The South trades up

Co-ops moving into brands, producers opening their doors to wine tourists. Felicity Carter finds the southern end of the Rhône is buzzing.

The Castle of Grignan
The Castle of Grignan; Photo: Alexi Tauzin - Fotolia.com

It’s a bright day, and cars are already pulling up at Laudun Chusclan Vignerons, a co-operative. The passengers are here to buy the region’s attractive, easy drinking red wines, either by the bottle or the old school way – holding their demi-johns under the tap and filling up. Many of the licence plates have a ‘B’ on them, for Belgium, thereby causing a statistical problem for the region; Inter Rhône knows full well that Belgians are some of the top buyers of the region’s wines. It can’t capture data proving this, however, because Belgians don’t order from importers or distributors – they drive in, fill up and drive off.

This isn’t the region’s only perception problem. The other is that Laudun, on the right side of the Rhône River, is not yet known for terroir wines. But that’s changing, thanks to a new strategy. First, the cooperatives of Laudun and Chusclan decided to join forces 10 years ago. “When we thought about the fusion, we thought about how to commercialise better,” says Philippe Pellaton, president. The task was enormous – the co-operative has 200 wine producers on 3,000ha of land, producing 140,000hl. In the past, more than 75% was bulk. Today, the ratio is more 50% bulk and 50% bottle, with 8m bottles today. 

Pellaton is standing in the tasting room, an unsentimental space lined with bottles. The co-operative produces up to 300 different brands, including many private labels. “We sell three million bottles in retail in the UK,” he says. “On- and off-trade. Twenty years ago we began with Marks & Spencer, so the UK is a big market for us.” Yet when the crisis came, that market wasn’t big enough to keep them safe, so a major strategic overhaul was in order.

Investment in sales

One of the first steps the co-op took was to increase the number of people involved in selling, rather than making. “In the beginning there were a lot of people in the vinification, but for the selling of the wine, sometimes only one person.” Ten years ago, it had 20 people. Today it has 50.

Another issue on the agenda is a discussion about changing the co-op’s name, to divorce it somewhat from the territory. Selling as Côtes du Rhône is easy enough in the UK, because that market has a long experience with such wines, but it doesn’t work in the USA. To have a competitive portfolio, Laudun Chusclan Vignerons needs to offer wine from better-known appellations, such as Hermitage, Gigondas and Condrieu. “On the export market, it’s very important to have this kind of product. Those other names are the vision that the consumer has of the Rhône,” says Pellaton. He says buying grapes from such appellations is impossible, so the co-op either must buy bulk or bottled wine.

But making a name change doesn’t mean the co-operative is abandoning the concept of terroir. In 2013, it made an application to the National Institute of Origin and Quality, or INAO, to have Côtes du Rhône Village Laudan become a cru. “We need to be precise about the best areas,” Pellaton says. He expects Laudan will become a cru in five years, giving cachet to the wines. The co-op is not abandoning Côtes du Rhône, however, as it’s the foundation of its offering. Instead, the Laudun Cru will become the locomotive, pulling everything along with it. “The strategy is also to explain to the producer that we need to produce better,” he says, saying growers have made a big push to work with the soil and use fewer products. “I’m the president for producers between Lyon and Avignon for ten years now, and the situation was very difficult for all the producers. We worked to increase the quality – we reduced the quantity of wine, increased the level of colour, the level of anthocyanin in the wine and the price increased regularly.” Ten years ago, he says, growers earned €90.00 per hl, while today it’s €165.00 per hl. That turns into €220.00 value once the wine is bottled, he says.

The next project is to diversify away from reds – currently 93% of production – into white and rosés. “We have the soil to produce the whites: Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.” There’s a dizzying amount to do, but the pay-off is already clear. “The development of the Asian markets is very fast, very recent,” he says, saying the co-op is now sending 300,000 bottles there and expects that number to grow. Overall, “the profitability has gone up”.

Pellaton has been serious throughout, but he suddenly breaks into a smile. “This is a personal adventure,” he says. “To be able to work with people in a co-operative venture like this…” It’s clear he’s feeling positive.

Celliers des Dauphins

He’s not the only one. The team at Celliers des Dauphins – the Union des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône – are feeling good about life too. Given the co-op’s turnover last year was about €96m, this is perhaps not very surprising.

Celliers des Dauphins is an enormous undertaking, consisting of 11 co-operatives, about 12,000ha of vineyards and 2,000 wine growers across an area that extends from Sérignan-du-Comtat in the south to Nyons, at the foot of the Alps. Celliers des Dauphins produces AOC wines, IGP wines, Côtes du Rhône, and Côtes du Rhône Villages, with or without commune names – in short, it represents 30% of the Côtes du Rhône region.

