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Trying new ways and leading by example

Felicity Murray talks to Antoine Pirie, the former MD of the Burgundy trading house Corton André, who took on the role as MD of Les Vignobles Foncalieu, the French wine cooperative, earlier this year

Antoine Pirie Les Vignobles Foncalieu,

Les Vignobles Foncalieu is a union of co-operative wineries that are spread across the south of France and represented in all the principal regions of the ‘Grand Sud’: Gascony, Languedoc-Roussillon, Côtes-du-Rhône and Provence. Founded in 1967, Les Vignobles Foncalieu is the largest collective landholder in the South of France with 5100 hectares under vine, worked by 1,000 winegrowers with an annual production of 26 million bottles. Three-quarters of the wine produced is exported to 40 countries.

Antoine’s main task is to accelerate the development of Les Vignobles Foncalieu while ensuring it retains its status as a high-quality producer.

“I have come to this business from Burgundy, so with some different approaches,” he says. “I took a bit of time to study the business, to look at the vineyards, to look at the how this business is quite different from Burgundy… and I would like to impress that the strategy continues to be that of differentiation. In fact, what we don’t want is to go into the price/volume business, but rather propose to our customers something that is in accordance with what they need.  We work very hard on the quality, helped by our agronomists like Gabrielle Ruetsh, and oenologists like Isabelle Pangault. I have realised the need to work on quality to produce wines that are a bit different from our competitors

“What we really want to do is to continue with this strategy but also propose products that are not ‘ready made’ but customer specific and with a high ratio of quality to price. At the same time, we want to develop our own brands - very good wines, which bring something new and show people that we really can do interesting things in the South of France. 

“We want to increase the number of own brands in our portfolio. Actually, something like 15%-20% of our turnover is made with these brands and in the near future we would hope this to reach between 30%-40%. To do this we need to continue to innovate, while not forgetting our customers. We want to propose specially made products for them. That is our business, our roots, which we will continue, but we’d like to have a kind of equilibrium between own brands and customer brands. The strategy is to be closer to our customers.”

In regard to the packaging and presentation of the own brand wines, he says: “Consumers are looking for authenticity - they want to know what they have in the bottle or in their glass and just because you have put a little bit of gold on the label, it doesn’t mean that you can make it a bit more expensive.  Yes, the packaging is important, everything is important… through the label you bring a message and this message must be well perceived by the consumer, if not, you miss your target.  

"If you look at a brand like Les Extraordinaire, the whole idea is to have extraordinary things, so we can be more innovative with the labelling. It uses different colours and is a bit more flashy.  Why? Because we are talking to the non-specialist wine drinker who wants to try new things, wants to be a bit different, more urban. If you look at the L’Atelier Prestige wine range it has high end products and, therefore, the message is completely different – it focuses on the small groups of wine growers involved in its making.

Three years ago, Les Vignobles Foncalieu purchased Château Haut Gléon, a 260h estate in the Corbieres region, from the Duhamel family. 

“The idea behind owning our own estate is very simple. We are talking to a large number of growers about a new way of thinking, a new way of cultivating, a new way of harvesting and of course they are suspicious of change…’Why are we doing that…I have done it this way for 20 years…why are we changing?’ Having our own property gives us the opportunity to show them that it does work, For example, if we irrigate and we ask them to irrigate, we can say look at this part which is not irrigated and at this part that is – look at the difference in yield. You will see the difference so just listen to us! We can also work on new varietals if the soil gives us the possibility. But because we are in a limited area, some varieties can be grown here, some not, and we can also try some new clones.

“As a business, we can now welcome our customers here at the château and show them that above all we are wine growers and wine makers, so we know what we are talking about.

The winery and cellars at Château Gleon have been improved with the purchase of stainless steel tanks but, as André explains: “We need also to be careful, we are co-op and at the end of the day we have to give some money back to our wine growers, so we can’t spend too much money.”

I asked Antoine if the co-op was looking to target new markets and where he saw growth opportunities. 

“Yes, absolutely, the temptation is to go everywhere to launch thousands of products and to make a special recipe for everybody. But I say to my research team ‘guys you must focus on fewer countries and first be sure you have done the right job in these countries’.

"So we have selected a certain number of countries, like here, France, where we have always been, and the UK, which has always been a very important country for wine. And we will choose one or two other mature, or promising, countries to focus on. We have been in China for three or four years and it works. We have also been in the US where we are now thinking of establishing our own office with people based there. It takes two or three years to grow in these countries and now we are thinking about Japan. We also want to expand in France - but especially in the on-trade business because the off-trade business is always just a question of price, price, price…right?”

6 July 2015