just-drinks.com interview: Eric Dulong and Bordeaux's mission impossible
Dulong's brief is a tall one - to re-establish Bordeaux as the undisputed capital of the wine world. Up against old-fashioned institutionalism, margin-squeezing supermarkets, archaic vineyard and winery practices and hard-nosed prejudices from consumers and journalists, who have lost patience with Bordeaux, this will be no mean feat. However, Dulong's refreshingly honest approach may be what is needed to at least set the wheels turning.
To a select collection of trade and consumer press this week he set out his goals. "I have four priorities," says Dulong. "The first is quality control, that is the down-stream process [the process by which bottles of Bordeaux are taken off the shelves of retailers all round the world and then quality tested. Producers failing the test will have to submit to tank by tank tasting at the next vintage]. This is very important. We are at the first stage but we are the first region in the world doing this - we are already seeing interesting results."
Given the press Bordeaux has suffered recently the second goal is understandable - to increase efficiency in marketing and communications. The third is as his role as diplomat, to keep a healthy relationship between Bordeaux's various factions, the negociants, producers and growers.
"The fourth is to give Bordeaux back the name of 'the capital of wine'," Dulong says.
This will include more for visitors and students, including a centre for Bordeaux culture and a technical centre for wineries and vineyards.
Goals two and three are part and parcel with any president of the CIVB's job, it is the scale of success in ambitions one and four which will set him apart or consign him to the pile of obscurity.
To this end the CIVB's spend has been increased considerably this year. A total of FF150m (US$21m), is split three ways. FF4m (US$570,000) is given to the economic department to monitor sales, FF10m (US$1.5m) has been put aside for the quality studies (down-streaming and technical research), and FF132m (US$19m) will go towards marketing.
The announcement of these figures drew some criticism. The crux of Bordeaux's image problem lies not in its failure to market properly, although this has not been done well in the past, but because its basic product is not good enough.
Why then was so much time and money being spent on communication when surely it would be better to focus on the root of the problem. "The technical department has FF10m (US$1.5m) no-one else in France even spends FF2m (US$285,000)," says Dulong.
"Quality doesn't require big amounts of money. We looked at 2400 bottles in the downstream process this year." But again this drew criticism. How could a quality system that is meant to put an end to all the poor wine from Bordeaux work, if the CIVB is only surveying 2400 bottles a year? After all Bordeaux produces 6m hl a year.
"We are looking at the volume end of the market only," explains Dulong. "The quality programmes are not on the expensive wines. We need to focus on the heart of the matter." But despite protests to the contrary 2400 still seems a barely acceptable number of wines.
Whatever the number, the results so far, Dulong says, are encouraging. Many supermarket buyers may raise an eyebrow, but, apparently, only 2-3% of wines were found to be unacceptable. "As a negociant myself I thought it would be more, but having seen the numbers I had to accept them."
Whether Dulong does believe these figures or not, at least there are enough strong words in his talk to suggest he will not sit back and let the present situation continue. The present tasting system that awards a wine its AOC status comes under particular criticism.
At present a winemaker only has to present one sample from his winery, a blend of all his tanks. In short this means that the good tanks are brought down by the bad, but more dangerous, poor wine is given an AOC tag because at the tasting it is blended with good wine. After the tasting there is nothing stopping a winemaker selling the poor tank unblended.
"As long as the INAO (the body in charge of the AOC tasting) system goes on we will have problems," he says. Unfortunately recognition of the problem is only the first step in a long process of change. The INAO will be very hard to convince.
One suggestion among the press is that the formation of a Vin de Pays de Gironde might be the answer to Bordeaux's quality problems. It would distance the name Bordeaux from the cheaper end of the market without robbing producers of a livelihood. The AOC tastings could be made stricter and those failing could fall into a VDP category.
Having originally supported this route Dulong has now made a u-turn. However, what is interesting is that he wants an even more drastic solution to those failing to live up to the name Bordeaux.
"I was for VDP a year or so ago but no more. People who buy VDP look at varietals and this is a very competitive market there are so many varietal wines on the market already. We have to go further. The producers not producing sufficient quality will have to disappear, move into other areas of agriculture."
How this will be done remained unexplained. But these are strong words, much stronger than anything before to come out of Bordeaux. Dulong doesn't have all the answers, but at least he talks the talk.
Companies: Vin de Pays
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