Bordeaux invades Poland

Wine exporters are turning their attention to Poland, as the market there grows. Panos kakaviatos went to the first ever official tasting of Bordeaux “grand cru” wines in Warsaw, to see how things might develop. Because where Bordeaux goes, others follow.

Bordeaux invades Poland

At a first ever tasting of top Bordeaux in Poland, excitement and interest were evident. Over 500 Polish wine merchants, sommeliers, restaurateurs, journalists, bloggers and aficionados packed into the 192-metre long space of the prestigious Kubicki Arcades at Warsaw’s Royal Palace for the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux’s (UGCB) premier tasting of the 2010 vintage.

“This is the first time we are able to taste so many wines from a single vintage,” remarked Tomasz Zaremba, visiting the tasting on behalf of Warsaw’s trendiest wine bar restaurant, Mielżyński.

Amidst sipping and spitting, 71 chateau representatives and Polish tasters engaged in much discussion. Tomasz Józefik, deputy sales director of wine importer PWW – owned by vodka-producing giant Central European Distribution Corporation – explained that wine market growth has been slower than expected; he had expected yearly increases of about one litre of wine per head per year, but “this has not been the case”.

Catherine Lambert of the Bordeaux négociant Ulysse Cazabonne, asked about price points and whether the market could be expected to grow. “Yes, of course,” Józefik replied. “About 15 years ago, Polish people were drinking less than two litres of wine per head per year.”

Statistics from Ubifrance – a French agency for international business development, under supervision from government ministries – confirm Józefik’s remarks. They put the wine consumption at about 3.5 L per head. By comparison, vodka and beer still dominate alcohol consumption at approximately 8 L of vodka per head per year and a whopping 91 L per head of beer per year. Poland is in 35th place in Europe for wine consumption, and wine represents only about 7% of the total alcoholic beverage market.

By comparison, Germans drink some 25 L of wine per capita per year. Nevertheless, statistics indicate that wine consumption is rising. For Józefik, “Bordeaux’s best years are yet to come.”

For more affluent imbibers

In 2007, Poland imported about 880,000 hL of wine worth €132m ($175.8m); by 2012, the figure had jumped to nearly 1m hL of imported wine, valued at just under €180m. French wine comes third place in value, behind Germany and Italy, and fifth place in volume, behind Germany, Spain, Italy and Bulgaria.

Bordeaux has benefited enough from these trends to attract the attention of the UGCB. Through the first three months of this year, according to Ubifrance, Poland purchased some 3,458 hL of Bordeaux, valued at just over €1m: an increase of almost 20% in volume and about 9% in value compared to the first three months of 2012. In 2012, Bordeaux wine sales – some 17,267 hL worth over €6m – outpaced 2011 by 12.2% in volume and 27% in value.

Tomasz Talaga manages Enoteka wine bar and restaurant near Warsaw’s chic avenue Krakowskie Przedmieście, which leads to the Royal Castle. Located in an attractive wood-panelled space that’s partly underground, Enoteka sells only Old World wines; mostly Italian, but some French, too – including Bordeaux.

Talaga says that he could not have imagined Enoteka existing in Warsaw 10 years ago. “Most of our clients are working professionals, in their 30s to 40s,” he said. Ubifrance statistics also indicate that the 30s and 40s age groups hold the most potential for growth. They are “growing accustomed to wine, and choose wine much more often than vodka and beer,” Talaga said. While students drink “lots of beer”, people who have started to make more money turn to wine, he explained.

A more favourable economic outlook has nurtured increasing wine interest, said Benjamin Jones of Bordeaux négociant MT Wines. While growth slowed to only 1.1% in 2013, according to Polish central bank projections published in July, Poland’s economy has been the only one in the European Union to avoid recession since 2009. Such growth has led to investment in Poland, and foreigners used to French wine expect to find it at top hotels and restaurants, said Robert Matecki of UbiFrance in Warsaw.

Upscale hotels, such as Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, include wine-friendly restaurants. Opened in December 2012, Hotel Bristol’s Advinture wine bar sells a wide range of wine. The list includes no less than three Italian whites – Pinot Grigio, Italian Chardonnay and Vermentino di Sardegna – as well as wines from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Consumers can find a decent Bordeaux range, stretching from ultra-expensive Château Mouton Rothschild 2005, to more-affordable second wines and cru bourgeois-level wines.

“Increased prosperity means also that more Polish people are traveling to France, Italy, Portugal and Spain and they are seeking Old World wines, including Bordeaux,” said Matecki.

