What can Rioja learn from wine tourism in Australia?

 

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We recently spent three weeks in Australia to attend the annual meeting of the Great Wine Capitals Global Network. It was a week of meetings and visits to wineries in South Australia.

The second reason for the trip was to visit Western Australia, especially Margaret River, to experience the wine tourism offer there.

It wasn’t our first trip to the Australian wine country. In 2005 we spent a week in and around Melbourne visiting the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula. Our feeling however was that wine tourism had evolved in 13 years and we wanted to check it out.

While in Perth we were fortunate to attend an open air Western Australian wine fair where we tasted wines from most of the wineries in the region. It was a fast, efficient overview of their wine offer. Our friends from Perth made lots of recommendations and pointed us to Howard Park in Margaret River, which had not been on our radar but turned out to be one of the highlights of our tour.

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We visited the Swan Valley, Perth Hills and Margaret River in Western Australia; Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia and the Bellarine peninsula in Victoria.

Coonawara in South Australia was also on the list but our flight was unexpectedly cancelled. We were disappointed but we’ll go next time.

Wineries we visited:

Swan Valley: Sandalford and Houghton

Perth Hills: Brookside Vineyards

Margaret River: Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Xanadu, Vasse Felix, and Howard Park.

Adelaide Hills: Penfolds Magill Estate, Pike and Joyce, Longwood

Barossa: Yalumba, Hentley Farm, Seppeltsfield

McLaren Vale: Beresford Estate

Bellarine Peninsula: Jackrabbit Winery

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The cellar door and café at Jackrabbit Winery in the Bellarine Peninsula (the restaurant was closed for a wedding reception)

I don’t consider these wineries to be a representative sample of Australian wine tourism experiences. In fact, several friends in the wine business (from the UK, Hong Kong and Australia) and our friends in Perth and Melbourne recommended them to us specifically for their excellent wines and wineries.

That said, our main conclusions from these visits were:

  1. A cellar door (Australian for ‘tasting room’) with an enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff, several tasting options and the possibility for visitors to purchase wine and have it shipped, was a constant in all the wineries.

Most of the wineries we visited only sell their brands in a few Asian markets.  For us and other foreign visitors, visiting cellar doors was a great exposure to some fantastic pours that we could not purchase at home.

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The cellar door at Cape Mentelle in Margaret River

Cellar doors are not just an employee, a few bottles, a spittoon and a price list. They’re the centerpiece of the winery and are designed with utmost care. It surprised us to read in the James Halliday Wine Companion that the cellar door at Howard Park had been designed following the principles of feng shui. I’m sure this fact was not lost on the Chinese wine tourists who visit Australia.

Beyond the cellar door, the public exhibition areas at Penfold’s and Seppeltsfield were spectacular, as would be expected at these iconic properties. But they were the exception, not the rule.

2.  The wineries’ main objective was to encourage tasting and purchase. The option to join the winery’s club, providing opportunities to receive the newsletter, take advantage of special offers and members-only tastings are means to facilitate loyalty to the winery and its brands.

3.  Winery restaurants are popular, with great menu options. We were surprised to discover that these restaurants were packed, even in the middle of the week in Margaret River, a three hour drive from Perth. The food was without exception very good. In fact, at Voyager Estate, the head chef, Santiago Fernández (from Galicia in northwestern Spain) won the 2018 award for the top regional chef in the latest Western Australia Good Food Guide.

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The restaurant at Voyager Estate

In spite of its distance from Perth, Margaret River has done a great job marketing itself as a wine tourism destination. This accomplishment is even more amazing when you consider that Perth itself is one of the most isolated capital cities in the world and that the first wine estate in Margaret River – Vasse Felix – was only founded in 1967.

4.  The transportation infrastructure is well developed and caters to a wide range of consumers, especially in the Swan Valley near Perth. You can join a party bus – great for bachelor and hen parties, organize a chauffeured van or a limo with your friends, take a gourmet tour that includes visits to wineries, breweries and chocolate factories or even take a winery cruise down the Swan River from Perth City.

You can drive to Margaret River, but the area is also accessible by bus, train or a combination of the two. Once you arrive, numerous tour companies compete to take you on a standard, deluxe or customized tour.

Our first day of winery visits in Margaret River was with a tour company. We told them where we wanted to go and they called in advance to make the appointments for us.  Our driver, the owner of the company, was a treasure trove of knowledge about the region. We were able to visit four cellar doors and enjoyed a great meal at Voyager Estate.

