Celebrating Milestones for Canada (150 Years) & Canadian Wine (37 Vintages)

Milestones. Do they mark how far you have come on a journey? Or do they tell you how far you’ve left to go? Both, I guess, which gives them a (wine) glass half full / half empty quality that invites contemplation.

Canada and Canadian wine have reached important milestones recently and I think there is something to gain in contemplating them in tandem.

O Canada!150

2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation — a significant milestone in its national history. The past 150 years have not always been easy. Canada has been rocked both by external events (world war, global depressions, financial crises) and domestic social and political conflicts, too.

Canada’s version of federalism gives even more autonomy to its provinces than U.S. federalism gives to its states. The balance between federal and provincial interests has not always been smooth and tensions among the provinces (and even within them) and their people and cultures have not always been easily reconciled.

Canada has somehow negotiated these challenges and emerged, on its 150th birthday, in an admirable state — prosperous, generous (especially regarding refugee immigrants) and widely respected. O Canada, indeed!

Indeed, Canada is even celebrated today on Broadway, where the Tony-winning musical “Come From Away” draws audiences to consider the remarkable response of one Canadian town the unexpected arrival of refugees, in a way, from the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traveled to New York to see the show — his special guest was someone named Ivanka Trump!)

150 years is an important milestone, but nobody thinks Canada’s story is over. The future is sure to be full of challenges as the road twists and turns, rises and falls. But Canada and Canadians can look forward to the journey with confidence.

O Howard Soon!howard-soon1

July 24, 2017 is another important milestone. It is the day Howard Soon retired as Master Winemaker for Sandhill Wine in Kelowna, British Columbia, after an amazing 37 vintages. Soon is the dean of Canadian winemakers and this milestone is reason enough to celebrate his amazing career and Canadian wine, too.

The grandson of Chinese immigrants, Soon initially took his biochemistry degree from the University of British Columbia into the brewing industry before making a fateful pivot to wine, working his way from quality control to assistant winemaker to winemaker for Colona Vineyards, one of Canada’s largest wine firms.

The Canadian wine industry has changed dramatically over Soon’s remarkable winemaking tenure as it faced market challenges that are both external (increased competition from the United States after the NAFTA treaty) and domestic (the lack of a true “Canadian” wine market because of strong provincial control over alcohol sales). Soon has played an important role in helping the industry to weather the storms by setting a course to higher and higher quality.

When Sue and I first visited Vancouver many years ago the sommeliers refused to serve Canadian wines — they simply wouldn’t do it. It was an over-reaction because there were some good wines even back then, but an indication of their poor reputation These days, however, there is obvious pride in the wines all around and they are proudly featured and served.

Soon and his winemaking colleagues have both changed Canadian wine for the better and they have done something even more difficult — they have changed the way Canadians think about their wines. Quite an achievement.

Soon’s most recent project, Sandhill Vineyards, is in the vanguard of the quality movement (Sandhill appears in my next book Around the World in Eighty Wines). It was founded twenty years ago with the idea to feature terroir through a series of small production single-vineyard wines.soon

Soon has received virtually every recognition that Canadian wine has to offer and he reaches the retirement milestone at the top of his game. His signature 2014 Howard Soon Sandhill red wine was recently named #1 red wine of the year in the All Canadian Wine Championships.

(Signature wine is right — the label bears Howard’s actual signature!)

The wine is special. Grapes from the Phantom Creek Vineyard were co-fermented in the proportions found in the vineyard — a field blend! — then aged in new French and American oak for 22 months. Critic John Schreiner calls is a “triumphal achievement.”

Howard Soon and Canadian wine have come a long way but they both seem to have arrived at this mile post with enthusiasm to move forward to reach new goals.   Sue and I had dinner recently with Howard and his wife Wendy. Howard told us he plans to spend more time with Wendy and their kids and grand kids.

But the same drive that has pushed him to this milestone seems likely to carry him ahead to new challenges and adventures. Great winemakers like Richard Peterson and John Duval, to name just two, seem to move from one mile-marker to the next, always looking forward. It will be interesting to see where the wine road takes Howard Soon!

