatic.”
I tasted the following at room temperature mixed one-fifth pastis and four-fifths water:
Pastis 51 ‘2004 collection’ (for Christmas and New Year in laser-etched bottles), 45% - creamy beige colour with orange-brown hints, quite strong liquorice and aniseed aromas, fairly powerful but with nice rounded mouthfeel, herb notes lending a bitter twist to the sweetness (this is sweeter than Pernod), yet finishes smoothly with drier bite.
Pernod (export), 40% - much greener colour with yellow and mint tinges, more aromatic and perfumed nose showing floral and citrus notes; these aromas carry to the palate then it turns more liquoricey and sweeter but again balanced, a touch more elegant but also blander.
Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’Absinthe, 68% - paler, less vivid grey-green colour and less opaque; very powerful nose showing lots of herbs, floral and liquorice notes, the alcohol is obviously stronger but not overpowering; full-bodied with a kick but has plenty of flavour and aroma, big mouthful leading to bite of slightly bitter herbs and dry finish (no added sugar). Pernod-Ricard has developed a process that reduces the molecules of wormwood to very low levels.
Oxygénée, 53% - lightly mint green in colour, can actually see through it; lovely nose displaying quite complex mix of aromatic herbs, lemon and liquorice; powerful yet elegant flavours with bitter herbs v touch of sweetness on the long finish.
Henri-Louis Pernod 1805 Anis aux plantes et aux épices, 45% - opaque, deep golden-beige colour; delicious nose: very herby with lavender notes, citrus & orange peel, complex and extremely aromatic; these flavours linger in the mouth with intense herbal and floral characters leading to elegant dry finish, perfumed and very long.
The latter speciality products aren’t on sale in the UK, which is a shame although they wouldn’t be an easy sell or have wide appeal. Sales of Pernod to key markets in 2002 were (in litres): France 306,000; UK 614,000 (on average 620K per year); USA 128,000 and Germany 804,000. Distribution in France is split 23% on-trade and 77% off, whereas in the UK it’s 50/50. A different story emerges in comparison to their other brands. Sales of Ricard are 2/3 in France and 1/3 internationally with 30,000 litres per year shipped to Britain, where it’s stocked in selected Sainsbury’s in the south, Francophile restaurants, style bars and no doubt a few independents too. In France, 51 is in national distribution but a significant part of the volume is accounted for in the south (especially Provence-Alps-Côte d’Azur), where it’s brand leader. In terms of export, 51 isn’t sold in the UK but has a presence on France’s borders, particularly Catalonia, Andorra and Italy plus Switzerland and Belgium.


What about the profile of the typical pastis drinker? In France it does seem to go beyond middle-aged men in bars: Pernod-Ricard say their consumer “includes young and older adults, male and female.” A blue coloured, ready-to-drink product Pastis Bleu was launched in France with particular success in the south, tellingly “among all age groups.” However, they’re keeping tight-lipped about actual volumes. “Pastis Bleu has not been launched in the UK and there are no plans to do so,” Crispin Stephens commented, brand manager at Pernod-Ricard UK. “The new Pastis drink that has been launched is called Ricard Bouteille – ready to drink with 1 measure of Ricard, 5 measures of water.” It’ll be interesting to follow its progress and who’s consuming it. Pernod also claim to be “in the process of researching average age of drinkers… it’s well balanced between men and women.”

Outside of these giant brands, there are several artisan producers making distinctive, high quality anise drinks resurrecting the original blends of the 1930s. These are mostly stocked by a handful of specialist independent shops such as La Maison du Pastis (00 33 (0)4 91 90 86 77, lamaisondupastis.com) in Marseille, set up by Frédéric Bernard in 2003. His ‘Tradition’ house label is made by Janot; others include Jean Boyer, Henri Bardouin, LaPouge (based on Ricard’s 1935 recipe), Armand Guy and Jules Girard. These quality products sell for €25-€40 a bottle, but you’d bet a little niche business like this could succeed in say London, by offering tastings and serving tips to help lower the cultural barrier. As Gérard Nyssens (Production Director at Pernod-Ricard) suggested: “they don’t know how to drink or taste it and add too much ice: you need time to let it mix with the water.”

HOT (Harpers On-trade magazine) July/August 2003 issue
South of France & Rhone valley feature.

