Brand building in wine

Katalin Kiszel-Kohari - July 8, 2019

Brand building in wine? Not intending to pose as the devil's advocate, but is it really possible? Well, of course, it is, but not on the scale of beers or spirits.

Big, successful brands have vast quantities of the emblematic goods behind them, so by nature the wine industry has difficulty to compete on this front as it is very fragmented. According to the IMPACT Databank, the global market share of the top 25 wine brands in the world, although has grown significantly since the 1990s, is still around the 8% mark!

Just think about Stella Artois, Heineken or Absolut Vodka, Bacardi Rum, Hennessy Cognac. They are all over the world, well-known brands, respected and readily available. You would maybe recognise the bottles, even if you not that much into the sort of thing. Can you recall a wine brand just as easily? I sincerely doubt it. You need to be a steely-eyed wine buff to do so and not necessarily because of the high quality of the product.

The better-quality vineyards usually delineated, as they have a special set of circumstances, microclimate, exposure, terroir, characteristic to a relatively small area. That is one of the reasons you often cannot just extend your vineyard if demand grows. If you do so, you will have a different name, and different quality level correlating to that product. Some of the most legendary wines coming from tiny vineyards in very limited quantities. Just think about the insanely expensive and emblematic Le Pin from Pomerol with its approximately 3 ha vineyard area. Would you know how its label looks like? Again, I have my doubts. Not to mention that this kind of legendary status comes with a rather hefty price tag too. You need to be super rich to be able to afford a bottle for yourself.

That pretty much leads us to a different route. If you want a successful brand in wine, you not aiming for the wealthy. You want a sound wine, that pleases a lot of people, but we are not talking about premium quality, not even close. Easy-drinking, light, fruity wine, with a little bit of residual sugar, just for good measure. Nothing too complicated or complex, nothing extreme. Something that goes well with pretty much anything. That is how the great wine brands of the 20th century came to life. Blue Nun, Mateus, Lancers might not be the choice of most wine drinkers with a little bit of knowledge and, dare I say, sophistication, but at their peak these wines were the most successful brands in the world of wine and still going strong. Blue Nun with its bright blue, lanky bottle, first launched in 1921, is the most successful wine brand of Germany. Mateus, a sweetened, slightly sparkling wine inspired by Vinho Verde and sold in a quirky flask, is the most successful wine brand of the world, created in 1942. At its highest, in the late 1970s, it accounted for 40% of the total wine output of Portugal.

There is another success story from Bordeaux which started with a particularly poor vintage in 1927. When life gives you lemons, you make Mouton Cadet, or Caruades de Mouton on its maiden name. It is coming from one of Bordeaux's top First Growth estate: Château Mouton Rothschild. It is effectively a second wine, dreamt up by the very passionate Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It was not very successful at first, but eventually developed such following base with its fruit forward style that it was moved to Bordeaux AC status to gain more flexibility.

Sounds rather impressive, but not as impressive as a more recent, early 21st century tale. The tale of the Casella family from Riverina, Australia. John Casella started off his aggressive assault, at first on the US export market, with a bold profit-sharing scheme with their US importer, from a not too prestigious part of Australia where he and his family owned a small 16 ha vineyard area used for bulk wine. Although his initial attempt failed, second time with his annoying, attention-grabbing yellow kangaroo image, Yellow Tail was born and with it the famous and infamous following 'critters' brands emerged. From the 2001 standing start Yellow Tail increased its sales from 200,000 cases a year to 12.5 million cases a year worldwide by 2014. You may ask yourself a question and what is the wine like? Well, it will come to no surprise now… The wines are extremely fruit-driven, ripe, simple, easy-drinking varietal ones often with a hint of residual sugar. You might recognise a pattern at this point. (Just on a personal note here, I firmly believe that we like to think about ourselves as discerning wine drinkers by ordering dry whites and reds, but secretly preferring wines with a bit of sweetness and frutiness to them. That is in our genetic setup, we just do not like to admit it.)

So, how can we build brands in a small scale? Do we need to? Where does this actually leave us? In a quite good position to be frank. Today's big brands seem to be running out of steam in some ways as we are more sensitive to product provenance and have the need to connect, to have a personal relationship with it. Many wine merchant friends of mine say it often enough, that you are selling anything, but just a bottle of wine. You are selling a great story, a symbol, an idea which is embodied by that bottle of wine. How true! These days people travel more, experience more, have higher expectations and may have a better understanding of wine. If the right thing comes along, do not mind spending a bit more money if a product is unique/hand-crafted/sensual/special/environmentally friendly/ethical or let's say, coming from a small family winery with big dreams, inspirational history and passion and commitment to quality. That is the sort of brand worth building. You may not conquer the world, but you will leave a lasting impression on the right people.

