Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Repositioning the white wines of Graves

How to reposition the white wines of Graves in the export market?

Note: this is the text of my MW-studies prize-winning essay on Graves white wines, sponsored by the Syndicat Viticole des Graves. I wrote up the visit to Graves in Harvest in Bordeaux

The Graves region of Bordeaux produces some of the finest, most complex and most ageable white wines of the world and yet it is struggling to make an impact in today’s complex wine market.  A repositioning should build on the strengths of the region and the opportunities that are there to exploit. These include its history, the rise in quality on the best estates in the last 20 years, excellent value for money and the double-edged sword of the success of the sub-appellation Pessac-Léognan.  The opportunities include possible re-visiting of the concept of the appellation and the ability to exploit white Graves’ food-friendliness.  The weaknesses which need to be addressed in any repositioning are a lack of clarity around the image of the wine, a general weakness of the brand ‘Graves’, and the uneven quality of wine being produced.  The threats to be countered are whether the region can channel its energy into a single coherent strategy and the challenge of increasingly sophisticated marketing and winemaking from regions around the world.   

The white wines of Graves ageing in the barrel cellar

The current situation is that white Graves is outperforming red Graves in export markets.  While nearly three times as much red Graves is produced as dry white, only twice as much red wine is exported as dry white wine (21,500 hl and 9,900 hl per year respectively).  But the export figures indicate that the principal markets do not follow the size of international markets, with the number 1 market being Belgium where nearly 30% of exported wine goes. Much less goes to the world’s biggest wine market, USA and the Netherlands, followed by a smaller amount going to the UK.  From this, it is immediately clear that one prime target must be a stronger performance in the large and growing US market.  China can wait until it has developed a stronger demand for premium white wine.  

As noted, the strengths of white Graves are its history as one of the oldest fine wine regions in the world.  Its history goes back at least to the twelfth century and the wines were famously collected by Thomas Jefferson and celebrated by Samuel Pepys.  It is a far older region than the Médoc.  But it is only in the last 20 years that the standard of winemaking has begun to pick up among the top estates.  While Haut-Brion for reds was, of course, awarded the honour of being a first growth in the 1855 classification, the general picture in the twentieth century was of lower investment and lower standards of winemaking in the Graves than in Médoc and there was no revolution such as happened on the right bank during the last century.  In order to succeed top-level Graves needs to produce great wine and remind people of its history.  

Further work could also be done with the appellation name, the only region to be named after its soils.  The name has many strengths: it is easily understood, short and pronounceable in English, a key point for the export market.  But at the moment wine connoisseurs are as likely to know the names of top estates, eg Domaine de Chevalier, as the regional name (so E. Perrin). The issue is further complicated by the relative success of the sub-appellation Pessac-Léognan which has taken most of the top estates out of the general Graves category and left low value ‘Graves de Sud’ somewhat stranded.  An ambitious plan here would be to persuade the top Sauternes/Barsac chateaux (eg d’Yquem) to sell their dry white wines under a relaunched Graves appellation in order to give some much-needed glamour to this zone.  

A major issue for dry white Graves is to improve financial return on investment and thus create more capital to invest in the future.  In some ways, this is a microcosm of the problem which Bordeaux as a whole faces. As was put memorably by Roger Bohmrich MW: ‘the locomotive has pulled out of the station leaving the cars on the platform’.  The point being made here is that while the top wines are well known, this has been of little help in selling everyday wines. In fact, there is a double issue here. Top white Graves is still remarkably inexpensive which is a strength as it makes it more accessible and competitive; and a weakness for the producers, for return on investment.  At the same time, it is difficult to get a reasonable return on everyday wines.  A repositioning here would be consciously to promote two styles of wine:

  • top-level, oak-aged, wines with a high Sémillon content for the premium market (wine connoisseurs and gastronomy) and
  • a big brand white Graves which is fresh, fruity, food-friendly, moderate in alcohol and mainly Sauvignon Blanc to respond to the mass market taste (everyday drinking, restaurants, bars).  It should have the varietal name prominently on the label.   Mouton Cadet, the only really successful global brand in Bordeaux, could be a model here.  Clearly this would need a really big player to buy fruit from many small growers.  

Further, the final aim in repositioning must be to connect the prestige and quality of premium Graves with its everyday wines – a ladder of opportunity.  

In order to reposition itself, white Graves needs to build on its strengths of history, the recent improvement in winemaking, a brand name that can be easily understood and value for money.  One possible overall strategy would be a double thrust to continue to promote the high-end wines for the connoisseur while creating a mass-market branded wine in a contemporary style.  The perfect combination would be to create a strong connection between the two and so enable consumers to trade up from the accessible brand to the premium product.  While there has not been space in the confines of this essay to consider these suggestions in detail, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of dry, white Graves.  

With thanks to the Syndicat Viticole des Graves who sponsored me for the Graves Press trip, September 2014. 

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