UNESCO World Heritage Wine Regions: Benefits & Costs

Last week I talked about the rise of UNESCO World Heritage-designated wine regions. There are now more than a dozen wine regions that have received the UNESCO imprimatur — Champagne and Burgundy are the latest additions — and more than 30 with some wine connection (see list below) with more applications are in the pipeline.

I am not opposed to wine regions being highlighted this way — in fact I kind of like the idea — I just wonder how UNESCO designation fits into the already complicated geography of wine. I ended the column with a series of questions that I will try to answer this week.

What are the costs and benefits of World Heritage status?

A 2007 UK government report outlines the costs of and benefits from seeking UNESCO World Heritage Site designation (you can find a pdf of the report here). The costs, it concludes, can be substantial. The application process alone can be long and expensive (this is not a surprise to anyone in the U.S. who has been through our AVA application process lately).

A recent New York Times article about Burgundy’s UNESCO designation notes that the organizers assembled a team of 30 specialists to make their case and published a 600-page scientific and historical report in both English and French. Once approved, there are of course additional costs of managing the program. The UK study estimated that the costs (back in 2007) could be more than £100,000 to make the bid and possibly much more than this on a yearly basis for program management. Obviously someone has to come up with funds to finance all of this, so UNESCO designation is a major commitment.

What are the benefits? The UK study divides them into potential economic benefits and potential social benefits. From an economic standpoint, being a UNESCO site opens doors to partnerships with other organizations that might provide funding and support and is also a useful tool in promoting tourism. Being on the UNESCO list is like having an extra star in the tourist guidebook rating, I guess.

One of my university students reports that her thesis fieldwork on national parks in Southeast Asia reflected the UNESCO effect. UNESCO-designated parks had better facilities, more tourists and more government support (she also found them to be more commercialized) compared with national parks lacking the UNESCO imprimatur.

The non-economic benefits can be substantial, starting with conservation, regeneration and education benefits (which I think are the main aim of many of the programs) and moving to civic pride and social capital (“social unity and cohesion” according to the study), which are harder to measure but still important.

Interestingly, the New York Times article lists different principal benefits for Champagne and Burgundy. For Burgundy, we are told, the point is to make a statement that fine wine comes from specific terroirs, of which the newly protected Burgundian vineyard climats are among the world’s most famous.  For Champagne, on the other hand, the payoff comes in additional protection of intellectual property rights — the Champagne brand itself. To the extent that the climats are closely identified with Burgundy’s brand, I suppose the two cases are not so very different after all.

Why is there a need for an additional regional wine designation?

The first appellations in France were essentially defensive mechanisms. Defense first against wines from outside a region being passed off as a local product and then defense against local producers who were debasing the region’s collective brand through over-cropping, poor wine-making, etc.  Appellation regulations had economic value first and then provided social benefits.

Here in the U.S. we have watched AVAs proliferate to the point where most of them have little specific economic brand value. Most AVAs with a few exceptions are probably best understood as tools of regional identity not as valuable brands. They are expensive tools due to the high application costs, but they are worth something in today’s marketplace because for some consumers today the lack of a geographical designation puts a wine into a lower generic class. 

Seen in this economic light, the UNESCO designation creates a sort of super appellation that rises above the cluttered landscape while at the same  time potentially providing those conservation, regeneration and education benefits.

The creation of a super league of some sort might not be necessary, but perhaps it is inevitable (in the same way that the creation of the UEFA Champions League in soccer was probably inevitable).  The fact that the league might ultimately be based on UNESCO protocols that explicitly privilege history and culture as opposed to auction valuations or famous critic ratings, which focus on different factors, is what makes it really interesting to me.

Should your wine region look into this?

When I first read about the UNESCO designation I thought that Napa Valley was an obvious candidate. But if increased wine tourism is one of the benefits, then I wonder Napa really works. Seems like if Napa is having trouble working out a balance between wine tourism and what many see as conflicts with local lifestyles. The additional attention from UNESCO status might compound rather than resolve local tensions unless local pride somehow rose to bridge the tourism divide.

Ultimately, looking at the examples of Champagne and Burgundy, I think each region has to make its own evaluation of the costs and benefits and decide if gains in terms of profit, identity or philosophy are worth the obvious costs. It seems to me that the conservation and regeneration benefits (or lack thereof) may tip the balance one way to another. I’m interested in hearing what others have to say.

