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2011/12 was a very good year for our little business. My wife and I were therefore able to take a month off in Europe and really enjoy it. Whilst the break was always only ever intended as a holiday, inevitably, a lot of it somehow concerned wine and wine people.

It is a very interesting time for Europe right now, I feel. I saw and learned a lot. I therefore thought it worthwhile to share some observations:

1. It’s complex.

We would all like things to be understandable and easily compartmentalised. Unfortunately, that is not always how the world is. For example, until I spent some time there, I thought I pretty much had the Southern Rhone figured out. There was an ocean of Cotes du Rhône and a handful of better Appellations like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas.

It’s all made from a Grenache dominated blend and it’s all good. Certainly that is what Inter Rhône, one of the world’s largest and best funded wine promotional bodies would like us to believe with their brilliantly simple “Think Red. Think Cotes du Rhône” campaign.

Then you find that an Appellation known globally for sweet wine makes red wine. And rose. And that there are dozens of classified villages, some with as little as 80 hectares, all of which the consumer is supposed to know, understand and appreciate etc.

The reality is that pretty much everything is happening here. It’s like a microcosm of the entire wine world. Tradition sits alongside the new, good alongside the bad everywhere you look. For example, you have people who have crush pits originally used by the Romans two centuries before Christ next door to the best designed and equipped wineries I have ever seen.

You have those who want to make wines in the time honoured style and those who want to plant as they do in the Northern Rhône and make wines from 100% of one varietal.

You have people who won’t listen to science but who fall over themselves to adopt the principals of biodynamics.

You have some of the most beautifully kept vineyards on earth and some of the rattiest often next to one another.

You have old vines being pulled out funded by EU money only to be replaced by higher yielding modern style vineyards.

There are people coming from all over the world to make wine, some of it to please Robert Parker, some of it appeal to a richer client base than traditional producers have been able to access and of course some just to be enjoyed by the people that made it.

2. It’s Good.

The French have been deeply offended by Australian winemakers’ contention that most French wine is “Crap”. In 1990s, this may have been so. We’ve all been through the process of opening a half dozen Burgundies or Sancerres only to find that one or two were technically faulty, three were “disappointing” and one, if you were lucky, makes it clear what all the fuss is about.

In the last 10 years that has changed utterly. AC wines are now almost universally good. You can walk into the regional promotion centre in Gigondas, for example, try wine from all 37 producers and I defy anyone to find a bad one. When the average price is around 14-16 Euro a bottle you quickly start to get the idea that here is some of the best value for money red wine on earth. At these price points, we’re not talking someone’s “fun” 2nd label either. Often this is the price for the principal wine of the estate aged perfectly.

A much more important revolution has taken place in terms of the quality of commercial wine. I visited Gabrielle Meffre, makers of the Fat Bustard brand, and whilst their top end winemaking was some of the best I have ever seen from a big company, what impressed me most was their La Chasse Reserve, one of the biggest selling Cotes du Rhone wines in the UK which at £7.99 is blindingly good.

There are threats emerging for Australian commercial winemakers from all over the world. Just go down to Dans and steal yourself a bottle of Distel’s Fleur de Cap Shiraz of $11 and see how worried Australian listed companies should be…

3. France is the target.

It is convenient to hold the notion that was so popular it the 1990s that France was caught up in tradition and would soon be run down. France is the target for absolute certain in terms of wine quality and resultant reputation. The question is – who is running faster? On the basis of the evidence of having tried a lot of wine during two such trips in the last two years, we all better start picking the pace up right about now.

4. There are weaknesses and opportunities.

It is no longer an advantage to speak English as pretty much everyone in the international wine business does. Where there is huge possibility is in the use of technology to improve customer connection.

For example, my beloved GSP “Joyce the Voice” took me to the door of three Barolo wine business addresses. Nowhere on the exterior of any of these buildings was there any evidence that these were businesses let alone the home of esteemed global wine brands. There is this bizarre notion that you are more prestigious if you are invisible which no doubt loses them a good number of potential long term customers.

Never mind Google Maps and Trip Advisor – most French wineries do not have their physical address on their web site or signs that are easily seen from the road.

Taking it up a step, most of you will be familiar with the appointment only policy of many European wine regions. In Listrac in Bordeaux, for example, you can taste wines at their regional promotion centre but only if they open all 34 producers bottles at the same time…

Argentinian research recently confirmed that only 53% of French wineries are on Facebook compared to 94% in the US and 41% use Twitter compared to 73% in the US.

That is not all bad though. It is nice to be able to talk to people uninterrupted. In the end it is European charm I think that we can learn from most.