When Oz Clarke spoke at the Wines of Chile Awards seminar earlier this year, his theme was simple and clear: Chilean wine is at a crossroads and it was up to the people in that room to decide which direction to go. Would they make the same mistakes as winemakers in Australia, for example, or choose another path? Oz, who was a stage and film actor in a previous life, is a dramatic speaker, but if you watch the video I think you will agree with me that his message is even more powerful than the delivery.
Preaching to the Choir
Oz Clarke is not alone in this view and to a certain extent I’m sure he was “preaching to the choir.” Wines of Chile released its ambitious Strategic Plan 2020 about a year ago (you can download a pdf of the full report here). The plans calls for Chile to become the #1 New World producer of “sustainable and diverse” premium wines by 2020.
The carefully devised Plan projects an average annual growth rate of 9.2% and is based on strengthening the recognition and appreciation of “Wines of Chile” as a world-class appellation, which will in turn increase the average price, sales, and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries, and exporters.
The plan focuses on four messages to drive the transformation:
- Diversity and Quality. Chile has much to offer with respect to quality, diversity, and wines that over-deliver at every price point.
- Sustainability. Sustainable Chile: Clean, efficient, and responsible.
- Country Image. Chile is good for you.
- Innovation. Chile: Moving above and beyond.
The plan’s ten year time horizon speaks to the sense of “Chile at the Crossroads” immediacy while the four “strategic pillars” indicate how much needs to be done in terms of recasting Chile’s image. Chile’s reputation as a producer of bargain Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc needs to be reshaped in terms of both wine types and price points. And the image of Chile itself must be updated or redefined, according to the plan’s analysis, so that the country sells the wine (as Italy’s image obvious does for Italian wine) and not the other way around. (Whether a campaign built around the slogan “Chile is Good For You” can accomplish this is debatable.)
Exports are key for Chile since domestic consumers drink up only about 30% of total production. The idea that revenues might grow by 9.2% in the next decade is not as ridiculous as it might sound, given the current economic climate, although it is certainly an audacious goal.
Chile’s wine exports grew by a yearly average of 33% in the 1990s (according to data in the Wines of Chile report) and by 11% per year between 2000-2009. But whereas growth came through both increased price (7%) and quantity (25%) in the 1990s, the 11% revenue growth in the 2000s was due to volume growth (12%) offsetting 0.1% average price declines. The new strategic plan calls for a radical change, with rising price not higher production driving revenue growth. Good idea, but easier said than done.
So (and this is the “crossroads” theme again), Chile needs to turn things around in a fundamental sense and this may be difficult in today’s market environment as an excellent interview with with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv in a special September 2011 Chile Report issue of The Drinks Business makes clear. Rannekleiv is an optimist about Chile’s wines, but very cautious about its wine industry’s ability to meet the 2020 goal.
Something Completely Different
Rannekleiv suggests that Chile seek out new markets to supplement but not replace the UK, its largest export market today, where margins currently are thin or even negative and where upward price adjustment is extremely difficult. Focus must be on price and quality, Rannekleiv notes, so major supply surges must be avoided.
It is very difficult to raise price (without dramatic loss of market share) for existing product lines in today’s market, so “Chile needs to find something different, such as marketing around new varieties that are exceptional; it also needs to continually work on improving quality.”
There is no silver bullet, Rannekleiv suggests. It will take a combination of controlled output growth, continuing quality improvements, image development and new products and markets to turn the Chilean wine industry onto the right path.
Getting the Message Out
One element of the Wines of Chile strategy is a series of blogger wine tastings that are designed to educate, inform and persuade social media representatives and their audiences of Chile’s new direction. I took part in one of these programs last year that featured Chilean Syrah and Pinot Noir, stressing the diversity of Chilean wine.
This certainly is part of the 2020 strategy’s message (and the wines told that story pretty well), but Syrah is a problematic market these days and while Pinot is popular, it is hard to break in except at the bulk level. (Although both Chile and Argentina produce Pinot Noir, for example, neither country made the cut for inclusion in Benjamin Lewin’s recent book In Search of Pinot Noir.)
Is Carmenere The Key?
Which brings us to Carmenere, the focus of the most recent blogger tasting program. Is Carmenere the key (or one of them) to Chile’s crossroads dilemma? Carmenere is (like Malbec) a Bordeaux variety that is now better known in the New World than the Old. Can Carmenere be to Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina, a signature variety that creates a new market and that serves as a brand ambassador for the entire country?
A Carmenere boom would tick a lot of the Wines of Chile 2020 plan boxes. Is Carmenere the key? Come back next week for my answer.