Wednesday, 28 May 2014

"La mayonnaise prend": Bertrand Girard and the remoulding of Val d'Orbieu

This article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Val d’Orbieu is one of  those companies that everyone has heard of but no one can quite put a finger on what they do or who they are. Many wine professionals, even those who know the Languedoc well, are hard put to name a Val d’Orbieu wine, apart from the Cuvée Mythique, a blend of vineyards from across the Languedoc which 20 years ago became the first wine from the region to be given more than 90 points by Robert Parker.

It is surprising that a company of the size of Val d’Orbieu is not better known. It is the biggest cooperative in France, with 2,500 producers on its books producing 1m hectolitres of wine annually in the South of France,  and as a negociant it sells 3m hl. It also owns 17,000ha of vineyards (equivalent to about half the total vineland of New Zealand).

It supplies myriad own-label wines to big operators across France. In the UK, Tesco lists several of its wines, and considers Val d’Orbieu ‘a lovely company to work with’. The reason it is slightly ‘under the radar’ compared to its major competitor Les Grands Chais de France, a spokesman told Meininger’s, is that ‘they don’t have any strong brands but are more of an own-label specialist’.

'Benevolent presence': Bertrand Girard
Even the company’s strongest brand – the Cuvée Mythique - is looking a bit dusty. UK Languedoc expert Rosemary George MW makes the point that the Cuvée was brand new in the 1990s when multi-regional blends were less common. ‘But it doesn’t seem so exciting now.’

But recognised or not, Val d’Orbieu has tremendous assets. ‘We don’t pretend to be the biggest in France. We are the biggest,’ Bertrand Girard, the company’s managing director says. They are pioneers, he says, in just about everything. What makes them unique is the possession of such swathes of vineland. As Girard says, their smaller competitors own vineyards but not on such a scale, and their bigger competitors like Castel or Les Grands Chais de France own little or no vineland. GCF, for example, actually owns some 1,500ha.

Their holdings, Girard says, allow them control over their product: ‘We are totally vertically integrated from vineyard to bottling to distribution.’

Val d’Orbieu owns vineyards from Coteaux du Languedoc in the north to Cotes du Roussillon in the south, taking in Faugeres, St Chinian, Minervois, Corbieres and Fitou along the way. The 2,500 growers include 11 cooperatives and 60 estates and chateaux. Members can call on central marketing resources in order to sell their wines, and there are various wines – notably Cuvée Mythique – which are made centrally.

Founded more than 40 years ago, the company went through a period of retrenchment at the beginning of this century. In the 1990s it looked very different, Girard says. ‘We were the rising star, just behind Castel.’ As well as the holdings in the south, it also owned 12 grands cru in Bordeaux.

But by 2000, labouring under enormous debts, faced with falling prices for wine, and losing market share to Australia and Chile, ‘there was a big panic and they had only two things in mind: paying the bills and getting some cash, so the assets were sold off, including the chateaux in Bordeaux, for €100m.’ When Girard joined the company in 2010 he was told the debts were still formidable, and a new strategy was needed. ‘We needed to rebound, to re-invent our future.’

Girard seems diffident and is softly-spoken. The simplicity of his sentences belies the complexity of the task they describe. ‘We have two aims – first to make sure our growers get a decent revenue, which was not the case before, and second, to make customers happy.’ Later on, a third aim is put on the table: to move the company into icon territory.

The three targets obviously go together, and it is the third which is most ambitious. Val d’Orbieu is known – in France at least – ‘as reliable supplier of brands to the supermarkets’, Girard says. But he sees his job as changing the company from a supplier to a winery. ‘We have the resources. We have the wine. A winery can still work with the supermarkets supplying wines and brands but it also has something which is additional in terms of value - it can also have the novelty and the differentiation. We want  to be recognised as a reference winery in France.’
Cuvee Mythique: looking dusty?

To do this, Girard intends to ‘rewrite the strategy’ of the company, concentrating on the shape of the sales pyramid, which ‘doesn’t look the way I would like it to look. We are strong at the bottom, and we are strong in the centre with the brands. But it you go a bit up I think we are not good enough in terms of style – we are far from what the market needs in terms of marketing and storytelling.’

In short, value has been neglected in favour of volume, and this must change. Val d’Orbieu’s most expensive wines at the moment are in the €12-15 range, and Girard wants to change that. To achieve this aim he is exploiting the company’s great asset: the vineyards. Within that portfolio, he says, there must be parcels that are capable of producing icon, single-vineyard wines. To this end he is employing a team of consultants to ‘look at the incredible asset of the vineyards’ and to search out the finest parcels.

