Languedoc wineries go upscale
Philippe Salasc believes wines must provide value, at any price.
The Languedoc-Roussillon region stretches across southern France from the Spanish border to the Rhône. The largest wine-producing area in the world, the Languedoc-Roussillon region has gradually shifted over the past three decades from a place of cheap, mass-market wines to one with several recognized appellations. Today, a number of Languedoc wineries are producing premium wines rivaling those of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
But for some of the wineries attending the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, this year, focusing on premium viticulture is also helping lift prices.
Though he casts himself as a dreamer with an artisan’s commitment to making wine, Philippe Salasc, of Château Grès St. Paul in Lunel, 10 miles from the Mediterranean, knows his limits.
“I’m not stupid. There is a market, and there is a reality,” Salasc said, acknowledging that the wines he produces with co-principal Jean-Philippe Sevière must provide value and not just quality at any price.
Grès St. Paul produces about 150,000 liters of wine (equivalent to 39,600 gallons) a year from 65 acres of vineyards planted to Grenache, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Muscat Petits Grains, and Syrah.
Salasc and Sevière crop the vineyards to an average of 2.25 tons an acre, harvest by hand and sort the grapes twice prior to crushing. The labor-intensive process boosts production costs for Grès St. Paul’s wines, while small production volumes mean a higher per-bottle cost than possible with larger volumes.
Still, Salasc said prices must also respect what the market is willing to pay for such wines. That means a great deal of hard work and as little cash investment as possible, except where it matters.
“We work a lot. We don’t spend, in fact, a lot of money,” Salasc said, noting that an average day runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sweat equity will cover many of the variables in production. Where Salasc believes wineries need to channel their cash is marketing. Produce a fine wine, he said, and those to whom it appeals will snap it up. The challenge is developing a market.
Salasc said that, “the best investment to do is not in the vineyards or in the cellars; the best investment to do is in communication.”
Marketing is a key point for Château Capion, 40 miles west of Grès St. Paul in Aniane.
“There’s always room for a niche wine that over-delivers in terms of the quality of wine,” said Lynda Mellor, marketing and development director for Capion. “It’s finding the marketing channels to reach the consumer that appreciates that that can be harder.”
Like other wineries in the south of France focusing on premium wine production, Capion relies largely on manual labor, including regular walk-throughs of the vineyard. Summer pruning ensures the canopy affords grapes sufficient protection from the hot Languedoc sun and that cropping is kept to a minimum of the best grapes.
Spread over a production of about 72,000 liters annually, which equals 19,000 gallons, production costs work out to retail prices that typically range in excess of $20 a bottle.
Economies of scale
“The south of France has always achieved economies of scale, but a good wine costs money to make. There are no shortcuts,” Mellor said. “Chateau Capion is at the premium end, and unashamedly so.”
Rising land costs also affect the final price of wines, she added.
“It isn’t any cheaper for Capion to make wine than some of the great Rhône houses or Burgundy houses, because the line cost of the land is just as expensive.”
The maturation of Languedoc wasn’t lost on Jacques & François Lurton, a veteran producer in the venerable Bordeaux region, which has also expanded into Australia, Spain and South America. Lurton acquired the 175-acre Château des Erles vineyard at Villeneuve les Corbières near the Spanish border in 2000. Significant investments in equipment and new vines followed to ensure the estate, which had previously sold its grapes to a co-op, could compete at the premium end of the market.
A dozen workers manage the vineyards fulltime, and crews of harvesters fly in from Russia each year to gather the grapes, which crop at about 1.33 tons an acre.
To get a viable return on production at its new property, Lurton established three cuvées, or tiers of wine, that allow it to sell into three market segments.
“It’s not a lot of wine, so you need to actually get some return on this particular thing to make some money, to make it viable,” said Vincent Valverde, general manager of JF Lurton North America.
The top cuvée typically retails for just over $60, but two cuvées are available in greater quantities in the more reasonable price range of between $10 and $20.
“There is a lot of work that is done to get the wine in the glass,” Valverde said, arguing in favor of a price for the top-level cuvée that would be worthy of fine Bordeaux.
But it also has to be backed up with marketing and promotion, he added, and even then the payback to the winemaker may be years away.
Erles, for example, isn’t slated to turn a profit for 10 years, Valverde noted.