Discovering the “Invisible” Cooperative Wineries of Languedoc and Roussillion

caramanyThey say that there is strength in numbers, which may explain why wine cooperatives tend to emerge during periods of crisis, when individual winegrowers are practically powerless to defend themselves and only collective action holds hope.

The cooperative in Caramany, the Vignerons de Caramany, was founded in 1924 in response to the Phylloxera crisis. It experienced ups and downs in the century that followed and seems to be thriving today — a good sign for Caramany and for French cooperatives generally.

Strength in Numbers

Caramany is a village of 150 inhabitants in the Pyrénées-Orientales scenic L’Agly valley in Roussillon. It has its own appellation:  Côtes du Roussillon Village Caramany. The cooperative has 50 members, some of them quite small holders,  growing mainly Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.

We were in Caramany to learn about its cooperative and its wines during our recent press tour to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. Cooperatives were on our radar because they are very important in all these regions as they are in Europe generally. Cooperatives produce about 70% of all wine in Languedoc, for example, making their success critically important to the wine industry.

You sometimes have to look closely at a wine label to know that a cooperative has made the wine — seeing Caves Coopérative for a French wine or Cantina Sociale Cooperativa for an Italian one is a sure indicator, but sometimes the link isn’t clear, especially if the wine is sold through a negociant or, as is increasingly the case, made for a private label customer such as a supermarket.

Invisible but Important

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According to the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, cooperatives probably account for more than half of all the wine produced in the big three Old World wine countries: France, Italy, and Spain. These “invisible wineries,” as I have called them, are one of the most under-appreciated elements of the global wine market despite the commercial success of some of the wines. One of the top-selling Prosecco wines on today’s market — La Marca — is produced by a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives.

Some Italian cooperatives — I am thinking Alto Adige and Piemonte in particular — are know for their high quality. But cooperatives in the south of France have the opposite reputation, which they continue to battle to change. It is easier to produce new, better wines that a new reputation.

The Vignerons of Caramany impressed us with their commitment to making delicious, market-friendly wines, which we sampled while eating a Catalan barbeque lunch that included snails grilled over live coals, grilled meats (including delicious blood sausage), and a variety of salads. One wine (see top photo) was a tribute to the past, but others looked to the future.

tremoineThe Reserve Rouge Carmin, for example, is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan (the Carignan was vinified with carbonic maceration while the Grenache and Syrah use conventional methods) that was one of my favorites. Delicious with the food we were served and impressive generally. Its packaging is modern and appealing and it sells for a premium price — about 8 to 10  euro, as I recall, which is impressive for a wine from this region.

There were wines from other cooperatives at the lunch and they were also noteworthy. The Rivesaltes Ambré from the Vignerons de Trémoine is a terrific sweet wine that I could sip  all day.

Sleep No More

So what has changed to make these cooperatives (and many others that we learned about) so different from the stereotype of sleepy, inefficient (and sometimes not very clean) cooperative cellars? Well, it isn’t that the cooperatives have simply become stronger — more strength through more numbers — because that’s not the recent trend. Cooperatives seem to be under attack to a certain extent, with the next generation of winegrowers looking beyond old practices to new market opportunities. An association of independent producers has been formed in Languedoc, providing a different sort of strength in numbers through collective marketing not production investment.

Some of the new independent projects are inspired, I was told, by Department 66, a wine project initiated by Dave Phinney and located in the Maury appellation of Roussillon. Its Grenache, Syrah, Carignan blend D66 wine sells for $38, which is a super-premium price for this region. A special old vines Grenache-Syrah blend received a 95-point score from Robert Parker and retails for $175. That would sure get my attention.

More than anything I think it has been competition that has stirred French cooperatives to raise their game — competition in the retail market and also competition between and among the cooperatives for the declining group of potential grower-members. Competition is disruptive but has obviously been a good thing and the results are clear when you consider the achievements of a relatively small cooperative in a tiny appellation such as the Vignerons de Caramany.

