Saturday, November 26, 2011

Years in Provence

Faverot estate.JPG

THE LUBERON, France--Peter Mayle once lived in one of this region's hilltop villages, waxing romantic about the lazy expat life, waiting with bemusement for the local tradesmen to show up and finish tiling the shower. Not so François and Sally Faverot, who left London after a career in the restaurant business and bought a rundown property at the base of the limestone cliff.

The Faverots set about turning one wing of their manse into self-catering holiday cottages equipped with kitchen, bath, living room, fireplace and two bedrooms. Booked solid throughout the summer months, popular in the off-season as well with writers and painters. The vineyard, which François planted with traditional Provençvarieties, covers 18 acres and produces 25,000 bottles annually.

Courtyard.JPGThe best wine is called General, half syrah, half grenache, and could easily pass for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at least the old style of Châteauneuf before the boundaries of the AOC were vastly expanded and the quality vastly diluted. Ironically, Domaine Faverot flirts dangerously with volatile acidity, the hallmark of the old-style. The grenache, François explains, achieves its phenolic ripeness through a spontaneous interior fermentation, so his wines have high volatile acidity from the start. His neighbors, who prefer to play safe, look closely (and skeptically) at the lab reports for the General. It wouldn't be the end if, one day, they refused to accord Faverot the AOC Luberon certification, though; he's got plenty of private clients--and visitors--who love his wines as they are.

François had an ancestor who distinguished himself in battle and was rewarded by Napoleon with a title and land in Brittany. He could have lived the life of a nobleman, but instead he's in Provence, making wine, while Nancy takes care of the holiday cottages. A great summer spot for families who want a private pool; a great winter spot for writers who like quiet solitude. Not such a bad life after all, eh?

Domaine Faverot, 771 Route de Robion, 84660 MAUBEC, France, +33(0)

Our visit to Domaine Faverot was part of a trade show organized by the regional tourism authority of Provence. Photos courtesy of Nilesh Kale, Black Grape Holidays.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bordeaux Takes the Bus to Paris

Bordeaux at Paris bus stop.JPGPARIS--You may recall that our trip to southwestern France last year featured a number of ideas to promote the wines of Bordeaux to a wider public. Not the five famous Grands Crus Classés (Marguax, Latour, Mouton, Lafite, Haut Brion), but ten thousand or so "lesser" châteaux within the strictly defined boundaries of the Bordeaux appellation.

We're going to take the liberty of quoting our dispatch dated October 12th, 2010:

"There's a marketing plan in the works for Bordeaux, a ten-year plan not for the two or three dozen famous names but for the other ten thousand. The campaign will target casual drinkers who don't care a drop about terroir; it will capitalize on the elegance suggested by the term "château." There will be music, there will be wine, there will be romance.

The tagline: "And the bottle on the table is Bordeaux."

You read it here first."

The only hitch is the headline, which reads "Bordeaux: Des Vins, Un Style." And it translates as badly as it reads in French: "Some Wines, One Style." But the art direction and taglines seem on target: "Aromas of fruit, flowers and spices: the aromatic palette of Bordeaux wines is infinite." Figs, berries, kiwis, licorice, dried leaves, not bad. Still, I liked my headline better.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just a Small-Town White in a Red Wine World

vino_bianco.jpgFRIULI, Italy--It hasn't been tried before, an international summit like this on the opportunities and challenges facing the country's best white wines. We're not talking about the bulk pinot grigio, you understand, but the most prestigious wines from this region in the northeast corner of Italy, on the border with Slovenia). The daylong conference was organized by the Collio wine producers, and drew a good crowd of local winemakers, consultants, marketers, importers, exporters and restaurateurs, along with a dozen or more journalists. The panels--once the public and industry officials made the obligatory welcome speeches--talked about technical issues in the morning and marketing in the afternoon.

The challenge was expressed by a grower who didn't attend. Edi Keber, whom I called the "Commoner-King of Collio" in a post last year, looked out from his winery this morning and surveyed the landscape, where vineyards and whitewashed houses share the sun-drenched hills, where Italy blends into Slovenia without so much as a border fence. "I could make and sell 50,000 bottles of pinot grigio here, but I would betray my heritage. What grows here is unique. Several varieties, but one wine." It's as if the very blend were a single grape variety. Nobody much cares that Bordeaux grows half a dozen red grapes, Keber points out. The same here. "One wine, and it is virtually autochtonous. It is Collio."