One of my favourite small winery where I experienced this kind of attitude that would stand proudly even on an international level is Holdvölgy Estate, Mád, from my neck of the wood, Tokaj-Hegyalja.

It sounds rather run of the mill to say, but it is truly an estate with a concept. Philosophy, if you wish, they take seriously. They are trying and succeeding to be in harmony with the environment and local tradition. The cavernous cellar system, on which the current winery buildings have been built on, has been extended since the 16th century. The caves are almost 2 km long in three levels, and still has some well-looked after original baroque outbuildings as well. The new constructions are ultra-modern, slick with a lot of glass, yet somehow, they fit seamlessly to the backdrop of the northern fringes of Hungary. They are not offensive and do not prepare you for what to expect inside. To be perfectly honest, I was rather taken aback driving up to the shop in this dusty, quiet, little village and finding myself in a high-tech, custom designed, well-lit interior with stylish French chic. I have been to many wineries in different countries, some modern, some less so, but this experience was quite unique. No wonder they have won couple of awards for their cellar tour as well as for their wine. What I found special, that this clean-cut, simple elegance runs through every aspect of the operation, from website design, to the exclusive, modern bottle shape, labels, signature wine blends, courteous staff and the vinery itself. It is well-integrated and organic part of the way the vinery run. You can find this sort of attention to details and commitment at wines of legendary status. They are clearly aiming high.

You have got to love the fact that the half French, half Hungarian owner's father got 1 ha of vineyard as a birthday present in search for the epitome Tokaji wine. Nowadays his son, Pascal Demko, owns 27 ha from the finest vineyard area Mád could offer. 22 different parcels in 7 different Crus on varying volcanic terroirs, all hand-tended, hand-harvested, separately vinified by using small steel tanks and old and new French and Hungarian oak with only wild yeasts present. Pretty artisan approach, I must say.

In this day and age, you have to have internet presence, if you want to connect and draw people in. You often find these websites are not very informative, very DIY, done with not much idea or care what sort of image they are projecting to the world. Unfortunately, not a professional one to say the least. I have often encountered untended telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and staff or owner who acted less than enthusiastically when you turned up or rang. In other cases, they just simply did not want to open some of the top wines of the producer as our group, which was just myself, was not large enough to warrant it, although it was among the offerings. These things leave you with a bitter aftertaste and a thought that you are better off to spend your hard-earned money elsewhere.

That is why it makes you giddy with joy, if things can run differently and at Holdvölgy they do run it how a privately-owned family business should be run. It is a blessing when a beautiful, stunning website is useful and user-friendly as well. It is full of information, pictures, maps, the whole lot. It encourages you to go and see them if they can answer e-mails within reasonable time and they happy to do the two-hour cellar tour for just two people whilst do not try to charge you extra when your driver cannot taste at all, for obvious reasons. Again, it makes you feel special, if it is clear from the beginning what we will taste and there are options to cater for different palates, maybe even suggestions to suit your needs. After you happen to get lost and ring up for being late from your tasting, it is great that somebody answers the phone without giving you an earful. (That happened to me elsewhere.) If your host knowledgeable enough to know the difference between grapes, tanks and sorting machines, and intimately familiar with wine making process, if you dare to ask questions. (Do not just wing it people please, as I experienced it at some places. Somebody might be interested or educated in wine or has a good overall understanding of the subject. If you do not know, 'Let me come back to you on that one.' could be a viable answer.)

They produce a range of different and traditional types of wines, Aszú, Szamorodni, dry, sweet, Cru selection, but they created a signature blend, a freestyle autograph from the chief winemaker as they had put it. Using all available methods and types from their cellar formulated a blend made with Fordítás, Máslás, Szamorodni, Aszú, Esszencia with residual sugar equivalent to a 5 puttonyos aszú which could be laid down for decades. Nobody else does it, as it is maybe nothing sort of sacrilege if I were a purist or a traditionalist. I think it is a great idea, offering something special, rare, long-lasting harmonious blend that sums up their vision and capabilities as well as the potential of the region. It is reflecting to the past by using long-forgotten wine types like Fordítás and Máslás but bringing to life something new and exciting. Their ambition is 'Taking forward the Tokaj dream' I think they have succeeded.

Photographs by The Tannin Addict.