If other cooperatives are moving in the same direction as the ones we learned about on this trip. then the future of the “invisible wineries” is bright.

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Thanks to everyone we met on our trip to France and to the wine regions of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire for hosting us.

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VinoVip al Forte: Money, Taste, & the Future of the Italian Wine Industry

What’s holding back the Italian wine industry and how can it change to be more successful in the hyper-competitive global market environment? These questions brought us to a Tuscan seaside resort last month. Read on to see what we discovered.

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vinovip1The icons of Italian wine gather in Cortina D’Ampezzo for a few days every other summer to spend some time thinking, talking (and, inevitably, eating and drinking) in contemplation and celebration of their wines. The event, VinoVIP Cortina,  has always focused on taste, wine, and the inspirations and sacrifices that winemaking entails.

What Do We Talk About?

This year the event moved to the Tuscan coast, the famous resort town of Forte dei Marmi. The focus of VinoVIP al Forte shifted, too, from taste and wine to money and wine. We always talk about taste, someone told me, now we need to discuss the business side of wine with equal passion, candor, and serious purpose.

Alessandro Torcoli, editor of Civiltà del Bere, which organizes VinoVIP, invited me to lead off the program, inspired (or maybe provoked) by my book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I was honored to be on the roster, which included Angelo Gaja, Prof. Attilio Scienza, Allegra Antinori, and Piero Mastroberardino and other notables.  Quite a line up!

My presentation analyzed key trends in the global wine markets and one of the points I made concerned brands. Brands are a powerful tool for wine marketing, I argued, because consumers find them so useful. It can be easier for a consumer to understand (and remember) a brand in a crowded retail setting. Trustworthy brands encourage consumers to open their wallets and pull more corks. If you approach the topic of money and wine from the consumer’s point of view, it is impossible to ignore the importance the brand.

Branded Wine and Its Discontents

But there is a risk. Branding can go too far in making wine user-friendly, I argued, citing what I have called Einstein’s Theory of Brands (Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler — can you see how this could apply to wine?). Brands are back as a key wine marketing element, I said, although they are evolving along with wine buying consumers.

Italian wine features some iconic brands, including Gaja, Antinori, and Mastroberardino, of course. But the single most powerful Italian wine brand based upon volume of sales in the U.S. market is actually Riunite Lambrusco, a sweetish sparkling red wine made by a cooperative winery in Emilia Romagna and imported into the U.S. market by marketing powerhouse Banfi. It is the best-selling imported wine in U.S. history.

Brands and their power were on the minds of other speakers as well and formed one interesting theme of the conference.

Italian Wines at French Prices

gajaAngelo Gaja is famous for the high prices he asked for wines early in his career. People thought he was crazy and some, he told the audience, were even angry with him for asking French prices for his Italian wines. French  wines benefited from a reputation for higher quality. Italian wines, even excellent ones like Gaja made, were thought to be in a different, lower class.

No one is shocked by Gaja prices now — he has proved his wines to be worth what he asks — but, he said,  the same status upgrade cannot be said about Italian wine more generally.

Gaja stressed the importance of raising average bottle price of Italian wine exports and building stronger brands is part of that process. Cooperative wineries, he proposed as an example, should focus less on producing anonymous private label wines for foreign retailers and invest more in building their own brands so as to increase average bottle price and raise margins.

This was the first time that I have heard Angelo Gaja speak and I can report that he is a powerful orator who is not shy about stating his opinions. He presented a to-do list of things that the Italian wine industry needs to change, and quickly. Quite an experience!

Beyond “Small is Beautiful”

Piero Mastroberardino’s brief concluding presentation was much different in style from Gaja’s (much more professorial — in a good way), but no less of a challenge to the status quo. Mastroberardino’s topic was the Italian wine system — the industrial organization of the wine sector– which is made up primarily of cooperatives and small family firms. Indeed, it is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the family vineyard or cellar is the fundamental economic unit of the wine industry.

