Two weeks ago the doors opened for the 31st edition of the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers. In recent years this has been a salon in decline, with falling exhibitor numbers, despite being a flagship wine event for the region. Much has been made of the arrival of Vinovision in Paris – the 1st ever edition opened its doors one week after the Salon des Vins de Loire – and what role this new salon might have to play. I was one of very few wine writers to attend both salons.
The Salon des Vins de Loire was first held in 1987, and has been held in every year since then. Not even the devastating frost of 1991, which saw yields and incomes slashed, could deter the organisers. Despite this, in recent years the salon has certainly been in decline. I have read that in its hey-day there were typically 700 exhibitors (although I have to wonder how you could squeeze that many into the Parc des Expositions in Angers). I have been attending for nine of those 31 years, and up until four or five years ago the exhibitors would pack out the Grand Palais, a huge exhibition hall, as well as a smaller entrance hall on one side. In recent years, however, the shrinking numbers of exhibitors has been obvious; famous names (such as Henri Bourgeois, Château de Tracy, Domaine Huet and others, as well as many of the big négociants and Saumur sparkling wine houses) were no longer present, and false walls brought in from the side of the hall kept everybody packed together, staving off the feeling that the fair was haemorrhaging support. From 400 exhibitors last year, this year the number plummeted to 230 domaines. The smaller entrance hall was closed off, and the false walls moved in a little further. On the upside, the Salon des Vins de Loire now also incorporates La Levée de la Loire, featuring organic and biodynamic growers, where there were 230 exhibitors, as well as a Demeter exhibition (which I confess I didn’t even find during my visit).
Much has been made of the arrival of Vinovision but it is clear to me that the Salon des Vins de Loire was in decline long before this new salon in Paris saw the light of day. There are I suspect many contributing factors to its decline. First, there are the competing ‘off’ salons including Les Anonymes, Les Pénitentes (Puzelat, Mosse and friends), La Dive Bouteille in Saumur and the Renaissance tasting in the Grenier and Hôpital Saint Jean (Nicolas Joly, Mark Angeli and friends). There is no doubt that these salons have a draw that to many visitors is stronger than that of the Salon des Vins de Loire, and I know of some writers and cavistes who visit Angers and tour only these salons, without ever stepping foot in the Parc des Expositions. Secondly, there is cost; a stand at the Salon des Vins de Loire is expensive, and if exhibitors don’t feel there is an adequate footfall and generation of trade, they will stay away. This was the reason Jean-Marie Bourgeois gave me for quitting the Salon des Vins de Loire the very last time he exhibited (basically, too expensive, not enough visitors). Thirdly these are pressing times financially, and this is a problem that will continue to have an impact over the next couple of years. Many different regions have been hit by difficult vintages during my nine years of attending the Salon des Vins de Loire, but in 2016 almost everybody was affected by the frost. If you have little/no wine to sell, and books that have to be balanced, an expensive stand at the Salon des Vins de Loire suddenly becomes a frivolous expense.
Vinovision is a latecomer in this story, and although it would be easy to blame the precipitous decline in Salon des Vins de Loire exhibitors on this new fair it is worth remembering that Vinovision was created principally with the support of Loire vignerons as a response to the deteriorating situation at the Salon des Vins de Loire. The fair combines the Loire Valley, a region of minor interest for many international wine buyers, with an attractive array of exhibitors from Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy and Jura. And it is based in Paris, which to an international buyer might feel easier to get to than Angers (although from my point of view travelling to either Angers or Paris is pretty straightforward – in each case it’s a plane, then a train). The Vinovision publicity material boasted over 360 exhibitors, and my search for who to visit from the Loire Valley pulled out over 260 names, so it was certainly a popular choice for many. The fee for a very small 3-metre by 2-metre stand was, I was told, €3000 compared to a similar sum for admittedly a larger stand at the Salon des Vins de Loire (or just €300 for a table in La Levée de la Loire). Because the purported focus of Vinovision is international export, however, exhibitors qualify for financial support from local authorities, and so it ends up being less expensive to exhibit at Vinovision than at the Salon des Vins de Loire.
Having attended both salons, neither were crammed. Both salons started on Sunday, finishing on Tuesday. The Salon des Vins de Loire would usually run from Monday to Wednesday, and the reason why the start day has moved to Sunday, creating a clash with the Renaissance and other ‘off’ salons, is not known to me. On the first day of the Salon des Vins de Loire the aisles were reminiscent of the streets of London’s derelict East End in the video for Ghost Town (1981), by the 2 Tone band The Specials. I could have driven a 1962 Vauxhall Cresta down them with my eyes closed without fear of hitting anybody. Monday, by contrast, was very busy, while Tuesday was quieter again. The Angers Expo Congrès claimed “close to 8,500 visitors” which is remarkably close to normal figures, a considerable surprise. Of these La Levée de la Loire (within the Salon des Vins de Loire) drew 3059 visitors in two days (Monday and Tuesday), an impressive contribution. As for Vinovision, this fair was also very quiet on Sunday (it seems to me Sunday-starts aren’t a good idea), picking up on Monday, and was also quieter on Tuesday. While I have not seen any figures for Vinovision, I am sure visitor numbers must have been lower than at the Salon des Vins de Loire. Despite being crammed into a smaller hall, with tightly-packed stands, it never felt as busy here.
For the moment then, the Salon des Vins de Loire will I suspect continue to decline. It (presumably) remains expensive, and I feel it has failed (or been unable) to adapt to the needs of the vignerons, or to evolve in a way that kept it in pole position in the salon race. Vinovision may have started small but it has a cost advantage and an ‘international’ mutli-region draw to it. Meanwhile the low yields in 2016 will act as a financial deterrent for another year, at least, this effect presumably more significant for the more expensive salons. Leading viticulteurs such as the Luneau-Papin family, Eric Morgat and Philippe Alliet will continue to push for the Salon des Vins de Loire and support it, and the 2018 edition is pencilled in for February 4th, 5th and 6th (a Sunday start again I note). With stronger vintages in 2017 and 2018 (fingers crossed) perhaps we will see those domaines staying away because of the very difficult 2016 vintage, such as Anne-Charlotte Genet of Charles Joguet, return?
Whatever happens with future vintages, I hope that everybody involved, not only those directly involved in the Salon des Vins de Loire but also those who prefer to show their wines at an ‘off’ salon, work together to keep this flagship event viable. If the Loire Valley loses the Salon des Vins de Loire, an event unparalleled anywhere else in the world of wine, everybody in the region – including all the organic and biodynmiac vignerons who prefer to set up stall in those ‘off’ salons – will inevitably lose out.