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Ronan Laborde, UGCB President

Ronan Laborde, the proprietor of Château Clinet in Pomerol, and of course the creator of Ronan by Clinet, has been elected to the office of president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). He replaces the outgoing Olivier Bernard, of Domaine de Chevalier, who has been in post for six years. Ronan takes the office for three years.

Just 39 years old, Ronan has youth and energy on his side, but he also has experience. Aside from his work described above, the Laborde family also have interests in vineyards in Hungary. And he has already served his time in the UGCB, not just as a member. For several years he has sat on the union’s board, and acted as its administrator.

Ronan Laborde

It will be interesting to see what Ronan Laborde does in his new role, which he will officially step into during the week of the primeurs. The primeurs are already changing; this year the tastings for selected journalists are taking place during the week prior to the general primeurs, which allows more time for tastings the following week, which is good. I would, however, like to see fewer UGCB members demanding visits for tasting, as this is hugely onerous and time consuming. Instead, the trend on required visits seems to be upwards, although I accept many châteaux that demand this simply aren’t UGCB members.

As for the trade, the UGCB already hold extremely popular tastings in Paris, in London and in various cities across the USA. But prices for Bordeaux seem ever higher, and consumers simply don’t engage with primeur sales (and perhaps later too?) in the way they once did. The aim, for Bordeaux going forward, is surely to attract new customers; that means the younger generation in established markets, and opening new markets in countries where Bordeaux hasn’t traditionally had a strong presence. Neither is going to be easy.

I wish Ronan the best of luck for his term as president.

R.I.P. Pierre Couly

I am saddened to learn today of the passing of Pierre Couly, one of the doyens of the Chinon appellation. He passed away last Friday night, unexpectedly, at the age of 83 years.

Pierre was (with his late brother Jacques, who passed away in 2016) one of two sons born to René Couly, who arrived in Chinon from the Corrèze in the early years of the 20th century. It was René who bought up the Clos de l’Echo, and oversaw its replanting; at the time of its acquisition much of it was planted with wheat.

With the passing of Pierre we have lost another connection with Chinon’s history.

RIP Pierre Couly

Pierre Couly was a very significant figure in the Chinon appellation in his own right. He was a founding member of the Confrérie des Bons Entonneurs Rabelaisiens, and he held the office of Grand Master up until 2016. He also played a role in the local growers’ syndicat. And with his brother Jacques he also ran Couly-Dutheil, perhaps the appellation’s most famed domaine, for many years.

In more recent times, after the domaine split, he set up anew with his son Bertrand Couly, building new cellars (pictured above) at the back of the town. It was early on during this new chapter in his story that I last met him (although sadly I have no photographs), a few years ago now. Today the domaine goes from strength to strength, and Bertrand now works alongside his own son, Vincent, who vinified the 2018 vintage.

A service is planned for this Friday 1st March, 14h30, at the Église Saint-Etienne in Chinon.

My condolences go out to Pierre’s son Bertrand and the rest of his family.

See more at La Nouvelle République.

On Being Excluded

Being excluded can be difficult to process. Maybe it recalls feelings of being left out during our formative school years. Not being invited to a party. Being left in the dark about some whispered secret. Being the last person picked, and reluctantly so, for a sports team; a case of reluctant inclusion rather than exclusion, I suppose.

It is a feeling that we perhaps associate with a less emotionally mature and worldly version of ourselves. When these feelings return in adulthood, they can be unfamiliar. Embarrassing even. Because while we recognise these feelings, we are now also aware that we should probably be able to rise above them.

This year I was excluded from a tasting for the first time. In truth there are several large Bordeaux tastings in the UK that are open to only a select few journalists, and to which I have never been invited, and indeed I realised a long time ago that I never would be invited. I just don’t think I move in the right circles. And that’s not a problem for me. These are private tastings, and attendance is a privilege, not a right.

But this was different. While also a private Bordeaux tasting, this was one at which I have been a regular (and well-behaved, I might add) attendee in previous years. But I wasn’t welcome any more. The explanation was simple; a new venue, and financial restraints, meant the number of invitations had been slashed.