Family ownership presents a trade-off, Mastroberardino noted. As I discussed in Around the World in Eighty Wines, family wine firms have many advantages over corporate structures, which is why the wine sector generally has more family firms (some of them quite large — think Gallo) than other global industries.

But there are disadvantages, too, which was Mastroberardino’s point here. Scale can be limited and the strength of the brand affected by the fact that it is so closely associated with the founding family. In a world where scale and strong brands are important, family firm limitations sometimes get in the way. It is time, Mastroberardino said, to move beyond the “small is beautiful” idea of the Italian wine sector.

Mastroberardino called for more attention to building scale and strengthening brands to increase the competitiveness of the Italian wine sector and there was some evidence during the conference that others appreciate this point. Allegra Antinori, for example, spoke about how the Antinori family have adopted a new ownership structure in order to strengthen the firm’s long-term financial sustainability. A trust locks up ownership for a 90 year period, giving the firm stability and accumulating resources for future needs.

Theory & Practice

Sue and I spoke with Gianluca Bisol about Bisol’s partnership with Lunelli, which was initiated in 2014 in order in part to give family-owned Bisol the leverage it needed to expand forcefully into global markets. Bisol’s Prosecco and Lunelli-owned Ferrari Trento’s sparkling wines may sometimes compete with each other for shelf space, but they mainly work strategically to open market doors. It’s the sort of initiative the Mastroberardino’s analysis suggests is a necessary next step.

Gianluca expressed great satisfaction with the partnership and early indications are that the winery’s recent rebranding efforts, which stress history and terroir, are enjoying success.

The conference ended with a grand tasting at La Capannina di Franceschi, a famous disco located right on the beach. What a blast! Based on this sample of Italian wines, which featured many white and sparkling wines because of the summer seaside location, the Italian wine sector has no trouble with taste and wine. It is important that they now give more attention to money and wine and we are glad to have made a small contribution to the emerging conversation.

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Thanks to Alessandro Torcoli and everyone at VinoVIP for their hospitality during the conference. Special thanks to Sylvia Conti and Maria Gilli of the Italian Trade Agency for their help and support. Sue and I clearly enjoyed ourselves and learned a lot from everyone we met! Here’s a photo of the two of us taken by Megumi Nishida at the post-conference lunch.

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Shaw Organic: Is This the Next Miracle from Bronco Wine & Trader Joe’s?

shaw1“It’s very popular — one of the varietals is nearly sold out already.” That was my friend Kelly’s response to a question about a new wine at her Trader Joe’s store: Shaw Organic. It is the latest wine from the people who brought you Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) and I think it might say something about where the wine market could be going in the U.S.

Two Billion Buck Chuck

I wrote about the “miracle of Two Buck Chuck” in my 2011 book Wine Wars. The miracle, I said, wasn’t that the Bronco Wine Co.  could make a wine that Trader Joe’s could sell for just $1.99 (the price has gone up over the years, but it is still inexpensive). Making value wine is all about controlling cost and there are many ways of doing that. In Europe some hypermarkets have sold what I call One Buck Chuck:  one liter for one Euro in a tetrapack container. That’s about a dollar per 750 ml bottle equivalent.

No, there’s no miracle in making a wine to sell for two bucks. The miracle is getting people to buy it because they tend to confuse price with quality and are suspicious that anything that costs so little could be any good.

I gave credit to Bronco for making clean, consistent, drinkable wines and Trader Joe’s for backing the wines with their reputation for quality and value. The miracle continues — Fred Franzia announced in 2016 that Bronco/Trader Joe’s had reached the one billion bottle milestone, which provoked  Paul Franson to christen Franzia “two billion buck Chuck” for the massive total expenditure on this modest wine.

Organic Wine vs “Made with Organic Grapes”

shaw2Shaw Organic is an extension of the Charles Shaw / Two Buck Chuck line that is noteworthy in several respects. First, there is the organic element. Bronco is very careful not to call this an organic wine, noting correctly that it is wine “made with organic grapes.”

