In this months just The Answer, we talk to the VP and director-general of Inter Beaujolais

In this month's just The Answer, we talk to the VP and director-general of Inter Beaujolais

In this month's just The Answer, just-drinks catches up with the trade body for Beaujolais wines, Inter Beaujolais, to talk about its view on wine market conditions and that much-lauded 2009 vintage.

Here, Xavier Barbet, Inter Beaujolais VP and sixth generation wine producer, and Jean Bourjade, the director-general of the trade body, chat to just-drinks' deputy editor, Chris Mercer.

Xavier Barbet, vice-president of Inter Beaujolais

just-drinks: The tasting today is, primarily, to look at how the 2009 vintage is getting on. It has been hailed as the best in a generation and it came just at the time that Inter Beaujolais began to communicate more about its plan to focus on higher-end Beaujolais wines. It seems like a case of great timing. What benefits have you seen from that?

Xavier Barbet: It's the best wine that we have seen in 40 years at least. People have realised this and shown huge interest about it. We've seen ten times more articles in the media on Beaujolais. But, 2010 was also a good vintage, with good ripeness, it was not at all average - a classic Beaujolais.

Jean Bourjade: It is really important that we followed up '09 with a vintage that is also good. Otherwise, people would have thought 'oh, they just got a lucky strike'. What '09 did was, for the first time, put into the limelight all of the efforts of the region over the past ten years. It was what we needed to make people realise what we have been doing to improve quality.

j-d: Does that mean that you've cracked it now, then?

JB: Well, there's still a lot to do. We have worked hard on the on-trade and we have worked very hard to build credibility within the trade. But, now we need to start talking more to consumers. 

j-d: I imagine that consumer trends towards lighter styles of wine have also played into your hands, given that this is natural Beaujolais territory.

XB: Yes, you could say that we've been surfing the wave a little bit. There are lots of market studies everywhere in the world that show that consumers want wine with high fruit, not too much alcohol and not too much oak.  

JB: Our wines have the high drinkability that people are looking for, thanks to our use of Gamay [grape variety], which naturally produces this lighter style.

j-d: So far, we've hardly mentioned Beaujolais Nouveau, which is arguably the thing that put the Beaujolais wine region on the map for many consumers overseas. How important is that concept for you today? Are consumers still coming in through that route?

XB: Beaujolais Nouveau is an event, the first wine of the year and, for people who don't know the wine industry, it has helped us to attract new consumers. But, we also want to be known for very good quality. I think that a lot of consumers are coming in from a different angle.

JB: The future doesn't lie any more in Beaujolais Nouveau. Japan, France and the US, in particular, are still large markets for Nouveau but we are not pushing it. We are definitely not stopping it, but we are no longer pushing it.

We feel that we've got the benefit of a single grape variety, Gamay for red and Chardonnay for white, with 12 different appellations and 10 'Cru' [higher quality classifications]. This is what we want to push. These are serious wines. Around 90% of our grapes are hand-harvested, while the average wine grower has only seven hectares, compared to the French average of 12 to 15 hectares.

The director-general of Inter Beaujolais, Jean Bourjade

j-d: Are there any overseas markets that look particularly promising for you?

XB: We are seeing exciting trends in a lot of the emerging countries, especially Russia but also in other areas such as Asia. But, it is still early for us there. Our big markets remain places like the US, Japan, UK and France.

j-d: Despite the improvements and the success of the '09 vintage, the wine industry remains a difficult place to make money. Exchange rates have been volatile and overall wine sales in the UK, an important market particularly for French producers, have struggled. What effects have you seen in your region?

JB: We have seen a movement for consolidation, yes. We have also seen winegrowers organising themselves in groups of five-ten-15 to work together and share distribution costs. It's true that the UK is one of the most competitive markets in the world, because you have so many people who want to be there.

j-d: How big is the UK for Beaujolais?

JB: We export 36% of our total volumes and, within that, the UK is the third largest destination. The US and Japan are bigger.

XB: Some parts of the UK market are based on price. There is Beaujolais on sale in the UK at below-cost [of production] prices, but winemakers need to make a fair living. In the last five years, a lot of people have disappeared, but this is a worldwide movement, not just a Beaujolais issue.

JB: The UK remains one of Beaujolais' main destinations. But, the reality of the market is that it's very tough. For winemakers who sell for below the cost of production, it won't be sustainable for very long. Some people around the world have decided to get out of the UK, as you know. We have not, we have decided to stay. But, if things don't change then we will have to think about what we will do in the future.

Quality and affordability are key for us, our wines are affordable, but everybody has to make a living.

j-d: Are there any reasons for optimism in the UK at the moment?

XB: Obviously, we have seen some big chains disappear in the UK off-trade in the last few years. But, I think there is an interesting movement now, with small chains setting up in different regions. There is new blood coming into the sector and a lot of these places have a very good range of wines.

In Beaujolais, we are seeing interest from outside investors, even a few English people have bought vineyards.