Anything but Chardonnay

Why Burgundy is in many ways a role model for wine marketers.

In the late 90s, Penfolds launched Yattarna, the “white Grange”, which was a Chardonnay positioned at over £30 a bottle. I was running Southcorp’s European operation at the time and decided to send samples to key buyers for their feedback.

One such buyer set up a comparative tasting and sent me the results. Yattarna had performed acceptably, but I was intrigued by his view of its competitive set, and asked him why it was composed only of New World Chardonnays. He said that consumers saw white Burgundies as a separate proposition, with many not realising they were Chardonnays at all.

I remembered this story as I read Matt Kramer’s recent piece in the Wine Spectator (March 5th), The Seven Habits of Ineffective Wine People. It is a very good read and I empathised with virtually all his criticisms, but I would take issue with his view that Burgundian producers should acknowledge somewhere on the label that a Bourgogne blanc is a Chardonnay.

I accept that there is a material difference between placing Chardonnay prominently on the front label and making an oblique reference on the back, but I can understand the reluctance of many Burgundians to acknowledge the varietal at all.

The strength of brand Burgundy

Burgundy to me is one of the strongest wine brands around. It would be fair to say that it has achieved this status as much by accident as design; it’s hardly after all a case study in terms of the process of brand development. In addition, the attitude of many Burgundians to marketing- or specifically consumer communication- as Matt Kramer points out, not only leaves rather a lot to be desired, but can also come across as irritating at the very least.

However this should not detract from the fact that Burgundy has managed to set itself apart from what those of us in the know would consider to be its competitive set:  anyone producing Chardonnay, or indeed Pinot Noir. At the same time it has established its franchise at a premium price. These are no mean achievements.

On similar lines, I advise English still wine producers to consider creating blends, and even perhaps market them as “Red” or “White”, as opposed to giving prominence to single varietals. This implies that if the consumer likes the wine they have nothing with which to compare it; it is in a competitive set of one. If they want to repurchase, there is little option but to go back to the same brand.

For Burgundian producers to put Chardonnay on the label would be the equivalent of saying: “You thought we were different, but actually we are fundamentally just the same as all those other Chardonnays, except we tend to be more expensive”. However good you think your product may be this is surely not very clever. It’s the equivalent of Bacardi saying: “Actually, guys, we are just a white rum”, or Southern Comfort posting its secret recipe on its Facebook page.

Certainly it could be argued Burgundian producers need to engage with their consumers far more effectively than is generally the case, but this must surely be done in a way that supports, rather than undermines, the added value inherent within their brand.

My argument, I quite accept, falls down if you need to sell more wine than your target consumers can handle. If, for example, you are a Chablis producer and you need to expand your market – and your new consumer base appears to have no perception of Chablis as a premium product – then explaining that it is a Chardonnay will surely help sales. The same applies to English blends. They work where the brand is strong – at the cellar door – but  less well where consumers are unfamiliar with the producer and need product cues with more resonance.

But once the genie is out of the bottle you are unlikely to be able to get it back in. The secret is, therefore, as in so many elements of wine marketing, to try to avoid putting oneself under volume pressure. Many Burgundian producers, of course, are fortunate in this regard, but those that are not have the difficult task of balancing the short-term need for sales against the long-term risk to their brand.

Don’t knock Burgundy’s success

The reality is that Burgundy, however irritating we might occasionally find its variability and the attitude of its producers, should be viewed in many other ways as a role model. Most criticism aimed at the wine category quite rightly focuses on our apparent lack of ability to differentiate one sector from another, or one brand from another, or more generally on our failure to trade consumers up.

Burgundy, in part through an accident of history, has largely achieved these goals. Producers may argue that this is all to do with the inherent quality of the wines, but in my view it is much to do with the way these wines and the region have been marketed, however unconsciously at times. What it needs to focus on now is enhancing its identity and premium values by understanding the role that astute marketing and, in particular, relevant consumer communication, can play in achieving that goal.

The rest of us, meanwhile, should be celebrating Burgundy as a marketing success story (as much for  its many sublime wines) and attempting to replicate that success. The very last thing we should be doing is encouraging it down from its pedestal. We may delight sometimes in informing consumers who are banging on about how much they dislike Chardonnay that the Chablis they are currently enjoying is actually one of their bêtes noir, but for Burgundy producers to do so en masse would surely represent a serious mistake.



2 thoughts on “Anything but Chardonnay

  1. I think (and I do mean “I think” rather than “I know”…) that we all agree that wine has a number of problems to contend with right now – ageing demographic, little relevance to young consumers, trapped in the anti alcohol target zone, low margins for producers etc etc.
    In its heyday, the Oz success story was significantly boosted by all major companies working together under the dragon eye of Hazel M.
    Mike’s interpretation of the burgundy successs story (and burgundy has generated a real value add) is a classic example of “I’m all right Jack”‘ism. If you are safely tucked up in your castle why on earth help any others locked outside?
    Until wine generically ackowledges the problems we all face and tries to work together to solve them (which might or might not include burgundy galloping to the rescue of the noble Chardonnay…) then those safe in their towers watching those outside perish might consider that you cannot grow from inside a tower – you can only watch and hope that someone comes to your rescue. I prefer a more active approach……

    • Firstly I totally agree with you in terms of the industry needing to work together. I am a great fan of generic initiatives as you know or indeed less formal ‘think tanks’. However I think thats a different, and much broader (and more important) issue, than I’m addressing here.

      Im really just questioning why one would want to demystify a successful brand.The way to build a category is surely to learn from such brands and for others to follow their example rather than risk making them look ordinary in the eyes of the target market. I’m not sure that for me in the 90’s to suggest that the Penfolds red wine range was, on a varietal level, simply 15 different ways of putting varying qualities of Shiraz and Cabernet together would have helped the Australian category! I was however happy to tell the Penfolds story and maybe that is the point you are making.

      We need to encourage more consumwers to dream, to become more fully engaged in wine, to relate to the stories we tell.Indeed how we acheive that could be a very good subject for a think tank. The stories might be around provenance or terroir and most of the good ones currently are, we can do that bit pretty well at times. Most people agree however that we need to broaden our repertoire, but that doesn’t imply that the traditional approach doesn’t still have its place.

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