Global Wine Tourism Conference in Georgia: A Preliminary Report

Sue and I have recently returned from the untwo2United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and I know just what you are going to say. What in the world is the UN doing sponsoring a wine tourism conference and why was it in the Republic of Georgia?

First Things Second

Let me answer the second question first. Georgia is the self-styled “Cradle of Wine,” with documented wine production going back 8000 years so it certainly has standing. It is also probably the most wine-centric culture I have ever experienced. Wine is everywhere. Just about everyone drinks it, most families make it for their own consumption, and its symbolic and practical importance is everywhere to be seen. Wine and vine — these are key elements of the Georgian DNA. Really.

Georgia is a poor nation, especially outside of Tbilisi’s bright city lights. Mexico’s per capital GDP is about $9000 according to World Bank statistics. Georgia’s is about $3800. So anything that can create employment opportunities (especially rural jobs) and spur economic development is welcome here. Tourism of the nature and adventure varieties is a big contributor to national income. Why not leverage Georgia’s rich culture, and especially its deep wine traditions, to create economic opportunity?

So it is easy to see why Georgia would volunteer to host a conference like this — and they did a magnificent job.  But what’s the UN connection?

Wine Tourism Rationale

The basis for UN programs in tourism and now wine tourism is surprisingly strong, as the “Georgia Declaration on Wine Tourism (pdf),” which was promulgated at the conference, makes clear.  The UNWTO’s mandate, for example, states that,  “The fundamental aim of the Organization shall be the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace and prosperity, and universal respect for, and observance of, human  rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. Tourism cannot accomplish all these goals by itself, but it can be part of the process.

Tourism is one way that we experience and understand other nations, peoples, and cultures. It creates jobs, of course, but it has the potential to also increase understanding. International tourism has been one of the global growth industries of the last 30 years, so it is not unreasonable that the UN pay attention to this economic and cultural exchange vector.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the  United Nations General Assembly in 2015,  includes tourism as a tool for sustainable economic development. “By 2030,” the document specifies, the UN should “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

The UNWTO had previously identified gastro-tourism as being an important element of its sustainable tourism development program. The wine tourism initiative and this conference were organized as part of the gastro-tourism program.

About the Conference

The first UNWTO Global Wine Conference attracted more than 250  participates from 42 countries. My panel on best practices in wine tourism included speakers from Italy, Canada, Japan, Argentina and the United States  (I talked about Napa’s success and also its challenges).

The organizers designed the program to minimize talking head blah-blah-blah and maximize focused interaction among the participants. (I have never before traveled through 11 time zones and back in order to speak for 10 minutes!) There was a lot of knowledge and experience in the room and it made sense to draw it out through small group discussion.

I think the strategy worked on the whole and  Sue and I feel our time was well spent, but I wish there have been an opportunity for greater depth on at least some topics. The conference moves to Mendoza, Argentina next year — it will be interesting to see how the program evolves.

One interesting innovation was to move the conference out of the typical sterile hotel ballroom or convention center environment and to have the sessions in wineries, where wine tourism strategies could be seen in practice as well as discussed in theory. Come back next week for an analysis of what we learned from these experiences.

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uncorkSue and I were delighted to meet Matt Horkey and Charine Tan at the UNWTO conference. Their fist book, Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, was published last week and it is recommended reading  if you are planning a wine tour to  this region or are interesting in these wines generally. Sue and I found their recommendations for Georgia and its wines on the mark.

I like this book so much that I wrote a publicity “blurb” about it. Here it is:

Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan take us along for the ride as they travel the wine roads of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia in their intriguing new book Uncorking the Caucasus. It is exciting to see these ancient wine regions through their eyes and to experience the ways that the very old and the very new come together through wine. A perfect read for wine lovers looking for new wines, new regions, and new perspectives. Pack your bags and join Matthew and Charine as they uncork the Caucasus. Highly recommended.

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This is the first in a short series of columns on the UNWTO conference and the Georgian wine industry. Thanks very much to the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Authority for making our participation in this conference possible.

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

Wine Tourism in Portugal: Expect the Unexpected

“A World of Difference” is the official motto of Wines of Portugal and it is a good one, too, since Portugal features so many indigenous grapes and distinctive wine styles. Sometimes it feels like a world of its own waiting to be explored.

But I think an even better motto would be “Expect the Unexpected.” Or at least that is the theme that I will use in this column to tie together four recent encounters with Portuguese wine.

Sala Ogival: Wines of Portugal Tasting Room

P1110120It was a beautiful day when Sue and I arrived in Lisbon so we decided to shake off the jet lag by taking a stroll to the Praça do Commércio, the beautiful main square down by the river. We weren’t surprised to see the tourists and families or the many restaurants and cafes with outdoor tables.