Fair enough.

And we’re only inviting writers with newspaper columns, positions with mainstream print publications, or from the leading websites.

Ouch.

My first response was to feel excluded (and insulted). The potential invitees had been ranked, and my being disinvited reflected my position ‘below the fold’. I found myself looking back to my previous attendences. Had I not written an appropriately detailed report on the wines? Had I not given them enough space or time? Are my thousands of subscriptions not enough? And I found myself wondering who had been invited instead of me. Would they write up the wines for their readers? Can you squeeze eighty tasting notes into a newspaper column? Or would the wines be treated to little more than a few photos on social media and a half-hearted blog post? What could I have done differently to rank above the fold? Anything? I was frustrated.

The experience did indeed recall feelings of being excluded. And, as noted above, you do simply have to rise above such feelings. After all, the hosts of a private tasting have just as much right to withdraw a previously extended invitation as they do to not invite you in the first place. It was a privilege to walk through that door. But now that door had been closed to me, and it can’t be opened from my side. With a good glass of Muscadet in hand, I sent a polite reply, thanking them for having invited me in previous years.

So long.

Experiences such as this can be character-building (at least that’s what you’re supposed to say in interviews). I have always run Winedoctor in a quite individual, self-reliant kind of way. This is one reason I am still here, still writing it, just shy of nineteen years after making my first post. It is a sense of independence and resilience that can indeed perhaps be traced back to my school days, when I really was the last to be picked for five-a-side. Although I was at least invited to parties. Well, some of them.

And, as always, as one door closes, another one opens. I have just finished (more or less) drawing up the schedule for my visit to Bordeaux in April (I am nothing if not organised), for the primeurs. This year I shall spend two weeks in the region, tasting the 2018 barrel samples, hopefully to produce one of the most comprehensive reports on the vintage. And I have received a couple of invitations (not disinvitations!) to what promise to be fascinating tastings of older vintages when there. Sure, being excluded is character-building. But being included is better.

Wine Paris 2019: Chalk and Cheese

I returned to Scotland from Wine Paris late on Wednesday night, after three days of tasting. This new wine salon felt exceptionally busy; I had no shortage of interesting tastings, with some of the highlights being Famille Bourgeois, Couly-Dutheil, Château Gaudrelle and Famille Lieubeau, to name just a few examples. More importantly, though, every vigneron I spoke to was happy with the number of visitors and the level of interest shown in their wines. And while trade fairs offer good opportunities for journalists, really it is how useful the growers find them, in terms of making contacts, getting their wines in front of buyers, and doing deals, that surely counts.

It is a far cry from the reports that came out of the first ever Vinovision in 2017. Then one prominent grower from Montlouis reported opening four bottles of each cuvée per day at the Salon des Vins de Loire, implying strong interest, but only one bottle of each at Vinovision. Perhaps unsurprisingly they never returned in 2018, and several big-name Loire Valley growers who also attended in 2017 followed suit. This was despite considerable growth in visitor numbers, up from 3,300 in 2017 to 5,000 in 2018. Reports from growers earlier this week suggested that visitor numbers might be higher again in 2019. The fact that the press release trumpeting the 2019 figures landed in my inbox on Thursday, just 24 hours after the doors were closed, also suggested the fair had been a success. It is in stark contrast to the rather subdued level of communication coming from the Salon des Vins de Loire, which seems to be treading water.

Wine Paris

Of course, we are comparing chalk and cheese here. Vinovision no longer stands alone, having joined forces in 2019 with Vinisud to create Wine Paris, so it has more than doubled in size across two halls of Paris Expo (Hall 4, and the curiously named Hall 7.1, which sounds like it might be a rebooted Hall 7), and I suspect its interest to buyers has increased exponentially as a result. In truth visitor numbers were bound to rocket, and indeed they have; in 2019 Wine Paris saw an incredible 26,700 visitors cross the threshold, which is more than a 500% increase on 2018 numbers. And this is more than three times the number of visitors to the Salon des Vins de Loire, which whimpered along with “nearly” 7,500 visitors.