What’s the difference? To be certified an organic wine by the USDA it must use only organic grapes and be produced with no  added sulfites in a certified facility. Wine that is “made with organic grapes” is allowed up to use  100 ppm of added sulfites, which is how Shaw Organic is made. Most but not all conventional wines have less than 100 ppm of added sulfites, according to my quick wine wine literature review.

The Shaw Organic wines we saw were priced at $3.99 per bottle for Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio. How is it possible to make a sell a wine made with organic grapes at such a low price? Well, as with Two Buck Chuck, economies of scale are part of the answer. In this case, the story starts in the vineyards.

You may know that Bronco is America’s largest vineyard owner, with about 40,000 acres of grape vines. You may not know that Bronco is also the largest grower of organic wine grapes in the United States. According to a 2016 article by Deborah Parker Wong (pdf)  Bronco has converted more than 5000 acres of vines to certified organic status — enough to produce 400,000 cases of wine. That’s roughly a third of all the organic wine grapes produced in the U.S.

Unscrew the Cork? 

Alternative packaging is a hot trend in wine markets these days and Shaw Organic features the latest twist from Amorim Cork: a twist-cork closure called Helix that allows consumers to have the cork stoppers that research shows they often associate with wine quality along with the convenience that comes with a screw cap.

shaw3The Helix cork closure  is a special cork and bottle combination. You grab the cork, which looks a bit like a fat sparkling wine cork, and twist it out to open. Reverse to re-close the bottle. Helix has been around for a couple of years, but not everyone has seen it yet. The Shaw Organic wines we saw had informative tags on the bottle necks to explain the how cork system works.

Amorim and Bronco worked closely on this project so I asked Antonio Amorim to comment on the partnership. “Shaw Organic features an innovative packaging that seamlessly matches the unique sustainability of cork with easy-to-open, consumer-driven convenience,” he said.  “All this is now available enhancing the premium aspects of an organic wine ”

Sue and I have been on a Rosè wine binge recently, so we bought a bottle of the Shaw Organic Rosè to try at home. We were surprised at the quality, especially given the $3.99 price tag. The Shaw Organic Rosè was subtle but refreshing and opened up a bit with time. It’s quite dry, which I didn’t expect. I’d be pleased to have it in my glass at a party or reception or just sitting on the patio any time.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

So will I be writing about the Miracle of Shaw Organic in my next book? Well … maybe. But if it does perform a miracle, it will be a different one from Two Buck Chuck. TBC democratized wine — the low price and consistent quality gave millions of consumers the confidence to try wine. Many of them stuck with TBC, but others moved up the wine wall to more expensive products.

Can Shaw Organics do the same thing for consumers who are interested in organic products? Maybe. It will certainly draw consumer attention to the organic category for wine. The conventional wisdom is that there are so few mass market wines with “organic” anywhere on the label because producers fear that buyers will be turned off by the designation. (It’s a complicated problem — I wrote about the “Organic Wine Paradox” here.)

Bronco and Trader Joe’s are bold to push the concept to the fore. Maybe they will give other producers confidence to “go organic” and it would be great if they could expand the overall market for these wines the way that Two Buck Chuck did for wine generally.

Three Faces of Languedoc Wine: Aimé Guibert, Robert Skalli & Gérard Bertrand

rosesAimé Guibert and Robert Skalli — these were the key protagonists in my analysis of globalization and wine in the Languedoc in my 2011 book Wine Wars.  Both Guilbert and Skalli revolutionized Languedoc wine, but in different ways. And they had different opinions of globalization, too.

If I were writing a second edition of Wine Wars today (readers: do you think I should?) I would add a third name — a champion of Languedoc wine who is revolutionizing it in another way today. That name is Gérard Bertrand.  Here’s the story.

Mondovino meets Mondavi-no

Aimé Guibert starred as one of the heros of the 2004 anti-globalization wine documentary Mondovino (flying winemaker Michel Rolland was one of the villians!).  Guibert helped revolutionize Languedoc wine at his estate Mas de Daumas Gassac  Working with Emile Peynaud and others, Guibert produced exceptional wines that changed the way that many viewed the Languedoc and its potential for fine wine. An impressive achievement and a great story.