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Congratulations to those regions that have achieved UNESCO designation and to those who receive it in the future.  Despite my grinchy “dismal scientist” focus on costs and benefits, I am glad that UNESCO celebrates the natural and cultural wonders of the world and proud that wine regions are included on the list.

Here’s a list of vineyard-related World Heritage sites as tabulated by worldheritagesite.org

 

The Rise of the UNESCO World Heritage Vineyard

“International Designation is Sweet Victory for Burgundy”  is the title of the August 17, 2015 New York Times article by Elaine Sciolino, which tells the story of how Burgundian vineyards received UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. “Burgundian terroir and climats” joins “Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars” on the 2015 UNESCO induction list.

There seems to be a movement among some wine regions to seek the UNESCO designation in addition to their regional appellation.  During our visit to the Italian northeast last year we learned that Conegliano-Valdobbiadene had applied for UNESCO status for their dramatic and beautiful hillside vineyards. I saw that as a special case, bow I am starting to think that UNESCO-designation is a broader trend that deserves more attention.

A to Z: 1031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The UNESCO World Heritage Site program has grown and changed since it was initiated in 1978.  There are currently a total of 1031 UNESCO-designated properties in 163 countries around the world. About 80 percent are designated cultural sites and 20 percent are natural heritage locations.  Forty-eight are listed as “in danger.” Here is a list of the 1978 first group of UNESCO sites. You can see a strong preservation motive here.

Aachen Cathedral
City of Quito
Galápagos Islands
Historic Centre of Kraków
Island of Gorée
L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site
Mesa Verde National Park
Nahanni National Park
Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
Simien National Park
Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines
Yellowstone National Park

and here are the locations on the 2015 list

Aqueduct of Padre Tembleque Hydraulic System
Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale
Baekje Historic Areas
Baptism Site “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (Al-Maghtas)
Blue and John Crow Mountains
Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars
Christiansfeld, a Moravian Church Settlement
Climats, terroirs of Burgundy
Cultural Landscape of Maymand
Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape
Ephesus
Fray Bentos Industrial Landscape
Great Burkhan Khaldun Mountain and its surrounding sacred landscape
Necropolis of Bet She’arim: A Landmark of Jewish Renewal
Rjukan–Notodden Industrial Heritage Site
Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia
San Antonio Missions
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining
Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus
Susa
The Forth Bridge
The par force hunting landscape in North Zealand
Tusi Sites

World Heritage Vineyards and Wine Regions

A surprising (to me) number of these sites have wine connections. Here’s a list of wine-related UNESCO properties and the year each was added to the list based on my quick survey of 1031 sites on the list. There may be some that I have over-looked — please use the Comments section below to let everyone know of additions to the list.

  • Burgundy terroir and climats (2015)
  • Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars (2015)
  • Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir (2014)
  • Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato (2014)
  • Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces (2007)
  • Bordeaux, Port of the Moon (2007)
  • Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture (2004)
  • South Africa Cape Floral Region Protected Areas (2004)
  • Upper Middle Rhine Valley (2002)
  • Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape (2002)
  • Alto Douro Wine Region (2001)
  • The Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes (2000)
  • Wachau Cultural Landscape (2000)
  • Historic Centre of Oporto (1996)

UNESCO and Wine: Some Unanswered Questions

The vineyards and wine regions on the UNESCO list so far are certainly important, but it is easy to think of other wine regions around the world that have special properties and that are not yet on the list.  I wonder where this movement will lead? The rise of the UNESCO World Heritage Vineyard project prompts a number of interesting questions.

What are the costs and benefits of World Heritage status?

Why, when wine has appellations, AVAs and Geographical Indicators galore, is there a need for an additional designation?

Should your wine region look into UNESCO designation?

Answers to these questions and more in the next Wine Economist column.

Back to the Future? First Impressions of Wine and Wine Tourism in Cyprus

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Cyprus is known for many things: culture (fantastic archaeological sites), cuisine (haloumi, the wonderful grilling cheese), international politics (the ongoing dispute with Turkey over the island itself), and tourism (beautiful beach resorts).

