Ward Kadel, facing a congregation of thirsty wine bloggers, tried to preach heresy: that France’s Bordeaux region, source of the world’s most expensive wines, also has worthy bottles for less than $50.
The occasion was a speed-tasting at a Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, in July. It was part of a broader effort by the Bordeaux Wine Council, which hired Kadel as one of several “Le Wine Buffs” promoting the region’s less-famous producers in the U.S.
“I think people are receptive,” said Kadel in his cautious tally of converts.
Prices for top Bordeaux chateaux, such as Lafite, have hit records recently due to surging demand from China, making even some billionaires balk. The new marketing effort, costing $14 million since 2009, is meant to offset the perception that good Bordeaux wines are out of reach.
“It’s not just all first growths for $1,000 a bottle,” said Tony Westfall, chief executive officer of Good Company Wines Inc., a Sonoma, California-based importer that sells through its website Invino.com. “There are plenty of good values.”
The company has a 1996 Chateau Berliquet St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe for $25. It’s a lighter wine that had aged nicely, with tart raspberries and earthy tones.
Shifting demand has also necessitated the marketing push, Westfall said. France is drinking less, so producers whose bottles were mainly consumed in-country need new buyers. The U.S. became the largest wine-consuming nation in the world last year, surpassing France for the first time, according to Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine-industry consulting firm in Woodside, California.
“In the past, there really was very little competition, and everything was sold without much effort,” said Prince Robert of Luxembourg, president of Domaine Clarence Dillon SAS and owner of Chateau Haut-Brion. “As people started producing better wines around the world, Bordeaux had to become more proactive.”
The prince’s solution: Clarendelle, a line of wines crafted to showcase the region’s style for less than $25 a bottle (his 2010 Haut-Brion is selling for $1,159).
The 2005 Clarendelle Rouge packs a lot of value for the price. Flavors ranged from sour raspberries to ripe blackberries, with well-balanced acidity and tannins. It would run circles around many similar offerings from Napa.
“The complexity in Bordeaux is so much more eye-opening than, say, a red blend from California for the same price,” said Doug Bell, global wine co-buyer for Whole Foods Market Inc. The supermarket chain has been promoting these wines with special displays, tastings and events, leading to a rise in sales, Bell said. “We really want to educate our shoppers to tell them that Bordeaux is accessible, it’s affordable.”
A trio of 2009s from Whole Foods -- Chateau la Fleur Dallon ($10.99), Chateau Picau-Perna St. Emilion ($20) and Chateau Moulin de Mallet ($12) -- came off as tart and tannic when I first opened them, but they evolved the next day into slick sippers with notes of dried flowers, blackberries and vanilla spice.
The success of these marketing efforts is mixed. Total U.S. sales of Bordeaux for the year ended Aug. 31 rose 7.3 percent to $14.9 million, after declining 1.2 percent last year, according to Nielsen Co.
Meanwhile, Wine.com, the largest online seller of wine, with 2 million bottles shipped last year, said its sales of Bordeaux under $50 fell 10 percent for the 12-month period ended Sept. 30, while all wine in that price category rose 40 percent. Last year, Bordeaux sales more than doubled, compared to a gain of 39 percent for wine under $50.
Steve LaCour, 35, didn’t drink much Bordeaux before his friend, Kadel, poured some at a barbecue. The financial adviser who would typically drink Napa or Sonoma reds came away with a new appreciation for the region’s offerings.
“If you’ve heard of wine, you’ve heard of Bordeaux,” LaCour said. “But you don’t have to take out a third mortgage to buy some.”
(Ryan Flinn is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)