The UGC have just finished their annual tour of North America, an event that is particularly close to my heart as it was on such a tour (many, many years ago) that I first met my husband. That aside, this year’s edition seems especially interesting; not only did they visit Miami,
Toronto, St John’s,
Los Angeles (phew), once back in Bordeaux the orders for the 2012, the vintage on show, started coming thought the pipeline that is ‘la Place de Bordeaux’. As far as a marketing initiative goes – that’s got to be mission accomplished.
The UGC Tasting in NYC
So what is the UGC? The Union des Grands Crus is a trade association that includes 133 of the top chateaux from Bordeaux out of the total 7 500. Created in the 1970s by a group of chateau owners the objective was to pool their resources to raise the profile of their wines in export markets. It has now grown to a 4 million euro marketing programme that includes organising the primeur tastings for the new vintage in Bordeaux every year, trade tastings in all the major export countries and consumer events, such as the ‘Weekend des Grands Grand Cru’, held in Bordeaux each Spring.
The Invitation to the UGC Weekend
This knocks on the head several received notions about Bordeaux such as; they never travel, don’t know how to market their wine, don’t work together and are behind the times. In the 1970s in France, marketing was in its infancy, air travel was expensive, language skills rare and staff short in the vineyards that were having a hard time of it between economic crises and a string of average vintages.
The top properties participating in these tastings have more resources than most which is one of the reasons their role as a ‘locomotive’ for the regions remains important. With an average size of 15ha many a Bordeaux vineyard will struggle to dedicate a person to travel and promote their wine both for financial and organisational reasons. Consumers may love to see a winemaker but while they are out and about they’re not at the vineyard making the wine.
The wines at these tastings will mainly get to market through the Place de Bordeaux (see previous post). This system, whereby the chateaux sell to several merchants who include the wine in a portfolio that they take to importers in the various markets has certain advantages; a much greater reach for these properties and a cost effective route to market with commercial, shipping and promotional costs spread over a larger range of products. Most of these wines will have been bought en primeur (more of which later), which provides cash flow to the chateau well before the wines are sold onto the final customer.
There are also disadvantages; the risk of your wine being lost in the group, a lack of contact with the final customer or even knowing where your wine is being sold. This is where these tastings are so useful. In this Internet age of wine searcher apps, wine makers have a better market knowledge even from the depths of their cellars and generally work closely with merchants to optimise their reach.
The top chateaux also rely on the merchants to do their promotion for them. On these trips, when not pouring at tastings, winemakers are out with the merchants visiting clients or hosting wine dinners for the trade and enthusiastic consumers. Direct contact with clients is great for both for the client and the producer; market knowledge may be fed back from the negociant but it’s always more satisfying to see your product on wine lists and your bottles on shelves yourself and to have that exchange directly.
Why the 2012? This is the latest Bordeaux vintage to hit the shelves not just in the US but also other export markets (Asia and Europe being the leading ones and where the UCG is headed next). Let’s put this in context of how and when Bordeaux wines come to market. Picked in the autumn of 2012, vinified, then put down into barrel early in 2013 the (red) 2012 was then bottled in the spring of 2014 after about 18 months in barrel. It then recovered from bottle shock in cool cellars during the (not so hot) 2014 summer and was shipped towards the end of the year.
2012 was a small and late vintage. A vintage that required a lot of work throughout the year in the vines to get the best out of the tricky climate. A cool, wet spring and early summer gave uneven flowering and a high mildew risk requiring expensive spraying to protect the vines. August and early September were hot and dry but uneven ripening amongst the red grapes and rain during harvest called for carefully judged timing of picking and meticulous selection, something we are getting the hang of in Bordeaux in recent vintages. As with 2011, it was a year when properties with sophisticated selection processes, be they human or more often now mechanised and optical, reaped the rewards of their investment producing a smaller but quality crop. It is however a vintage where Merlot, in general, outshone the Cabernets producing wines that are very accessible early. The dry white wines were excellent across the board.
Selection the 2012 vintage at Chateau Rauzan Segla
Looking at tasting notes and other comments on the web the feedback is pretty positive and, as I said, uptake back in the ‘Place de Bordeaux’ reflects this enthusiasm. That plus a very favourable Euro-US dollar rate of exchange.
This might be good news across the top end but it is also good news across the Bordeaux board when these properties do act as the locomotive as mentioned above. So the system does work after all.
Timing is everything however; in anticipation of the April UGC Primeur tastings, the annual price bun fight around the latest 2014 vintage has already started with UK merchants addressing an open letter to the La Place, asking for lower prices (a request formulated every year in some way or another). With certain Bordeaux merchants respectively reminding the trade that the next vintage needs financing and that wines are not for speculation but for drinking, etc, etc.
Dissent is also in the ranks of the producers. The very top classified growths don’t usually join in the UGC fray, preferring to host clients at their own properties rather than show their barrel samples alongside their neighbours. This makes life just a little bit more complicated for visitors trying to whiz round all the tastings over a period of 3 days (not as glamorous as it sounds). This year, according to a recent report in Decanter, a few more properties (Haut-Bailly in Pessac Leognan, La Conseillante in Pomerol and Figeac in Saint Emilion) have decided to do the same, their argument being this gives them more control over the samples.
So while we are waiting for the 2014 to fight their way through the system I suggest you start quaffing your 2012s and see if you agree with the positive feedback. Cheers.