Cypriot wine? Probably not on your radar for reasons I will explain in next week’s column. But that wasn’t always the case. Commandaria, a wonderful sweet wine, was once treasured throughout Europe along with Tokaj, Sauternes, and Vin de Constance. Cyprus Sherry was popular, too, and bulk wine exports once found their way to Russia, the UK, and elsewhere.

Cyprus wine today? Not much seen outside of Cyprus. But that might be changing. Stay tuned.

Pafos: Cultural Capital of Europe

Sue and I came to Cyprus as guests of the Cyprus Tourist Organization to attend the 10th Cyprus Wine Competition in Pafos and spend several days exploring wineries and wine tourism opportunities. This is the first of several columns that report what we learned from this fascinating experience.

Our first day in Pafos was spent recovering from jet lag and taking in a few sights. It was a short walk from the luxurious Almyra Hotel  where we stayed to the archaeological park (a Unesco World Heritage site!) where we saw beautiful mosaics featuring wine-swilling Dionysus (how appropriate) and saw the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was setting up for a lunch concert.

Wait! The Berlin Philharmonic? Yes. Pafos is a European Capital of Culture for 2017 and there is a fantastic line-up of events planned for the year. The concert was sold out, so we couldn’t stay, but we could hear the music quite clearly from the balcony of our hotel room. A sweet introduction to Cyprus!

Cyprus Wine Industry Symposium

It was back to business the next day. I gave a keynote speech to a Cypriot wine industry symposium that also included speakers from OIV, local university research projects, and the head of the wine competition.  Panos Kakaviatos, who was part of our group of international visitors, has written about this event and the Cyprus wine industry more generally on his blog Wine-Chronicles.com — you should check it out.

I spoke about the lessons that can be learned, both positive and negative, from successful wine regions and several of the points I made seemed to strike a chord with the Cypriot winemakers. Here’s a quick summary of the key take-aways.

Competition versus Cooperationc1

Wine is a very competitive business, but one lesson I have learned is that successful wine regions find ways to set aside retail competition to a certain degree in order to cooperate to build reputation and the regional “brand.” Cooperation is the key, both among wineries and also with local and regional tourist and government authorities.  There really is strength in numbers.

This simple point seemed to resonate with many people in the room who commented about it later that day and when I talked with them later in the week, too. Everyone seemed to believe that Cyprus wine players need to learn to work together more effectively and to build the public-private partnerships that are so useful in other wine regions.

I sensed that there was pent-up frustration about the lack of teamwork. My goal in giving talks like this one isn’t so much to tell people what to do as to give them something to think about and if my remarks stimulate some thought and eventual action in this regard I will be very satisfied.

Wine Tourism Leverage

Since we were visiting as guests of the tourist authority, I spent a little time talking about how important wine tourism can be, not just to sell wine, but to create brand ambassadors who will carry the story of your winery and region with them when they go home. Cyprus has the raw materials — excellent wineries and world-class tourism infrastructure. Leveraging these resources through wine tourism seems like the logical next step.

But it will take work (and teamwork) to accomplish this. One winemakers told me frankly that no wine tourists came to his winery. Plenty of tourists visited — they stopped by, tasted wines, and made purchases. Indeed, his winery could not survive without the tourist trade.

But they are not wine tourists, he said. The haven’t come to this part of Cyprus because of the wine.  Creating real wine tourism, where wine drives the agenda, that’s a challenge.

One Wine to Rule Them All?

Readers of this column already know the I am skeptical of the idea that every region needs to have a “signature variety” of wine. Napa has Cab, Argentina has Malbec, New Zealand has Sauvignon Blanc. We need to put all our chips on one grape variety to power our wine industry, too. That’s the conventional logic and I have my doubts.53994_lg

As it happens, Cyprus is having its own “signature” wine discussion just now and so my comments got some attention. Commandaria (a.k.a. “the world’s oldest wine”), we were told, was the key to raising the international profile of Cypriot wine.  The Cyprus wine people we talked with were convinced about this. Commandaria will lead the charge and the other wines will gallop behind to victory.

The “internationals” in our little group were unconvinced by this strategy and hopefully our comments were helpful even if we really didn’t change anyone’s mind. Commandaria is a sweet wine, we said, and sweet wines are a small category and a tough sell around the world today. Port struggles to get traction. Commandaria faces a steep climb.