Even more importantly, if you are trying to sell your wine, Wine Paris welcomed a lot of international buyers. Of the attendees, 30% arrived from beyond France’s borders, principally from the USA, Belgium, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, these five countries accounting for about half of the international visitors. I know of one foreign buyer who, charged with finding entry-level white, rosé and red vin de pays style wines for his firm at a punchy (i.e. very low) price point, realised a week or two before Wine Paris that it would be the perfect opportunity to track down what he needed. Contacting the organisers to see what support they could offer him in getting there, with time so short, they immediately offered to pay for his air fare and hotel accommodation. This clearly reflects this salon’s strong financial position, not a description I can imagine applying to the Salon des Vins de Loire at the moment.

The Salon des Vins de Loire seems, at the moment, to have the support of many big names in the Loire Valley. I wonder, however, with the success of Wine Paris 2019, how long this will continue? The dates for Wine Paris 2020 are already set (February 10th to the 12th) and 70% of the 2019 exhibitors have already signed up. I hope the Salon des Vins de Loire can build on the successes of the 2018 vintage to regain some lost ground in the next year or two. But if they aren’t convening a crisis meeting to see how they can respond to the threat of Wine Paris, which is surely set to grow further next year, then I think further decline seems likely. We could, sadly end up with only chalk, and no cheese at all.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2019: Treading Water

Last weekend I published some reflections on the 2019 Salon des Vins de Loire, when I expressed surprise at not having received any official figures on visitor numbers for the 2019 edition. Despite four days having passed since the doors had closed, my inbox remained unbothered by Salon missives. I checked the user-unfriendly Salon website, hard work at the best of times, and there too the press-release-cupboard was bare. It was a shame, because personally I found the Salon a success, with lots of good tasting opportunities, and at times it felt busy. But just how busy was it?

Well, the answer, according to a press release I have just prised from the Salon website, is rather vague. There were more exhibitors this year, up 330, which is an increase of either 15% or 20% depending on which press release you read (it clearly can’t be both). A number of these exhibitors were local beer, perry, cider and gin producers, which is pushing the definition of vins somewhat. And I was amusd to hear yesterday that Yves Cuilleron – of Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu – apparently had a stand this year. Having checked the Salon website I can see no trace of him among the exhibitors, however, so I cannot verify whether or not this is true. If so, it would be a new concept of where the boundaries of the Loire Valley end. Not since Australia’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest have geographical boundaries been so thoroughly stretched.

It is visitor numbers, rather than exhibitor number, I am interested in though. The press release suggests visitor numbers matched the 20% (or is it 15%?) increase in exhibitors, but this appears to be <ahem!> not quite true, as the text then declares the number as “nearly 7,500”. That is the same figure declared last year, as I documented in The Results Are In, 2018 visitor numbers having also been about 7,500, down from about 8,500 in 2017. It seems, despite increased exhibitors, the Salon has been treading water this year. Which is (popping my rose-tinted spectacles on), I suppose, better than further decline. I hope this is the start of a turnaround, and that next year we get a serious return in serious exhibitors, with visitor numbers that really match this increase, keen to look at what will be some seriously good 2018 red and sweet wines which should be ready for tasting at that stage.

“Le Salon des Vins de Loire est LE rendez-vous légitime de l’offre Loire” the press release goes on to say. The capital letters are their doing, not mine. I hope that remains true in 2020.

Reflections on the 2019 Salon des Vins de Loire

Earlier this week I set foot in the 33rd edition of the Salon des Vins de Loire, in Angers. It was my eleventh time at this salon, and in writing this I realised I must have missed the celebrations that will have inevitably been in place to commemorate my tenth consecutive visit last year. I would have expected trumpets, cheering crowds and maybe a small-firearms volley in salute. Perhaps I went in via the wrong entrance? In truth though, ten (now eleven) salons is nothing. There is currently a thread on Facebook between merchants sorting out who has been the most often, and eleven lags behind their figures by some considerable margin; the British wine trade know how popular the wines of the Loire Valley are with British consumers, and quite rightly many famous (and some not so famous) merchants seem to have a presence here.