“Château Latour, c’est le Pibarnon de Pauillac.” This facetious and flattering quip by the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur – comparing Château Pibarnon (a leading estate in Bandol nestling between Marseille and Toulon) and that slightly more famous property in the Médoc – does in fact raise significant issues. Very few wines outside the ‘classic’ regions, let alone in the south, have such a reputation and saleable clout. So is there a place for the South of France and the Rhône on our wine lists, and how are they and French wines generally going down in restaurants and bars?
France again demonstrated its dominant presence last year in the on-trade with a 40% share in volume (according CFCE and Nielsen), and thus taking a substantial chunk of overall wine sales of more than £2 billion. However Australia, South Africa, USA and Chile together now account for over a quarter of this. It’s difficult to gather information about individual regions of France, but judging from listings you’d assume the lion's share is Vin de Table and Vin de Pays. Bordeaux probably comes next, Champagne, Burgundy including Chablis and Beaujolais, Loire Valley, Côtes du Rhône as a whole and then Languedoc-Roussillon.
In the past the common perception of the south, which is after all where the mass of wine originates from, and the Rhône – outside of certain high profile areas – would be large quantities of cheap indifferent wine. Historically a lack of awareness and effective marketing of the better wines have compounded this. But these regions – broadly and specifically speaking – reveal excitement and good drinking once discovered. The focus of production has shifted towards quality with investment to match. Prices generally are still reasonable, and their warmer climate styles offer riper, fruitier, generous wines that retain the structure and complexity well suited to food. Successful brands are breaking through, labelled varietally with all the sexy grapes the consumer is responding to, but not at the expense of Appellation based terroir wines.
The Languedoc in particular has become the centre of attention with intense activity in vineyard and winery alike, backed up crucially by serious financial input. International companies already established in the region are well known, such as Southcorp’s James Herrick operation and Hardy’s Domaine de la Baume. Robert Mondavi’s aborted attempts at buying vineyards in the area are also well documented.
Perhaps more important in terms of recognition of potential is the increasing number of high profile French names active in the Languedoc, cash coming from ‘outside’. The most recent is AXA Millésimes’ purchase of Château de Belles Eaux, joining the assurance giant’s portfolio of capital-enhancing properties, which includes Château Pichon Longueville and Quinta do Noval. “We believe the Languedoc will be, in the near future, the cradle for some of the most highly rated French Grands Crus,” predicts managing director Christian Seely.
Chablis king Michel Laroche has invested plenty of money and time in Mas la Chevalière, the estate he bought in 1995 near Béziers. The pristine winery built next door is also currently being extended, a measure of achievement perhaps. The backbone of their ‘South of France’ range (all Vin de Pays d’Oc) is Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah making fruit-focused varietals. Next come terroir wines sourced from specific parcels and bearing a vineyard name – Labech, Peyroli, Roqua Blanca – and at the top La Croix Chevalière (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah).
Louis Latour is another Burgundy house working successfully in the south, having planted Chardonnay in the Ardèche as early as 1979 and Pinot Noir in Provence at high altitude ten years later. Foncalieu, a progressive group of co-operative growers and châteaux centred on Carcassonne, provides an example of adapting to changing times and tastes. Their strategy of know-how in vineyard and cellar is tellingly marketed as ‘French New World attitude, 100% Languedoc.’ They produce inexpensive varietal wines (Chardonnays particularly good) and A.Cs too like Château Cazaux Cabardès. Corbières producer Gérard Bertrand is also making high quality varietals such as Viognier Collection and Carignan Vieilles Vignes.
Is this approach resulting in a loss of identity and character, is it too New World? These aren’t really meant to be terroir wines but generally do convey a sense of place, and most make time-honoured styles as well (even if refined by science). Does it really matter, when the outcome is enjoyable wines that are well made, easy to understand and sound value? Another case in point is talented Australian Nerida Abbott, who’s based in Montpellier and is doing great things with Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre from sought-out plots in Minervois, Côteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Roussillon and Cabardès. The first Minervois was labelled as Shiraz, but her methodology now centres on site/soil/variety coupled with appropriate vinification. Talking of Cabardès, this youthful A.C is ready for take off and capable of producing superior well priced reds, like those made by Vignobles Lorgeril who also do a barrel-fermented, tropical fruity, New World-style Chardonnay.
Other areas to watch are Saint-Chinian and Faugères north of Narbonne, Fitou further south – which has manoeuvred itself beyond basic thanks to producers like Mont Tauch – and Côtes du Roussillon Villages near Perpignan. Notable names here include Domaines Força Réal, Cazes, Gauby and Château de Jau. Just down the coast is beautiful Collioure, which can reach the heights of Domaine du Mas Blanc where Jean-Michel Parcé performs magic with Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise.
Rhône wines have blossomed despite a slight drop in exports last year, but significantly they rose in value by 13% (Inter-Rhône: 10 months 2002 v 2001) suggesting an upmarket trend. The warm south supplies a vast array of mostly red wines, crowned by celebrated favourite Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However we should also be seeking out certain up-and-coming Côtes du Rhône Villages, which can match it for style and quality yet give better value.
Gabriel Meffre in Gigondas is best known for its big supermarket brand Châsse du Pape; in 1997 Bertrand Bonnet and winemaker Thierry Boudinaud led a management buy-out and polished the focus. “We want to develop our Laurus range – Thierry’s baby – and are looking for an on-trade agent in the UK,” Anthony Taylor, export and PR director, explains. “We’ve added A.Cs as growers came on board, working with them to create the right style and quality.” This impressive line-up includes Gigondas, Cairanne and Rasteau reds. Paul Boutinot is also active in Cairanne – his ‘Côte Sauvage’ cuvée is a star – and further south in the promising Côtes du Ventoux. Cave de Rasteau illustrates the distinguished capability of vineyards here, particularly the old vine Grenache and Mourvèdre that nourish their first-class Prestige and les Hauts de Villages wines. Séguret is another emerging village; Walter McKinlay, who bought Domaine de Mourchon up in the stoney hills in 1998, is crafting meaty concentrated and food-friendly reds. Being noticed by Robert Parker should help him and Séguret overall, but Walter acknowledges the difficulties: “the problem facing the Syndicat is you’re only as good as the worst producer, so recognition of the quality level isn’t as high as it should be.”
Provence evokes strong emotions yet has disappointingly light distribution. Côtes de Provence is the largest appellation and has its fair share of highs and lows, but overall it’s a sound source of attractive dry rosés, which are finally gaining acceptance as fitting restaurant wines. Côteaux d’Aix usually offers better still, especially its reds and rosés, and the rarefied sub-region Les Baux-de-Provence boasts rich complex (but pricey) reds, many produced organically. Mourvèdre reigns supreme in Bandol, where low yields and fussy attention to detail reward with superb age-worthy reds: “we have a cardiac in order to create Mourvèdre,” Henri de Saint-Victor stresses at Château Pibarnon. “When English restaurants don’t want to or can’t pay for top Bordeaux, Bandol is a quarter of the price but still offers complex flavours, tannins and depth,” he continues responding to possible criticism that these wines are expensive. Similarly Paul Bunan emphasises “the quality of terroir and growers in Bandol…these are wines for ageing.” It’s clear quantity isn’t of interest here, which is again reinforced by the sterling wines at Domaine Tempier.
A great future lies ahead for the South of France at all quality and price levels. Branded varietals and sought-after traditional wines already have a marketing edge; others still have to earn their place on a wine list, whether quick turnover by-the-glass or serious food wines for demanding restaurants. Enthusiastic participation will be required to push sales along, such as staff education, tastings for customers or simply effective positioning and descriptions on the list or blackboard.