That’s not the story that Mondovino told, however. The film was more interested in his opposition to Robert Mondavi’s plans to invest in the Languedoc and produce large quantities of branded varietal wine to be sold around the world. The local uproar eventually discouraged Mondavi, who turned his attention elsewhere. Did Guibert and his activist colleagues win? Mondavi was gone, but not the market strategy he represented.

That’s because, as I argued in Wine Wars, Robert Skalli was already at work to revolutionize Languedoc wines in a Mondavi-esque way. Skalli met Mondavi in California and was inspired by both his modern wine-making and by his marketing strategy, which focused on easy-to-understand varietal labels rather than sometimes-obscure appellations. Skalli was so impressed that he opened his own Napa winery (St. Supery, sold a few years ago to French icon Chanel) and invested in clean, modern, market friendly varietal wines at home including especially the popular brand Fortant de France.

Skalli embraced globalization just as Guibert shunned it, but they both drove change in a region that surely needed it and helped set the stage for the emergence of the new Languedoc wine world that Sue and I discovered during our recent visit. They also helped pave the way for the Languedoc’s current global market champion, Gérard Bertrand.

Celebrity Wine?

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It didn’t take long for Gérard Bertrand’s name to come up. We landed in Toulouse and on the road to our hotel in Carcassone our well-informed driver pointed to a vineyard on the right and said that he’d been there the day when the crowds gathered and a helicopter descended carrying Bertrand and his special guests, rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his son. Bon Jovi is famous for his music. Bertrand is possibly more famous (at least in this part of France) for his exploits for club and country on the rugby field.

Sport, music, and wine — a potent mix! Bertrand’s father was in both businesses– wine and rugby.  Besides running the family estate he was a professional referee; his son learned both disciplines from the earliest age.

The helicopter gathering was the launch of a joint Bon Jovi-Bertrand project — a Rosè wine called Diving into Hampton Water. A limited edition celebrity wine, for sure, its first vintage sold out on allocation in short order.  The wine lists for $20-$25 here in the U.S. when you can find it.

I don’t know much about Diving into Hampton Water, which has received mixed reviews, but I’m pretty familiar with another Gérard Bertrand Rosé, the Cotes des Roses pictured above. It’s a lovely wine in a distinctively graceful bottle that is easily found on the shelves of upscale supermarkets and even in Costco bins in my region. There is a red and a white wine in the Cotes des Roses portfolio, according to the website, but I see only the pink one in my market.

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You can think of the Cotes des Roses as an upscale evolution of the Robert Skalli idea of Languedoc wine. It is a wine made for the market, that represents the Languedoc very well, but does so by reaching out to consumers with a clear image and strong brand. That’s kind of how I thought of Gérard Bertrand wine at the start of my visit — and the Bon Jovi connection reinforced that perspective. But I soon learned that there is a good deal more.

The first formal masterclass in Carcassone was devoted to tasting a cross section of Cru du Languedoc wines and one of the favorites was the Gérard Bertrand 2011 La Forge.  This was very different from Cotes des Roses — it was a serious wine of origin and it made me rethink the whole Bertrand project. Bertrand is Cotes des Roses and Hampton Water, but it is also a collection of very well made wines that celebrate and explore the multiple regions and terriors of Languedoc and Roussillon, Gérard Bertrand’s home (he first played rugby for Narbonne).

legendAmbassador Bertrand

Bertrand’s wines appeared twice more in our program, reinforcing this more complex view. Tasting through a lineup of Crèmant de Limoux sparkling wines, I stumbled across Gérard Bertrand Cuvée Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson fell in love with Crèmant de Limoux when he was U.S. ambassador to France and championed the wine, shipping quantities back home to Virginia.

Bertrand’s bottling honors the appellation and its historic connection to Jefferson. I was beginning to think of Gérard Bertrand as more of an ambassador (like Jefferson) of the Langeudoc than a simple celebrity. His project includes many of these terroir wines that together paint a picture of the region.