On our second day of touring Margaret River, we drove ourselves, around visiting two wineries, with lunch at one (Vasse Felix). Even though you have more freedom driving yourself, I don’t recommend driving and tasting unless you have a designated driver. We could have tasted more, especially at Howard Park, so having a driver is essential.

5.  Wineries don’t always show the entire winery, although it’s an option for premium visitors.

What messages can we offer Rioja after our Australian wine tourism experience?

From the winery’s point of view, winery tourism is meant to create loyalty to the company and its brands. The Australian emphasis on the cellar door and direct purchase of wine leads me to believe that this could be given a higher priority at Rioja wineries. A typical Rioja winery tour takes you through the whole winemaking process – crush, destemming, fermentation, tank ageing, barrel ageing and bottle ageing. The tasting, often a bottle of red and one of white sitting on an upturned barrel, with little or no introduction from a greeter is at the end of the visit. In Australia, the order is taste first, then visit the winery if the consumer is interested in a tour and one is available (Australian industry statistics indicate that tours are not popular). In my view, Rioja wineries invest a lot of time and money showing tourists the winery with no idea if the investment will pay off in terms of sales.

Currently in Rioja there are more than 600 wineries, many recently founded with little history and an unspectacular physical plant. This discourages them from opening to wine tourists. But many of them, to paraphrase the rock group Three Dog Night, “have some mighty fine wine”. These wineries could open a tasting room even if they can’t offer a tour. It will undoubtedly get them visibility and some extra income.

Another important weakness in Rioja is transportation infrastructure, not necessarily how to get here, but how to get around once you’re here. The Rioja region is a similar distance from Madrid as Margaret River is from Perth (4 hours by car), by bus or train, with more or less the same intensity of public transportation. And Haro is only an hour from Bilbao, so getting here is not that much of a problem.

I always have trouble finding, much less recommending, a good Rioja tour operator.

Private enterprise here seems to be hesitant about taking the risk to start a wine tour business. Maybe it’s because individuals find it hard to compete with regional governments that offer wine tourism services at bargain prices. But the fact that over 800,000 tourists visited La Rioja in 2017 is a powerful incentive for entrepreneurs to start  wine tour companies.  But until then, the best option for wine tourists in Rioja will be to drive themselves around.

Winery restaurants? We have a few, but in my opinion, we don’t need many more to attract wine tourists.  Rioja offers a wide choice of affordable restaurants serving delicious food throughout our wine country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

The ‘Best Of’ Wine Tourism awards

BestOf color_editWine tourism is starting to jump in Rioja.  After years of thinking that opening to tourists was an unnecessary expense, winery owners here have finally realized that it’s not only a great way to sell wine but also to build relationships with  customers and teach them about wine culture.  This is especially important in Spain, where per capita consumption of wine is decreasing year after year and young people show little interest in our product.

Enter the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, made up of Bilbao/Rioja, Bordeaux, Cape Town, Firenze, Mainz/Rheinhessen, Mendoza, Porto and San Francisco/Napa Valley.  Founded in 1999,  one of its aims is to promote tourism, especially wine tourism, among its members.   The Network created the ‘Best Of’ wine tourism awards in 2004 to honor the best wine tourism initiatives in several categories.  Each member city organizes its local award contest, with the winners in each category competing among themselves for the international awards.

The awards have been a huge success, drawing a lot of attention, both to the winners and to the network.

Bilbao/Rioja celebrated its 2010 ‘Best Of’ winners at aceremony held at the historic Citadel in Pamplona on October 1.

The winners are:

Accommodation:  Hotel Hospedería Villa de Ábalos (http://www.hotelvilladeabalos.com

Architecture, Parks and Gardens:  Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España (http://www.cvne.com)

Art and Culture:  Finca Valpiedra (http://www.familiamartinezbujanda.com)

Innovative Experiences and Sustainable Wine Tourism Practices:  Bodegas Muga (http://www.bodegasmuga.com)

Restaurant: Remenetxe (http://www.remenetxe.com)

Winery Tourism Services: Rioja Alavesa Wine Route (http://www.rutadelvinoderiojaalavesa.com)

The international winners will be announced at an awards ceremony during the annual meeting of the network in Bordeaux on November 1.

For more information about the Great Wine Capitals Global Network, follow this link:

http://www.greatwinecapitals.com