Marketing white Bordeaux: Château Fourcas Hosten Blanc

Château Fourcas Hosten is one of the leading wine producers in Listrac-Médoc, a small appellation on the left bank of Bordeaux. Some friends and I visited the estate earlier this summer when I was a little surprised to find that they have launched a white Bordeaux wine. The Médoc is firmly red wine country, after all. Though we didn’t taste the wine during the visit, I was intrigued and decided to look into it a little further.

This was one of two cases of new product development we encountered that afternoon in Listrac, the other being the launch of a single varietal Petit Verdot at the nearby grower’s co-op.

Château Fourcas Hosten Blanc 2014

Things don’t always move quickly in Bordeaux, and many properties are quite content to maintain the status quo. Château Fourcas Hosten does not appear to fall into this category. There’s been considerable investment here in the decade or so since it was purchased by the Momméja brothers, best known for the Hermès fashion label. The 200-year-old estate launched a new white wine, Château Fourcas Hosten Blanc, as of the 2014 vintage.

Instant Fourcas Hosten #specialmoments #winepairing

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The 2014 is a blend of 84% Sauvignon Blanc and 16% Sauvignon Gris, and its production was overseen by technical director Caroline Artaud and consultant oenologist Athanese Fakorellis. The two hectares of white grapes are farmed organically. The wine was bottled in March 2015, following five months’ ageing in a combination of new and one-year-old French oak barrels. Total production was just 1,675 bottles.

We didn’t taste the wine as part of our tour, so here’s the tasting note from its technical sheet:

The fruit is elegant & complex, with a finish full of freshness. Ideal white wine to accompany perfectly fishes and white meats. To drink at a temperature of 12°C.

Caroline Artaud, directrice technique, prend soin du Blanc de Fourcas Hosten #winemaker #winemaking #bordeaux #winelover

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I expect that Fourcas Hosten Blanc is a well-made, tasty wine. From what I can see, it is a relatively typical white Bordeaux blend, albeit with a focus on organic farming and small production. I look forward to trying it at some stage. What really caught my interest here was not what the wine tastes like, however, but the very fact that it exists. My interest here is from the point of view of a wine marketer as opposed to a consumer or wine lover. Producing white wine is atypical in Listrac and the wider Médoc region, so I felt this warranted a closer look.

Marketing white Bordeaux in Listrac

White wine from Listrac-Médoc is not unheard of. There are at least five châteaux in the region that produce a white today. Château Clarke‘s dates to 1890, and as recently as 1929 the appellation was equally split between red and white wines. Nonetheless, white Listrac is today a minor part of a region that is itself a minor part of the Médoc.

For Fourcas Hosten to develop a white thus seems like an ambitious project, particularly when you consider the sort of prominent Médoc estates, particularly beyond the boundaries of Listrac, that market white wines. Châteaux Margaux, Palmer and Cos d’Estournel come immediately to my mind, and there are others.

Marketing white Médoc wine

Most Médoc wineries don’t make white wine. Unlike Pessac-Léognan and Graves, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) rules that govern winemaking in the Médoc and its constituent appellations have not been designed to include the production of white wines.

Producers can, if they wish, grow white wine grapes and make white wine. They can’t, however, label that wine as having come from any Médoc appellation – so Fourcas Hosten cannot label its white as a Listrac-Médoc wine. Instead, they’ve got to label it as generic Bordeaux Blanc.

That inability to use the appellation is not a big deal for some. Where a producer’s brand is strong enough, the appellation becomes a secondary consideration, if even that. Fourcas Hosten is well-known within Listrac, but its name does not transcend appellations and designations like a Cos, Palmer or Margaux. That is one of the several challenges that it faces.

The marketing challenges facing Fourcas Hosten Blanc

For me, the primary challenge facing Fourcas Hosten’s white Bordeaux is the need to stand out in a crowded category, so that you or I will see it on a shelf or wine list and want to grab it – and pay a (relative) premium for the privilege.

Competition with other Médoc whites

I’ve mentioned a few already, and there are several other high profile Médoc whites from classified growth estates. Mouton Rothschild‘s Aile d’Argent and Blanc de Lynch-Bages are just two more heavy hitters. In all of these cases, it’s the producer’s name and reputation rather than the appellation that is the wines’ selling point.

Enjoying some #pavillonblanc while bidding @Sothebys #mentzelopoulos era auction

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To take my earlier examples: most people that buy Cos d’Estournel Blanc do so because it’s from Cos d’Estournel. It’s of no major consequence that its official appellation is Bordeaux and not Saint-Estèphe. Its consumers are buying the Cos d’Estournel name. It’s a very similar story at Château Margaux with Pavillon Blanc. Château Palmer’s white wine, Vin Blanc de Palmer, is technically a Vin de France, an even more generic and lowly designation. But it’s Palmer, and that’s what people are paying for. These are powerful, well-known brands that occupy a position of prestige for wine lovers.

For me, Fourcas Hosten does not have the sort of name recognition that these estates enjoy, and so its white wine can’t benefit in the same way – or at least not the same extent.

Awkard positioning within Bordeaux Blanc

Generic appellation white Bordeaux is a big category, and its wines can range from just a few euros at the entry level to a few hundred for the likes of Pavillon Blanc. Despite a minority of premium wines, I associate the category with mostly inexpensive offerings for everyday drinking. For higher-end dry white Bordeaux, I’d be looking firmly at the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellations.

Fourcas Hosten Blanc, at around €20 retail in France, is priced at the higher end of a pretty affordable category. This presents a problem. If a consumer is going to spend that sort of money on a white wine from Bordeaux, they’re probably going to overlook the Bordeaux Blanc category entirely, unlesss given a good reason not to. Though it’s nowhere close to the three-figure price of a Pavillon Blanc, this is getting into good quality white Pessac-Léognan territory – and that entire appellation benefits from a very favourable reputation for white wines which is a clear advantage over Bordeaux Blanc.

Its higher price runs the risk of Fourcas Hosten Blanc being perceived as overpriced or too expensive, as neither its producer nor its appellation has superstar status. The primary challenge here, I think, is to justify its price in the eyes of the consumer.

Competition with other Listrac whites

There may not be that many of them, but the fact that several other leading Listrac estates produce a white wine doesn’t do Fourcas Hosten any favours.

Fourcas Hosten doesn’t have first mover advantage for white wine within Listrac. Several of its peers have been producing white wine for longer, with Clarke the clear winner. This takes away the novelty of being a white wine from Listrac. Production of white wine in Listrac isn’t (yet) significant enough in either quality or quantity to lend the wine the sort of appellation-level recognition that benefits so much Pessac-Léognan.

I see this more as an opportunity than a challenge, and perhaps “competition” is less important than collaboration. Should Fourcas Hosten and its neighbours develop enough momentum or be so inclined, perhaps work could be done at the appellation level to push white Listrac wine, whether or not that involves a change in appellation rules to include white wines.

Thoughts

This is all just how I see things, of course, as a wine marketer operating on imperfect information. I’ve got no insight into the inner workings of Fourcas Hosten, though I think theirs is an interesting case and worth spending some time thinking (out loud) about. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not even sure that I’ve asked the right questions.

I think that the Hermès connection will be a real strength, and there may be an opportunity in banding together with other Listrac wineries that make white wine. Perhaps that will be to lobby for some official change to appellation rules. More realistically, they could forego that route altogether and start communicating some sort of unofficial regional message directly to the people that are – or are perhaps not yet – buying white Bordeaux.