Then, at a gala dinner at Château de Pennautier, we were served a lovely mature sweet wine, the 1974 Gérard Bertrand Legend Vintage Rivesaltes. What a wine! And a wonderful tribute to this appellation. The Legend Wine series includes select Rivesaltes vintages going back to 1875! Bottled history.

I’ve Got a Little List

And so I think you can see why I have added Gérard Bertrand to my Languedoc icons list. He seems determined to push Languedoc forward, but not just in one direction and always with an eye on his roots. A fine ambassador indeed.

Every emerging wine region needs a brand ambassador to help break into the market and get attention. Napa had Mondavi, for example. Strong brands, if linked to time and place, can open doors a bit wider. As Languedoc and Roussillon re-emerge in their contemporary form, effective ambassadors like Bertrand are especially important.

Languedoc has many faces and these three tell a story of the ways that the region has changed to adapt to new market conditions. Bertrand’s complex inks to and respect for the past make him a particularly interesting addition to my little list. But there are many more faces to consider — you should pull some corks and see for yourself.

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The Wine Economist will pause for a couple of weeks while Sue and I are in Italy. We’ll visit old friends in Bologna (I taught at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Center there years ago) and tour Eataly World before heading to Forte dei Marmi, where I’m speaking about Money and Wine at VinoVIP on June 18.

State of the Art? Aussie Wine Tourism Invests in Asia & Digital Strategies

unwtoWine tourism is an increasingly important element of wine marketing and sales as both authenticity and identity grow as ways to differentiate products in today’s incredibly crowded and competitive global market. Nothing like the personal experience that wine visitors often receive to turn customers into ambassadors.

Of course wine tourism does more than sell wine because tourists spend time and money on food, lodging, local crafts, and more. With proper planning and broad local participation (which doesn’t always happen), wine tourism can be an engine of sustainable rural development. Or at least that’s the idea behind the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) global wine tourism conference, which will be held this September in Chisinau, Moldova.

So wine tourism is on my mind and I was therefore excited when I received an email from Wine Australia about $7.4 million in grants to support 21 regional wine tourism initiatives. That’s a lot of seed money — what do they hope to grow? And how?

The grants range from the relatively small and focused projects ($20,000 to digitalize the Canberra district’s wine map and translate it into additional languages) to the fairly large and ambitious initiatives (grants of $250,000 each to McLaren Vale, Adeliade Hills, Swan Valley, and Barossa Valley wine growers associations).

The Swan Valley project caught my attention because it appears to be the sort of focused multi-level, partnership-driven approach to regional development through wine tourism that I think often works best. Here is a summary of the grant:

Singapore Visitors to Swan Valley: establish a consortium of industry, government and academia to work collaboratively on: an audit of existing services/products, up-skilling of tourism operators and development of tourism products, with a strong focus on the Singapore market.

There are two themes that run through the Australian projects chosen to receive these wine tourism grants. The first is a focus on Asian tourists and especially Chinese tourists, with Hong Kong and Singapore also in the frame.  The Geelong Winegrowers Association recognizes (as do many others) that a successful program for Chinese wine tourists means more than opening the cellar door. Here is the description of their grant project:

China ready – developing regional and operator capabilities to attract international tourism and increase average spend: development of regional digital and promotional assets; dedicated content for the Chinese visitor to be used across the digital platforms (including WeChat and website) and China-ready workshops encourage collaboration between wineries and tourism operators.

Getting “China Ready” is an important goal for many international wine destinations. When I checked in a few years ago there were only a small handful of Chinese language speaking  winery guides in Napa Valley — most wineries were far from “China Ready” then.

0zChinese visitors are especially important for Australia. Proximity is one factor, of course, but wine market strategy is another. China is now Australia’s #1 wine export market, surpassing both the U.S. and the U.K.

