While I visited Champagne last weekend, the Reims Management School was hosting a Fête de la Recherche (and it always sounded like they were telling me to do research “Faites de la recherche!”). One of the first research projects they presented was a study of wine tourism in the region. Keenly aware of my interest in oenotourism, my host Melanie Tarlant signed me up to attend.
Steve Charters presents at RMS
Steve Charters, Aurélien Rouquet, and S. Jolly from the RMS presented two studies. One surveyed 28 producteurs recoltants about their thoughts on offering oenotourisme in an effort to determine what was being done already and what people would be willing to do. The other study focused on surveying tourists who actively participated in oenotouristic activities.
I’ve asked the RMS to send me a bit of detail about the studies as methodology seems of vital importance on this issue. But in the meanwhile, I can already talk a bit about the big points they brought up.
Quick ideas that I found interesting:
The majority of Champagne is sold domestically
Champagne producers that export successfully are less likely to be interested in tourism
Champagne producers farther to the south are more likely to be interested in tourism
Some producers fear they might have more to lose than to gain
Many wineries value product tasting more than overall experience
Some disorganized personal conclusions on my part:
Champagne’s touristic activity isn’t as developed as I would have thought. There’s a lot of cool visits to do, but tourism is largely dominated by the negociant houses especially close to Reims.
If it already sells, why do tourism?
Personally, I love the touristic side of the vineyard. It’s fun to meet consumers. And I think it adds value to the wine as people learn about where wine comes from and develop a closer relationship with their producers.
But most businesses are going to look at the short term and ask how much money do I make and how much do I spend developing wine tourism?
So it makes sense that wine producers who already sell their wine successfully at high prices tend to lack the motivation to look into tourism. This turns out to be a bit ironic since the ones who sell their bubbly most easily tend to be located closer to cities and villages with high touristic appeal. For example, many of the more notorious growers are often located closer to Reims and Epernay which receive more tourists.
Similarly, I’d expect wine producers around Hautvillers to lack motivation to explore oenotourisme, because Hautvillers already has so many tourists. The village houses the Abbey where Dom Perignon made the first Champagne blends and so there’s a steady flow of traffic consuming local wines at the bars, restaurants, and cafes. So strangely, they don’t need to do tours. Tourists will go and drink their wine after doing a tour of the abbey. Or at least that’s the impression I got.
It’s pretty fair to generalize and say that growers located in the south (farther from Reims and often more dependent on Pinot) have to fight a little harder to sell their Champagne, and that might explain their motivation to explore wine tourism. Even though they’re farther from the cities that draw the most tourists, they’re willing to fight for it because they need to find innovative ways for people to discover their wines.
Still a lot of improvements to be made
The study found that growers tended to be split into three groups, with some very skeptical producers, some that saw potential, and some who were already eagerly advancing their touristic activity.
Charters specifically cited Champagne Charlier as a leading light in the field of vineyard and winery tours. That said, the online presentation of their offer looks roughly equivalent to my own vineyard’s (if a little less developed, dare I say). And I’ve only been at this for a bit over a year. So there’s still a lot to be done up there.
Should tourism be controlled as closely as production
However, after getting a feel for Champagne’s dual interprofessions (the negociants and growers have separate interprofessional groups), I imagine you can’t make tooo many waves. Growers expressed a general concern about the overall quality of tours preserving the luxury/prestige image of the Champagne region. And this makes sense.
Consumers think very highly of Champagne already. A poorly executed visit could lower a consumer’s image of the region very easily. Should oenotouristic activity for a carefully protected denomination/brand like Champagne be controlled as closely as the production? A very good question. While I would find it laughable for the Cabardes ODG to interfere in the way I run my business, I sort of understand if some Champagne growers think tourism should be developed with certain minimum standards in their region.