The thing about Commandaria is that it is unique to Cyprus and has a distinguished history. But I am not sure that the wine is well known outside of traditional markets and so selling it requires expensive consumer education resources, which might more effectively deployed elsewhere.

It might be better to have another wine lead the way, one that fits into a more popular market segment. Xinistera, for example, a delightful dry white wine with instant appeal.  More about this is future columns.

Everyone Loves a Winner

Finally, I noted that many wine regions use wine rankings and competition results to promote their wines. Consumers are drawn to lists and ratings like the Classification of 1855, for example, or the Wine Spectator Top 100. I suggested that Cyprus had some work to do to get the word out about its finest wines in this way.

The wine competition we came to Pafos to attend, for example, seemed to be a Cypriot secret. It was difficult to find any mention of it on the internet. And the results from previous  years were nearly impossible to find. A missed opportunity to cultivate interest by promoting the best that Cyprus has to offer.

It didn’t take long for this message to sink in and for action to be taken, which is great. I am hoping that the 2018 wine competition will more thoroughly publicized and that the wineries will be able to leverage the results more forcefully, both in domestic and export markets.

In the meantime, the 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards results have been released and 78 Cypriot wines received recognition. That’s a great opportunity for the Cyprus wine industry to blow its own horn and for consumers to begin to learn about the excellent wines made on this beautiful island.

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Greetings and thanks to everyone we met on our brief visit to Cyprus. Special thanks to Maria, Panos, Per, Jean-Claude, Dimetri, Georgios, Patrick, Pambos, Mary, and Nektarios. (More thanks to come in future columns.) Come back next week for an analysis of the state of the Cypriot wine industry today and the unexpected history behind it.

Alentejo Wine in Transition: History and Changing Times in Portugal’s “Lodi”

seloSue and I recently returned from historic Évora, Portugal where I am spoke at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium. We spent about a week in the Alentejo wine region and learned a lot. This is the first of a short series of columns loosely organized around the theme of the disruptive intersection of old and new which I have found in many corners of the wine world, but none more clearly than Alentejo.

Portugal’s Lodi

The map gives you an idea of Alentejo’s location. Évora is about an hour east of Lisbon and give hours south of the Douro Valley. Portuguese leaders once thought that this region would be Europe’s grainery (more Kansas than Lodi, I suppose), but the landscape we saw was more pastures dotted with cork trees and vineyards, some of which are quite large by Portuguese standards.lisboa-alentejo

I think of Alentejo as the Portugal’s Lodi for several reasons. The first is the summer heat, which reaches up to 40 or 45 degrees Centigrade (100 to 110 Fahrenheit) or even higher in July. Difficult to grow high quality wine grapes in such baking heat. But, as markets shift, both regions feel the need to increase quality and so producers are pushing hard. And both regions are implementing important sustainability initiatives that are part of their new identities.

They both produce quite a lot of wine, too. Alentejo accounts for more than 40 percent of the wine consumed in Portugal. But the market is changing and the region must adjust and evolve. The domestic market has not fully recovered from the global financial crisis and price pressure is extreme, especially in the lower price tiers. At the same time, the traditional export markets — especially former Portuguese colonies Angola (#1 on the export list) and Brazil — are struggling.

Drawing Strength from the Old and the New

Alentejo is drawing strength from its past in this transition and from new ideas and initiatives, too. The sense of history is never far below the surface here. Évora is a Unesco World Heritage site, for example, with Roman ruins around every corner. The Romans made wine in this region and the big clay pots they employed are inspiring today’s winemakers (watch for a future column on this).

Portugal was once part of the Arab world (“Portugal,” we were told, means “orange” in Arabic and this was not hard to believe with orange trees everywhere). The name Alentejo itself reflects this history. Alentejo comes from Al Entejo (just as mathematic’s algebra was originally al gebra).

Old practices and a wealth of indigenous grape varieties are more than living history — they form building blocks, but bold initiative is needed for glue. The next three columns will explore this dynamic.

First I will introduce you to Adega de Borba, a big cooperative winery that is moving decisively into the future. Then I will take you into the world of cork by visiting Amorim cork’s processing plant in Alentejo and its high tech labs and production facilities in the north. Finally, we will go back in time to the wines made in big clay pots when we meet with winemaker Domingos Soares Franco at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery.

