The Grande Dame of the Valais or Things aren’t always what they seem

Even though I can’t participate in the 2014 DWCC because of a scheduling conflict, I’d like to make a small contribution to help ramp up the excitement leading up to the event, so here’s a story about one of my trips to Switzerland twenty years ago, when I learned a valuable lesson about the wine business.

It was the mid-1990s, a time of uncertainty in the European wine trade because of several scandals involving illegal additives to wine. Because of the potential risks involved in selling bulk wine, Rioja made the decision to bottle 100% of its production inside the ‘denominación de origen’ and Porto made, or was about to make, the same decision, in this case, backed up by a government decree. Switzerland had been the leading purchaser of bulk Rioja because customs duties and taxes were lower for bulk than bottled wine and it was my job as managing director of the Rioja Wine Exporters’ Association to promote bottled Rioja. So we agreed on a plan to put Rioja’s bottled at source brands front and center to the Swiss wine trade and consumers.

Education was an important part of the plan so the first year we invited the wine lecturers of the major Swiss hotel and restaurant schools to visit us. The following year we began to offer seminars to the students in those schools. The idea was for me to give introductory lectures after which the local lecturers would add ‘Rioja’ to the curricula in the schools.

The lecturers decided to reciprocate for our having taught them about Rioja by inviting me to visit some Swiss wineries. One of these trips was to the Valais region, southeast of Lake Leman. We arrived at a pretty Swiss chalet in the mountains near Fully and went inside the garage under the house. We were greeted by a woman who showed us her winery (located inside the garage) that consisted of some polyester fermentation and storage tanks,  a manual filling device and some cases stacked in a corner.

I thought, “Why did they bring me here?” I was used to big wineries with huge stainless steel vats and row after row of barriques. Our hostess opened a several bottles of wine and gave us a plate of bread and cheese, at which time we went to the garden and sat at a picnic table for a wine and cheese-fuelled snack.

The wines and cheese were good but I couldn’t help wondering “Why did they bring me here?”

Shortly afterward, a big black BMW with Zurich number plates pulled up to the garage. Four guys in suits got out of the car and our hostess went to meet them. “Bankers”, I thought. One of the lecturers took my arm and beckoned for me to follow him to the garage. “Watch this”, he said.

While we looked on, our hostess poured a small glass of wine for each suit. They thoughtfully sniffed, swirled and sipped. The men asked to buy some cases of wine, whereupon our hostess remarked, “Now I know you. Fill out this form and next year I’ll sell you a case.”

I was speechless. My lecturer friend pointed out that our hostess was Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, one of the most famous winemakers in Switzerland whose wines were in such short supply and great demand that they were sold on allocation.

marietheresedetendueMarie-Thérèse Chappaz

(Credit:  vinsconfederes.ch)

The story doesn’t end here. Marie-Thérèse later showed us her vineyards on the steep slope of a nearby mountain. To harvest the grapes, the winery had installed cables attached to metal boxes to bring them down the slope to the winery.

Several years later during a wine marketing lecture to a group in the Canary Islands I told the story to a winemaker whose vineyards were on the side of a steep hill. I put him in touch with Marie-Thérèse. Later I heard that he had installed a similar rig in his mountainside vineyard.

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard. (Credit 2012 UniversDitvin)

The cables leading down the mountainside from the vineyard.
(Credit 2012 Univers Ditvin)

It was my first glimpse at marketing low volume, high demand garage wines and I’ve never forgotten it. I tell the story to all my wine marketing students as a lesson about how to create demand in a crowded marketplace.

Even though I won’t be able to attend the 2014 DWCC, I hope the attendees have the opportunity to take a field trip to Fully in the Valais to meet Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. You won’t regret it.

Marie-Thérèse Chappaz

La Liaudizaz

CH-1926 Fully

www.chappaz.ch (the site is currently being revamped)

 

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The best wine job in the world

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On January 2, some very good friends who are also well connected wine buffs visiting from Miami invited my wife and me on a field trip deep into enemy territory – the heart of Ribera del Duero.  It was unthinkable to refuse because our destination was Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most iconic winery, practically impossible to visit unless one is a distributor or an A-list journalist. Our hostess was the very knowledgeable, very charming export director, Puri Mancebo, who must have the best wine job in the world.