There also seemed to be a strong presence from the USA this year, although I noted this was more evident in the ‘off’ events, or rather the one ‘off’ event I actually had time to attend, which was the Salon St-Jean, an organic-biodynamic tasting previously named Renaissance, than I did in the Salon proper. This might just be coincidence though; the Salon proper is much more spread out, in a huge hall, and it can be difficult to be certain of anything just eyeballing the number of people around you. Even so, it felt like a busier Salon this year, especially on Monday, especially nearer the entrance to the tasting halls. Moving deeper into the halls, admittedly it felt quieter. I have been waiting for a press release confirming visitor numbers for this year, but four days after the doors closed I am still waiting. I hope that doesn’t signify anything of note…..

On the press side of things, representation from the UK was, as usual, pretty dismal. Here my attendance ranks somewhat higher, second behind long-time Loire expert Jim Budd who has attended every year since it began, save for last year, when he had a sick note. Indeed, I would not be surprised if it turned out the first-ever Salon was his idea, such is his influence and the high regard that he is held in the region. So on the score card I come in second place, but who is in third place? Nobody, it seems*. Considering the size of the region, the volume of wine produced, the fame of some of its appellations (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Chinon, Coteaux du Layon, Muscadet) and the value it offers this is utterly shameful. Bearing in mind that there are several global wine publications with huge teams of writers and tasters, it is amazing that one cannot be dispatched to the biggest annual event in the Loire Valley. It seems it is more interesting to have yet another yawn-inducing deep dive on the latest Bordeaux vintage (I’m all for reviewing Bordeaux obviously – but I’m also for achieving a sense of balance) than it is checking out the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, all of which emanate from this region. It’s an approach I just find head-scratchingly impossible to understand.

Jo Pithon

So how was the 33rd Salon des Vins de Loire? It was a busy four days. Day one I spent at the Salon St-Jean, with the wines of Nicolas Joly, Eric Nicolas, Mark Angeli, Vincent Caillé, Damien Laureau, Tessa Laroche and many others. These are all famous names, and some of their wines I adore, some I am completely ambivalent about, and subscribers will no doubt see (or already suspect) which is which. On day two I ditched the usual Salon schedule and headed out into the vines with Jo Pithon and Ivan Massonnat; Jo has sold his domaine to Ivan, who has augmented it with new vineyards, and he has christened it Domaine Belargus.

This was a great visit, checking out vineyards in Savennières, Quarts de Chaume and Anjou/Coteaux du Layon, before a tasting at the cellars. Jo will continue to advise and work with Ivan and his team for a while, and I feel very positive about the project as a whole, but at times it did feel as if it was a sad farewell for Jo, something which I thought came across when we visited Les Treilles (pictured above). I will profile this new domaine very soon, probably as soon as I have my Loire 2018 report and Muscadet reports for this year done (unless the Bordeaux primeurs get in the way, which is possible). Later on day two I headed back to Salon St-Jean for a final hour or two there. Days three and four I spent at the Salon des Vins de Loire, and with just two days (the fair was cut from three to two days a few years ago) to taste, this meant checking in with the crème de la crème rather than exploring. So I enjoyed tasting with Domaine Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Pépière, Château Pierre-Bise, Philippe Alliet, Xavier Weisskopf, Vincent Carême, Paul-Henry Pellé, Alphonse Mellot, Domaine Vacheron and more. By 4 pm on day four I was really flagging, and gave up, heading for the railway station and home.

I will put many of my thoughts about the 2018s tasted in my aforementioned Loire 2018 report and Muscadet reports, but the key is 2018 is a very fine vintage, perhaps a truly great one, at the very least to be ranked alongside the likes of 2009, 2005 and 2003, maybe even 1990 and 1989. There are many reasons for the success, but climate is clearly one of them. That is something I think I will examine in a future post. Tomorrow I am off to Wine Paris, so expect another delay in posts next week, followed by my Loire 2018 report the week after.

*If you are a UK blogger or journalist and you were at the Salon des Vins de Loire, do get in touch and put me straight.