Friday 29 May 2015

The Valley of the Rhône is a rockin' and a rollin'

This article, with different images, appears in the current issue of Meininger's Wine Business International

Image result for jumpin jack flash jagger singing
Jumpin' Jack Flash... but does Jagger
drink Condrieu?
“I was BORN in crossfire hurriCANE,” Yves Gangloff of Condrieu howled into the microphone as his band kicked off one of the after-parties of the peripatetic wine fair that is Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône. Music is a key part of this extraordinary few days, an odyssey of tastings, discussions, dinners, seminars, masterclasses and “vigneron-rocker” evenings, all in the 250km vinous playground that is the Rhône valley.

Every wine region in entertainment mode has its peculiar character. In the Medoc they go for elaborate marquees and black tie dinners, in Burgundy, confrerie singing and heart-stopping gastronomic marathons for 600 guests. In the Rhône, there’s music, whether rock, rockabilly, or a local brass ensemble parping away in the background. Meininger’s even caught a particularly good jazz combo in a dive bar in Avignon. Gangloff’s band, The Grapeful Dead, consists of Paul Ansellem of Côte-Rôtie’s Dme Georges Vernay, Pierre-Jean Villa of the eponymous northern Rhône domaine, and Gangloff himself on vocals. They played in Ampuis, to a merry crowd quaffing the finest northern Rhônes from magnum.

The Découvertes en Vallée de Rhône started in 2001, inspired by the Grands Jours de Bourgogne tasting that covers that interesting stretch of land from Chablis to Macon. Now in its  eighth edition, it takes in the 70,000ha of Rhône valley vineyards and some 5,500 wine companies, from producers to negociants. This year there 620 exhibitors, and nine separate trade fairs, with 2,175 visitors from 31 countries.

The Palais des Papes: dramatic but draughty
The organisational power behind the four days of the event is Inter Rhône, which must – in this particular journalist’s view – be one of the most proactive and efficient trade organisations in France. Apart from the knowledgeable and helpful staff, in every centre, from Ampuis to Avignon, there was a cache of useful literature. One particular booklet, the Encyclopedia of Rhône Valley Wines, gives a comprehensive overview of the entire AOC and its 171 communes. It is needed: there is nothing more complicated than the hierarchy of a French AOC and its sub-appellations. With an influx of emerging wine-buying regions like mainland China, absolute clarity is vitally important, especially as the Chinese are looking beyond the top, icon crus to more affordable wines. A newly-fledged junior sommelier from Guangzhou may need all the help he or she can get when trying to explain the difference between Vallée du Rhône, Village and Cru.

That said, however, Découvertes is still essentially a parochial event. Seventy-two per cent of visitors are French, with a smattering of Americans (4 per cent) and Asians (about 1 per cent). There are no signs that this demographic is changing, despite the fact that the Rhône’s Chinese market is growing. Overall exports for Rhône Valley wines fell by some five per cent in 2014, but in China there was notable growth for appellations such as Costières de Nîmes and Gigondas. “Rhône is very important for us,” Xi Chen of Bordeaux-based wine merchant Maison Bordelaise told Meininger’s, adding that he had come to Découvertes with a groups of Chinese sommeliers “for enjoyment, not work.”

In his introduction to the Découvertes, Michel Chapoutier, the president of Inter Rhône, says one of its major purposes is to “profoundly experience the Rhône Valley.” It achieves this in two ways. First, and most obvious, is the fact that there is no better way of understanding a wine region than to stand in its vineyards. Delegates, therefore, were taken to the top of Hermitage hill, and given a 360° explanation of the wine region shimmering in bright spring sunshine around them.

Shimmering in the sun...on Hermitage hill
Second, and most important, the tastings themselves. From town sports centres to the magnificent (and draughty) Palais des Papes in Avignon, every available public space was taken over for tastings. One important aspect of these events was their democratic organisation: every producer, whether Jaboulet, Chapoutier or the smallest vigneron-récoltant, was allotted the same space in which to show their wines. “It’s my socialist disposition,” Chapoutier told Meininger’s. “We’re not here to say who is the biggest, but to show the range and quality of all producers.”  This distinguishes the Découvertes from the massive trade fairs that have come to dominate the wine landscape – this year, in the space of a few weeks, producers have to decide between Prowein, VinItaly and Vinexpo – which are profoundly undemocratic in the sense that the biggest companies can afford the most elaborate stands, while the smallest may get overlooked.

“This is much easier than Vinexpo,” vigneron Lionel Faury of St Joseph said, “because it’s specialised. Vinexpo is the market for big volumes and big business, but here you can talk about terroir – it’s for people who are interested in the Rhône.” At a cost of €500 a day for a stand, it’s not that much cheaper than an international fair, but the rewards are potentially greater.
Hermitage terraces...Jaboulet?