List of less than ten wines:
Chardonnay Vin de Pays d’Oc, Persimmon (Liberty Wines 020 7720 5350)
Fat Bastard Syrah, Fat Bastard Wine Company (Guy Anderson Wines, 01935 817617)
Lirac rosé, Château la Roch (Gerrard Seel, 01925 819695)
Cuvée Genest Côtes du Rhône Villages, Domaine de la Guicharde (Great Western Wine, 01225 322800)
Between ten and 20 wines:
South of France Viognier, Michel Laroche (Bibendum Wine, 020 7449 4081)
Bandol rosé, Château la Rouvière (Yapp Brothers, 0174 786 0423)
Collection Privée Cabardès rouge, Château de Pennautier (Paul Boutinot Agencies, 0161 908 1371
Saint-Joseph Deschants, M. Chapoutier (Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3600)
Montravel rouge, Château le Raz (AC Wines, 020 7639 1875)
Cumulo Nimbus Minervois, Abbotts (Siegel Wine Agencies 01256 701101)
20 wines and above:
Picpoul de Pinet les Flacons, Côteaux du Languedoc (white)
Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc or Côtes du Rhône Villages blanc
Costières de Nimes Tradition, Château de Campuget (Michael Druitt Vintners 01582 722538)
Les Hauts de Força Réal Côtes du Roussillon Villages, Jean-Paul Henriquès
La Stèle Les Baux-de-Provence, Mas de la Dame (Lay & Wheeler 01206 713519)
Clos de la Simonette Saint-Chinian, Mas Champart (Bibendum Wine, 020 7449 4081)
Madiran Cuvée Charles de Baatz, Domaine Berthoumieu (Paul Boutinot Agencies, 0161 908 1371)
Château Ampuis Côte Rôtie, E. Guigal (John E Fells 01442 870900).

And more:
More HOT... or hotter still? (new Manchester bars) and HERE (sushi & licensing in Manchester) (both 2002).

All rights Richard Mark James

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.