Puri Mancebo

Puri Mancebo

Puri, armed with a degree in economics, found the job at the winery while working as an economist at the Spanish Embassy Commercial Office in Sofia, Bulgaria.  After several years there, she figured it was time to move back to Spain.  During her search, one of the companies that contacted her was Vega Sicilia.  They told her to take her time – she could call them once she had returned to Spain.  To make a long story short, she got the job –  with the parent company – who sent her for a year to Hungary to develop international sales at Oremus, the group’s winery in Tokaj.  Puri says that the company must have figured, “if she lasts here, she’s the right person for the job at Vega Sicilia”, and so it was.

It was her first job in the wine business and she dove in headfirst, acquiring an impressive wine education that would allow her to speak with authority to the company’s customers and consumers around the world.

Puri doesn’t sell wine per se – it’s already been presold to longstanding customers with a yearly allocation. Her job is to meet customers, give tastings and host wine dinners around the world, a job that keeps her away from home 60% of the year. It’s a demanding job but obviously worth it.

The process of allocating bottles to customers fascinated us, so Puri explained how it worked.  We thought that the winery directly assigned a given number of bottles to each distributor every year but that’s not exactly true. Customers have the first word. Every January the winery sends out an allocation letter with the numbers left blank.  The distributor fills them in based on their expectations The winery juggles the figures based on available inventory, and, I suppose, past performance.

For any winery, this might seem to be an ideal situation, but one has to remember that it took the winery over one hundred years to cultivate this image, so patience is required.

Oak vinification tanks for Vega Sicilia 'Único'

Oak vinification tanks for Vega Sicilia ‘Único’

For me, a visit to any winery outside Rioja inevitably inspires comparison with how things are done in Rioja.  There were a lot of things different about Vega Sicilia.

The first thing that came to mind was the fact that the winery had lived in a vacuum in the Duero valley for most of its 150 year history, so it wrote its own rules about grape varieties, winemaking and aging rather than having to adopt rules made by others. In fact, when the DO Ribera del Duero was founded in 1982, the grape varieties authorized were the ones cultivated at Vega and the winery was no doubt the nucleus around which the DO Ribera del Duero was created.  Curiously, some of the wineries founded in the area chose not to join Ribera (Bodegas Mauro and Abadía Retuerta are probably the best-known) but rather joined ‘Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla-León’ when changes in the Spanish wine law made it possible to create new designations that allowed wineries not in the DO system to put vintages and grape varieties on their labels. Before that time, either you belonged to a DO, A DOCa like Rioja or you were a ‘vino de mesa’, in other words, a table wine, synonymous with plonk. For some wineries, the DO system was seen to be too rigid and intrusive.  If any winery in Spain could have gone solo it was Vega Sicilia, but to its credit, it joined the DO. This doesn’t appear to have affected its style one bit.

Another difference about Vega Sicilia is that grapes from each of its 85 vineyards are vinified separately.  For Puri, the essence of the winemaker’s skill is “the art of blending”.  No single vineyard or single varietal wines here.  In this respect, Vega is like Rioja in the old days.

There are 19 different soil types on the estate, ranging from those in hillside vineyards to others near the Duero river.  As a general rule, the vineyards between 35 and 70 years old produce grapes destined to become ‘Unico’ while those from 20 to 35 years old produce Valbuena.

The grapes meant for ‘Valbuena’, the winery’s second label, are vinified in stainless steel tanks while those destined to become Vega Sicilia ‘Único’ and ‘Único Reserva Especial’ are vinified in 19 oak vats.

State of the art winemaking technology is visible all over the winery.  Puri explained that there are mushroom-like devices on top of the malolactic fermentation vats so the winemaking team can see if malo has finished.  I also saw a device I had never seen before:  an elevator that takes  a tank from one floor to the other to avoid the ‘stress’ produced on the juice by pumping it over the cap during fermentation.  Only three of these ‘elevator tanks’ are in use in the wine world today:  one at Cos d’Estournel in the Médoc, one in California and this one.

the vat elevator

the vat elevator

A striking difference between Vega Sicilia and Rioja is how the wines are aged.  At Vega Sicilia, after malo, the wines are aged for a short time in 225-liter barriques, followed by more prolonged aging in large oak vats, then bottling. The vat stage allows the different wines to blend together. In Rioja, wineries almost always bottled directly after long aging in small barriques.