At the UGCB tasting, Jean-Jacques Bonnie of Château Malartic Lagraviére praised the Polish economy as compared to the French, and he joked: “Polish plumbers no longer come to France to find work, but we go to Poland to sell our wine.”

Finding the sweet spot

Wine consultant Janusz Walczak, of Winomaniak, attended the Bordeaux tasting, and explained that the average price of bottles purchased in Poland comes to just €3.75 per bottle – far below most of the wines featured at the UGCB tasting; nevertheless, European wines dominate the ‘premium segment’. In specialised wine shops, he said, the average price sold is between €6.00 to €7.00 per bottle (excise duty exluded).

The price hurdle poses a challenge for these wines, remarked Tomasz Zaremba of the popular wine bar restaurant, Mielżyński. “It looks to me that cru bourgeois level wines have the best potential,” Zaremba said, while sipping Château Maucaillou. “This is a good example of a premium Bordeaux that is not out of reach for Polish consumers interested in Bordeaux.”

Chateau representatives at the UGCB tasting, such as Daina Paulin of Château Haut Bailly and Annabelle Denis of Château de Fieuzal, suggested that the UGCB feature ‘second wines’ – wines made from juice not selected for the top label – the next time they come to Poland, although the UGCB does not include second wines in its tastings.

Challenges

Looking to the future, Bordeaux has to overcome several challenges. In previous years, distribution channels favoured the leastexpensive Bordeaux wines, according to Matias Glusman, Warsaw-based wine expert who helps Poles to prepare for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams. “Bordeaux in the Polish market is at the diaper level,” Glusman remarked. “Too many people associate Bordeaux with rubbish wine found at discount stores and gas stations, so this tasting is very important for education purposes.”

For other consumers, Bordeaux’s image suffers from the opposite problem: inaccessibility.

“It is a challenge to have to explain about appellations and classifications,” said Aleksandar Zivkovic, food and beverage manager at Hotel Bristol. “You do not have a lot of people willing to sit through five minutes of explanations as to what makes Bordeaux so special,” he said. “New World wines are easier to sell.”

In spite of the fact that Poland recently gained its first ever Michelin-rated restaurant in 2013 and that some establishments take wine service very seriously, the country has almost no sommeliers, even at top locations, including Mielżyński and Hotel Bristol. “It [fine dining service] is not really yet part of Polish culture,” said Mielżyński’s Zaremba. “For most Polish people, working in gastronomy is for students before they get their ‘real jobs’.”

UGCB representatives and Ubifrance call for more education. In a market study published before the July tasting, Ubifrance recommends professional trade shows, guided tastings for professionals and connoisseurs, classes on AOC designations and classifications in French wine regions, and more advertising in specialised media. One positive potential for the Polish market is Sauternes because – as the Ubifrance survey indicated – many Poles enjoy sweet wines. Sauternes producers felt “less lonely” than usual at the UGCB tasting: “Usually we wait for a couple of hours before tasters come,” said Didier Fréchinet of Château La Tour Blanche. “There is a tradition here of sweet wines, so we saw people coming to us first.” Warsaw proved the right setting for the tasting. According to Ubifrance, the city may only count 5% of Poland’s total population, but concentrates “nearly 50% of the country’s wine consumers”. Wine bars, specialised wine shops and wine-friendly restaurants have been opening like autumn mushrooms in the last few years. “We hope to come here more regularly,” said UGCB president Olivier Bernard after the tasting. “This was very important for networking, not so much for immediate sales,” he said.

As this article went to press, Ela Chwiałkowska, product manager of distributor Direct Wines in Warsaw, was preparing her second trip to Bordeaux in August 2013. “I fell in love with Bordeaux and Saint Emilion, and now I want to know it better, to understand the terroir, to feel it, and to visit more chateaux, to get to know the winemakers, and this trip is only for me, for my private passion,” she said. Such enthusiasm for Bordeaux was not lost on Nicolas Glumineau, general director of the famous (and very expensive) Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. Glumineau also poured the far more economical Château de Pez, which he says “sells better” in Poland. Given market realities, why bother with the Pichon, I asked. His reply: “Warsaw is but a two-hour flight from Paris; we need to be here. And it is important to have people taste more expensive brands, because when they come to a tasting like this, they should taste wine at the level of Pichon Comtesse. After tasting it, people could purchase the wine for more special occasions.”

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