Xavier Planty and his son Luc Planty may not be direct descendants of the 16th century owners of Château Guiraud in Sauternes, but they definitely inherited their revolutionary spirit.
In fact, if there’s one word that best describes the wine business modus operandi of the Planty family, it’s rebellious. Which is exactly how one might describe the original Château Guiraud family in 1789 when they moved into this decidedly Roman Catholic community in southwest France and built a Protestant chapel on their property.
The Planty family isn’t holding church services in the chapel these days, but they’re definitely staging their own modern day uprising. And in the esteemed French wine region of Sauternes that’s as traditional as traditional gets, there’s nothing like a little revolutionary fervour to shake things up.
Sauternes is of course, the international gold standard for fantastically luscious, sweet wines (heresy, I know, given I’m from Ontario, the ice wine capital of the world!).
A ten-year trend analysis, however, suggests these are challenging times for Bordeaux’s iconic sweet region. The problem? My ‘lit review’ suggests confusion and uncertainty abounds around when and how to drink Sauternes wines. And don’t say ‘for dessert’, because nothing riles a Sauternais more than the moniker “dessert wine”. But it is exactly this occasion-limiting descriptor that’s the proverbial albatross around their neck and the key reason why Sauternes sweet wine sales have stalled. It’s the stuff of a Harvard Business Review case study – the challenge is so profound.
It’s also fair to say most consumers are woefully uninformed about the labour-intensive, small volume, noble rot (see image) production practices required to make these magical elixirs. They don’t understand why the price of these wines is so high.
So Sauternes – and it’s brands – need to do some serious introspection if they hope to remain relevant to wine consumers and visitors to the Bordeaux region. What wine messages are important to today’s wine consumers, how do Sauternes sweet wines address the “dessert wine” perceptual hurdle, what are alternative drinking occasions?
Cue the rebels.
Wait. Did Someone Say Case Study?
Permit me a quick ‘benchmarking’ exercise before we do a deep dive into Château Guiraud.
The marketer in me loves problem/solution case studies. The strongest brands – in my experience – are able to identify their key business problem and then distill the solution into a single-minded brand manifesto. Why single-minded? Most consumers are way too busy with life and can only hold onto one ….maybe two thoughts about a brand. Manifesto? For an idea to take root, brands must be absolutely resolute and evangelical in supporting that idea. As a company, they need to stand united behind their values, their vision and their brand DNA.
So the smartest companies are razor-focused, rallying around a single brand idea. Nike, for example, celebrates every consumer’s inner athlete. Their brand messages use a mix of everyday athletes and star performers to cheer consumers on to greater heights. Jeep takes on the most rugged terrain – reinforcing ‘your’ wild side. Volvo – king of the crash test dummy – understands safety is your #1 priority. Cristal Champagne – the ultimate ego stroker, taps your need for extravagance. Channel seduces audiences (men and women) by showcasing flawless femininity.
And Château Guiraud? What’s their single-minded message?
Château Guiraud is one of the 26 Sauternes and Barsac appellation’s great growths of Bordeaux, classified for Napoleon III in 1855. Its prestigious ranking as a Premier Grand Cru Classé guarantees pedigree. But that’s also true of 25 of their Sauternes neighbours and indeed many more producing sweet wine in the region. So what separates Château Guiraud from the rest?
It’s that fiercely independent, rebellious streak that places nature above all else.
There’s an unshakeable conviction at Château Giraud that the purest expression of Sauternes terroir – and therefore truly great wine – comes from authentic, biodiverse, respectful viticulture. And authentic viticulture means wines that are rooted in nature: no shortcut quick-fix synthetic fertilizers and no harmful chemicals. It’s that single-minded eco-ethos – targeted to environmentally engaged, conscientious consumers – that guides all their good work.
We’re the change is the business mandate woven throughout the operation. I’d argue they are single-handedly elevating the Sauternes region with an eco manifesto that goes well beyond sweet wine.
Here’s my broad take on their message and tactics.
Biodiversity and healthy soil is at the root of all Château Guiraud wine.
