Lost in Translation? Misunderstanding Old World and New World Wine

mv5bmti2ndi5odk4n15bml5banbnxkftztywmti3nte3-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_The idea that important things can get “lost in translation” holds true on many levels. Sometimes it is literally a translation problem, as Sue and I tried to switch between French and English on our recent trip to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. For someone like me, who doesn’t speak French so much as just try to say some French words, there is a lot of potential for misunderstanding.

That’s America for You!

But sometimes the translations are from one culture to another and it is the built-in stereotypes that are the barrier, not the language itself. At one point, for example, I was telling a British wine writer about a recent Wine Economist column on the Illinois-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant, which has a wine club numbering almost 300,000 members — probably the biggest wine club in the world.

“Well, that’s America for you,” my new friend replied. “Everything’s big.” Well, actually, that’s not true. America certainly is big in many ways — it is the world’s largest wine market, for example — but that’s not an explanation in this case. Cooper’s Hawk’s massive wine club isn’t typical of wine clubs in the U.S. or anywhere else. It is an exception and invites further study precisely because it is unique for the U.S. or any wine market. Viewing it through a “big America” lens doesn’t really help at all.

Which brings me to this: we were gathered in Perpignan for a briefing and tasting of some of the wines from Roussillon. The English/French translation was going pretty well, but cultural elements were still problematic. At one point one of the appellation ambassadors was explaining the rules of the local wine game. The wine grapes used in the AOP wines were specified and the proportions dictated too — no less than x percent and no more than y percent of this or that grape.

Everything’s Mandatory or Forbidden

An American journalist in the back of the room raised his hand and asked the obvious question. Why require these particular proportions of the specified grapes? The New World subtext was clear (I am fairly fluent in New World, so trust me about this): why make the particular blend mandatory?  To an American, the AOP system sometimes seems a bit like the old Soviet Union, where (according to an old joke) everything was either mandatory or forbidden. Why not just let the winegrowers be free to make the best wines that they can using whatever proportions they think best?

But that’s not the question that the local experts heard because they were steeped in Old World wine culture, where requirements like this are baked in the AOP cake and more blending freedoms comes with a lesser IGP designation. So they answered the Wine 101 question they thought they heard, which was why blend grape varieties at all and  talked about the benefits of blending vs single grape variety — not why require a particular grape blend. Needless to say, neither side of the conversation found the exchange very satisfying and happily everyone quickly moved on.

(The American journalist vented that he planned to write a column titled “Stupid French Wine Laws,” but I am glad to say that he didn’t.)

The problem is, in part, is a question of the importance of typicity. Making good or at least marketable wine is the aim in the New World, the idea of crafting the wine to be  typical of a  particular region is literally a foreign concept.

In the New World, in fact, “typical” is sometimes used as a put down — that’s so typical! In the Old World, however, typical often means true-to-type, satisfying a standard, and is a good thing. When we were in Carcassone, home of cassoulet, the thing I wanted most was typical cassoulet, not some fusion mashup, as good as it might be.

Old versus New World Regulations

AOP rules are meant to assure that designated wines are true to the local standard. American appellation rules,  on the other hand, are geographic indicators that have little to say about what’s in the bottle apart from where the grapes are grown and the wine itself made (the Cooper’s Hawk winery is in Illinois, for example, and it therefore cannot put “Napa Valley” on the label of a wine that is made entirely from Napa Valley grapes — it must use an American appellation).

I do not see much evidence that Old World appellation rules are invading the New World (although there are some who advocate greater regulation), but we met a number of Old World producers who are learning to think and speak New World. Sue and I have seen more and more emphasis on the less restrictive IGP wines, for example, and there are several reasons for this.

Lesser is More?

One reason for the move to IGP and other “lesser” designations is that many winemakers simply want to freedom to make interesting rather than typical wines and this can be a good thing. Don’t forget the influence Super Tuscan wines have had in Italy. Sometimes, as we saw in Valpolicella a few years ago, the IGP wines are produced to fill unexploited market niches.

Climate change is another reason for winemakers to look beyond AOP rules. Changing climate undermines the logic of winemaking rules established decades ago when growing condition might have been much different. We heard this discussed on our trip to France, but I can’t really tell how much it is driving this particular movement compared with market forces, which are surely very strong.

I am not sure there is much that can be done about the translation problem, but I am going to try a bit harder to see things from both the Old and New World sides, so that less  understanding is lost along the way.

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.

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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Unlocking the Market Potential of Languedoc, Roussillon, & the Loire Valley

pink1What do you think of when you think of French wine? If you are like most people, your thoughts probably stray to the iconic regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne. These regions and their wines are fundamental to the way we understand U.S. French wine and wine generally.

