This article compares research findings about wine tourism in Champagne and the Languedoc. If you’re looking for a vineyard to visit in Champagne, I suggest Tarlant who organized my entire trip there. If you’re looking for a vineyard to visit in the Languedoc, I suggest mine because I want to meet you. 😀
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.
Christophe Juarez spoke at the Université de la Vigne et du Vin in 2011 in Ferrals les Corbieres. This is a synopsis of his lecture and my reaction to what he’s saying. This is one post in an ongoing series about the Universite de la Vigne et du Vin.
Christophe Juarez, France, ton vin est dans le rouge – Adapting to the modern wine world
Juarez enumerates many changes in wine consumption that result in a need for change in wine production or at least wine marketing. In many ways, his presentation served as a counter point to Jacky Rigaux‘s. While Jacky was a bit academic and high minded in his search for what a winemaker ought to do, Juarez focused on what a winemaker has to do. It’s a much more pragmatic outlook. Although it’s still a bit simplistic. But sometimes a message has to be simplified to be conveyed.
Where Rigaux said “Cepage is a first name while terroir is a family name,” Juarez will say “Cepage is unavoidable.” We can have cute witty notions about how terroir is more important than grape variety (I feel this is true), but ultimately, most new world wine drinkers want to know the variety and care much more about that than where the wine is from.
Juarez doesn’t deny the marketing potential of place. In fact, he concedes that France is a huge selling point. People love France. But he also notes that having too many regions spoils the pot. If most people only remember a dozen different wine brands, is there place in the market for somewhat obscure AOCs? If there will only be a dozen denominations in the public conscience, should we spend energy on branding Corbieres, Minervois, and so on? Or should we just focus on a bigger brand like South of France and a grape type?
Juarez will also say that the grower/author is crucial to promoting a place. The place is only worth what it produces in his estimation, and the men and women who tend the land are key to that equation.
He also notes that brands have an advantage over individual people because brands are eternal. Mortals will die, but brands can persist. Brands can identify a style and go on in perpetuity.
He also warns against a “surenchere vers le haut”. If we create high value brands hoping that they will drive the whole market forward, we might be disappointed. For one thing, premium value brands have a hard time pulling up entry level brands. Additionally, shifting markets and economic hardship might result in a general move toward bargain brands instead of luxury brands.
All in all, the presentation concludes that we have to create quality wine with consistency and a mastery of bottling and other technical elements. I think the conclusion falls into the land of caricaturization. It ends up being all about creating a reliable product that people can buy without being afraid. I’d like to think that wine is art and that sometimes people buy bottles not knowing what to expect. But maybe that’s impractical. Tough questions at the Universite de la Vigne et du Vin!