Château Guiraud has been utterly prescient in championing organic and regenerative viticulture. The goal: to preserve and ideally enhance the integrity and signature of the terroir and let nature take its course. Biodiversity, natural grasses, cover crops, natural soils, optimized water management, soil carbon stewardship; all are long-standing organic practices that have been revived and reimagined at Guiraud.
Xavier Planty’s degree is in biology and plant genetics. It’s fair to say he’s been on nature’s side since he started managing Château Guiraud in 1986. Impressively, Château Guiraud was the first of the First Growths of 1855 to secure the AB-Organic Agriculture certification. Formal certification was awarded in 2011 – but his organic vision started much earlier (see 2006 listing).
His efforts around re-greening the landscape intensified in 1996 after a friend, who had spent his career treating fields with chemicals, died of cancer. That was the impetus for Planty to “work differently” and he abandoned all artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
As a plant geneticist, Planty understood early on the conversion to organic agriculture required a focus on biodiversity and increasing the life-force of the soil. Enhancing the microbial life of the soil and keeping soil organic carbon (SOC) in the ground (thereby reducing green house gases) is just responsible viticulture. All of these practices put him well ahead of the climate emergency curve. In fact, it’s fair to say Xavier Planty adopted “net zero” practices in his vineyard before “net zero” became the EMS (environmental management system) high bar.
Practical measures around organic viticulture have included reducing the depth of the rows, reduced tilling regimes, encouraging natural grassing over and planting 12 km of vertical hedgerows to provide nourishment and shelter for the “beneficial” predatory insects that regulate grapevine pests (like caterpillars).
To help welcome these insects, Château Guiraud has created fallow zones, watering places, insect hotels, and has planted fields of wildflowers, fruits and vegetables to provide attractive habitats for insects, bees, birds and bats.
An enormous gift to the soil – entomologists have recorded 635 species of insects and spiders happily residing amongst the vines. This includes seven species of bumble bees – an increasingly endangered population being killed off by the use of herbicides and vineyard chemicals.
The Planty family’s commitment to ecological restoration and organic viticulture makes them true trailblazers in responsible environmental management in Sauterne and indeed the broader Bordeaux community – and makes their story so much more complex than ‘just’ sweet wine.
Bio-Viticulture – the Château Guiraud registered trademark is focused on building a global movement of organic, eco-conscious winemakers.
Château Guiraud registered the term Bio-Viticulture in 2010 and Xavier Planty has been seeding the movement, err -manifesto, ever since. It’s hard to know exactly where team Guiraud is going with this concept, but over the years, Planty has referenced the need for a global approach to organic-specific viticulture. (Note: All of the current organic certifications are for agriculture; viticulture falls under agricultural practices.)
Planty’s ideas embrace a complete rebalancing of the vineyard eco-system with a significant focus on biodiversity. Will he publish a template? A book? A Château Guiraud branded environmental management system (EMS)? He certainly has the “chops’ to do it. There’s no better ‘living soil’ evangelist out there.
The “Be the Change” consortium behind Château Guiraud ensures solidarity, innovation and future funding.
The saying “the prophet isn’t recognized in his own hometown” largely holds true in Bordeaux. Pointing out vineyard degradation and the soil health challenges of conventional viticulture has not made Xavier Planty the most popular guy in town. In my research I’ve come across a number of articles that suggest he’s a polarizing figure. But bold environmental change requires bold leadership…. and a rebellious spirit. And having spent mere seconds in his presence, he strikes me as a self-actualized kind of guy!
Plus, the Planty family has friends – friends in high places (haute amis placés), who support the vision, passion and practices of Château Guiraud.
A quick history…
In 1981, the eighth set of owners took over the property of Château Guiraud. The Narby family, Canadians of Egyptian origin, made their fortune as ship-owners. When they bought Château Guiraud, the estate had been devastated by war and neglect and the quality of the wine declined. The Narby’s completely restored the property, and in 1988 hired Xavier Planty to manage the estate. Château Guiraud quickly regained its pedigree and wine reputation.
In 2006 when the Narby family wanted to sell, Xavier Planty and three friends – Robert Peugeot – the famous French car magnate, Stephan von Neipperg – German and Saint Emilion wine baron and Olivier Bernard, owner of many Pessac-Léognan properties, entered into a partnership and bought the estate.
