Saturday, 10 February 2018

Celebrating 200 years of Calvet wine: a whistle-stop tour of Bordeaux

While the name ‘Grand Chais de France’ may not immediately mean anything to you, if you’ve bought wine from a supermarket before, you’ll probably have picked up a bottle of one of its brands before, which includes Grand Sud, JP Chenet, and Calvet.

The Calvet brand has been part of Grand Chais de France – the world’s biggest exporters of French wine – since 2006. I struggle to wrap my head around the numbers, but its global turnover in 2016 stood at 990m euros, which is pretty staggering.

The UK was Calvet’s first market, and now Calvet is the top French brand in the UK. In 2016, it sold more than 7m bottles (more than 14m worldwide over 110 countries). Although, if you think that figure is big, France produces between 7-8 billion bottles of wine a year.

And the figures just keep on coming. One in three bottles from the Bordeaux region sold in the UK is a bottle of Calvet, and it’s the English market leader for wines from Alsace and the Loire.

Wine from the Loire region in particular is on the up. In 2016, Calvet sales were up by 389,000 bottles. Perhaps no surprise is that Rose d’Anjou saw one of the biggest increases, along with Cahors Malbec. I’ve certainly noticed people drinking more Rose and Malbec over the past couple of years…

Calvet’s 200th anniversary

GCF may only have been founded in 1979, but Calvet is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. Along with a programme of events throughout the year, the company has released a new range of wines exclusively for the on-trade market (hotels, bars and restaurants). The wines are in three tiers: C de Calvet – a Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and rose (what else do you hear people order in pub chains and restaurants?); Heritage for AOP wines (Appellation d'Origine Protégée which has replaced the old AOC category); and Cuvée 1818, a Bordeaux ‘icon wine’ to celebrate its anniversary.

Its Cuvée 1818 is a new blend developed by a winemaker who has been with Calvet for 20 years. It’s a relatively new concept to develop Calvet into the on-trade. While French wines have been the number one seller in retail in the UK, there has hardly been any on-trade sales.

On top of a new wine to mark the anniversary, Calvet is planning lots of promotional activities, adding gold ‘200’ medals to its wines in the UK, and creating some special edition labels.

Calvet and Grand Chais

Grand Chais has continued to develop as a company since it was founded by Joseph Helfrich in 1979. It started out as a negociant – very briefly: people who buy wine in various stages (grapes, juice or finished) before bottling it and selling it to market – bottler and distributor, but has started to acquire more estates too, especially in the Bordeaux region.

The Grand Chais portfolio now consists of more than 150 different wines… in the bottling plant we learnt that this means it has more than 14,000 different Stock Keeping Units (SKUs – an ID code for a product), different blends for different markets, different bottles and labels for different markets, and in some cases, the same wines bottled under both screwcap and cork, depending on where they are going. There was so much research into what works in which market. For example, why medals on bottles work in some countries, but other places actively turn away from them.

On a whistle-stop tour, we visited a few of Calvet’s properties in Bordeaux, along with Grand Chais’ bottling plant outside Saint Emillion, and the Cru et Domaines de France vinification centre in Saint Savin.

Grand Chais bottling plant – outside Saint Emillion

Just outside St Emillion in Bordeaux is Grand Chais’ largest bottling plant. The scale is incredible. I used to work in automotive logistics and Grand Chais’ bottling plant was bigger than some car factories I’ve visited.

No vinification takes place here. The wine arrives in trucks from vineyards far and wide, with 90 trucks arriving a week. Each truck holds 20,000-24,000 litres of wine, and the plant can work through up to 700,000 bottles a day, or 150m bottles a year!

But it’s not all on such a huge scale, and the plant can manage smaller blends too, of around 5,000 litres or so. The plant has 50 tanks in total, and the wine is kept in tank for between three and nine months, depending on the quality.

While we were there the whole place smelled like sweets, as they were currently in the process of bottling Tesco’s Bucks Fizz for Christmas.

The facility also has a considerable grand cru storage area, with capacity for one million bottles worth 38m euros… that’s a lot of very, very tasty wine.

Cru et Domaines de France (CDF) vinification centre in Saint Savin

On a slightly smaller scale, but still a large operation, is the CDF vinification centre in Saint Savin. CDF is the Bordeaux specialist for GCF. It’s a New World-style facility that was built in 2000.

Frederick, who is in charge of winemaking at the facility explained that they don’t own any vines, but have a pool of 70 grape growers working over 700 hectares who they buy from. And because of what they pay the growers, they don’t have too many competitors.

Being fussy in the UK, Frederick said the UK market now demands traceability all the way back to the vineyard, and considers tradition to be really important. The market also dictates what wines are going to sell. CDF wanted to sell Bordeaux Blanc in the UK, but changed it to Sauvignon Blanc because of the huge demand. The wine they created is a mix of the Loire and New Zealand style, and comes with a screw cap. They made their first bottle of it in 2000, and it now sells more than 1m bottles a year…

Frederick says that due to changes in consumer taste, politics, the environment, and economics, it’s impossible to carry on winemaking in the same way. Usually, growers pick grapes around 15 days before the classic harvesting date, but for the same maturity of grape, the date changes by around 15 days +/- every year.

For the 2017 harvest, the final grape maturity was 10-12 days early, and without the frost – where they lost 60% of grapes in the Cotes de Blaye area – it could have been a great year. However, in total, the facility still processed 4000 tonnes of grapes in 2017.

Five wines to try

Over our two day trip, we tried 49 different wines, ranging from everyday mass-market crowd-pleasers, to some top quality tipples. From across the range, here are five of my favourites.

Calvet Réserve du Ciron Sauternes 2016
80% Semillon, 10% Sauvignon, 10% Muscadelle
£14.99 Taste & Choose vintage

I’m a sucker for a Sauternes anyway, but this is delicious. It’s got a sweet citrusy nose, with honeysuckle, tropical fruit and red apples. In the mouth it’s full bodied with a medium plus acidity, and those fruits coming back in. And it’s got a long morish finish.

Chateau Laroque 2010, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe
90% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon
£32.00, Berry Bros & Rudd, Waitrose

This might have been my favourite wine of the whole trip. The nose is big and deep with black fruit and a touch of minerality. It opens up in the mouth to silky soft tannins, and a subtle fruitiness which doesn’t overpower. While I enjoyed it now, it’s going to keep getting better over the next two decades. 

Calvet Alsace Pinot Blanc
100% Pinot Blanc
£7.97 Asda

Bursts of freshness on the nose, with white fruit and citrus blossoms. In the mouth it’s got a lovely softness and freshness. Nicely balanced.

Château la Fortune, Cru Bourgeois, Margaux
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Merlot
£32.99 Jean Juvinere, Oxford Wine co.

I enjoyed this wine with duck confit and it was fabulous. It’s very fruity and complex on the nose, balanced with dark fruit jam in the mouth, and has a really long finish. 

Calvet Cuvee 1818
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc

This is Calvet’s 200th anniversary wine. It’s got bags of red berry fruit on the nose, with a bit of cinnamon and caramel. In the mouth it’s full-bodied, but with smooth tannins, and a spicy, gingery note, with a long finish.

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