The second theme I see in the Australian grants is an emphasis on digital technology. No surprise there: people spend more and more time fiddling with their smart phones. It seems like screen time is replacing face time everywhere. If you want to get on wine tourists radar, you need to get on their screens first.

There are a number of interesting initiatives on the grant list ranging from simple websites (in multiple languages, of course!) to augmented reality and virtual reality tours. Riverland Wine’s project, seeks to use technology to stir interest in a region that is less famous than the Barossa or Hunter Valleys.

Riverland on the verge: international market research and development of virtual reality (VR) content to give international visitors virtual tours of Riverland wine attractions from local wine centres.

Most of the grants will support marketing projects, as you might expect. I am particularly interested in the ones that also seek to shape what visitors do once they arrive and how those activities can support sustainable rural development projects like those we will discuss in September at the UNWTO conference in Moldova!

Congratulations to Wine Australia on its 21 wine tourism initiatives. I look forward to learning more as the programs unfold.

 

Wine Economist World Tour Update: Italy, Napa, Moldova, Romania

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The Wine Economist returns to the road in a few weeks. Here are some of the stops we plan during the summer months.

June 2018

  • I’ll be speaking about “Around the World in Eighty Wines” and leading a wine tasting as part of the University of Puget Sound’s Summer Reunion Weekend Alumni College. June 8-9, 2018. The good folks at Carpenè Malvolti, the famous Conegliano Prosecco house, have kindly donated some of their fine wine for a tasting. Lucky alumni students!

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  • Sue and I will be in Forte dei Marmi, Italy on June 18 for VinoVIP. I will talk about money and wine in the global market context. I am very excited to join a group of Italian wine luminaries on the program and to meet everyone at this great event at the famous Italian seaside resort. We will stop briefly in Bologna on our way to VinoVIP to see old friends (I taught at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Center in Bologna many years ago) and to visit Eataly World.

Here is the VinoVIP program:

Money & Wine: A Global Perspective (Mike Veseth),

“Italian challenges” (Angelo Gaja),

“how to manage a wine company: the basics” (Ettore Nicoletto, CEO Gruppo Santa Margherita),

“routes of wine – main markets: what are they buying?” (Denis Pantini from Nomisma wine research unit),

“SWOT of Italian wine industry” (Piero Mastroberardino).  Quite an all-star lineup!

July 2018

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  • I’m happy to speak at a private program featuring “Around the World in Eighty Wines” to support the  Northwest Sinfonietta music organization on July 29.

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  • Sue and I are tentatively planning to participate in the 3rd global wine tourism conference sponsored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) The conference will be held on September 6-7 in Chisinau, Moldova.

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Navigating the Headwinds for French Wine Exports to the U.S. Market

vintageSue and I recently returned from a press tour to three French wine regions — Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley —  that are benefiting from the current surge in demand for French wines in the U.S. market. As I noted last week, France is back on consumer radar, especially with buyers thirsty for  Rosé and sparkling wines.

A  Lighter Shade of Pale?

I think there is smooth sailing ahead for Rosé, Blanquette, and Cremant producers from these regions at least in the short run, although Elizabeth Gabay MW argued in a rather brilliant masterclass that we attended at the Chateau de Blois that some Rosé producers are sacrificing potential quality in a quest to make their wines fashionably pale, pale pink. This practice might come back to bite them in the future depending upon how the export markets develop.

The conventional wisdom is that Rosé buyers prefer pale rather than robust pink color in their Rosé wines — the lighter the better — and so producers make the near clear wines they think will sell best, even if they aren’t necessarily the best wines they could make. It is the flip side of the over-extracted red wines that so many wineries produce. I’m not sure the conventional wisdom about pale pink holds here on the Pacific Coast of North America, where California not Provence is the reference point for Rosé, but that’s another column.

Pink and sparkling wines from France are selling really well. The makers of other wines, both red and white, face some headwinds and how they navigate around or through them will determine whether they will share the market boom.