The co-operative was born in crisis. “During the 1960s there was a big crisis in the vineyards,” says Sylvie Darves, director in charge of development, Celliers des Dauphins. She explains that it was difficult for people to sell their wines, so they decided to mutualise. Thus were the co-operatives born – together, people could bottle, market and sell. Darves says that in their particular case, there are two levels to the organisation. “The first is our eleven cooperatives, which make the wine. They bring a minimum of fifty per cent to the union. During the year we work with them to target our profile, in vineyard and cellar. The second level is Celliers Dauphin, a union of bottling.”

In the 1960s, the group’s purpose was simply to sell big volumes of wine to the domestic market. By the 1990s, as consumption dropped in France, attention turned to export markets. “Our tool is four lines of production,” says Darves. “Three lines for bottles and one for bag-in-box.”

When the last crisis hit, this awareness of international markets helped the co-op move upwards, into a more profitable segment of the market. It already produced Cellier des Dauphin Prestige, one of the bestselling AOC wines in France. Then in 2010, Celliers des Dauphin called in an English branding consultant, Richard Evans, who – along with Amphora Design – worked on shaping a wine that would appeal to the UK market. They created a retro Belle Époque-style label, and a taste that was slightly fruiter than is normal in France, though it remained clearly Rhône in style. The wine, Les Dauphins, was an instant hit in the UK, and is now exported to another 25 markets. Its success allowed the brand developers to go on to create wines that promote specific villages from the region. 

Premiumisation is ongoing in the vineyards as well. With about 1,000ha of organic production, the group is the biggest producer of organic wines in the Rhône Valley. “It’s a tiny market at the moment, but we feel there will be a development,” says Darves. They’re working on white production, particularly on how to keep the wines fresh and lively, and have also launched a sulphite-free wine.

The mood is upbeat, with plenty of lively talk about export markets and new styles. Another consequence of growing sales is that more people than ever want to come and taste the wines.

Wine tourism emerges

With its vibrant purple fields of lavender, its truffles and its laidback lifestyle, plus national monuments like the spectacular Castle of Adhémar in the town of Montélimar, it’s no surprise that visitors flock to the southern Rhône. But until recently, wine tourism consisted mainly of cellar doors that existed primarily to sell wine, rather than offer an immersive experience.

Mélina Monteillet of Domaine de Montine is one of a new wave of winemakers and owners changing that. Although her family acquired the farm in 1949 and created the estate in 1987, progress came slowly; a cellar expansion in 1995, the first concrete tanks in 2001; the bottling line in 2010. But in 2011, the Grignan winery opened its winery shop and sales began to rise. The constant flow of visitors has helped to smooth the sales cycle, ensuring sales all year round. “Visitors come in rhythm with the holidays, says Monteillet. “They automatically come in summer, but the truffles bring them in the winter.”

While 50% of the winery’s wine is sold through the shop, local products is also for sale. “People come to buy six bottles of wine and leave with more – two jams and a syrup.” Monteillet says that shop sales have resulted in local food businesses increasing production, leading to a cluster effect in the area. The wine shop has proved such a good sales tool that other offerings have sprung up around it, to encourage visitors to stay longer and spend more time with the wines.

Today, Domaine de Montine offers holiday cottages, truffle hunting weekends, wine tastings, winery tours, and winemaker dinners, among other activities. Monteillet pulls out a folder of sales figures. She asked that specifics not be given, but the trend is clear – the line is up.

The same thing is happening at Domaine de Grangeneuve at Roussas, where Henri Bour waits out the front with a couple of quad bikes. He piles his visitors on the back and drives off to show everyone around the vineyards. “People buy more after they have seen the vineyard,” he says. 

“We have twenty-five thousand visitors a year,” he says. “The number has not increased in the past three years, but we are seeing people spending more money while they are here.” Bour says his purpose is not to build a major wine tourism facility, but to grow wine sales. However, he knows that giving visitors some kind of experience is a must, because consumers are changing. “They want to speak with the winemaker,” he says. “Young consumers are much more interested – drinking wine is not sufficient for them. They want to drink the history. They want to put the product in the landscape.”

Should they buy the one-and-a-half hour truffle meal with the winemaker – prepared by Madame Bour – they will eat very well indeed. The food is simple but the quality is superb. “The majority of our guests come from the north of Europe,” says Bour. It helps that his winery is not far from the highway. As he waves his visitors out the door, he reiterates that the appellation – the AOC Grignan-les Adhémar – is not in crisis any longer and is experiencing a new dynamism. “New producers are coming,” he says.

It’s the ultimate virtuous circle: visitors buy the wine, amenities are created so more visitors come – and then so do new producers. While Southern Rhône still has work to do, the trend is clear. Up.

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