The first National Wine Tourism Awards from France

February 1, 2010

Last week the French minister of tourism presented the first ‘Prix National de l’Oenotourisme’ – wine tourism awards in four different categories and I’m delighted to say that all of them are already included in Wine Travel Guides! There were 260 entrants in all and I would love to get hold of that list. In the meantime, the winners are as follows:

The winners receive a plaque and also – apparently – public relations help with promoting the award. (Needless to say no-one has yet officially contacted Wine Travel Guides about these awards).

Source des Caudalies

As these were the first ever awards, the wine tourism council decided to mention four family wine producers they consider to be pioneers in wine tourism. These producers will also help on the council, which was only formed last year.

These last four recognitions demonstrate to me quite simply the public relations power of certain wine families in France. I will say no more except that there are other pioneers that could have been selected – let’s hope they will enter next year’s competition and receive just recompense.

The only other similar awards that I know of in Europe are the Great Wine Capitals Awards and these of course only cover one city/wine region per country so, in France that’s Bordeaux.

I do hope these awards encourage more French wine producers to fully embrace the potential of wine tourism. The next task of France’s wine tourism council is to create a new seal of approval awarded to those who fulfil certain designated standards of wine tourism. Applications are being called for now.

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Wine Tasting Cellars – Should they charge?

December 23, 2009

For most people, the best part of any wine tour is visiting the cellars and tasting the wines, but the experience in Europe is often quite different from that of visiting New World wine regions. The main reason is that most European wineries are small family-owned estates many of whom lack proper facilities for receiving visitors. In the New World, where the average winery size is much larger, tasting rooms are the norm for most and the facilities offered are much greater. Also, if you travel in California wine regions, it’s almost standard practice to pay for tastings; in Europe, this remains the exception rather than the rule.

Last month at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Lisbon, sponsored by Wines of Portugal along with a host of others, I was part of a panel debating Wine Tourism and Social Media. Much of the debate was taken up with how wine travel in the New World and the Old World differ. Our panel was moderated by American Amy Lillard who owns the small southern France wine producer La Gramière, and she voiced that wine bloggers (and I would add travel bloggers) need to make sure their readers appreciate these differences.

Busy California tasting room ©Brett Jones

Wine tourism has been raised to a fine art or perhaps you could say an industry in New World wine regions, led by California and South Africa. Tasting rooms, shops, a range of options for vineyard and winery tours, picnic areas and children’s facilities may be just some of the offerings, usually at a price. In the Old World, if the wine producer has time to be there and you can communicate sufficiently in each others’ language, you might have the experience of a lifetime with a personal tasting and tour all at no charge. But arguably, there’s a hidden cost. Amy pointed out rightly that small family wineries are often too busy in the winery or the vineyards, or even delivering wines to customers, to be able to look after someone who is simply visiting for the experience of tasting wines in their place of production. You may not have to pay for tasting in the Old World but there might be no dedicated tasting room staff or tasting room, and the producers might simply not have time to receive you. It’s a dilemma that we at Wine Travel Guides try to address by recommending on our guides only producers who welcome independent wine travellers; in most cases we suggest that you make an advance appointment to visit.

Europe is beginning to change slowly as it starts to embrace wine tourism more fully, but many wine producers still believe that the reason for welcoming wine tourists is to sell wine. Anthony Swift of Wine Pleasures, who organises wine tourism events and group tours in Spain, asserts that producers should learn to separate completely the idea of welcoming tourists for a visit from the act of selling wine, and he tries to encourage wineries where he brings groups to accept payment. My brother is in aviation, has may planes, we’ve been fortunate to travel by small plane to these great vineyards. I totally agree and know that for the independent wine tourist, travelling home by plane, it’s obvious they cannot buy wine at the time, though it’s true if they are given an easy contact to follow up they may well source the same wine they tasted when they get back home.

Bordeaux tasting by appointment ©Brett Jones

It’s only recently that wine producers in Europe have started to look at the wider picture of wine tourism and to treat it as a good public relations activity for not only their own winery, but for their wine region too. Nevertheless, the facilities needed to welcome visitors properly cost money and even more, so does the time for someone to host visitors, and not all producers have this money available. Sunday openings are rare in Europe as family-owned producers use this day to catch up with paperwork and things at home including spending precious time with the next generation of wine producers. To pay for someone to look after the tasting room on a Sunday would also be considerable.

In many New World wine regions, especially California, and in a few in Europe, notably Champagne and more recently Bordeaux, it’s become normal to pay to taste the wines. In some of these wineries, there is a sensible policy that if you buy wine at the winery tasting room/shop (and in Europe this isn’t always possible at high-end wineries), they will refund the tasting fee. On the other hand, traditional wine producers in Europe are worried that they will put off visitors who might be potential buyers, as they have never before levied a charge, so they are still reluctant to do so. In my view, by paying for a tasting, a wine tourist helps contribute to the wine producer’s time, the cost of the facilities and the wines tasted. And, as long as there’s no dumbing down of the welcome and someone who really knows the wines and the winery is there to taste with you and show you around, then a small charge with longer opening hours can only be a good thing for both wine producers and wine tourists.