Collio vineyards.JPGItaly exports four billion euros worth of wine every year, more than any country, but less than two percent of that comes from this region, formally known as Friuli Venezia Giulia. FVG wines are nationally acclaimed as excellent, everyone agrees, but they don't have a coherent story to tell the export markets.

Prof. Francesco Venier.JPGFrancesco Venier, professor of business administration at the University of Trieste, points to FVG's grab bag of appellations and grape varieties, which end up with some 168 varieties and protected denominations spread over 25,000 acres. Collio, for all its efforts, is one small appellation but allows almost a dozen varieties and blends--all white--to carry the name. Venier urged the wine makers and government officials to develop a more coordinated and efficient system of leadership ("Cluster Governance") that would permit more flexibility and encourage more innovation.

The marketing sessions drew plenty of attention, ranging from specifics (using gel packs instead of refrigerated containers, for example) to broad advice regarding Asian and American markets.

Becky Sue Epstein writes, Paul Wagner tastes.JPG"Making good wine isn't enough," said Paul Wagner of Napa-based Balzac Communications, who participated by videoconference from the US. The competition is overwhelming and the sales people are overwhelmed. A single distributor can carry more than 5,000 wines; Wine Spectator gave 90+ scores to nearly a thousand Italian wines. "So you need more than a good wine," Wagner told the audience, "you need a good story."

And because of the message-killing inefficiencies of the three-tier wine distribution system, wine makers need to tell that story themselves.

Less than a quarter of all Americans even drink wine (about the same percentage as own passports), Wagner pointed out. Americans do their "traveling" by going to the movies or drinking imported bottles in restaurants. They want to fall in love with their wine, yet most wine marketing is based on the false notion that Americans want wine education: enology (barrels), chemistry (fermentation) or geology (soil structure).

Wrong! says Wagner. This may work in emerging Asian markets, but to sell in the United States, you need to sell the romance of travel, sell the romance of wine. Sell the story of vineyards on sunny, foreign hilllsides; sell the story of a wine maker walking through those vineyards, touching his grapes. Sell the story of nonna's recipe for homemade pasta and the family dinners enlivened by a special bottle. It's not about facts, it's about feelings.

Antonio Galloni, the Italian correspondent for Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, agreedd that more work is needed to create an identity for wine from Friuli. "The sommeliers in New York restaurants are young, they have no wine prejudices and are happy to become ambassadors for serious white wnes along with the appeal of Italy's la dolce vita lifestyle.

Patricia Felluga, president of the Collio-Carso consortium, would certainly agree. "We need tourism," she said. The winery she owns, Zuani, is adjacent its own, wine-centered restaurant, Luka, to attract visitors. (In Napa, Wagner pointed out, a single winery sells one million bottles of wine at full retail to passers-by.)

Josko Sirk.JPGJosko Sirk, who owns Al Cacciatore della Subida, the region's best restaurant, sees a solution: the world's first bi-national appellation, a DOC that would include most of the Italian state of Friuli Venezia Giulia along with the vineyards of Brda, on the Slovenian side of the border. "They work well, they are serious, their wines are good," says Sirk. "And the publicity for Collio would be fantastic."

There's no doubt that the wines of Collio and FVG could use a stronger identity outside Italy. Only one winery (so far) has its own sales rep in China, where only ten percent of wine sales are white wine. Burgundy and Bordeaux do well in China, as long as it's their reds. New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is making inroads; its bouquet is aromatic and fresh. German Rieslings, well known and appreciated. Premium white from Italy? Yes, as it becomes more famous, and comes with a unified story: "The future is white."

It's all very well for the locals to be self-congratulatory about the excellence of their wines, but they need to do more for the gorgeous lady in the silvery-gold lamé dress, whose delights they're praising. Right now, she's standing all by herself in the corner, ready to strut her stuff. She needs to step into the spotlight, she needs to be invited to dance. The world is waiting.