Challenging Stereotypes in Languedoc

France is an Old World wine region and this means many things, including especially that most of its regions inherit in one way to another the practices and reputations of the past. Sometimes this is beneficial, but not always. Languedoc and Roussillon have to overcome undesirable stereotypes of their wines in many markets.

The image that Languedoc conjures up for wine drinkers of a certain age is of cheap, strong, tannic red wines meant to fill jugs and bottles at low prices. Languedoc became the cheap French wine lake initially when the railroads connected the South to the industrial and population centers further north and then again when cheap wine imports from Algeria dried up after it gained independence. Quantity not quality defined Languedoc — a reputation that still haunts it.

serresNow I am not going to say that cheap wine production has disappeared, but the momentum has decidedly shifted to better wines made with more marketable grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, and Mourverde along with standbys like Carignan.

We enjoyed a delicious AOP Malepere red from Chateau de Serres at lunch one day in Carcassonne. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon that displays a Languedoc stereotype myth-busting elegance. Fantastic!

Some producers we spoke with admitted that they tried to downplay their Languedoc roots in order to sidestep the reputation problem in export markets, hoping that the wines will simply speak for themselves.  They hope, too, that younger consumers who have no memory of the old days will have an open mind to trying the wines.

Cheap and Sweet? Not Interested!

The Roussillon producers we spoke with saw old reputation as less of an issue mainly because their region is not so well-known as Languedoc. Roussillon is often lumped in with Languedoc or left out altogether. They see today’s market as an opportunity to build a strong reputation from scratch.

But that doesn’t mean that stereotypes don’t exist in Roussillon. A colleague asked where we were headed one afternoon and when told we were going to Rivesaltes he turned up his nose — “Too bad! I’am not interested in cheap sweet wines.”

romaniWhen we arrived at Domaine de Besombes we met winemakers from the region and shared a delicious Catalan barbecue lunch. And we tasted their delicious stereotype-breaking dry red and white wines, too. Sue was particular fond of the wines made by Laurent Pratx of Serre Romani. The grandson of the man who founded the local cooperative, Pratx returned to Roussillon after working in the Rhone Valley committed to taking his wines in new, independent directions.

We tasted sweet wines at the end of the meal, but these were not the cheap sweet wines of our friend’s memory. They were wonderful, especially the Domaine de Besombes 1949 shown at the top of the page, which has special meaning for us — that’s our vintage, too!

We were fortunate to be invited to a rather special banquet where all the wines were sweet and from this region. I will paste the menu with pairings below. It was a memorable experience. I think my favorite combination was the sea bass with lemon, nuts, and popcorn with the 1990 Maison Cazes Rivesaltes Ambré.

Everyone Loves the Loire

Wine producers in the Loire Valley have a different problem from those in Languedoc. Everyone loves the Loire, which is why it is a hugely popular tourist destination.  The beautiful scenery, historic chateaux, rich food, and fine wines are hard to beat.

But it is not always easy to translate the tourist impression into wine export market sales because the Loire isn’t one thing when it comes to wine, it is many, and it is easy to get lost in this complexity. The Loire is Muscadet, for example, which can be a simple delicious wine and also, as we learned a wine of great character and complexity with extended lees-aging.

The Loire is dry Rosé de Loire and also sweetish Rosé d’Anjou. It is the crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Cabernet Franc from Samur, and much more. Altogether the Loire comprises 50 appellations and demarcations, creating a jigsaw puzzle that can be difficult to navigate. Famous appellations stand out, less prominent ones that live in their shadows have trouble getting attention.

One of my favorite discoveries of this trip, for example, were the Sauvignon Blanc wines of Chenonceau, a fairly young appellation in Touraine. Chenoncau is more famous for the chateau of the same name than the wines. Too bad — because the wines can be spectacular. I suspect there is a lot more to discover here among the regions and producers who lack name recognition.

Will these headwinds hold French wine back from advancing in the hyper-competitive U.S. market? The competition is intense, so there are no guarantees, but we found many excellent wines and committed wine makers, too, so a broader French wine boom could be coming.

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