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One of the highlights of the conference was a dinner that featured a group of men who sang the famous Cante Alentejano that is unique to this region. It was a moving experience to hear the singing that turned to pure joy when we learned that the singers were winegrowers — members of the Vidigueira  cooperative. And to top it off, we were drinking their excellent wines. What an experience!

Are You Going to the UNWTO Global Wine Tourism Conference in Georgia?

unwtoI’ve recently accepted an invitation to speak at the first global wine tourism conference to be organized by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The event is set for September 7-9, 2016 in the Republic of Georgia, which is the cradle of wine and an emerging wine tourism destination. Here are links to the preliminary program and registration information.

I will be on a panel that includes representatives from Argentina, France, Japan, Italy and South Africa to talk about best practices in wine tourism in each country. I plan to focus on Napa Valley and the many and quite diverse lessons both that this wine tourism hot spot provides. Should be an interesting discussion!

Are any of you in the Napa or California wine tourism sector (either individual wineries or regional groups) planning to attend the UNWTO conference? I am curious to know who else will be there to represent the U.S. industry.

I like to think that we in the U.S. are in the lead when it comes to wine tourism, but I have seen (and written about) some fabulous and innovative programs in other countries.  Sue and I were recently in Portugal, for example, and were impressed with wine tourism initiatives at Sandeman in Porto, Quinta do Bomfim in the Douro and at Esporão in the Alentejo. The global standard is rising and everyone needs to up their game.

Wine tourism is only going to become more important in the future and opportunities for global dialogue are potentially very valuable. With this in mind, here is a “Flashback Friday” column from 2015 when the UNWTO conference was first announced.

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I think the United Nations has a thing about wine. I recently wrote about the surprising number of wine regions that have received Unesco World Heritage site recognition, for example. Now the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is getting into the act.

The 1st UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism will be held in the Kakheti wine region of Georgia from 7-9 September 2016. “Wine tourism represents a growing segment with immense opportunities to diversify demand. In the case of Georgia, this potential is well-known and we are very pleased to be holding the first UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism in the country,” according to UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

Why Georgia? History is part of the story, but it is also true that wine is an effective way to promote tourism and economic development. Come for the wine (and food) and stay for the people, culture, history and geography. Trade and investment flows may follow the wine route, too. Georgian officials appreciate this logic.

“Georgia’s unique wine-making traditions date back 8,000 years and are part of UNESCO’s intangible heritage, creating the ideal base to host the Wine Tourism Conference. Herewith, the country’s recent success in attracting a growing number of tourists, its development in terms of tourism products, branding and marketing present an excellent platform to share best practices, experience and knowledge¨ according to Dimitry Kumsishvili, Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia.

U.S. regional wine associations with a strong interest in wine tourism may be able to participate in the Georgia program, but I am not sure about the details.  More information can be found here.

I wrote about wine tourism in my book Extreme Wine, so I am going to be following this initiative closely. Best wishes to Georgia and the UNWTO for a successful inaugural conference.

Georgia to Host UNWTO Global Wine Tourism Conference in 2016

I think the United Nations has a thing about wine. I recently wrote about the surprising number of wine regions that have received Unesco World Heritage site recognition, for example. Now the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is getting into the act.

The 1st UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism will be held in the Kakheti wine region of Georgia from 7-9 September 2016. “Wine tourism represents a growing segment with immense opportunities to diversify demand. In the case of Georgia, this potential is well-known and we are very pleased to be holding the first UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism in the country,” according to UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

Why Georgia? History is part of the story, but it is also true that wine is an effective way to promote tourism and economic development. Come for the wine (and food) and stay for the people, culture, history and geography. Trade and investment flows may follow the wine route, too. Georgian officials appreciate this logic.

“Georgia’s unique wine-making traditions date back 8,000 years and are part of UNESCO’s intangible heritage, creating the ideal base to host the Wine Tourism Conference. Herewith, the country’s recent success in attracting a growing number of tourists, its development in terms of tourism products, branding and marketing present an excellent platform to share best practices, experience and knowledge¨ according to Dimitry Kumsishvili, Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia.