When is a Wine Tourist Not a Wine Tourist? Lessons from Cyprus

nelionWe were sitting on the terrace at Nelion Winery, perched on the famous Paphos-Troodos road, talking with winemaker Marinos Ioannou and tasting his excellent wines. (We loved a dry red made from the indigenous Ofthalmo grape variety and brought home a bottle to share with friends here).

A Happening Place

Nelion was kind of a happening place while we were there. Lots of traffic, lots of visitors. This is not an accident. The Paphos-Troodos road draws many visitors who come to Cyprus and want to see the signature sights of the island.

Nelion provides a range of experiences for them.  You can taste 3 wines for free or all 9 wines at the bar for €5 per person. Ten euro per head will get you a seated 9-wine tasting on the terrace with cheese and salami and €15 buys a winery and vineyard tour plus the terrace tasting and snack plate.

Tourists are critically important to the winery, which produces around 25,000 bottles each year and sells most of them at the cellar door during the tourist season, supplementing this with bulk wine sales to local residents during the off-season.

We heard lots of languages and accents — British, Russian, Israeli, French — and saw lots of wine go out of the tasting room into waiting cars. Marinos had been in the audience when I spoke at the wine symposium earlier in the week and it is clear that he already understood why I stressed wine tourism as an industry strategy.

No Wine Tourists Here?

nelion3So I was more than surprised when he brought up the topic and said in a matter-of-fact way that there are no wine tourists in Cyprus.

No wine tourists? What about all these people who come here and taste and buy your wine? They are tourists, most of them, but they aren’t wine tourists. And he was right.

So what is a wine tourist?

I often talk about wine tourism in the Napa Valley, where it is a booming industry, and I think the term applies pretty well to what is going on there. Most of the tourists are drawn there by the wine, although maybe it would be better to say that they are wine lifestyle tourists, since wine and winery are not the only parts of the package on offer in the Napa Valley.

In many places including Cyprus, what we think of as wine tourists are really tourists of a different stripe who take advantage of the opportunity to visit a winery and perhaps buy some wine as a sidebar to their main tourist focus. For these visitors, wine tourism is an alternative to the main agenda– something to do when rainy weather keeps you off the beach — or an attractive bonus stop on the road to Troodos, for example.

nelion2

Can Wine Compete?

Cyprus has lots of tourists — I think it is the island’s most important industry now — and has developed several wine routes to help tourists find their way around.  But as Marinos noted, real wine tourists are still few and far between. What needs to happen to change this?

At first glance it is difficult to imagine how wine can compete for tourists in Cyprus. Cyprus has important historical sites and a deep and attractive culture. Cyprus is a playground, with beaches and mountains to enjoy. Cyprus has wonderful food, with many regional specialties. Cyprus was great weather, which attracts European tri-athletes who want get a jump-start on training.  How in the world can wine compete?

Easier Said Than Done

The answer, as you have probably already guessed, is not to compete but to cooperate. Wine is part of Cyprus’s long history, a key component of its culture, and a perfect match for the great food. The key, as work done by the United Nations World Tourism Organization has stressed, is to bring these threads together with wine at the center.

This is not necessarily an easy task. Wine producers in Cyprus struggle at times to work together to promote their national “brand,” so expanding cooperation to include museums, archaeological sites, restaurants, hotels, national and regional tourist agencies and so forth is easier said than done. Creative use of the wine route concept, linking it to other regional structures, may be a good way to begin.

Nelion winery has made a modest start to this. The tasting room is also a sales room for a variety of local foods and some craft items. This shows the winery as embedded in the local community, with its food, culture, and beautiful landscape.

Fostering real wine tourism is not a Cypriot problem — it is everyone’s problem. Everyone who wants to see wine tourism prosper and achieve its great potential to develop wine, wineries, and wine regions has an interest in converting tourists who stop at wineries into wine tourists.

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This is the final column in our series on wine and wine tourism in Cyprus. Sue and I would like to thank once again the Cyprus Tourism Organization for inviting us to attend the Cyprus Wine Competition, to visit wineries, taste the wines, and meet such interesting people. Thanks to you all!