Many of Xavier Planty’s organic principles and practices have been adopted by his winemaking co-partners. Stephan von Neipperg’s Saint-Émilion vineyards Canon La Gaffeliere (Premier Grand Cru Classé) and La Mondotte (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru) are both certified organic (Certified Organic Farming by FR-BIO-10) and have obtained the ISO-14001 sustainablity standard. Olivier Bernard – Domaine de Chevalier, Domaine de la Solitude and Clos des Lunes – is also currently converting his properties to organic practices (and you can read more about that in my last blog post).
Ongoing investments by these partners are helping ensure biodiversity R&D practices continue in the fields of Château Guiraud. An innovative line of all-natural treatment products – composts, liquid fertilizers, herbal infusions with medicinal properties like Chamomile, Nettle, Comfrey and more – is also in the works.
Ode to Diversity: Chateau Guiraud’s vine conservatory for White Bordeaux Grape Varieties.
In 2001, as part of Château Guiraud’s eco-manifesto and commitment to conservation, the estate partnered with 15 winemakers in the Bordeaux region and added a conservatory to the property. The goal is twofold: to track the historical record of the vineyard and cultivate the broad spectrum of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grape varieties used to make Château Guiraud’s Sauternes wines. And second, to preserve the heritage and genetic diversity of Sauterne’s indigenous sweet wine grape varieties so they are part of the region’s plant history.
The conservatory also contains a grafting lab to ensure the diversity of vine varieties continue to be propagated. It functions as an important educational tool and study support for viticulture students in Bordeaux. According to Luc Planty, there are over 135 strains of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc in the Château Guiraud vineyard that have been nurtured in the conservatory and which contribute to the complexity of estate’s wine. In total, some 40,000 vines are grafted and planted in Château Guiraud and the broader appellation each year.
Wine Tourism: Another critical tactic in Chateau Guiraud’s eco-arsenal. Soil lovers unite!
Château Guiraud has become a must-see on the Route des Vins of Graves and Sauternes and guests enter the estate down a majestic ancient Roman driveway, where 181 plane trees provide all-day shade. The estate has been given multiple ”Best of Wine Tourism” awards for environmental practices and wine tourism, including winning GOLD for the 2019 season.
In 2015, the Planty family added a one-acre Biodiversity Garden in the middle of the vineyard. They grow organic herbs, edible flowers and over 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables on this site. In addition to the 135 + white grape clones propagated in the conservatory and grown in the vineyards, they’ve also built an impressive library of tomato varieties – 482 to be exact.
The estate’s incredible focus and commitment to producing ‘live’ soils, rich in organic matter and microbial life is a critical part of Guiraud’s eco-education. Team Guiraud wants planet-loving visitors to appreciate the relationship between healthy soil, healthy grapes and terroir-expressive, organic (no-chemical) wine. They proudly promote the one million different types of bacteria, alive and well in their soils: 100,00 fungal varieties and 1000 invertebrate species per gram. There are not many vineyards that promote bug and bacteria counts and allow guests to get so down and dirty!
Also new in Château Guiraud’s vineyard: the esteemed eco-friendly restaurant La Chapelle, which is housed in – where else – the ‘revolutionary’ 1784 protestant chapel.
If Sauterne’s challenge is confusion over how and when to drink sweet wines, then the Nicolas Lascombe’s restaurant at Guiraud serves as a tremendous boost to the entire region. Nicolas Lascombes is revered for his fine dining and fine wining establishments throughout Bordeaux.
Opening in 2018, the recipes at La Chapelle feature the best of south-west France and many of the ingredients and naturally produced local flavours come from Château Guiraud’s gardens. The wine list celebrates the sweet wines of Château Guiraud as well as the broader Sauternes and Barsac appellations. Serving staff are only too happy to provide sweet wine pairing recommendations to help guests discover the wine’s versatility.
The addition of the restaurant is such a smart and cohesive extension of Château Guiraud’s eco-manifesto, promoting the estate’s values and commitment to biodiversity, organic viticulture and it’s revolutionary sweet wine roots.
A big social media marketing push to a generation of #eco-conscious, #experiential-minded, #winelovers is paying off.