U.S. regional wine associations with a strong interest in wine tourism may be able to participate in the Georgia program, but I am not sure about the details.  More information can be found here.

I wrote about wine tourism in my book Extreme Wine, so I am going to be following this initiative closely. Best wishes to Georgia and the UNWTO for a successful inaugural conference.

Three Faces of Veneto Wine: A Wine Economist Report

Titian’s famous painting Allegory of Prudence  (1565-70) is one of my favorite works of Italian Renaissance art. I stand before this painting and ponder it whenever I visit the National Gallery in London.

The three faces represent three sides of human nature: the loyalty of youth (represented by the dog), the courage of maturity (the lion) and the wisdom (or is it cunning?) of old age (the wolf).

It is a complicated painting that can be read on many levels, but one interpretation is that loyalty and courage much be tempered by prudent wisdom (hence the title). Or perhaps it is that wisdom is the product of loyalty and courage accumulated over one’s lifetime.

Whatever your reading, it seems that all three characteristics exist at once in most people, but since we are complicated folks, they come out in varying proportions at different times.

Wine has many faces, too, and this is especially true of Italian wine. The Veneto region of Italy is interesting in this regard because it is home to the big (it produces the most wine of any Italian region) and the small, the cheap and dear, the … well, you get the idea.

We were fortunate to be exposed to many different faces of the region’s wines during our recent visit. Last week I reported on the Prosecco producers we visited in Conegliano, where I lectured at the famous wine school. This week’s column looks at three faces of Vento wine we discovered on the next leg of our tour.

From Conegliano to Valdobbiadene

Our journey took us from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, the two poles of a wine zone officially knows as Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG. It would save everyone a lot of trouble if they shortened this mouthful of a name to something simpler such as Prosecco Superiore, but I don’t really see this happening soon.

Someone told us that Conegliano Prosecco has more structure and Valdobbiadene Prosecco more fruit and, when I asked a friend if this is true he just shook his head and smiled. This is Italy, he said, and everyone is loyal to their locality, so everyone must be the best at something. And so  Conegliano-Valdobbiadene it is likely to remain, despite the marketing challenge, reflecting a certain combination of creative tension and political equilibrium.

The landscape of Valdobbiadene is quite stunning, with steep hillsides of vines. No wonder if is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage site status. And the wines are quite stunning, too.

Going Small at Silvano FolladorP1100182

A visit to Silvano Follador presented on intriguing face of Valdobbiadene wine personality. Silvano Follador inherited a few hectares of vineyards from his grandfather and produced wine from those vines and purchased grapes until, in 2004, when he made the choice to go small and to stick to estate fruit.

Now, working with his sister Alberta who met with us at the winery, he makes tiny amounts (about 2000 – 2500  cases) of beautiful wines working as naturally and sustainably  as possible. It takes courage to be small in a business where capital, technology and economies of scale are key factors.

Our interview and tasting with Alberta was conducted entirely in Italian and Sue and I were struck by the elegance of both the wines and the language Alberta used to describe them and the philosophy behind them. Tasting the wines with her was a very personal experience, which I suppose is what these wines are all about. The focus is very intense here — on the land, the seasons, the philosophy.

The wines deserve the global attention that they receive — they were featured in the copy of Slow Wine 2014 where we discovered them — but with production necessarily limited to estate fruit — and the idea of expansion or buying in grapes off the table — only a few of the world’s Prosecco drinkers will taste these wines. If you find them, do not hesitate!

Going Big at Bisol

Is going small the only way to preserve quality and a sense of place? It certainly works for Silvano Follador, but scale and quality are not mutually exclusive as we learned when we visited the much larger Bisol winery just up the road. The Bisol family has deep roots in Valdobbiadene, with evidence of grape cultivation going back as far as 1542. The business today is still all about family and, if the scale has grown the family-oriented philosophy remains.

We had our first taste of Bisol Prosecco from the iconic Cartizze zone last fall when we were in the Veneto on other business. Cartizze is the peak of the Prosecco pyramid, a small mountain covered in 106 hectares of vines that are divided up among 140 owners (Follador has a small plot of very old vines near the base of the mountain).

The Cartizze wines are so special and command such high prices that in the rare cases when vineyards go on the market they are exchanged for as much as 2.5 million Euro per hectare, or about a million dollars per acre. The vineyard scenes in the video above give you a sense of the territory. Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that we wanted to visit Bisol on this trip and learn more.

