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Interview_n7_une

“We taste everything from the cheapest sangria to the greatest vintages!”

Supermarkets offer a vast selection of wine. Jean-Marc Hubertus and Damien Lassance are a pair of genuine enthusiasts who manage the wine range for the Luxembourgian supermarket chain, Cactus. They explain the philosophy they have applied to develop a selection that offers maximum consistency and appeal.

Your job is to put together the wine selection for Cactus stores. How do you divide up the various tasks?

Jean-Marc Hubertus: Essentially, I take care of purchasing and special offers, and Damien ensures that everything goes smoothly with sales. However, we select the wines together. Our job is to breathe life into the wine offering by picking up on the latest trends and ensuring optimal rotation of items. Obviously, the most expensive wines don’t sell as quickly as cheaper varieties, so there are minimum requirements we must meet. When wines don’t perform so well, they must be replaced. Ultimately, it’s the customers who decide. 

What identity are you seeking to give the wine selection?

JMH: My predecessor, who had been in post for 25 years, was a big fan of French wines and focused strongly on developing this range. I realised that other countries were under-represented, and when I was appointed in 2014, I gave less prominence to French wine to make way for wines from other countries. 

Which ones?

JMH: Italy, South Africa, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Germany… I was able to introduce new wines based on my experience in German supermarkets. On the whole, wines that were very popular over there also sell very well here. In contrast, wines from some countries including Uruguay and Brazil were phased out due to low demand and often poor value for money. Some appellations emerge, while others disappear. For instance, Bordeaux Clairet is losing momentum. Very light rosés are in vogue, as opposed to darker Clairets. 

Luxembourg is a very cosmopolitan place, with 170 nationalities represented among its 630,000 inhabitants. Does that influence your work?

Damien Lassance: While it’s true there are a lot of nationalities, we cannot supply wines from everyone’s countries of origin – there’s simply not enough space! Our job is more about finding new, high-impact products at reasonable prices, which will appeal to a wide range of customers.

The customers here are generally well off, which must be a bonus for you…

JMH: Absolutely! We’ve noticed that our customers are very interested in new products, so we can try a lot of things out. Due to their above-average purchasing power, we can work with higher-end items that are not normally found in supermarkets in other countries.

Significant regional disparities nevertheless do exist in Luxembourg. Do you take account of the demographics of individual areas when deciding what to stock?

DL: We adapt the offering throughout our network based on our customers’ patterns of consumption. Based on population density and our consumers’ habits, it’s clear to us that it’s important to adapt our selection, and our priority is to identify the right wines for the right Cactus stores. Liaising with our department managers and communication are my top priorities on store visits.

JMH: This interaction is very important. Damien escalates customers’ requests and puts forward his ideas. He also relays decisions taken by the purchasing department to department managers. If he feels that purchasing power for a given store is slightly lower, he adapts its wine selection by stocking cheaper wines. 

How do you choose wines? Do you taste them all?

DL: “All of them – from the cheapest sangria to the greatest vintages!”

JMH: This needs to be highlighted, as it’s very important. From what I hear, not all our competitors do this and that’s a mistake. In my view, wines need to undergo sensory validation in order to be stocked. Two years ago, we tasted Italian wines in two-litre bottles. We tasted samples and every bottle was oxidised. If we hadn’t tasted them, we’d have been inundated with complaints. 

Who is involved in these tastings?

JMH: Damien and I. We are sometimes joined by my boss (editor’s note – Claude Ries, Director of Purchasing). These sessions are interesting, because we don’t have the same tastes.

DL: Jean-Marc likes floral wines, while I prefer mineral wines!

JMH: Although our discussions are sometimes lengthy, we invariably reach an agreement on wines that are potentially of interest to us without any difficulty.

Where do you do the tastings?

JMH: In our offices in Windhof. We also attend wine fairs such as ProWein (editor’s note – in Düsseldorf), which is the biggest in Europe. We also taste primeurs in Bordeaux, although that was not possible this year due to Covid. 

DL: Outings with the Vin/Vin club (editor’s note – the Cactus wine enthusiasts’ club) also allow us to visit various regions and meet winemakers we have previously only spoken to by phone.

What does a wine have to offer in order for you to stock it?

JMH: We are looking for wines that offer outstanding value/enjoyment for money and are thus also free of faults. We therefore taste all wines at room temperature, except fizz. At our last tasting, we appraised around twenty wines, and made some major decisions.  For instance, we told one supplier that we’ll only stock one of his wines in two years’ time. The reason we have to plan so far ahead is that we sometimes have to first sell several vintages that have been reserved in advance…

Given the huge number of producers out there, what criteria do you apply when selecting the wines you taste?

JMH: I’ve been in the business for quite a few years and am therefore familiar with many estates. I worked for a chain of superstores in Germany that supplied 3,500 items, which is three times as many as Cactus. So my address book comes in really handy! We also gather material and read specialist publications. In addition to this, I work with agents who are constantly presenting me with new wines. When we sense that a wine is losing momentum, we compare it with other wines that could potentially replace it to determine whether they offer better value for money. 

Is it easy to persuade highly prestigious estates to supply wine to you?

JMH: It’s difficult to persuade those that work mainly with wine merchants and Horesca (a Luxembourgian agency protecting the interests of specific industries). Many of these winemakers currently label their wines differently for supermarkets, as restaurant owners often don’t want customers to be able to compare prices. I don’t allow this practice – I want the estate’s original label.

Organic, sulphite-free wines are increasingly in vogue. What is your approach to these specific market segments?