The Next New Zealand? Reflections on Cyprus Wine Industry in Transition

pafos“Cyprus wines? Not really sure I have ever had one. Do they make much wine in Cyprus?”

Many readers of this column would probably say something similar when asked about Cyprus wine, but the person I was talking to was a bit different.

I spotted him on the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Seattle and remembered that he sat in front of me on the earlier Larnaca-Frankfurt leg. He did business in Cyprus and traveled there a lot, he told me. Drank wine there, too. But Cyprus wine? Not so much.

Mostly he drank the less expensive import wines while he was in Cyprus — wines from Spain, Chile or Australia. Maybe he tried one from Cyprus, he thought, but mainly he stuck with the value import wines.

In this respect my new friend’s consumption pattern reflects the Cyprus wine market in general. When Cyprus entered the European Union back in 2004 its ability to protect its domestic wine industry from cheaper imports was greatly diminished — imports account for about two-thirds of Cyprus wine sales now — and a new wine regime began to emerge.

Regime Change 101vasilikon

Unable to compete with very efficient international value wine producers, Cyprus had no choice but to reconfigure its wine sector to move up the quality (and price scale). And while Cypriot wines are not expensive by American standards (a bottle of truly excellent Vasilikon Xynisteri dry white wine cost less than $20 at a seaside restaurant in the tourist district — what a steal!) they are necessarily priced above the imports.

This was my first visit to Cyprus, but not my first experience with the types of changes that Cyprus wine is experiencing. My native Washington State, for example, had to make the quality leap in the 1960s when the “California Wine Bill” was passed by the legislature in Olympia and cheaper California wine flooded into the local market. The forced upscale move was the best thing that every happened to the wine industry here.

New Zealand faced the same sort of situation in the 1980s, when the collapse of their protected wine sector forced a dramatic economic course correction. Imports flooded in, foreign investment came, too, and a new export-oriented quality wine industry emerged. New Zealand today has the highest average export price of any country for still wines — an amazing achievement.

I found a similar story in Canada, which was forced to liberalize wine trade with the U.S. when the Nafta agreement was signed in the 1990s. In order to be competitive winegrowers in the Okanagan had to replace their hybrid vines with vitis vinifera — an expensive investment. But the results have been amazing.

The transition from volume to value is never easy and is always controversial (my South African friends can attest to this). Not all firms or regions will make it through the process successfully (there is a “survivor bias” to the data), but the success stories are compelling. This is the world that Cyprus wine has entered.

Revolutionary Vanguard

promara

Revolutions always have a vanguard. As is often the case, some winemakers took the first steps to higher quality before market conditions made this a necessity and we visited several of these pioneering wineries (see complete list below). One that stands out in my mind is Vouni Panayia Winery in the mountains near Pafos, which was the first private regional winery in Cyprus.

Vouni Panayia was founded in 1987 by Andreas Kyriakides, who had previously worked in the enology and viticulture section of the Department of Agriculture and so had a good understanding the Cyprus wine sector. He and his family set out to achieve quality at a time when quantity was still a strong factor and to do it using indigenous grape varieties at a time when international varieties were in vogue.

Kyriakides bet on his vision of the future and the family’s efforts have paid off. Sue and I were impressed with the deep red  Yiannoudi, which went so well with the roast lamb at lunch, and the delightful dry white Alina (made with Xynisteri variety). The white Promara (indigenous Promara variety)  was fantastic — a desert island wine candidate!

Going Native?

Vouni Panayia Winery might have helped start the quality revolution in Cyprus, but they have had plenty of help. The movement is advancing rapidly today and seems to be ready for the next challenge: gaining greater traction (and higher prices) in the domestic and carefully chosen export markets.

My first thought when I tasted some of the wines was that Xynisteri could be the key to this next stage — it is a delightful dry white wine that would appeal to Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. That first bottle of Vasilikon Xynisteri was followed by several others of that variety from various producers and we never had one that wasn’t delicious.

wine

This observation led, of course, to the idea that indigenous varieties should be the prime focus for both red and white wines. Vouni Panayia certainly makes a strong case for the indigenous grapes of Cyprus.