But we were surprised to see a “Vini Portugal” (Wines of Portugal) sign on one side of the square. There, inside the Sala Ogival, we found a very impressive tasting room facility that invited visitors to learn about all of Portugal’s wine regions and taste some of the wines.

Various moderated theme tastings were available for modest fees, but a popular option was to put a few euro on a pre-paid card and get small tastes from the wine dispenser machines that were strategically located around the room near information displays for the appropriate regions.

The long central tables were crowded with couples and groups exchanging tastes and conversation. What a great way to draw Lisbon tourists into Portuguese wines and to educate them about regional geography. I understand there is a similar tasting room in Porto. Great way for a national wine organization to leverage a prime tourist location to promote its wine industry.

Castelo de Sâo Jorge: Wine with a View

P1110154You can see the Castelo de Sâo Jorge from pretty much everywhere in Lisbon and, high on the hill, you can see all of Lisbon from the castle. Beautiful weather, beautiful view. All that you need to make it complete is a glass of great wine to sip and enjoy.

So how convenient was it for us to discover the small mobile wine-tasting cart of Wine with a View!

Wine with a View provides visitors with a choice of about a dozen Portuguese wines served in the first give-away plastic glasses I have seen that are not a joke. Red, white, sparkling, Port, and even the local liqueur Ginjinha — buy a glass from the friendly and informative staff and relax and enjoy the view. How civilized!P1110157

The wines are supplied by Bacalhôa, which has vineyards and wineries throughout Portugal and is able to represent the country well. I chose the Quinta do Bacalhôa white, made from grapes at the estate vineyard in Setúbal (we visited the palace there the day before). It was great, but I found it hard to resist the Moscatel du Setúbal, which is one of my favorite Portuguese wines.

Wine with a View hopes to expand to other locations. Wouldn’t it be great if every place with a view had wine available to encourage you to relax and enjoy the moment?

Mateus Palace: Hidden Winery
We took only two “tourist days” on our Portuguese trip: one to visit the castle in Lisbon and explore the city and another in the Douro to visit the historic Casa Mateus and have lunch at DOC, chef Rui Paula’s wonderful riverside restaurant. I knew there would be interesting wine at DOC, but I didn’t expect to find a wine experience at the palace.

The name Mateus is famous in wine, of course, because of Mateus Rosé, which is made by Sogrape and sold around the world. At one time Mateus Rosé was the best-selling imported wine in the United States and it is making a comeback in many markets as both Portuguese wines and Rosé wines have gained traction.

14e50291eafa8c6b4dcefa287a532f61I did not expect to find either wine or grapes at the Mateus Palace. The palace is beautiful and full of history and the grounds and gardens are spectacular — no wonder it is such a popular tourist destination. Out past the formal garden, however, was an orchard and then a large and well-tended vineyard. I guess there are grapes at Mateus. But wine?

I literally stumbled upon the winery and tasting room while trying to find my way back to the car. There, in a long side building, was a tasting room for Lavradores de Feitoria, an association of growers and producers from throughout the region. The Mateus vineyards and the wines made from them are part of this association.

The wines we tasted were very interesting and the Lavradores de Feitoria Rosé was refreshing, as it should be on the warm day. The LBV Porto from Quinta da Costa das Aguaneiras was impressive.

We were invited to enter an ancient door just down the way and we found ourselves in a winery filled with vintage equipment. With the historic palace just ten yards away, this atmospheric room felt like a museum and gave us a tangible sense of the history of wine in this place. A totally unexpected treat.

Seattle: Unexpected Delights

As luck would have it, a Wines of Portugal trade roadshow rolled into Seattle about a month after we returned from my speaking trip to Portugal. We were delighted to be invited to attend and even happier with the Master Class that Evan Goldstein and Eugènio Jardim presented.

At the trade tasting that followed we revisited wines that we had just come to know in Portugal and tried to deepen our knowledge. The white wines really impressed us and the tasting let us experience different representations of grapes and styles that had only recently entered our vocabulary.

You always smile when you come across something unexpected in a situation like this, and it happened when Eugénio poured us a glass of a sparkling red wine — a sparkling Baga from the Bairrada region, where it is the traditional wine to have with roast suckling pig. The wine was a delight and I could imagine how well it would cut through and enhance the juicy pig. Love at first taste.

Portugal and Portuguese wines are both full of surprises. Expect the unexpected, that’s what I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flashback Friday: A Rainy Day in Porto

We have been in Porto this week and so it seems right to flash back to my first visit there in 2014. It had been raining in Portugal that year. Lots of rain. For a long, long time. It was pretty wet!

