The Losh Cause – Quelle Surprise!
French wines with a catchy name and something of the New World about them are not a new phenomenon but, writes Chris Losh, there's something about such brands that doesn't quite ring true. What is required is a wine with enough of a French accent to make it sexy, but not the kind that will make it incomprehensible. Has just such a wine arrived on the market?
A couple of weeks back I had a surprising meeting. When you've been writing about booze for as long as I have, you tend to remember the unusual because, well, it becomes increasingly rare to be told something that you haven't heard before.
It was all the more unusual in this instance, because the person I was meeting was French. Not only that, but he was behind the launch of what is planned to become a Big French Brand.
Over the years I've met many people like this. Producers from the Old World who claim to have found a way of alchemising indifferent Euro glut wine into branded New-World-wannabe gold. Usually, picking holes in their strategy is a bit like shooting puppies in a barrel: easy but not much fun.
But not in this case.
Chamarré mixes the wine from eight different co-operatives from across France to create a kind of intra-national brand. There's everything from straight Bordeaux to dual and single varietals and a four-grape hotch potch. Chardonnay/Manseng/Sauvignon/Colombard, anyone?
It's aimed firmly at export, although ironically it's had no trouble picking up big supermarket listings in France. Oh, and it has a pretty butterfly logo on the bottle.
Leaving aside my flippancy, the branding is very strong, providing an easy point of reference for consumers whose average time in the wine aisle every week is measured in fractions of a second, not minutes. The name, too, is good: it sounds sexily French, without being impenetrable to non-Francophones, which, let's face it, is just about everybody.
Despite the country's difficulties in the off-trade (and Chamarré is very much an off-trade animal), survey after survey has found that consumers at every level still love the idea of French wine, and all the lifestyle cues that go with it. They just don't feel confident about picking it off the shelf.
And while French wines that are given a French cue, but in an English way (like French Connection for instance) might be successful, they lose some of the quintessential Frenchness that people like. In making themselves understandable, one might say they lose something in translation.
Chamarré, though, has done a rather good job at straddling the Channel. It's indisputably French, perhaps because, unlike most Old World brands, it's been created by a French company. In my view, it keeps the things that people like about the country, but gives them enough of a New World spin to make the wine accessible and relaxed.
The wines are modern in style and reasonable enough, but frankly this isn't really about what's in the bottle. It's about being arguably the first French-owned brand to start at the consumer and work backwards, rather than beginning in the vineyard then wondering how to sell the end product. And as a result it's done a good job at removing the barriers to buying French…
The brand launched in the US last summer, and its owners are predicting somewhere around 3m bottles there in 2007, which might not have Yellowtail quaking in its pouch, but is not bad in less than two years.
Not only that, the impending (and long overdue) change in French labelling laws should benefit the new brand. At present, Chamarré's inter-regional 'Signature blends' go under a rather unwieldy series of numbers - RR1, RR7 etc - which make them sound like something out of Star Wars. But soon they will be able to mix wines from different regions and still put both the vintage and the grape varieties on the front label. And under the new rules, 85% content of one grape will be enough for the wine to be labelled as a single varietal, rather than the current stipulation of 100%.
They will, in short, be able to produce wines to a New World template, but from France for, literally, the best of both Worlds. And since the total production capacity of Chamarré's suppliers is around 30m cases, there's obvious potential for this baby to grow and grow.
I'm not saying Chamarré is perfect, but it's the only thing I've seen from France that comes close to offering what the consumer wants from a country that consumers everywhere still love, in spite of itself. Expect the butterfly to spread its wings in the next few years…
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