So, over to you, do you think European family-owned wineries should charge for tasting? And if so, how much on average? Please visit our Facebook page and participate in the poll (you need to become a fan first), and if you have any comments, I would welcome them here.

We have more than 500 recommended European wine producers on Wine Travel Guides who are ready to receive visitors, though many insist on advance appointments. Few currently charge. You can cruise around the site to find them when planning your next wine tour and we provide their visiting hours. To have full access to print the PDF guides you need to join as a Gold Member, and Membership makes an ideal Gift for a wine lover planning a trip to Europe in 2010.

Thanks for reading over the past year and I wish you a fine finish to 2009 and happy planning of your Wine Travels for 2010!

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The French Giant Wakes up to Wine Tourism

October 12, 2009

By Wink Lorch

The Languedoc-Roussillon, also referred to as ‘Le Midi’, has long been known in France as a giant wine producing region, source of a mass of everyday table wines. But in the past 25 years there’s been an important revolution in the region, which continues today in a more urgent manner as sales of cheap and not-so-cheerful French wines decline both at home and abroad. There are now scores of wineries making excellent wines in the region, which stretches from Montpellier in the east to south of Perpignan and the Spanish border. The region has grouped all its appellation and Vin de Pays wines together recently for marketing under the Sud de France banner.

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Aniane ©Mick Rock

Mas de Daumas Gassac © Mick Rock

On a visit to the south nearly 20 years ago, I saw the first signs of wine tourism emerging in the region with visits to the California-inspired Skalli winery and the boutique winery Mas de Daumas Gassac; on a visit at the end of last month, I witnessed modern wine tourism in practice at Château l’Hospitalet. What impressed me two decades ago at Skalli was being able to walk through an immaculate working winery that was transforming what used to be undrinkable wine into perfectly pleasant varietal Vin de Pays wines. At Mas de Daumas Gassac, it was being able to tour the stunning vineyards with the inimitable owner, Aimé Guibert and then taste the wines with him in what I recall being a sweet little tasting room, complete with photos and soil samples.

Château l’Hospitalet is one of several Languedoc enterprises where wine tourism has been taken to a new level for France, one which I think is worth emulating by mid-sized wineries in many wine regions of Europe. Two things help Château l’Hospitalet: firstly it has a gorgeous situation nestling amongst 82 hectares (200 acres) of vines, which you can walk through to enjoy a stunning view to the Mediterranean, just 10km away; secondly, its owner is a giant of a man with great ambition, Gérard Bertrand, not just the son of a vigneron, but someone with contacts and influence in many fields, having proved himself first off the vineyard as a team player for the French national rugby team. Bertrand is a believer in both the quality potential of Languedoc wines and in the importance of wine tourism as a way of demonstrating to wine drinkers the connection of the land with the taste of the wines.

Château l'Hospitalet ©Wink Lorch

Château l'Hospitalet ©Wink Lorch

Bertrand owns no less than five wine estates in the Languedoc-Roussillon: Domaine de Villemajou in Corbières; Château Laville Bertrou in Minervois; Domaine de l’Aigle in Limoux, one of the highest altitude Languedoc vineyards, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay both do very well; Domaine Cigalus, near Corbières, but classified as a Vin de Pays giving greater flexibility – this is where Bertrand lives with his family and he is currently converting the vineyard from standard organic viticulture to biodynamic methods; and finally the main wine tourism centre, Château l’Hospitalet, situated outside Narbonne in the Languedoc sub-appellation named La Clape after the small range of hills just in from the coast where it located.

Wine Writer, Oz Clarke with the Mediterranean behind him ©Wink Lorch

Wine Writer Oz Clarke in vines on the Mediterranean ©Wink Lorch

Two days of events put on for a British wine journalist/trade group including Oz Clarke, Giles Fallowfield, myself and a dozen others kept us busy with a couple of strenuous hours’ grape picking at Cigalus and several serious tastings where we sampled a large number of the better wines from Bertrand’s range. I was drawn especially to the Château l’Hospitalet La Clape wines, surely not influenced by us staying there, but you never know. The Château Hospitalet white in particular, made from Bourboulenc, Vermentino and Grenache Blanc was deliciously dry, with a freshness from the sea air perhaps, and herbal characters reminiscent of the Mediterranean garrigue (scrubland) surrounding the vineyards.

Château l’Hospitalet has a hotel, a restaurant, several craft workshops selling local goods and a large wine shop, where visitors can taste and buy the complete range of Gérard Bertrand wines as well as some local food specialities. Surrounded by the vineyards as well as acres of scrubland and pine forests, the recently renovated hotel makes an attractive and useful base for wine visitors. The modern restaurant and bar offer jazz evenings and there is a 3-day jazz festival with international stars each summer. L’Hospitalet is particularly suitable for groups too, for whom special wine seminars and events can be arranged.

Richard James, based in the region, knows much more about the region than I do and his six travel guides on the Languedoc- Roussillon will point you in the direction of the most welcoming Languedoc wine estates to visit. The region is well worth exploring as are the Sud de France wines.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Gérard Bertrand at Château l’Hospitalet for a harvest weekend.

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