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fp0621I had one free day during my recent visit to Porto and as much as I wanted to go up the Douro to the vineyards, a  torrential downpour kept me in the city. So I set out to see what sort of wine tourism experience Porto had to offer and I learned a lot. Here is my report.

Sign of The Don

There is much to see and do in Porto itself, but serious wine tourists need to cross the bridge spanning the Douro and enter Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port houses are found lined up along the river and up the hillside.

The riverside was brightly decorated — a welcome touch given the weather — and featured many of  the small boats that traditionally transported the wines from the vineyard areas down to the city, where they are aged and blended and sent to market. The wines are moved by more modern means today, although there is still a gala race, with much honor to the Port house with the winning boat.

My first stop was Quinta do Noval, where I took refuge from the rain and tasted through the wines while drying out. I have to say that there cannot be a better way to warm up than this! No tour or museum or sophistical wine tourist presentation at this stop — just nice wines, friendly and well-informed staff.

My next stop was Sandeman, one of the oldest and best known Port houses.  You see “The Don,” the famous Sandeman logo, everywhere in Porto. Founded in 1790 by George Sandeman, a Scottish wine merchant, Sandeman has interests both in Portugal (Port) and Spain (Sherry). The Don’s distinctive outfit pays tribute to both sides of the business — the Spanish hat paired with the cape worn by university students then and  now in Porto (I saw them myself on exam day). If you thought the logo was a tribute to Zoro, think again.

Tree Ages of Port

The wine tourism experience at Sandeman begins as you enter the house, which feels and smells exactly like what it is — a great old warehouse where wines wait patiently in their barrels, often for decades, for the moment when they will be bottled and go to market. Very atmospheric, immediately communicating a sense of time and place (much like the vintage tv advertisement below).

The first stop once you’ve come through the great doors is a colorful museum dedicated to Sandeman’s great success in branding and marketing. The Don must be one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable trademarks in wine and the museum tells the icon’s story from the first images in 1928 through the present day. It’s an art exhibit at heart, but with a commercial agenda and it is interesting to see how the images and messages evolved over the years.

Next came the tour through the big building. The young woman who guided us was dressed as The Don, of course, but she was more professor than student as she made sure, though example and strategic repetition, that we all understood the nature of the different types of Port — Vintage, LBV, Tawny and so on — how they are made and how they are best consumed. She was very skilled at bringing her students into the story.

Wine Tourism Keys

Walking through the barrel rooms was like walking back in history (which is what we were doing, I suppose), but this is a working operation not a museum and we would have seen the cellar hands going about their business if it hadn’t been Sunday. The tour ended with an opportunity to taste a couple of wines at long tables adjacent to the cellar door sales room and gift shop.

I spent some time talking with a family from Tokyo who were making a European tour and had spent three days in Porto, enjoying experiences like this. Each of the Port houses seems to tell its story in a different way, some focusing on their history, others on the production process. Many, like Sandeman and Graham’s, offer a variety of tasting experiences in addition to the basic tour. Port pairing seminars (cheese, chocolate) are popular, for example, as well as opportunities to taste Tawny Port blends of 10, 20 and 40 years or more. Something for everyone and a satisfying experience even on a sunny day, I’ll bet.

What should a wine tourism experience do? I think of wine as a relationship business and a winery or tasting room visit succeeds when it helps establish new relationships and deepen or renews existing ones. From the tourists’ point of view, it should be enjoyable and informative — and of course offer the opportunity to taste new wines or to share familiar ones with traveling companions and provide stories to tell the folks back home.

From a producer viewpoint, the goals are to get visitors to slow down and absorb the message and this of course requires that there actually be a coherent message presented (too often it seems the objective is simply to attract numbers of visitors). Cellar door sales and wine club memberships are obviously important, too, but only come if the first goals are met.

The Sandeman experience and others like it in Porto succeed from both standpoints. Certainly there was clear and coherent messaging on my tour — about both Port the category, Ports (the various types of Port wines) and the Sandeman brand in particular. (How can you miss that when your tour guide is costumed like the company logo?) When it works it really works. No wonder the major Port houses have invested so much in wine tourism as a way develop their international brands.

Little Frenchie: A Culinary Side-Trip

Soon it was lunchtime and I could not really expect to top the meal I had the day before at Vinum, the great restaurant up the hill at Graham’s, so instead I went for the distinctive meal of Porto: the Francesinha or “Little Frenchie” sandwich.

