A little bit over ten years ago a group of winemakers in Bordeaux decided to band together to be more effective in marketing their wines. They created Les Côtes de Bordeaux, or simply Les Côtes. It is one of the rare occasions when French appellations have been simplified to make it easier for the consumer, rather than complexified. I can think of only one other occasion where that has happened (read through to the end and I’ll explain that too).
The tendency is otherwise to create more and more, and smaller and smaller appellations, often with names that few have heard of. For example, have you ever heard of La Clape? No? It is an excellent appellation in the Languedoc. But don’t snigger and think “oh là, là, the crazy French”. The same thing happens in other countries, not least in the USA. There are now some to 250 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Ever heard of Lewis-Clark Valley AVA? Just like La Clape, it was created recently. France has 320 or so geographic appellations with about twice the total acreage of the US, so America is actually more fragmented than France.
But back to Les Côtes de Bordeaux. This time, ten years ago, on the initiative of a handful of enthusiast growers, they did the opposite. Four appellations joined forces and created a common, and bigger, denomination called Les Côtes de Bordeaux. Previously, each appellation had worked independently, now instead they wanted to join forces and work under a common brand and logo.
It was initially five appellations who created this project: Blaye, Bourg, Cadillac, Côte de Franc and Castillon. Before it became official Bourg dropped out, so the initial Côte de Bordeaux had four members. They have more recently been joined by Sainte Foy so there are now five “members”.
Here’s the press conference (in French) for the 10-1 year anniversary of Cotes de Bordeaux:
Les Côte just recently celebrated its 10(-1) anniversary and I had the occasion to meet with some of the representatives of the appellation. (It’s 10(-1), since the ten-year anniversary will not be until 2019. The launch of the project was in 2008 but the first vintage to be released was the 2009.) It might not seem dramatic but Françoise Lannoye, president of the Castillon part of Les Côte and owner of Château Moulin de Clotte, says “it was a revolution, this creation of the appellation Côtes de Bordeaux. Four appellations that accepted to change their names”. They changed names to be able to work under a joint appellation, joining forces to be able to better market themselves. But not only that, “we also changed names [to a common one] to make it easier for the consumer to navigate the jungle of appellations”. It is actually the second biggest appellation in Bordeaux, with 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres).
Did it work?
It certainly seems so.
Since the creation of the common appellation in 2009 exports have grown with 29% in volume and 34% in value. In the USA sales of Les Côtes has grown 25% in the last year alone. Exports now account for 23% of the sales compared to 11% ten years ago. “We would never have managed to develop the international market being separate appellations. It is really working together that has made it possible,” says Françoise Lannoye.
Another way of looking at it is what Florian Thienpont, co-owner of Chateau Clos Fontaine in Franc, points out: “Today, Les Côte achieve better prices, thanks to the joint promotions” that have been done over the last ten years. “The small growers that exist in Les Côtes also benefits from the consumer tendency today to buy directly from the property and to come to the cellar door.”
So, why should we, the wine consumers, care?
For a wine drinker, it is interesting because it is an appellation where you can find many affordable, good-value wines from family-size wine producers, where you really know who is behind the wine. Even if Bordeaux is most famous for its great Grand Crus, for most people quite unaffordable, Bordeaux is, in reality, a very exciting place to go looking for great value wines – provided you know where to look. And then Les Côtes de Bordeaux is a great place to start.
Les Côtes has many family-owned properties with ambitious winemakers, and they have to sell their wines based on its quality, not thanks to a famous name or a famous appellation. The difficulty is, of course, that there are so many of them, around 1000(!), and few have global distribution. So you will have to search and explore what you can find at a wine shop near you.
Here are a few names to get you going (the list is from our book Bordeaux, The Wines, The Region, The Producers):
Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon: Clos Puy Arnaud, Château Lapeyronie, Château d’Aiguilhe, Château Peyrou, Château de Pitray, Château Côte Montpezat
Côtes de Bordeaux Francs: Château Laulan, Château les Charmes-Godard, Château de Francs, Château Pelan, Château Puygueraud, Château la Prade
Côtes de Bordeaux Blaye: Château Mondesir-Gazin, Château Peybonhomme-les-Tours, Château Bel-Air la Royère, Château les Jonqueres, Château Haut-Bertinerie, Château Haut-Colombier
Côtes de Bordeaux Cadillac: Château Carsin, Château de Haux, Château Suau, Château Langoiran, Château Reynon, Château Lamothe de Haux, Château Tour du Bourdieu
A few facts about les Côtes de Bordeaux.
- 1000 wine producers
- 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres), which is 10% of all Bordeaux
- 65 million bottles, or 5.5 million cases, 97% red wine
- Formally six appellations, Côtes de Bordeaux, plus the five communal CdB Blaye, CdB Cadillac, CdB Castillon, CdB Franc, CdB Sainte Foy, but all using a common name and logo.
- Grape varieties: Most wines are blends with Merlot typically between 50% and 80% together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec
And that other occasion when the French appellation system was simplified to responded to market demand and customer behaviour?
It was when vin de table (simple table wine) changed name to vin de france (much more sellable) and at the same time the producers were allowed to put the grape variety on the label, since many consumers wants to know. But that’s a story for another day.