I still believe in the Cypriot native varieties, but as we tasted more and more wines I realized that Cyprus winemakers can do wonders with some of the international varieties, too. Maybe a hybrid strategy is called for.

My heart wants indigenous variety wines that are not found anywhere else in the world, but my pragmatic head says that Cypriot winemakers should make the best wines they can out of other grapes, too. We had wonderful Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Why not? So long as native varieties are not forgotten. The quality of the best of these wines is so high that I think they will thrive.

The Next New Zealand?

So, to return to the headline at the top of the page that I teased you with, is Cyprus likely to be the next New Zealand — a small, almost forgotten wine-making island that makes the transition from volume to value with spectacular success?

It is not a ridiculous question. Back in the mid-1980s not many could have imagined much less boldly predicted the amazing growth that New Zealand has achieved in the last 30 years. That same conversation (Do Kiwis make wine?) that I had about Cyprus at the start of this column could have been about New Zealand wine back then.

That said, Cyprus is not likely to be the next New Zealand. No one is. New Zealand’s unexpected success was the product of global market conditions that don’t exist in exactly the same way today due to the rapid expansion of wine production in other New World nations. The market space that New Zealand has been able to fill doesn’t exist in the same way for other wine exporting countries any more.

But Cyprus doesn’t have to be the next New Zealand to be successful. Wine-makers on this small island have great potential and if they can only work together to realize it in domestic and international wine markets, that will be good enough.

Maybe in 30  years we will ask if some other country has the potential to be the next Cyprus? Wouldn’t that be delicious!

2017 Cyprus Wineries Visited

Ezousa Winery

Nelion Winery

Tsangarides Winery

Tsiakkas Winery

Vasilikon Winery

Vlassides Winery

Vouni Panayia Winery

Zambartas Winery

Look Through the Rainbow: Cyprus Wine’s History of Boom and Bust

rainbow

We were sitting in the sleek, modern Vlassides Winery tasting the wonderful wines of Sophocles Vlassides and hearing his strong views on wine, Cypriot wine, and his own ambitious winery project, when it started to rain.

Weather can be complicated in these mountains and soon the sun began to shine through the showers creating first a simple rainbow, then a richer multicolored arc, and finally a pair of rainbows nestled together. From our winery perch we could see both ends of the rainbow (where pots of gold are said to rest) firmly rooted in the vineyards below.

Rainbow, vineyard, pot of gold — what a perfect metaphor for Cyprus wines, I thought. But the sharply analytical Sophocles Vlassides (who studied winemaking at UC Davis as a Fulbright Scholar) popped my mental bubble. Rainbows are pretty, but we were really looking at the wrong thing. If you want to understand Cyprus wine today, don’t look at the rainbows, look through them to the mountain across the valley.

If you look through the rainbows on Sue’s photo above you will see the remnants of dozens  of terraces that once were planted to vines that, along with hundreds of similar vineyard areas, formed the basis of the great Cyprus wine boom.

The Surprising History of Cypriot Wine

I had never tasted a Cypriot wine before we arrived in Pafos for the Cyprus Wine Competition. You might not have tasted one either because most of the wines are consumed in Cyprus these days and only a trickle enters export market pipelines. But this wasn’t always the case.

Cypriot wines were once well known and some even famous in European wine circles according to the Oxford Companion to Wine‘s history. Pliny the Elder, the Roman “Robert Parker,” praised them, for example. Cyprus fell under Venetian influence for a time and its  wines circulated widely. I have a reproduction of a book called Wines of Cyprus by Giovanni Mariti that was written to explain Cypriot wine to international consumers. It is dated 1772. and was first published in Florence.wines-of-cyprus

Commandaria, Cyprus’s signature sweet wine, commands an important role in the country’s wine history. Indeed, Wines of Cyprus talks of little else. Along with Tokaj, Vin de Constance and a few other treasured sweet wines, Commandaria was a “King of Wines and Wine of Kings.” Ironically, my book was written during the period of Ottoman rule when the Cypriot wine trade and the industry itself slowly declined in importance.