From north to south, producers volunteered the same opinions: Découvertes is valuable because it's localised and specialised, and it’s an excellent way of doing business. “My goal was to find a Danish importer,” said Stephane  Montez of Dme du Monteillet in Condrieu, “and the first guy to come by this morning was from Denmark. I have a Swedish importer, so now I just need Finland and Norway.”

Another advantage of the localised format was the opportunity to concentrate on a vintage. The Rhône – in general – escaped the terrible growing conditions the rest of France endured in 2013. Thousands of hectares of Grenache were lost to coullure in the south, but in the north a combination of a cold and wet spring and summer and fine September and October produced wines that are lighter and fresher than usual. But for many consumers and buyers, 2013 in France is a vintage to be treated with caution, so producers welcomed the chance to allow the vintage to show itself. “The most important is 2013,” Joël Durand of Domaine Eric & Joël Durand told Meininger’s. “It’s a very particular vintage, there was bad weather, we harvested two weeks late – it was different. It’s useful to get people to taste it, especially in St Joseph which is suffering from the reputation of the rest of France.”

Découvertes is not all business, though: the many halls and tasting rooms buzzed with conversation and gossip. Many producers told Meininger’s they were there simply to meet existing customers and generally catch up on news. One salient reason for this is the extremely low 2013 harvest. “Our only problem is that we have no wine to sell,” Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage said. “We’re just here to meet a few customers that we know, but not develop new business.”

The 2000-plus journalists, wine merchants and other wine professionals that attend the tastings have the same attitude. Helen Savage, a UK wine writer and educator and Rhône expert, told Meininger’s she has come several times because “it is so valuable for keeping up to date with what’s going on”. Wine merchants were much in evidence: Georges Barbier of the eponymous London merchant has been coming since the beginning and finds the present set up a great improvement, he said. “All the tastings used to be in cellars and there were long queues.” The Barbier family’s prime reason to be there was to “find something new”, his daughter Victoria said, “and we’ve discovered Dme Monteillet already. It’s a great event. We’re here for three days and we’ve found two new wines. It’s got my seal of approval.”

Alongside the tastings was a comprehensive programme of masterclasses and seminars. If the tastings were an unqualified success, the academic side of Découvertes was less so. It’s a criticism frequently directed at such events – it sometimes seems as if masterclasses and seminars are tacked on in order to give the event gravitas and to attract celebrity commentators. While certain events were well organised and stimulating, others had the feeling of being hastily-prepared. This may have been a result of the sheer comprehensivity of the programme – the tiny underground cabaret club Rouge Gorge in Avignon, for example, had been divided in two in order to host 16 different masterclasses over two days, one every hour from 9am to 6pm. It was too much, and several delegates told Meininger’s they found them chaotic.

Other masterclasses were well-prepared and fascinating, particularly the introduction by oenologist Fabien Ozanne on the terroirs of the Côte Rôtie in Ampuis (where there was less pressure, and fewer delegates, than further south). A panel discussion, with Andrew Jefford, Bernard Burtschy and the prolific consultant Philippe Cambie on Trends in Wine, produced some thought-provoking arguments, such as on the origins of the rosé boom, the dangers of following fashions in wine, and the natural wine movement. On the latter, Jefford provoked laughter with his analogy between the use of sulphites and underarm deodorant: “If everyone stopped using deodorant then we would all smell of sweat,” he said. “But that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.”
Moins sexy... Inter-Rhone ads not as sure-footed

The Découvertes is, in the end, an exercise in publicity, something Inter Rhône has always been good at. Leaving aside the fatuous ad campaigns (“Plus sexy de CameRhône Diaz” was a low point), the Valley’s trade association is sure-footed. Its campaigns in China have been imaginative, offering prizes for the best way of expressing the colour red through different artistic media, whether painting, fashion or theatre. Their latest wheeze is to get people to make short films and publish them. In all this it consciously tries to attract a younger audience.

Chapoutier sees attracting the young  as essential, and he has announced plans for Rhône Valley winemakers and their American Rhone Ranger counterparts to sponsor the children of smaller wine producers on visits to American and Australian wine schools.

Perhaps not the effect one wants from a foie gras
"We have to make winemaking attractive to a new generation," he said. The children who saw their parents suffering through the global financial crisis need to be shown “how winemaking can be a successful business.”  The Découvertes is an example: anyone visiting could not help but be impressed by the upbeat atmosphere of every hall. Whether teenagers will be as impressed by Yves Gangloff’s version of Jumpin’ Jack  Flash is another story.

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