We enjoyed a lovely lunch with Clémence Planty – wife of Luc Planty and daughter-in-law of Xavier Planty, who is driving marketing change at Château Guiraud. The environmental passions of the family are eminently Instagrammable and it appears the family’s eco-manifesto and environmental stewardship is gaining traction. The latest round of research by Bordeaux-based market research company, MyBalthazar shows Chateau Guiraud has moved from seventh to third position in overall digital influence in Bordeaux. The chateau’s communications strategy is clearly teaching social media audiences the importance of Guiraud’s conservation work while elevating the profile of the wines.
A marketing push behind dry white wine is helping to broaden Château Guiraud’s brand awareness and brand appeal beyond sweet wines.
Job one at Château Guiraud is to keep the brand fresh, relevant and newsworthy, and – let’s face it – to keep the lights on. Château Guiraud’s sweet wines are unquestionably delicious and the brand’s raison d’etre, but with a world of wine options available to consumers, Sauternes is struggling to remain relevant.
To help extend the customer base and tap the explosive ‘organic’ sector – the only still wine category showing any significant growth – Château Guiraud has been driving sales of their dry white wine. The objective: to help build awareness of the Château Guiraud name, elevate the total brand portfolio and generate cash flow via the dry White Bordeaux blend category. Some pundits say it dilutes Sauterne’s sweet wine brand equity. I would argue it’s a smart and necessary brand elevation strategy.
Château Guiraud G is a racy White Bordeaux blend– 50% Sauvignon Blanc and 50% Semillon. It’s getting solid reviews and securing a loyal following. It’s also certified organic, with the AB logo first appearing on the 2011 vintage.
Château Guiraud produces about 200,000 bottles of G and has dedicated 15 hectares of well-draining sandy loam soil to the production of this lovely floral wine. Château Guiraud isn’t the only Sauterne producer leveraging the esteem of Sauterne to produce a dry white. Many of Sauterne’s 173 producers – including the premier growths – recognize the opportunity to increase cash flow and add news to the category, including first growths Yquem (with “Y”), Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Rieussec, Doisy-Daene and Sigalas-Rabaud (and probably more….).
In an online summary of the 2017 business year Xavier Planty said G Guiraud represented 59% of volume sales and 31% of dollar sales. The strength of the dry wine G Guiraud is clearly helping build awareness and volume, with total sales in 2017 increasing +25% vs 2016. The higher price point of grand vin Château Guiraud (19% volume/47% dollar sales) and second sweet wine Petit Guiraud (22% volume/22% dollar sales) are key to profitability but from a long term growth perspective, the addition of G Guiraud is clearly helping get this revolutionary brand name in front of eco-conscious consumers and associates Sauterne wines with a range of drinking occasions….not just dessert.
Responsible Terroir Stewardship
The new metric for the world of fine wine is increasingly sustainable, eco-friendly production. Conventional winemakers may argue otherwise, but my many months of researching sustainable viticulture suggests they do so at their peril. The change may not happen tomorrow, but change is coming. Educated wine-lovers – especially young, educated wine-lovers – expect wine producers to be part of the mass, global cross-category movement to sustainable values. It’s called conscientious consumption, and it’s the new norm.
Château Guiraud’s high regard for sustainability, organic viticulture and biodiversity is the new high bar for Sauternes viticulture. As a consumer, why would I buy another estate’s sweet wine – or dry wine for that matter – when it’s loaded with chemicals? Especially when I’m reassured by the estate’s First Growth quality? I’d rather buy a trailblazing, forward thinking, somewhat rebellious, ecologically driven, environmentally respectful organic wine from authentic terroir that translates into a deliciously complex Sauternes wine!
I can’t imagine the path forward for the Planty family has been easy. Being a rebel is often solitary and challenging, especially in tradition-bound wine regions like Bordeaux.
But Xavier Planty’s mission to ‘work differently’ in the vineyards of Sauternes is being heard across Bordeaux. In my travels, I’ve discovered many wine estates who care deeply about sustainable, organic practices. The Planty family has some impressive partners sharing the ecological and revolutionary load who have chosen to invest in Château Guiraud’s future.
In the meantime, the Planty family is united in their single-minded eco-manifesto, as they revive not just their brand, but the storied region of Sauternes.
It’s a sweet case study, non?