But denominations are often promoted as a way to define terroir. It’s all about the product. This notion I’m expressing exposes the political notion of denominations like the AOPs which I’d argue are created to protect growers and help them promote their wines as a group. The beautiful language about terroir goes hand in hand with the political elements. But the political elements are primary (in my mind). So even though tourism doesn’t strictly affect the quality of the wine being produced or how representative it is of the terroir, there is an argument for setting minimum reception standards. But where do we draw a line and say no more bureaucracy past this point? Hmmmm…
How it applies to the Languedoc
First of all, I think it’s really encouraging that the Languedoc isn’t sooo far behind in this realm. French wine tourism, on the whole, is still not as good as it should be. The Languedoc still has a chance to actually surge ahead of almost every other wine region. We’re still in this!
Additionally, we probably don’t have the same handicap of high tourism areas already selling their wines well. A lot of beach tourism doesn’t really come to the region for big red wines (partially explaining the shift to rosés at vineyards nearer the coast). Also, areas with great tourism like Carcassonne and Limoux are not yet world-renowned so we have a vested interest in greeting people well and changing their perception of our wines. As a result, we really have no excuse!
Furthermore, I think negociants in the Languedoc region could take a much more active role in tourism. As seen in Champagne, well-executed tourism increases the perceived value of the product (even when the perceived value is already high). Negociants are perfectly situated to reap the rewards of this kind of activity and don’t face the same sort of constraints as producers/growers. It’s interesting to see the dynamic between cooperatives and negociants, a subject that I’ll speak about more later, affects tourism as much as it affects production.
My Trah Lah Lah in Champagne continues and here’s a song that doesn’t actually have any tra la las in it but is on an album called “Champagne et Tralala” by Claire Lise. There is a song on this album with tra la las but I cannot find the video. So instead here is the extremely suggestive chanson erotique from the same album. Although I would like to point out that this is not why I’m in the region 😛
I’m spending a bit of time touring Champagne this weekend. But that doesn’t mean we can’t sing Tra la la like every other day in January.
Here’s a song from Die Fieldermaus perfomed by the Royal Opera
Sometimes referred to as the Champagne Song, this piece is about that king of drinks that made people sing Tra la la and think they could fly like bats by jumping off buildings. It’s a really weird opera. Anyway, you can pop a bottle of bubbly or a trah lah lah and sing along.
Sometimes, I get to taste really ridiculous wines. The other night, the Associations des Sommeliers de Paris ate at Frank Putelat’s restaurant Le Parc in Carcassonne. Philippe Pares, an organizing member of the association, brought four fantastic bottles of wine for us to share. One of the bottles was an 1861 Chateau Lafite. Ya, that’s not a typo.
I don’t do many tasting notes, but everybody keeps asking me about this bottle in particular. Understandably. And I guess that, on some level, I have a responsibility to share the experience since that might have been the last bottle of that wine on earth.
So we tasted it blind. Only Philippe knew what he brought, and the head sommelier at Le Parc, Thomas Brieux, might have known too. Philippe opted to decant it an hour or so before service.
Coming out of the decanter, it looked almost like American coffee (read: watered down). Or Florida pond water. A deep brown color. If you left it in your glass for a while, the sediment would all go to the bottom, and some of the color would sink too, leaving a very watery transparent rim. It was like the wine could separate from the water. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Anyway, we knew we working with something old.
Nose started off with something like a touch of oxidation. Then it had pretty intense tertiary notes. A sense of coffee/roast could emerge every now and then. Lots of black truffle which came out more and more as it stayed in glass. It had us all guessing that we were tasting a miraculously well-preserved wine from the 1920s or 30s. Little did we know.
Taste was of a mature and composed wine. Again, dominated by tertiary notes of forest floor and mushroom.. bit of a gamey leathery component in there. Surprisingly together. None of us thought it was so old. But then again, even in a group of experts like the Association des Sommeliers de Paris (who are used to tasting first growth Bordeaux and can tell you all about each vintage in the Medoc from 1960 to the present day), very few people have references that go back to 1861… We have little experience in evaluating such a unique wine. And it was a very very distinguished group of sommeliers, so it’s impressive to see something stump them in a blind tasting. And the look of awe when we all became aware of exactly what we were drinking.
