Monthly Archives: May 2017

Wine Tourism in the Rhone.

I must start this post with a thank-you to my faithful clients who entrusted me with their Rhone trip – a long way from my Bordeaux base. Spring is a wonderful time to visit France and see it at its best. Having been away from France for a few months, I appreciated it all the more. The food was great too. The French love of seasonal produce meant we saw asparagus on every menu but it was delicious. Good for the system too: on wine tours like these any detox effort is very welcome, more about the awesome food scene in the Rhone in another post.

It has been far too long (seven years) since I spent any length of time in the Rhone valley. Has anything changed? Well, yes it has. As in Bordeaux wine tourism is developing. The structure of the vineyards is different; there are many smaller properties each with a larger range of wines and appellations than we are used to in Bordeaux but there are also large negociants and wine makers, and the larger successful properties are growing at the expense of the smaller ones. So far so familiar.

The aging ‘tunnel’ of Guigal in Ampuis,  one of the larger producers of the northern Rhone.

The vineyards of the Rhone are spread over an even larger region than Bordeaux, Bordeaux may have more hectares of vines (111 000 compared to 86 000) but from the North in Vienne down the Rhone Valley to the South in Avignon they stretch over about 200kms, quite a trip but well worth it.

The Majestic Rhone Valley from the vue above Ampuis

Wine tourism has changed the visitor experience, mostly for the better. Some properties may have lost some of their intimacy with a more commercial approach but it seems a small price to pay for being able to visit more vineyards, taste more wines and get to known them better. Without mentioning any names, some producers are still reticent to receive even faithful clients, some are just badly organised and others are unwilling to take on the staff. Wine enthusiasts often complain about Bordeaux’s closed-door policy (totally unjustified now in my view) but some in the Rhone could give it a run for its money.

If you want a one-stop shop to understand the Rhone, Tain l’Hermitage is becoming the place to go – for both Northern and Southern Rhone wines. Chapoutier have always been really welcoming; their wine shop and tasting room is a stone’s throw from their Hermitage vineyards so, although they are in town, it’s easy to start amongst the vines and move on to a tasting. With a great range of tasting options it’s possible to get a really clear understanding of the range they produce. Once you know this you can easily recognise their vineyards throughout the region, especially at this time of year, their biodynamic approach leads to a profusion of poppies across all their vineyards.

The poppy strewn vineyards of Chapoutier in Ampuis

Jaboulet have also opened The Vineum; a tasting room, shop and restaurant in the town centre with tasty seasonal dishes (more asparagus) and flights of wines to match. And it’s not so far from the iconic La Chappelle. If you want to go to La Chappelle try and be in town for one of their ‘Bar Ephemère’ nights when they open a wine bar around the Chapel at the top of the Hermitage hill. You can sip their wines watching the sun set over that magnificent view of the Rhone Valley. Delas Freres will soon be in on the act too, moving across the river from Saint-Jean-de-Muzols when they finish renovating the old Jaboulet family property in the heart of the town to welcome their clients.

The view of the Hermitage Hill and La Chapelle

Then of course there’s ‘The Cité du Chocolat’ – not wine I know but it should definitely be on your itinerary.

Self service chocolate drops at the Cité du Chocolat.

These trends are also in the Southern Rhone where wineries are opening tastings rooms offering a complete range of their wines from across the appellations, in the towns rather than at the vineyards. I mentioned Chapoutier and Jaboulet in Tain but the Perrin Family, known for Beaucastel and Miraval, have tasting rooms and shops in Tain, Châteauneuf et Aix; all showcases for their large range of wine. This had a bit of a Californian feel, offering multiple tastings moving away from production facilities as a way to reach a broader audience perhaps?

Avignon should catch up soon. The Inter Rhone growers association, are threatening to open their new ‘Maison du Vin’ wine experience the ‘Carré du Palais’; in the beautiful old Banque de France building on the central square. Situated right next to the Palais des Papes, it will be worth the wait.

Innovation is not only in tourism. International trends in wine making are here too: the search for elegance was mentioned almost everywhere, more restrained use of oak and a more intimate understanding of terroir with a plot by plot approach to agriculture and wine making and a continued move towards organic and biodynamic practice seems to be a familiar refrain across the wine world right now.