The cuvées that will come from this are known as the ‘Black Réserve’ [sic] range. It is another perfectly simple plan, and one that Bordeaux consultant Olivier Dauga, for his part, is very excited by. ‘It’s like the Sleeping  Beauty,’ he told Meininger’s. ‘There is land all over Languedoc which is not being properly exploited.’

M le Couturier: Olivier Dauga
Dauga – Val d’Orbieu somewhat grandly calls him un couturier du vin - is surveying some 350ha of vineyard in a rolling programme that takes in all the appellations of the region. He visits the property, tests the grapes, then vinifies different parcels in small tanks to pinpoint the highest-quality parcels.

To date he has made seven new wines for Val d’Orbieu and will add three more next year. He cites the ancient Chateau Pouzols – owned by the de Fournas family since 1437 – which is under contract to Val d’Orbieu. ‘It’s an incredible place, with wonderful terroir and soils.’ The first new wine to come out of the programme is the AOC Corbières Château de Jonquières 2012, a grenache-syrah blend which was bottled at the beginning of the year. Jonquières, also an ancient domaine, is wholly-owned by Val d’Orbieu. Chateau Pouzols will be released later this year.

Dauga is also working on a new, dedicated brand to be called Avant Garde, an icon successor to Cuvée Mythique, a blend of terroirs in quantities of some 20,000 bottles. He is looking for the right parcels at the moment.

The Black Réserve wines will retail at around €11-15. It’s not quite the dizzy heights Girard is aiming for, but in terms of style and presentation the wines are firmly at the premium end, with matt black labels and gold banding. It is a start of a plan, he says, ‘to be iconic, with wines from €30-50, to compete with the Médoc.’

Girard has something else he intends to exploit: there is a wealth of grape varieties in the vineyards of the South of France, at a time of burgeoning global interest in new, unusual and indigenous grapes. He believes in the cyclical nature of fashions in wine, and that the decade-long enthusiasm for single-varietal wines from the New World is waning.

‘At the moment the English-speaking countries want Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Malbec from Argentina, but that will change. Maybe the next surprise will be a Merlot from the south of France.’

Or, indeed, a Roussanne, Marsanne, or Chenin Blanc. ‘We have all of these. There are so many ways we can surprise the customer.’

This is not to say that Girard is losing sight of the mainstay of the company – the mid-range, mid-price wines that make up the vast rump of Val d’Orbieu’s products. He’s not sentimental about it – ‘Wine is a craft product that can be in some areas industrialised’, he says – and he loses little time in worrying about the finer points of organic and biodynamic viticulture. About 120ha of the Val d’Orbieu holdings are certified organic. For the rest, ‘Everything is measured,’ Girard says, ‘it is responsible viticulture but it’s not organic, which I don’t consider is that important, except for in the niche markets in northern Europe and Japan.’

In terms of the mid-market he points to the wine pouch, another of the innovations the company is proud of. The three-litre aluminium bag has been developed by Inno’Vo, a dedicated group set up by Val d’Orbieu, and claims to have all the advantages of a bag-in-a-box, but without the box. Is it working? ‘The response is not that big, but innovation is a long process, and you need luck and determination,’ Girard says. ‘It could be the next big thing.’

The wine pouch aside, Girard’s reforms are obviously working: the balance sheet looks healthy. Sales in China have doubled to more than €6m since he arrived, and since 2010, he says, ‘We have doubled the export business from €150m to €300m’, gaining market share in France and other international markets.

Val d’Orbieu exudes the assurance of a company that knows where it’s going. Its clients notice this. The UK distributor Copestick Murray, which supplies Tesco, is impressed by the way it works. ‘They have an open, transparent trading relationship which goes down well with customers – it’s the complete opposite of the more traditional model of building a wall between customer and producer,’ Copestick’s commercial director David Peek says.

Working with Val d’Orbieu is ‘collaborative’, he adds, citing the example of the own-brand Corbieres Tesco has just taken on. ‘It wasn’t purely a cost exercise. It was a collaborative process at every level, with winemakers involved as well.’

In terms of the more premium products, Peek makes clear that though at present they are just taking supermarket own-brand and private label wines in the £5-8 range, ‘we will certainly build to distribution of the more premium wines to put into independents and the on-trade. That’s very much part of the partnership.’

While his clients like the way the company works, Girard is a popular, low-key chief. At the company’s fairly riotous annual dinner at the Vinisud wine fair in Montpellier, he’s a benevolent presence. As his staff down powerful mojitos and swing each other round the dance floor, he smilingly declines invitations to join them.

He obviously understands people, the greatest asset of any company. He recognises that ‘the grower is the most important person, and it’s not that complicated [to get them behind the new strategy] because they know what we are aiming for. The magic of the strategy is showing people what we want to do and how we want to do it. Then it all comes together. As we say, la mayonnaise prend.’

No comments:

Post a Comment