Cyprus came under British administration between 1878 and 1960 (so UK electrical plugs are needed and autos drive on the left side of the road). Cyprus “sherry” became an important export during this period — we saw a few old bottles at the Cyprus Wine Museum in Erimi Village — but this trade has faded away, too.

Look Through the Rainbow

A variety of circumstances led to a boom in production and export of cheap basic wines and grape must concentrate (some of which was reconstituted and fermented as British wine) in the years after the British exit.  The grapes to make these wines (international and indigenous varieties) came from the vineyards we saw (and many others like them) when we looked through the rainbow at Vlassides.  Yields might have been high in those days, but it is pretty clear that production costs were high, too. No machine harvesting on steep terraced slopes.

The Cyprus export boom collapsed in two stages according to the industry people we talked with.  Competition from cheaper New World producers such as Chile and Australia crowded Cypriot wine out of some markets. The collapse of the Soviet Union drained dry previously reliable Eastern European markets for basic wine. The Cypriot bulk wine boom went to bust.

A Quality Revolution

The movement from unmarketable quantity to desirable quality began in the 1980s, according to the Oxford Companion, led by the “Big 4” producers: KEO, SODAP (a cooperative), ETKO and Loel. Change accelerated after 2004 when Cyprus joined the European Union. Subsidies to cheap wine exports ended and uneconomic vineyards like the one we saw were grubbed up.

The contrast between past and future was clear to see as we talked wine with Sophocles  Vlassides at his modern facility tasting the tense, structured wines that he makes from international varieties (perhaps reflecting his UC Davis training) and indigenous varieties, too.  Sue and I took home a bottle of his excellent Syrah and Panos Kakaviatos, who was in our media group, opted for an unexpected Sauvignon Blanc.

What is the state of the Cyprus wine industry today? Are there pots of gold at the vineyard rainbow ends ? Or have I stretched this metaphor a bit too far? Come back in two weeks (after Independence Day) for observations and analysis.

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In the meantime, here are some rainbows for you to ponder.

 

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.

Goodbye Columbus? Three Variations on a Barcelona-Based Wine Tourism Theme

kvesp1089pThe monument to Christopher Columbus at the foot of the Las Ramblas promenade must be one of the most-viewed sights in very scenic Barcelona. Standing atop his tall column, Columbus points to the sea, an act that makes sense both for Columbus himself and for Barcelona, a city that has long turned its face to the sea and to the international influences that it provides.

Columbus points to the sea — that’s what people think he is doing. But I have another, somewhat less literal theory. I think that he is really pointing, in a vague and perhaps somewhat misguided fashion, away from Barcelona’s bright city lights and toward the not-too-distant vineyards — to the Penedés and Priorat wine regions. Tourists, he is saying, you need to visit wineries and learn about Spanish wine!

My evidence? Wishful thinking, of course (reinforced by a poor sense of direction),  but more significantly this fact: if you walk down the stairs in the base of the Columbus’s column you will find not a maritime museum as you might expect but a wine tourism center, there established to help you enjoy winery visits in this region.

Visitors to Barcelona really should make time to visit wineries — and many thousands of them do. Columbus was busy during our visit, so we relied upon FEV, the Spanish Wine Federation, to organize our itinerary. Here are three case studies that show different sides of wine tourism in this part of Spain.

Arte Nouveau Cava at Codorníucodorniu

History is an important part of any visit to Codorníu-Raventos. Josep Ravenos was the first to make a Spanish sparkling wine using the traditional method and it is a leading producer of Cava wine today.

Codorní receives about 80,000 guests each year and most of them begin their visit in the extravagant arte nouveau hall that you see here (the exterior architecture is just as fascinating and unique). The tour makes good use of the beautiful gardens, which hold many delights including a fascinating wine museum in another striking arte nouveau building.