JMH: These organic, vegan trends now appear to be well-established. Major winemakers are often organic, including Romanée-Conti (editor’s note – in Côte-d’Or) and Domaine Zind Humbrecht (editor’s note – in Alsace). Catherine Faller from Domaine Weinbach (editor’s note – in Alsace) has been producing wine organically for about 15 years, but only started indicating this on her labels when I asked her to do so. This is important in my opinion, as organic production is highly valued in Luxembourg. Sulphite-free wines represent an avenue that we are beginning to explore. Four or five years ago, many producers weren’t applying the processes properly and, on tasting, it was apparent that the quality of many wines was not at all up to standard. However, they’ve improved and we can now start to develop our range … cautiously! 

Luxembourgian wines are well-represented in your stores, with products from both large and small producers including the Domaine Krier-Bisenius in Bech-Kleinmacher, a relative newcomer.

JMH: Damien had a good feeling about the winemaker, Jean-Paul Krier. We went to his estate to taste his wines and everything was up to scratch! We approved his products without the slightest hesitation and the customers like them too.

DL: We’re increasingly gaining the trust of Luxembourgian winegrowers, something we should have done a lot sooner… Through the Vin/Vin club, we’ve been able to reach out to suppliers including Domaine Ruppert (editor’s note – in Schengen), whose wines we now supply. Domaine Alice Hartmann (editor’s note – in Wormeldange) also attends the club – we’ll do a tasting in January/February, even though we can’t immediately stock their wines. 

JMH: I can tell you that a very good new Luxembourgian winemaker will be joining us soon! Here again, everything was up to standard – I’ve approved 90% of their range.

Do customers respond well to this Luxembourgian offering?

JMH: I’d even go as far as saying they respond very well. Charta Luxembourg, representing the cream of independent winegrowers, which we distribute, is a good illustration of this. At first, we were somewhat sceptical, as the prices are high and the charter is a relatively new development. However, volumes have increased steadily. It’s a really good thing.

DL: Initially, Charta wines were only stocked in the Belle Étoile and Bascharage stores. We subsequently extended this offering to Howald, Schelek (editor’s note – Bettembourg), Redange and Mersch, where it has also proved a success.

Offering wines produced by independent winemakers significantly increases their availability. They’re not always easy to find…

DL: That’s true, but we also only have so much space on our shelves! Since Vinsmoselle and Bernard Massard (editor’s note – Luxembourg’s top two producers) account for very high volumes, we have to be selective and avoid offending winemakers.

JMH: We also work with Domaine Häremillen (editor’s note – in Ehnen), which is a very important partner. We could sell a lot more of their wine, but sometimes reach the limits of their stock! And it’s not a small estate either. I’d also like to mention Domaine Desom (editor’s note – in Remich) as we are the only supermarket in Luxembourg to work with them. It produces high-quality wines and we’re very proud of this partnership.

"As soon as lockdown ended, people came back in to buy crates of wine"

What was the impact of Covid on wine sales?

JMH: We saw a sharp drop during lockdown. Customers were afraid, and mainly only bought essentials. However, once this phase was over, we observed the contrasting trend of people wanting to treat themselves. This was very apparent, with figures skyrocketing. Although people were visiting less frequently, the cost of the average basket was higher.

DL: A soon as lockdown ended, our customers came back in to buy crates of often high-end wine. Organic wines have seen significant growth.

JMH: With the bars and restaurants closed, they bought wines from us that they had not tried elsewhere. They needed a treat in spite of everything, and wine was part of this. This trend has continued with sales still higher than their normal levels.

In the last issue of Vinorama, the economist Martin Cubertafond observed that in France, lockdown had inverted trends for premiumisation and organic wine. It was almost like the revenge of the entry-level wines. Have you noticed this?

JMH: No – not here.

DL: What I have noticed, on the other hand, are the effects of remote working. Business has suffered with a significant fall in the number of people passing through checkouts.

Did you notice the lack of trade from commuters when the borders were closed? 

DL: Absolutely! It was very visible, particularly in stores along the border. It caused us to evaluate the situation with regard to purchases made by people living on the border, which are significant.

Wine fairs need to adapt too

Autumn is wine fair season. In Cactus stores, it’s time for the Festival des Grands Vins de France [a festival celebrating the great French wines]. The 44th edition of the event will still be taking place between 12 and 25 October, although this year it’ll be slightly different.  “We had to drop the wine tastings,” explains Jean-Marc Hubertus. Normally, we open around 500 of the 680 wines on offer. This is quite unique, even in Europe.”

To make up for this, there will be more special offers. “Normally, we offer a 25% discount on 20 wines. This year, a total of 40 wines will be included – 31 with a 25% discount and 9 with a 30% discount.” The chain is also offering the option of buying packs online for home delivery through the website www.letzhop.lu.

To help people make up their minds, Jean-Marc Hubertus and Damien Lassance are also providing detailed descriptions of “44 wines that we have chosen as our favourites. We tasted them a month before the start of the campaign. The descriptions that we provide give our customers an accurate indication of the quality of wines at the time of purchase,” adds the purchasing manager.

Once again, there will be benefits for the 3,700 Vin/Vin club members, even though this year there’ll be no dedicated day for the club. They got a 25% discount on the primeur from the catalogue and this will also apply to stocks of vintages reserved for club members. They will also receive a free bottle and an engraved commemorative glass celebrating the club’s 30th anniversary. Given the current public health situation, this will be properly celebrated next year.

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