My Francesinha started with thin layers of cheese on the plate, which was topped with white bread and then roast pork, sliced ham, a bit of chorizo, more cheese, another slice of bread, more cheese, and then a thin reddish beer-based sauce (think enchilada sauce and you will be in the ballpark).

Because I apparently am  not a very good judge of these things, I went over the top and ordered the deluxe version which added a fried egg and a plate of french fries. It was wonderful in the way that Canada’s famous poutaine (french fries, cheese curd, gravy) can be wonderful and I didn’t have room for anything else (except a little Port) for the rest of the day.

I had a great time, learned a lot, met some interesting people. I promise I will get to the Douro vineyards next time, but I wouldn’t miss touring the Port houses for anything.  The variety of experiences available if you visit several houses provides something for everyone, from Port novice to seasoned connoisseur.

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Thanks to George Sandeman for his hospitality while I was in Porto and his help with this project. I found this YouTube video that captures a bit of the Francesinha experience. Would I eat it again? Yes, but I’d choose the traditional beer to go with it rather than the red wine I enjoyed at my riverfront restaurant, which claimed to have the best Franceshina in town.

 

Georgia to Host UNWTO Global Wine Tourism Conference in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friuli Revisited: Surveying Collio’s Changing Winescape

It has been more than  a dozen years since our last visit to Friuli. Friuli-Venezia Guilia is tucked up in Italy’s upper right-hand corner, north-east of Venice, north-west of Trieste, bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south, Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. It is sometimes awkwardly lumped together with Trentino and Alto Adige as the Italian Northeast.

Friuli is a cultural mixing bowl with influences from all its sides. It is also a beautiful region with great wines. Why did it take us to long to return?

Lucky Day: Cantina Aperte

Our last visit was memorable. We happened to arrive at  Venica & Venica, well-known both for its wines and its hospitality, on Cantine Aperte Day, which is the one day of the year when many otherwise private cellars throw open their doors and welcome swarms of enthusiasts. It was a lucky day for us because we met so many wonderful people and tasted some memorable wines. Later we moved from the Venica B&B to to La Subida close by the Slovenian border and used it as a base to visit Udine, Cividale, San Daniele, Gorizia, Trieste and Aquileia.

As much as we enjoyed our visit to Friuli I wondered if we would ever return. There are so many interesting regions in Italy and the world, so many distinctive wines. But the pull of Friuli was strong and so we pointed our rented Fiat 500 in the direction of Cormons. We wanted to revisit some friends and wines, but “what’s new, what’s changed” were the questions on our minds.

We spent half a week at  Borgo San Daniele in Cormons, one of the best wineries in the region and a comfortable base of operations, before following the recommendation of our friends Zari and Greg and shifting to another wine estate,  Il Roncal, just outside of Cividale del Friuli for the final few days. (See below for some wine tourism notes.)

Super White: Tiare Sauvignon Blanc

When we visited before we were struck by the stunning white wines of the region and later attended some “SuperWhites” events in the U.S. designed to inform American wine enthusiasts about this under-appreciated part of Italy and draw attention to the stunning wines. We enjoyed many wonderful wines on this trip, too, including the memorable Ronco delle Cime Friuliano at the expanded and updated Venica & Venica.

But the highlight on the white side of the wine ledger was probably an impromptu visit to Tiare and the opportunity to taste a wine that had been named the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Best in the world? Those are big words and I don’t really know if it is even possible to settle such a claim with certainty, but the Sauvignon Blanc that we sampled (from the following and possibly even better vintage) was unquestionably excellent.

And it might not even be the best wine that Tiare makes. Roberto Snidarcig, the owner and winemaker, was even prouder of another Sauuvignon Blanc called Empìre that showed subtle oak, channeling France more than New Zealand.  And he smiled when Sue and I tasted his Pinot Noir, a pet project that showed real character and finesse.

Pinot Noir? Well, yes, as I said Friuli is a mix of influences from France and Austria and of course the indigenous Italian  grapes like Refosco, Friuliano and Ribolla Gialla.  The ebb and flow of global and local influences shows itself in many ways.

Bastianich, for example, is a project that American “Del Posto” and “Eataly” entrepreneur-restaurateur Joseph Bastianich (son of the remarkable chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich and business partner of the irrepressible Mario Batali) launched in 1997 to make the wines of the region and to introduce them to the U.S. and other markets.  The wines are good enough that Italy is today an important market, too. You may think of Bastanich as a showman — he was until this season a host/judge along with Gordon Ramsey on the U.S. Masterchef (he hosts Masterchef Italia now), but I can assure you that the wines are the real deal and not just a show.