We met with the  head winemaker, who was excited help us understand Cava today and to show us the lab where he experiments with micro-fermentations in a constant effort to raise quality and draw out new expressions of Cava. It was an intense and fascinating visit.

freixenet

Take the Frexinet Cava Train

The architecture is distinctive and historic at Freixenet, but what’s inside the building (and underground, too) was more the point here. We walked down, down, down — deep underground — to the miles of tunnels where Cava was stored for second-fermentation in the bottle for many years.

Like most of the 90,000 visitors who come here each year, Sue and I boarded a small train to tour the tunnels — if you have visited Champagne you may have taken a similar ride there. One of our stops was at the yeast lab — Freixenet believes that their distinctive yeast variety is one key to the unique quality of their wines and so they put much effort into yeast research. Fascinating.

A special tasting was set for us with Pedro Bonet, head of the Freixenet winery family and President of the Cava DO. The goal of the exercise was to show us the enormous diversity of Cava and it was an eye-opening experience. Cava isn’t one thing or two, but a whole spectrum of tastes and aromas. Delicious!

Both Cava winery visits impressed us with the fact that while Cava is a product that uses traditional winemaking techniques, it is also constantly changing both to improve quality, develop new expressions of the wine, and to achieve more efficient production. The market for sparkling wines is very competitive — both among Spanish producers and between them and international rivals. Robots and machines now replace workers where possible for routine jobs, freeing human creativity for higher tasks.

There was much more to see and do at Freixenet, but we had to move on. Lunch was waiting at our next stop!

The Torres Experience

winedayOne of the brochures we found at the wine tourist center at the base of the Columbus monument was for Miguel Torres. “Wine Day at Torres Winery” presents a number of options for Barcelona tourists including a seven hour guided bus tour with stops at Torres, Jean Leon and Saint Sadurni d’Anoia wineries for €71 (children under 8 ride free) or an 8 hour guided bus tour with stops at Torres, Montserrat (with tastings of traditional liqueurs), and a tour of scenic Stiges for €63.

Not everyone likes a bus tour so train and auto options are also on offer. Take the train from Barcelona to Vilfranca del Penendés, for example, then a shuttle to the nearby Torres winery for a visit, tasting, and return trip with a tour of the scenic village.  The trip lasts about 5 hours and costs just €15. I think it would be very pleasant way to spend a day riding the train, seeing the countryside and enjoying the wine experience, too.

There are many options for Torres wine tourists with their own transportation, which you can view at the Club Torres website.   Our tour of Torres began with lunch at the winery’s Restaurant Mas Rabell, which features a daily set menu of traditional cuisine paired with Torres wines, of course. What a great way to taste the wines! We enjoyed chatting with Miguel Torres, who had attended my FEV talk in Valladolid and asked the toughest questions.

Then we toured the Mas La Plana vineyard and winery with a winemaker. The vineyard, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon vines, redefined the idea of wine in this region and the Mas La Plana wine, which has its own winery, raised the bar, too. The tour stressed quality, innovation, and sustainability.

Torres, Freixenet and Codorníu are three case studies of wineries that have invested in wine tourism and are gaining the benefits, both for themselves and their communities. They are great role models for other ventures around the world.

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Goodbye Columbus and Barcelona, too. Sue and I loved visiting the city and learned a lot at our winery visits. Thanks to everyone we met for their kindness and hospitality.

Sketches of Spain: State-of-the-Art Wine Tourism Does More than Sell Wine

pagosWine tourism is no longer about just selling wine. Wineries understand that it is a way to build or strengthen a brand and to create brand ambassadors. The United Nations World Tourism Organization Wine Tourism initiative goes further . The UNWTO  proposes that wine tourism is or can be a set of rich experiences that use wine to connect history, culture, tradition, and cuisine in a way that links the global tourism market to distinctive local environments.

The best wine tourism experiences, like the best tourism experiences generally,  surprise, delight, inform and sometimes inspire and transform. That’s a powerful force. I guess that’s why wine tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the wine industry.

Sue and I encountered several state-of-the-art wine tourism programs during our recent FEV-sponsored visit to Spain. Here are sketches of three of the most memorable to give you a sense of what’s on offer in this dynamic wine nation. Come back next week for three more case studies.