Vega Sicilia’s deep pockets allow it to replace these large vats, which are built on-site after five or six years.  The Rioja wineries that use large oak vats for fermentation make a big deal about the fact that  vat coopers are few and far between in the world, so accessibility to them is limited to a select few wineries.  This doesn’t appear to be a problem at Vega Sicilia.

The Valbuena is aged in oak for three years and for an additional two years in the bottle before release, while ‘Unico’ is aged in oak for 6½ years and a further four years in the bottle.

one of the barrel cellars at the winery

one of the barrel cellars at the winery

Único Reserva Especial, a blend of the last three vintages of Único’, is released 15 years after the harvest and according to Puri, only sold in magnums.  Only 15.000 bottles are released.

bottle aging in metal cages, called 'jaulones'

bottle aging in metal cages, called ‘jaulones’

 

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Following our tour of the winery we went to the family home surrounded by vineyards, which is now used for corporate events.  We tasted the Valbuena 2009, to be released in March and the Único’ 2005, which will be released in 2015.

the founder's family home, now used for corporate events

the founder’s family home, now used for corporate events

My tasting notes (with a slightly diminished sense of smell and taste after two weeks of nonstop holiday partying):

Valbuena 2009.  80% tempranillo, 20% merlot and malbec.

Medium black cherry, plummy, a little tar.  Well-balanced.

Fresh acidity, elegant tannin, long.

Vega Sicilia Único 2005.  80% tempranillo, 20% cabernet sauvignon.

Black cherry with a brick meniscus.  Nose closed at first, opening up to lush cherry and plums with vibrant acidity, perfect balance and elegant tannins.

What struck me the most about these two wines was how perfectly balanced they were – no sharp edges anywhere.

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I wondered, however, if I would have identified them as coming from Vega Sicilia if they were in a blind tasting with other wines from Ribera del Duero.  Of course they were very good but there are, of course, lots of other very good wines from this region. One’s expectations are high when tasting iconic wines if you’re looking at the labels or at least know what brand you’re tasting.

My prior experience with Vega Sicilia was limited to a bottle of Único consumed, of all places, at a picnic in the country with some friends in the mid 1970s and two bottles with some colleagues from the wine business at a restaurant in Osaka, Japan (if my memory serves me).  This last experience is worth elaborating on. We looked at the wine list and noticed that the wines were inexpensively priced, so we ordered and drank two bottles of Único.  Later, we asked the owner why the wines were so cheap.  He explained that he wanted to encourage people to drink wine so he sold them at cost!  Wouldn’t it be nice if more restaurants did that!

I wondered what the current retail prices for Valbuena and Único were so I looked in the Vila Viniteca (a fine wine shop) website in Barcelona.

Valbuena 2008 (75 cl):  95,60 euros/bottle.

Vega Sicilia Único 2003 (75cl):  236,90 euros/bottle

Único Reserva Especial 1994 – a blend of 1970, 1972 and 1974.  (75cl) 740 euros/bottle.

 

 

Bodegas Vidular – a surfer has a go at the wine business

This story starts in a hospital in Santander. While in the waiting room I struck up a conversation with a man who told me that his son had a winery in the area.  I was under the impression that Cantabria was the only region in Spain where no grapes were grown, but this man told me that there were two areas that had recently begun to grow them: Liébana  in the far west of the province near Asturias, and the east coast.

Several years later I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines from the eastern coastal region at a wine fair in Santander and was impressed by the interest of a small group of wine lovers who were willing to invest in a business that to me was plagued by oversupply, low prices and excessive regulation.  But I never bothered to enquire further.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were invited by Ken Baldwin from Totally Spain, a travel agency based near Santander, to one of the wineries in Cantabria, Bodegas Vidular, for a visit to the vineyards, a tasting and lunch. It was an unforgettable experience.