Pierre-Jean Villa shares his wines, and stories, on his winery terrace in Chavannay

The Rhone may be one of the oldest wine regions of France – but there is always something new. Pierre-Jean Villa is a favourite producer; last time I visited he was putting the finishing touches to his new cellar and now it is fully functional with a tiny terrace wedged in between his Condrieu vines and cellar in Chavanay in the Saint Joseph appellation. He is one of the founders of the campaign to recognise the Seyssuel terroir which when (rather than if) successful with be the most northern AOC of the Rhone. It has been producing wine for a long time as a Vin de France but with leaders like Pierre Jean is now producing great wines worthy of the higher official status.

The vertiginous vines of Cornas

We also spent time in Cornas for the first time thanks to wine maker and consultant Jean-Luc Colombo. This small, but perfectly formed appellation, was previously known for its rather rustic style but thanks to innovators like the Colombos the wines now have an elegance that belies this image. Cornas is at the divide between the Northern and Southern Rhone. The vegetation bears witness with a demarcation between the evergreen southern oak and the deciduous Northern oak and the wines seem to reflect this marriage of elegance and power, les Terres Brûlées was a particular favourite. And anyone that takes you on a tour of the vineyards in a Landrover Defender gets my vote.

Barrel by barrel fermentation of the Ogier plots in the Côte Rôtie

Stéphane Ogier merits a special mention for innovation too with his brand new gravity fed cellar in Ampuis. He takes the parcellaire selection and fermentation a step further by offering wines from six of his Côte Rôtie sold as a ‘set’ in a case with a map to identify exactly where they hail from which is reproduced on each label if you closely enough. He is also a champion of Seyssuel, his ‘Ame Soeur’ clearly show the potential of this vineyard.

The innovation isn’t limited to the North. Isabel Ferrando has created a modern and functional cellar in Châteauneuf du Pape. The Domaine Saint Préfert has a long history and has now come back to life under the tutelage of this dynamic woman and her young winemaker Hélène Bluezen – a feminine expression in so many ways.

The famous galets roulés of Châteauneuf here at Domaine Saint Préfert.

Once I’ve collected my thoughts I’ll be sharing some more details on some of the producers and the amazing food of the region over the next few weeks. If you are tempted to see for yourself and need a guide – I’ll be happy to help, hopefully I won’t have to wait another seven years before delving deep into the wines and the food of the Rhone again.

How to sell Bordeaux.

The most popular post on this blog is La Place de Bordeaux, explaining how Bordeaux sales work. It is adapted from a chapter in Bordeaux Bootcamp and is the subject that raises the most questions in classes and tours. Wine makers from other wine regions, usually American, are flummoxed by the three tier system of producers, brokers and negociants. Why, they ask, would a winery not sell directly to their clients?

La Place de Bordeaux?

Some do. Using the Bordeaux Place, or broker and negociant, system is not an obligation but a choice. It is a system that works well and has done for a very long time. Some 70% of the Bordeaux production is traded by the 300 negociants that make up La Place de Bordeaux. So it is not just for the elite 5% of classified growths.

Châteaux in Bordeaux have large volumes of a narrow range of products. Perhaps 300 thousand bottles over one, two or possibly three labels, as ranges have become broader in recent years. Also consolidation by leaders buying up other vineyards increases the range on offer but these are the exceptions.

Bordeaux wines are destined for an international market; Bordeaux is exported to over 100 countries. Having a sales force able to reach these diverse markets, as well as the admin staff necessary to deal with shipping, complicated wine import regulations, etc. is a task that many wineries choose to forgo. By selling through negociants, they can concentrate on making wine!

Negociants, instead of representing just a couple of labels, will have thousands of brands from amongst the 7000 vineyards in the Bordeaux region, often complimented by wines and spirits from further afield. They also may bottle their own label wines from the 40% of Bordeaux that leaves the vineyards as bulk, rather than bottled, wine. Different negociants specialise in different market niches: export or home, supermarket or restaurant. This allows for wide yet intimate market coverage with minimum commercial effort on the part of the original wine makers.

Could wineries make bigger margins if they sold directly? Gross margins perhaps, but with the need for extra, qualified admin and commercial staff, at what cost?

So what about the remaining 30%? The vineyards that do sell directly are mainly the mid to lower price range. Cellar door sales, direct mailings, participation in wine fairs are all ways that the smaller family vineyards reach the clients directly. Foreign ownerships of a vineyard may be a direct route to a specific export market, as is the case with many of the recent Chinese purchases in Bordeaux. Wine tourism is growing and cellar door sales are increasing, even the top growths offer wines for sale to visitors following visits and tastings.