Market Forces: A Region in Transition

White wines no longer steal the show in Friuli. It isn’t that they have declined in quality, only that winemakers have turned their attention to sparkling wines and back to reds, too. There have always been good reds made in Friuli, as we were reminded at Venica & Venica when we were served a stunning Merlot from the 2001 vintage that had been lost in the cellar and recently rediscovered. Clearly the best Collio reds can age! Climate change is partly responsible for the increased interest in red wines. Red wine grapes are a more reliable bet today than they were 50 years ago, I was told. The rising interest in indigenous red grape varieties such as Refosco, Schioppettino, and Pignolo is also a factor.

Market forces are another reason for the shift in direction and economics is a powerful factor in Italy, which cannot seem to extract itself from a long-term recession. Back in the old days the Bank of Italy could devalue the lira and temporarily restore competitiveness when the economy slowed down. But now Italy is a euro country and competitiveness must come the hard way — though internal reforms — rather than from exchange rate adjustment. These are difficult times for everyone including wine and we heard through the grapevine that many vineyard properties are for sale. Financial security is in short supply.

Hence a shift toward fast-selling sparkling wines because the Prosecco production zone extends into Friuli. The town of Prosecco is actually a suburb of Trieste although  the zone of DOCG production is in the Veneto, south-west in Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Pinot Grigio is a reliable money-maker, too. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Pinot Grigio, its best-selling white wine, is from the Friuli Grave zone. Follow the money in times like these.

The marketability of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio put pressure on the indigenous wines that I am always keen to discover.  Some wine makers we met with were concerned about the region’s identity slipping away a bit, especially the very high quality Collio and Colli Orientali zones where we spent most of our time. The marketplace for wines (Italian wines, wines in general) is crowded and very competitive. Tough to get and hold consumer attention! Difficult, too, to earn that all important quality premium. A strong regional identity isn’t the solution to this problem, but it can be part of it. Need to make a statement.

My next column will profile three wineries that are making such statements in very different ways. Circle back for details.

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gatto

I can’t end this overview of our Friuli expedition without a few comments on the wine tourism experience. Sue and I just love this region for its physical beauty and cultural importance, great food and wine, and the warm hospitality of the people. It is an exceptional wine tourism destination, well-known to Italians, Germans, Austrians and the Swiss, but mainly undiscovered by Americans. Put it on your list.

We were the only guests at Borgo San Daniele in Cormons (they have three nice rooms in the winery compound), so we had the place all to ourselves at times and enjoyed our stay very much. We had breakfast in the kitchen each morning and came back at one point to discover the sleepy cat shown here who may have come in through the window and obviously made himself as comfortable as we did.

Il Roncal was a different experience but one that we would also recommend.  More rooms, more visitors, lots of activity on this hilltop estate overlooking the vines. A group of German bicyclists passed through one day and several family groups took full advantage of the outdoor meeting areas. Our room was elegant. The private tasting featured local delicacies paired with each wine, which was a real treat.

There are many exceptional restaurants in the area including a homey new osteria at La Subida with great food and wine. The staff built a fire in the outdoor fireplace for us one night when thunder, lightening, and a heavy rainstorm chased all the other diners inside. What atmosphere! trota

We had to return to Al Giardinetto in Cormons and it was as spectacular as we remembered. The food is wonderful, but the wine stands out in my memory. Our host pulled many corks, showcasing limited and unusual wines that we would not otherwise have been able to taste. A glass of this, a half glass of that, you might find this interesting, it was great as he shared treasures of the cellar with the guests.  And the total cost was much less than we might have paid for a single bottle of wine in other circumstances. A real wine lover’s restaurant.

Two other meals stand out among many. We stopped for lunch Alla Trota in the little village of Pulfero near the Slovenian border in the beautiful Natisone valley. We sat out on the patio overlooking the Natisone river that produced the trout on our plates. I went over the top with tagliatelle with a smoked trout ragu followed by  roasted whole trout and then apple strudel along with this jug of local wine.

salepepeThe next day we found ourselves in an even tinier town at lunchtime. Not many dining options in little hillside Stregna and when we asked at the door we discovered that Sale e Pepe‘s kitchen was closed for a thorough cleaning. What to do? Well, the chef said, just because we can’t use the stove doesn’t mean we can’t fix you lunch. And so we enjoyed the rather spectacular salad, cheese, charcuterie and dessert shown here accompanied by one of the region’s best red wines from Le Due Terre.

Did I mention warm hospitality before? Now you know what I’m talking about. Obviously we need to return when the kitchen is cooking on all its burners. Must be spectacular!

Circle back for a profile of three wineries that really caught our attention. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who hosted and helped us during our week in Friuli. Special thanks to Michelangelo Tagliente for his advice.