Bisol is both big and small, local and global, and this, along with the family philosophy, is the key to its success. Thinking big means thinking in terms of a portfolio of Prosecco wines that includes the popularly priced Jeio label and then moving up to Bisol Crede, a larger volume DOCG wine.

Quantity supports and enables quality and the smaller production Bisol wines really shoot for the stars. Here is a list of exceptional Bisol wines we tasted at Venissa in September 2014. We tasted many of these wines again in June in the company of Desiderio Bisol and export manager Stefano Marangon.

 Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.

Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 — Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG –– from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita — dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either.

The Bisol website proclaims that the family aims to be at the cutting edge of tradition, and I think this is a wise (or perhaps cunning) approach. They use the capital and technology and take advantage of the economies of scale, but without losing sight of first principles.P1100186The Colli Euganei and Maeli Estate

Loyalty seems also to be a characteristic of the Bisol family and it shows up in unexpected ways. Venissa, the vineyard, restaurant and inn on an island in the Venetian lagoon, is a project of Gianluca Bisol that aims to honor the deepest traditions of Venetian winemaking. At Gianluca’s suggestion, Sue and I drove from Valdobbiadene to Villa Vescovi in the Colli Euganei to visit another project that honors tradition: the Maeli  Estate of Elisa Dilavanzo.

We had never been to the Euganean Hills before and we found the geography quite striking. The hills seem to erupt from the plain in a way that suggests their volcanic origins. So close to Venice that you can see San Marco from the hilltops on a clear day (our day was not so clear, alas), this zone supplied Venice with traditional wines and agricultural products for ceP1100200nturies. Now, however, there is pressure to shift from traditional wines to international grape varieties that are sometimes easier to sell, which is understandable but a loss to wine’s diversity if the trend goes too far.

With Gianluca Bisol’s support, Elisa Dilvanzo has dedicated the hilltop Maeli estate to try to preserve some of the wines and traditions of the Colli Euganei and to develop markets for them, too, since one way to preserve tradition is to demonstrate its value.

We tasted a number of quite fascinating wines and walked the vineyards, too. The wine that stands out in my memory and that I will always remember is the wine shown here: a Fior D’Arancia DOCG made with indigenous Moscato Giallo grapes. The wine really does remind you of orange blossoms. It makes a strong statement that winemakers should be loyal to their heritage even as they reach out to the global markets that can support their efforts.

Maeli’s strategy is to begin by exploring Moscato Giallo in all of its many possible expressions, then continue the journey with other red and white wines that have deep roots in the region. These include Bordeaux varieties that were introduced by the French here long ago. We tasted a delicious wine called “D+” — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere — and joked about the name. In the United States “D+” is a poor grade — better than D- but worse than C-.  Here, however, it means “even more” and that’s what this wine (and the project) aims for while still staying loyal to the past.

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And so here are three faces of Veneto wine. Are these the three faces of Veneto wines? Oh my, no — just scratching the surface. But they show the rich diversity of this impressive region and, like Titian’s painting, represents three sides of Venetian wine character. Thanks to everyone at Silvano Follador, Bisol and Maeli estate for giving us a taste of their wines and a peek into their worlds. Special thanks to Michela De Bona for all her help. Photos by Sue Veseth.

Prosecco Bubbles Upmarket: The Premiumization Pyramid

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Our stay is the Prosecco region of Northern Italy was short but very intense. It left us impressed with the work going on there to refine Prosecco’s image and to raise quality so that Prosecco will be on the lips (both figuratively and literally) of consumers who seek a premium sparkling wine. It is a tale told in three acts.

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Wine (not water) makes history at the Conegliano wine school.

Act 1: The School for Wines

First was a visit to the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano, Conegliano’s famous wine school, which was founded in 1876 . It was then and is now an important center for the scientific study of enology and viticulture. The school’s impact through its graduates and research extends throughout Italy and in fact around the world. To give just one example, Romeo Bragato, who might be said to be the father of winemaking in Australia and New Zealand, trained at Conegliano.

We toured the original school building, visiting the first professional tasting arena, and then moved on to the famous test vineyard, the teaching winery and the ultra-modern labs. We met professors devoted to training the next generation of winemakers and scientists diligently addressing a range of important winemaking issues.