The Rhone and Alsace are probably on your radar, too, as they should be given their wonderful wines. Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley likely show up further down the list. Important wine regions, but not quite in the same league as the others in terms of reputation and market presence.

But the wines Sue and I found during a recent press tour of these regions are so well matched to current market trends that I think this situation is going to change. No, Languedoc isn’t going to replace Bordeaux in anyone’s wine investment portfolio, but I do think these regions are positioned to gain both respect and market share, especially here in the United States. I will use the next several columns to explain how and why and also to explore some issues we discovered along the way and headwinds that could slow progress.

Growth in the overall U.S. wine market has slowed in the last year, but there are two categories that continue to boom: sparkling wines and Rosé wines. Here’s how the wines of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire fit in.

Blanquette and Cremant

Sparking wine is booming in the U.S. market and while Prosecco is the driving force, wines from other regions are benefiting from the surge. Cava from Spain, for example, is getting more attention in part because of its great affordability. And French sparkling wines from places other than Champagne are in the mix.

The Languedoc’s Blanquette de Limoux is both delicious and historic — it lays claim to being the first sparkling wine made using the classic method. It was Champagne before Champagne. Some say that Dom Perignon, the famous priest given credit for inventing Champagne, actually learned the special method when he worked in Limoux.  Impossible to prove, but fascinating to consider.

The United States in Blanquette de Limoux’s most important export market, accounting for 32% of export sales. No surprise considering the sparkling wine boom and Blanquette’s excellent quality/price offer.

Seven regions of France produce sparkling wines called Cremant, including the Loire Valley and we really enjoyed these wines. One reason might be that Cremant de Loire’s menu of grape variety possibilities include Chenin Blanc, which does so well here and is so delicious in its sparkling form.

The Bubble Boom is much more than Prosecco and Champagne and Languedoc and the Loire are well-positioned to benefit from increased attention to these wines.

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Pretty in Pink

Pink seems to be the new black when it comes to wine sales. Rosè wine sales in the U.S. have increased by more than 66% in the last year according to recent Nielsen figures and the surge isn’t limited to North America. I’ve heard that French supermarkets now sell more pink wines than white wines. Incroyable!

Although many consumers think Provence when they consider French Rosè wines, we tasted delicious versions in the Languedoc and Roussillon. A quick survey of the pink wine section of our local upscale supermarket revealed a good selection of Rosè from these regions at attractive prices. Our standby Gérard Bertrand Languedoc “Cote des Roses” (made from Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah) was abundantly available at Costco on a recent visit.

In fact Languedoc pink wine exports to the U.S. are booming, up 100% in the last year according to one authority we spoke with. Pink Power! The Paul Mas Prima Perla Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé shown in Sue’s photo at the top of this column, which we enjoyed at a dinner at Chateau de Pennautier near Carcassone in the Languedoc region, is perhaps the perfect wine for this moment. It is pink and sparkling … and delicious!

The Loire produces fantastic Rosè wines, but it is important to pay attention to appellation. Rosè de Loire is always dry while Rosè d’Anjou is always slightly sweet. These are just two of this region’s noteworthy pink wines.

Beyond Bubble and Pink

Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire produce a host of different wines — the list goes far beyond the bubbles and pinks I have referenced here — but these particular wines are key as export emphasis increases to compensate for sagging French domestic wine sales. One reason these wines succeed where other wines from these regions get less attention is that the geography of the typical wine shop display wall favors these wines over the regions’ other products. Here’s why.

If you are looking for red or white wines from these regions, you will probably find them in a “France” section of the wine wall, where they are likely to be tucked away in a corner to make room for wines from better known French regions. Hard to stand out in this crowd, given the importance of reputation in the maketplace. They will be there, but not always in a featured position, and their closest competition will be other, often very different, wines of France, not wines of the same kind from other countries.

Pink and sparkling wines are different. They form their own categories and are increasingly placed altogether in one spot on the wine wall. Rosé wines from around the world sit together on one shelf and bubbles on another, fostering head-to-head comparison and competition that benefits wines from Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire and those consumers who are curious enough to try them.

Will success in sparkling and Rosé wines transfer over to the other fine wines that these regions produce? The positive impressions that these wines make on consumers will certainly have benefits. But there are challenges — headwinds, I like to call them — that must be overcome. That’s what I will talk about next week.

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Sue and I participated in the media programs of Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and in Roussillon from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25 as guests of the regional producer associations. Thanks very much to the Langedoc, Roussillon, and Loire groups who hosted us and to everyone we met along the way. This is the first of a series of columns examining what we learned at these events.