Bodegas Vidular restaurant and tasting room

Bodegas Vidular restaurant and tasting room

Bodegas Vidular is the brainchild of the Durán family, originally from Bilbao, with experience in the wine distribution business.  We met Mikel Durán at one of the company’s vineyards on the outskirts of Noja, one of Cantabria’s most popular resort towns.  Here, he explained that grapes and wine had been produced in Cantabria until the early 19th century but its resurgence had been very recent.  Vidular, along with five other wineries created a ‘vino de la tierra’ with the designation ‘Costa de Cantabria’. Mikel said that Vidular had no intention of joining a denominación de origen  because the rules regarding grape varieties were too strict and would stifle their attempts to see what varieties would work best given the climate and soils of the area. They’re right.

Mikel Duran at his Noja vineyard

Mikel Duran at his Noja vineyard

The company has a total of nine hectares of vines in three vineyards:  Noja, Castillo (a nearby village) and Vidular, about 15 kilometers south of the coast at an altitude of 500 meters.  The winery has planted the white varieties albariño, chardonnay, treixadura, gewürztraminer and godello and more recently, pinot noir.

Cantabria, with its rich clay soil and rainy climate nine months a year is not a place where you would predict grapes would produce quality wine, but for that matter, neither the coast in the Basque Country, but txakolí is selling like hot cakes.  Mikel explained that the Noja vineyard was planted in an old quarry, so there’s a base of limestone, good soil for growing grapes.  Another smaller producer recently told me that he had trucked in some ‘poor’ soil for his small vineyard.

The topic of soil fertility came up at the second vineyard we visited.  Here, the family had laid down a semipermeable mat under the vines to allow rainwater to seep through but would stop weeds and other plants from sprouting up.

Semipermeable mat to protect against aggressive undergrowth

Semipermeable mat to protect against aggressive undergrowth

These up-front investments reminded me of the fundamental question about the wine business:

Question:  How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?

Answer:  By starting with a large fortune.

The wines are sold in mainly in Cantabria and a few other places around Spain, as well as in Germany and even Japan.  We got a big kick out of hearing Mikel’s story about the sale to Japan.  He’s a surfer, like a lot of people living on the coast here, and was featured in a story in a Japanese magazine about ‘The Life of Surfers over Forty’.  Mikel mentioned that his family had a winery and a reader sent him a 100 case order.

Wine tourism, however, is where Mikel wants to devote his energy.  As we were standing beside the Noja vineyard, he pointed to the long line of cars going to the beach and mused about building a small tasting room and shop there.

Following a quick stop at the Castillo vineyard, we took a beautiful drive up a mountain to the winery and vineyards.  The family bought and restored an old farmhouse that they originally planned to use as a country hotel, but finally decided to turn into a tasting room and restaurant to entertain groups of wine tourists.  Our first stop was the small but functional winery built next to the farmhouse where we tasted the company’s two brands, the white Ribera del Asón and Cantábricus with some tapas prepared by chef Mario Armesilla.

One of the delicious tapas served before our meal

One of the delicious tapas served before our meal

Since the meal was the highlight of the visit I didn’t make detailed tasting notes for the wines but can say that they were very tasty, showing intense tropical fruit aromas, and vibrant acidity.

It’s tempting to make a comparison with txakolí, the popular white wine produced in the Basque provinces of Álava, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa, but the wines from the Costa de Cantabria had a personality of their own.  While most of the producers of txakolí from Guipúzcoa favored the traditional low alcohol, slightly fizzy, prone to give you a headache style that is served in bars by pouring the wine from two feet above the glass to aerate it, much like Spanish sidra (hard cider), the Vizcaya style is an attempt to compete with whites such as Rueda.  Vidular was somewhere in the middle.  I thought it benefited from a little aeration, but was definitely on the serious side.

Ribera del Asón white 2012. Albariño and chardonnay.

Ribera del Asón white 2012.
Albariño and chardonnay.

As a matter of fact, there’s been quite a controversy about the appropriation by the Basques of the word txakolí (or chacolí).  According to wine historians, wines called chacolí used to be produced both in Cantabria and the north of the province of Burgos, east of Rioja. In Burgos, the wines are still locally known as chacolí, but not in Cantabria.

The wines from the Costa de Cantabria aren’t widely available outside the region themselves and at least in the case of Vidular, the Durán family is not in a hurry. In the wine business, the slow and steady approach is the safest route to success.