It’s clear that the school is a very strong force in assuring quality in Prosecco (it is here where the DOCG panels meet to verify wine quality) and to see that the bar is raised higher and higher. We brought home a few bottles of the school’s wine including an IGT Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 made from the Manzoni Bianco grape variety developed here and a Conegliano DOCG still Prosecco called Celebre. Can’t wait to try these wines when they’ve had time to settle down from the trip home.

Act 2: The Prosecco Pyramid

Our next stop was lunch at Antica Osteria di Via Brandolini in Solighetto with officials of both the Conegliano school and the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Consorzio.  The main topic of conversation (when we were not distracted by the menu of outstanding local dishes) was the program to establish a hierarchy of Prosecco wines that consumers can understand and that will draw them in and allow them to effectively explore premium possibilities.

The Prosecco production zone is very large, including parts of both the Veneto and Friuli, and the growing conditions and wine qualities vary a good deal. You can get cheap and cheerful Prosecco wines and also sophisticated products. The Consorzio’s plan, which I think it a good one, is to help buyers understand the different quality levels by creating a sort of premiumization pyramid.

DOC Prosecco forms the base of the pyramid — the vast majority of Prosecco wines you will find fall into this category. Next up are the DOCG Prosecco Superiore wines from the Congegliano Valdobbiadene zone — an area stretching basically from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, which includes some spectacular hillside vineyards. The Consorzio has applied for the this area to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look at the video at the top of the page and you will see why.

DOCG wines are not necessarily better than individual DOC wines (just as IGT wines are not necessarily inferior to those with more prestigious designations), but they are held to a higher certified standard. One of the goals of the premiumization push it to help consumers understand the difference between DOC and DOCG (unfamiliar concepts to most Prosecco drinkers in America who think mainly in terms of brands) and to encourage them to look for and to try the DOCG wines.P1090240

The next step is to focus on terroir in the form of certain “grad cru” vineyard areas known as “Rive” in the local dialect. There are 43 designated Rive in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone and the idea is that they are very different from each other in terms of soil, aspect, altitude and the individual wines reflect their distinct terroirs. Terroirst wines, if you will.

At the top of the premium pyramid sits Cartizze DOCG. The 106 hectare Cartizze zone is one of the most valuable vine patches on the planet with valuations in the neighborhood of €1 million per hectare (just under $500,000 an acre)! The Cartizze wines are meant to be the ultimate Prosecco experience — products for consumers with a taste for luxury sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular.

The hierarchy provided here is very useful — starting with the DOC and DOCG concepts and going a couple of steps beyond. Easy concepts for Europeans to understand, but it will take some effort to make them part of the New World consumer’s lingua franca.  And of course it is necessary for the wines themselves to meet the quality expectations.P1090224

Act 3: In Vino Veritas

Which brings us to Act 3 and the wines themselves. We were fortunate to be able to taste three sets of Prosecco wines. Luigi Galletto, Sue and I visited a large producer — Mionetto — and tasted through the top line of wines available in the U.S. market. Then we visited a smaller producer specializing in organic wines — Sorelle Bronca.  Finally, Sue and I were fortunate to sample wines from Bisol at a tasting arranged by Matteo Bisol at his Venissa restaurant.

In vino veritas they say and in this context we might take it to mean that marketing and messaging are one thing, but the wines will tell you the truth. Is there truth in Prosecco’s premiumization push? Come back next week for our report.

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Thanks to everyone who made the Prosecco part of our Veneto giro such a rewarding experience. Special thanks to Professors Luigi Galletto and Vasco Boatto, Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio, Giulia Pussini, the Consorzio’s communications officer, Alessio Del Savio, Managing Director of Mionetto, and Matteo Bisol of Venissa.

The video at the top of the page was produced by the Consorzio and features several people we met during our stay. It tells the story very well and I think you will understand most of the points even if you are not fluent in Italian. I like the scenes in the original school building, including the old tasting room, the vineyard scenes and the explanation of the production process, which features secondard fermentation of the base wines in the pressurized autoclave tanks. The natural images of the Rive and the Cartizze zone give you a strong sense of the beauty of the zone. Enjoy!