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Connect 4

Published:  23 July, 2008

Soon after Blason de Bourgogne was launched in the UK, export director Marc Vachet tells me in his strong Irish brogue, a number of copycat brands emerged; this was the proof he needed that the Blason brand would succeed.

Blason, which means coat of arms' in English, sold 1.1 million bottles worldwide in the year ending June 2005 and, not wanting to gild the lily, is likely to keep its line-up to the current level of 15 wines. Its UK agent, HwCg, had a strong role in shaping the brand, and HwCg director Robin Kinahan MW regularly travels to Burgundy to assist with blending.

Blason is the result of four cooperatives that joined forces and decided to market their wines under an umbrella brand. They are Priss, in the Mconnais; Buxy, which produces predominantly Montagny, as well as Mercurey; La Chablisienne, the only cooperative in Chablis; and Bailly, which produces the sparkling Crmant de Bourgogne.

New face

Burgundy may be holding its own compared with other French regions, but within the region it's a different story. The Priss

cooperative, the last to sign up to the Blason brand, has a new director-general, Xavier Mouet. Mouet replaced Michel Gonthiez in March 2004, and he says his style is very different from that of his predecessor. While he acknowledges the fantastic results Gonthiez achieved, Mouet insists that he himself is more of a marketing man, and his style is a touch more motivational - and less confrontational.

The cooperative, a merger of three villages (Sologny, Verz, and Priss), has 300 members and had never before exported to the UK. Its latest contribution to the Blason brand is a Pouilly-Fuiss and a Mcon Villages Rouge, the latter partly treated with flash pasteurisation, which removes harmful organisms and which the co-op claims enables better extraction and colour.

Mouet says: I think that Mcon offers a good quality/price ratio. We're not so famous here in Mcon, so we decided to improve quality. The only way to achieve something in Mcon is to go for quality.' This is a sentiment echoed by Kinahan, who claims that Mcon generally has big problems, and is in a real mess'. He says good quality in Mcon is essential, given that it's still in the shadow of its more celebrated Burgundian cousins.

Priss is experimenting with a new product, Vivolte, a sweet ros made with Gamay. It is only 7% abv, contains 40g/l of sugar and is designed to tap into the younger domestic market.

Over at Buxy, sales of Montagny are doing well, although HwCg is reluctant to reveal actual figures. For example, Blason's Montagny Vieilles Vignes is up 113% (annual figure week ending 30 June 2005) compared to the same period last year. Kinahan says that its fortunes mirror those of Chablis and that the two regions produce highly similar wines - although while Montagny shares Chablis's minerality, it lacks its acidic bite.

La Chablisienne may be the only co-op in Chablis, but it accounts for 25% of the region's total output. A new property has been acquired for warehousing, bringing storage capacity up to six million bottles. Kinahan explains that the co-op is large enough to be influential but not big enough to control pricing, although he claims that many producers do indeed wait for La Chablisienne to set bulk prices.

Pricing blues

The main concern for Vachet and Blason is Chablis pricing in the UK. Last year, a number of retailers got stuck into a price war that saw some bottles selling for as little as 4.99 around Christmas. Vachet despairs at such moves: 4.99 is not the price level for Chablis - it is just something to attract people into stores. Everyone's annoyed, because the position of Chablis has always been 6.99-8.99-plus. The other problem is where will you sell Bourgogne Blanc or Mcon Villages, when Chablis is just 4.99? You wouldn't sell a single bottle, because it hammers the whole Burgundy market. If people continue to sell at 4.99, then Chablis is in danger.'

The final cooperative of the quartet, Bailly has a vast network of underground caves and is one of the most popular tourist spots in France. It produces two million bottles of Crmant de Bourgogne a year - and sells them all, too. The back label curiously says one of France's best-kept secrets', but Vachet believes that its success is due to packaging and the fact that its price is close to that of cheaper Champagnes.

The next step for Blason, says Vachet, is to develop the brand in the on-trade. A limited range will be tested in the UK next year, while new markets are being sought in the US, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia and Russia.

Summing up Blason's impact, he says: It was the right moment. It has worked because we have created a brand without the spirit of a multinational.

It was not considered a multimillion-pound brand developed by a huge company. The success was guaranteed by the fact that the four co-ops already had one image. We had more to lose than to win.'