Every spring, during the primeur campaign, the international wine trade brings up the thorny issue of the demise of the negociant system. So far it’s holding on, but things could be changing, or at least evolving if we look at the example one of the leading brands.

Chateau d’Yquem, part of the LVMH portfolio

Louis Vuitton, Moet, Hennessey (LVMH) is a major player in the wine and spirits world, its name is a give away. The portfolio includes leading still and sparkling wines and spirits from France and around the world. It is no slouch in Bordeaux either owning two major vineyards: Château d’Yquem and Cheval Blanc (in partnership with Albert Frère). This huge range of brands gives it an ideal opportunity to engage directly with the consumer and this year it has done by launching the Clos19 website.

Welcome to the world of LVMH

Featuring all the brands of the company from Glenmorangie in Scotland to Hennessey in Cognac, from Chandon or Newton in Napa to Dom Perignon in Champagne to Ao Yun in China or Cape Mentelle in Australia and Cheval des Andes in Argentina – I could go on. It’s a very comprehensive range.

As you would expect from a luxury group the web site is very sophisticated. You hardly realise you are on a commercial website, as you engage with the elegant lifestyle soft sell, with interviews, hosting advice, cocktail recipes and other intriguing insights into the life of these iconic brands. There are exceptional bottles to be snapped up, beautiful gifts and accessories and even the possibility to organise exclusive visits to the estates and participate in tastings nearer home.

Even as a spectator sport, it is a fascinating insight into the power that these brands wield and sets a standard for wine and spirits direct marketing. Here you can dip a tentative toe into the top end of the wine and spirits experience.



Summer drinking.

Looking for a new tipple this summer? Here are a few innovative suggestions for your warm weather drinking.

The Seneclauze family know a thing or two about rosé; they own two vineyards in the South of France: Domaine Lauzade in Cotes de Provence and Val d’Arenc in Bandol, as well as the Margaux classified growth Château Marquis de Terme. They have taken the audacious step of transplanting this famous Bordeaux name to the South. More and more Bordeaux properties now make rosé and the colour has been getting lighter over the last few years, looking more Provencal in style. Don’t let the name of a Bordeaux chateau on the label trick you; this rosé doesn’t just look like a Provence Rosé, it is one! From organic plots in the Cotes de Provence with the very non-Bordelais blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Tibouren, it is made by the director of Marquis de Termes; Ludovic David. That should confuse your friends over the BBQ this summer.

Marquis de Termes, is it a Bordeaux or is it a rosé?

You might want to try a new rosé from even further afield. Jennifer Higgins, winemaker at Lambert Bridge in Dry Creek, Sonoma, has just released her first Rosé. A blend of Merlot and Malbec, whole cluster pressed and cold fermented, it’s crisp, dry and smells of strawberries. Good luck finding some though, the Lambert Bridge wine club snapped up the 150 case release.

The new release Rosé from Lambert Bridge.

You’ll know by now that I’m a fan of the dry whites from Sauternes, here’s another one to add to the list: the new little sister of the excellent dry white ‘S de Suduiraut’. This ‘Blanc Sec de Suduiraut’ has a high (50%) proportion of Sémillon, so often associated with the region. The established S de Suduiraut is a wine made with aging in mind: harvested early from plots of vines destined for the Grand Sauternes, before the noble rot sets in, it is vinified and aged in oak. The Blanc Sec is selected from the plots destined for the second wine; Le Castelnau de Suduiraut. This hierarchy is reflected in its style; only half of the wine is vinified and aged in oak giving a fruitier and brighter expression, perfect for early summer drinking.

Le Blanc Sec de Suduiraut

You can’t have summer without bubbles. A lot of the ‘grand maisons’ of champagne have introduced cuvées destined for the ‘piscine’. Yes you can drink them by the pool but ‘piscine’, or swimming pool, is the trend for serving Champagne in large glasses refreshed with ice cubes. I mentioned this back in 2011 when Moet et Chandon introduced their Ice Imperial. These Champagnes have higher dosage (sugar) levels than brut, allowing them to keep their personality, even when diluted a little with ice cubes.

The family Champagne house, Vincent Carré, may supply some of the top Champagne houses with their raw material, but they do keep some of their favourite plots for their own Cuvees. Their signature is one of elegance and freshness thanks to the high proportion of Chardonnay in the blends from their plots in Trépail et Verzy. They have now released a higher dosage Cuvée, called Sunrise with 45g as compared to about 8g for a brut and have taken the idea of the piscine a step further: suggesting serving it as a Champagne Mojito. Inspired by their trips to the tropical island of Mauritius, they recommend filling a large glass with ice cubes, (not crushed), a handful of mint leaves, a small chopped lime and then topped up with the Sunrise Cuvée.