More than a Museum

You travel to Morales de Toro by passing through acre after acre of century-old goblet-trained Tinto de Toro (the local variety of Tempranillo) vines. What a sight! When you get there you are drawn to the Pagos Del Rey Wine Museum, which is located in the building that once housed the local cooperative winery and radiates the sense of its utilitarian origins.

Most of the wine museums I have experienced are built around collections of old equipment, and this is true here as well. Both the garden and the museum itself have these displays. What gets your attention, however, is the main hall, which features the double row of concrete tanks (see photo above) that was the hard-working part of the winery. Interactive exhibits stand between the rows, but the real fun begins when you round the corner and enter the first tank.

A video kicks on a you quickly realize that you are actually in the tank as the grapes are loaded in and fermentation takes place over and around you (interrupted by periodic pump-overs). Each of the other tanks presents its own video that explains the vineyard and winery process until you reach the end, which immerses you in the local harvest festival.

This might be the most interesting wine museum we’ve ever visited in the way that all the senses are engaged and linked to both the wines but also local culture and tradition. No wonder so many wine tourists make there way here each year (click here to take a virtual tour right now). Congratulations to the Felix Solis group, one of Spain’s most important wine companies, for creating this small treasure, which seems to tick all the UNWTO boxes so well.

A Monastery with a Michelin Starabadia

A completely different experience at Abadia Retuerta  and its associated hotel LeDomaine, which are located just outside the Ribera del Duero zone (Vega Sicilia is just down the road, so it is a good neighborhood). This is a very ambitious luxury wine tourism project of Swiss pharmaceutical group Novartis. The hotel, with its Michelin-rated Refectorio restaurant, is housed in a restored 12th century monastery, which Spanish friends tell me was in ruins before the project began.

The careful restoration preserved a sense of the place while upgrading amenities (including a spa) to appeal to luxury wine tourists. The chapel feels like what it once was and the cloisters have that quiet sensibility that makes them special. The restaurant is in the old refectory and makes dining there an experience that is about more than food.

Sue and I enjoyed one of the set dinner menus that sought inspiration in local ingredients and traditions. We got very lucky on the wine as the Novartis board had met there the day before and we helped finish off some of the magnums that they had enjoyed with their meal.

It is hard to stop thinking about the hotel and restaurant, but the wine side is special too. The wine tourism experiences are mainly organized around the various old vineyards with e-bike, horseback and 4×4 transportation modes all available.

The total package — vineyards, winery, hotel, restaurant, and spa — is quite spectacular.  A tip of the hat to Novartis for seeing the potential of this place making such an important investment in the wine tourism future of this region.

Compare and Contrast
riscal

We left Abadia del Retuerta and set our gps for Elciego in the Rioja region, stopping along the way in Burgos for lunch and a tour of the famous cathedral. Our destination was Marqués de Riscal, the oldest wine producer in Rioja, and its famous hotel, which rises above the winery at the top of the hill.

The main hotel structure was designed by architect Frank Gehry, all bright colors and unexpected angles. Most of the hotel rooms and the spa are found in a more conventional building adjacent to the Ghery structure and over-looking a vineyard block. It is quite a place and, in a funny way, its sharp contrast with Spanish tradition serves to bring out some of the features of the small village on the other side of the road (especially the church, I think).

Down the hill from the hotel  you find the historic winery, which produces 10 million bottles of wine a year (65% for export) and receives about 80,000 visitors. Wine tourism is well organized here with a large public relations staff and an excellent program that takes visitors from the original 1858 building on through the winery ending at bright and colorful tasting room and gift shop area. The brief video that summarizes the main messages of the winery and tour was one of the best of its type we have seen.

We got a real sense of Rioja wine history at Marqués de Riscal, a winery that lives up very well to the goals of the UNWTO wine tourism initiative. It promotes wine, but does much more, creating jobs in the hospitality industry, drawing attention to the region, its culture and history. That’s what wine tourism today is all about.

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Thanks to Susana and FEV for inviting us to Spain and to everyone who welcomed us to Pago del Rey, Abadia del Retuerta, and Marqués de Riscal. Come back next week for three more case studies of wine tourism in Spain.