Was it worth it?
This is the next question people have been asking. “Was it worth it?” And the short answer is yes. I will remember this night forever.
It probably wasn’t the best-tasting wine that night (lots of consensus around the 1964 Palmer). But that’s not the point. This was one of the few groups of people on earth who are so steeped in the history and culture of wine appreciation that they could truly enjoy the historical importance of opening a bottle of wine like this. It’s about experience, tradition, our forefathers, and so much more than just drinking the wine.
This thing was 150 years old!! Generations of winemakers have passed since its bottling. (Interestingly, this is one of the last vintages produced before Rothschild bought Chateau Lafite and appended his name to the property in 1868.) A bottle like this is a glimpse into French history. Wine is one of these magical drinks that can be so natural and long-lived while at the same time being a one-time ephemeral experience like theater. Tasting this bottle with esteemed professionals was like getting the opportunity to travel back in time with Kenneth Branagh to see an original performance of Hamlet.
Plus the wine actually tasted great. That’s sort of surprising. We probably would have all appreciated it even if it had been broken, corked or just weak. But it was actually good.
Finding a group of people who can share something so special is an important cultural moment. It’s best not to ask for the monetary value …. just know that a dozen people will remember this moment for their entire lives. And every time we open a bottle of wine, we hope to capture a sliver of the magic that we found on nights like these.
I took the night train to Paris again for another round of Parisian wine tastings.
On Friday afternoon and evening, I’ll be tasting with my favorite Parisian supplier, Crus. I think Gregoire, who organizes a lot of the Paris BarCamps will be coming in with some of his gang. And a lot of other assorted Paris friends will attend. YOU should come to if you live here. We’ll have lots of bottles open and we’ll eventually head off to Mr Lounge for the after party. Should be fun. Mr. Lounge has new ownership so I’m excited to meet them and see what they’ve done with the place.
And then on Saturday, I will spend the whole day at VinoCamp Paris. It’s the first BarCamp in France devoted entirely to wine. We’ll discuss lots of issues (to be determined), and eventually drink lots of wine. I lugged 24 bottles of O’Vineyards wine on the train and through the Paris Metro so we’re going to have a party. Also, other notorious winemakers such as Vicky Wine and Benoit Tarlant (among others!) will be pouring their goods after the brainstorming workshops.
And now a gratuitous DISCOBITCH music video with Tarlant Champagne bottles in the background (because what is the point of hanging out with Champagne guys if it you can’t be in music videos?)
Micro-blogging time. We visited Freixenet outside of Barcelona and it was enormous. My whole production fits ten times in each of their individual wine tanks.
But the most interesting thing is that they make really good wine other than the very drinkable, very affordable black label. They’ve got some “micro-cuves”, again: thinking of my entire vineyard as a micro-production, that are superbly worked. But these smaller quantities never really make it out of the region so you should try to visit the winery when you’re in Barcelona. If you like sparkling white, they use Methode Champenoise and it’s delicious.
Now off to Alimentaria!! Looking forward to see what Catavino has in store for the rest of the trip.
PS – The Cava Choo Choo is a train ride through Freixenet’s massive James Bond villainesque underground complex. It is the scariest parts of Universal Studio’s The Big One ride mixed with the most exciting robotic arms and scientist encounters from Half Life. It could beat the Napa Valley train’s butt in a street fight.
How to find us
Domaine O’Vineyards, located in the North Arrondissement of Carcassonne, is just minutes from the Carcassonne train station, the Medieval City, and the Carcassonne Airport.
GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387
Wine, Dine, Relax at our Boutique Vineyard
Unique thing to do in Carcassonne
Wine Cellar. Winery Visits. Wine Tasting.
Wine & Food Pairing
North Arrondissement of Carcassonne
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910
Best by GPS.
Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou using the D118. At the end of the last straight part of D118, you will come to a roundabout with the Dyneff gas station.
Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which curves up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire on the left.
At the last juction, bear left. the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.