An sunrise Mojito – exotic take on champagne

For another innovation from a Champagne house; this week saw the planting of the first Taittinger vines in Kent, in the South of England. Named after Charles de Saint-Evremond, a French connoisseur of champagne, credited with making Champagne fashionable at the English court when exiled there in 1661. It seems a fair tribute then to give his name to the domaine. The wine won’t be ready for drinking this summer though; the vines planted this week will yield their first fruit in 2020 and the first Domaine Evremond non-vintage English Sparkling will be bottled in 2021. Knowing Taittinger it’ll be worth the wait.

Ready for planting, the baby vines of Domaine Evremond in Kent



Let the train take the strain.

I have already suggested hiring a driver when you tour vineyards but how about taking the train? As of the 2nd of July, the new TGV line will make Bordeaux only a couple of hours from Paris and about six hours from London, unless you stop for lunch in Paris, of course. I can recommend some spots to whet your appetite for Bordeaux if you do, but I digress.

Once in Bordeaux, taking the train to the vineyards is not so easy but it is possible. From Bordeaux centre, you can catch a train to Saint Emilion although it’s a bit of a hike from the station at the bottom of the hill to the village at the top. Chateau Canon La Gaffelière is right opposite the station and Château La Gafellière is on the walk up to the village. You can also spot Château Ausone above the road to the left. Once you reach the village, there are several wineries within walking distance, including the great son et lumière visit at Château Villemaurine and Château Clos Fortet just opposite the church.

The Medoc also has a train that runs right up to the northern tip of the peninsula to the seaside resort of Soulac, stopping at Pauillac and Margaux on the way. The vineyards aren’t exactly on the doorstep but Château Rauzan Segla, Château Rauzan Gassies and Château Marquis de Terme are all within striking distance of Margaux station. Château Lynch Bages and the Village of Bages aren’t far from the station at Pauillac.

You can train down to Sweet Bordeaux country too; you will ride through the vineyards of the Graves and stop at several villages along the way including Barsac. I recommend a stop of in Podensac where you can visit the Lillet aperitif producer or at Beautiran where the old ‘Cafe de la Gare’ has been brought back to life as a cute restaurant right opposite the station.

Dining with a view in Napa

In other wine regions, it’s the Napa Valley that has long championed the train as way to avoid the traffic on the busy road through the region. On the Wine Train You can choose from a range of day and evening trips including dining on board and a choice of private visits to vineyards and wineries.There are also luxurious ways of discovering vineyards using renovated trains from a more elegant era of travel. This May, the resort chain Six Senses is running a 3-night food and wine trip through the Duoro Valley in Portugal aboard the vintage Presidential train. This food and wine extravaganza includes Portuguese culture, cuisine and heritage and dinning at top tables. The three hour train trip will take you from Porto whilst dining on local food and wine on to Quinta do Vesúvio, Symington family’s port wine estate. Once there you stay overnight at the Six Senses Douro Valley before returning for a last evening in Porto.

The Symington Quinta do Vesuvius  in the Douro

The luxury Rovos Train in South Africa may not take you directly to the vineyards of the Cape but it is an elegant way to arrive in Cape Town. From there you can make your way to Franschhoek where you can take the wine tram. There are five itineraries to choose from, each visiting between eight or nine different wineries through the beautiful vineyards and dramatic mountainous backdrop. The hop-on hop-off formula means you can choose which vineyards to stop over, to taste or stay over for lunch.

The Franschhoek Wine Tram

Spirits are in on the act too; aboard the Royal Scotsman is the most elegant way to arrive in Scotland and now, thanks to an association with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, it’s an elegant way to visit the distilleries too. Over four nights aboard, as well as the spectacular scenery and fine dining aboard, there are private tours of the Glen Ord, Glenlivet and Tullibardine distilleries, a cask tasting on board and another at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society headquarters. Make sure you make the most of the full Scottish breakfast on board to prepare your stomach for the tastings.

The Royal Scotsman

Belmond are also branching out into gin in association with Tanquery No Ten. Leaving London, a seven course tasting dinner will be served as you roll through the English countryside. Dishes will be matched with wine, champagne and gin cocktails. No visits to English vineyards planned yet – but it can only be a matter of time.