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One Week to go: Loire Valley Master-Level

Just about a week to go now until the first-ever Loire Valley Master-Level programme from the Wine Scholar Guild kicks off. I’m delighted to be taking part, alongside a slew of famous names from within the region.

The Wine Scholar Guild has established itsef as a leader in wine education for interested amateurs and professionals alike, their system of printed study materials combined with online seminars offers applicants a fun and unique way to learn about wine. They already have well-established programmes dealing with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley and other French regions, not to mention overarching French, Spanish and Italian programmes. This is a first brave foray into the Loire Valley for them, and I’m excited to be involved in its creation and delivery.

Loire Valley Master-Level

The programme kicks off on September 23rd, with two seminars every week for eight weeks, and here’s how it looks:

Loire: The Idea of North, Andrew Jefford
Digging Deep into the Soils, Chris Kissack
The Viticultural History of the Loire, Pascaline Lepeltier
The Nature of the Loire: Climate, Soils, Topography and Sub-regions, Jim Budd
Pays Nantais, Jo Landron
L’Anjou Noir, Pascaline Lepeltier
L’Anjou Blanc – Le Saumurois, Pascaline Lepeltier
Touraine, Damien Delecheneau
Centre Loire, Benoit Roumet
Upper Loire, Pascaline Lepeltier
Future of the Loire – Viti Vini, Benoit Roumet
Parcellaires & Crus, Pascaline Lepeltier
Loire Economics, Benoit Roumet
Loire & Food, Veronique Rivest
Biodynamics, Nicolas Joly
Loire: The Epicenter of the Natural Wine Movement, Alice Feiring

As you can see I’m speaking on the region’s rocks and soils, and it will be a ‘no holds barred’ foray through the many and varied terroirs of the region. So if you want to see me try and squeeze in detailed explanations of Kimmeridgian vs. Oxfordian vs. Portlandian soils in Sancerre, the differences between the première côte and deuxièmes côtes in Vouvray, case studies of terroir in Chinon and Anjou as well as the new Muscadet crus into one hour, why not sign up?

For more information and registration check out this link: Loire Master-Level. If you do register, you can have a 10% discount with coupon code LV-CHRIS.

Another Low-Volume Muscadet Harvest

The Fédération des Vins de Nantes has set a date for the beginning of harvest, kicking off on Thursday September 5th.

The federation predict this will be another low-volume vintage, more like 2016 and 2017 than the bountiful 2018 vintage. Both of those first two vintages were afflicted by frost, and the problem in 2019 is again the same. It was the drop in temperature overnight between April 3rd and 4th that did the damage. This makes this the third frosted vintage out of four in this region.

The federation predict a reduction by perhaps 50%, estimating a harvesting of about 250,000 hectolitres, a depressing figure. Of course, as always with frost, the damage done is disparate and heterogenous; while the loss overall is 50%, some domaines will surely have lost a much higher figure, while there can be domaines just down the road who have fared better. It depends where your vines are, the local topography, and whether this exposes or protects your vines from frosty air.

What is set to be picked looks to be of good quality, the weather having been largely warm and dry this year, which explains the early start date. Sadly I think the picking in Muscadet will have finished before I even get out to the Loire this harvest. Fingers crossed for good harvest weather. And fingers crossed for less frost (or more frost protection) in the 2020 season.

Four New Crus for Muscadet

I was delighted to learn today that the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine have, on Wednesday 19th June, officially recognised four new cru communal zones in Muscadet. The four new crus are Goulaine, Château-Thébaud, Monnières-Saint-Fiacre and Mouzillon-Tillières. These four join the three crus which were ratified back in 2011, these being Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet, as described in my Guide to the 2011 Crus Communaux.

Together these seven crus represent the highest level of Muscadet, wines of high quality and very limited production. The 2018 harvest brought in just 6000 hectolitres eligible for the three designations in existence, from just 150 hectares of vineyard (40 hl/ha on average, if you were just about to get your calculator out) which met all the cru criteria. The arrival of four new crus should see that figure rise, but it won’t be an explosion. Vineyards are not automatically eligible, they must be identified by a willing vigneron, submitted for cru status, inspected and signed off, then worked in a manner which meets the criteria, and the harvest, vinifications and time the wine spends on the lees must also clear the bar.

Four New Crus for Muscadet

Despite these crus being newly ratified I already have plenty of experience with the wines, as many vignerons have been working to a level that meets the criteria for some time (as illustrated above, a Mouzillon-Tillières released more than ten years ago), the development of the new cru communal system being very much a vigneron-led process. For more on Château-Thébaud and Monnières-Saint-Fiacre, see my Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective Tasting published in January this year. I will add a guide to the four new crus to my Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wine guide as soon as possible, and hopefully get around to tasting more from Mouzillon-Tillières and Goulaine.

Congratulations to all those in Muscadet who have been pushing this through! I know it has taken many years of effort. Now the attention must turn to the remaining cru candidates, La-Haye-Fouassière, Vallet and Champtoceaux – maybe after a celebratory glass of Château-Thébaud first!

At the Decanter World Wine Awards

I went to London for the marathon earlier this week. No not that one. I’m talking about the marathon that is the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). A week (which in this case is a ‘working week’, meaning five days – I know some in the wine trade have a different definition of a ‘working week’) of tasting all of the Loire submissions to the 2019 Awards.

This was the 16th year for the Awards, and I am not sure how many years I have been judging on the Loire panel, but it must be seven or eight years now. I started off just doing a couple of days, at a time when the Loire panel would sit for perhaps three days in total. These days the Loire submissions have increased in number (as have submissions to the Awards in general) and both last year and this year the judging extended across five days. I try to participate for the entire Loire judging, and that is exactly what I did this year. The panel was chaired by Jim Budd (who needs no introduction), while my tasting colleagues were Nigel Wilkinson (once of the RSJ, home of London’s best Loire list, now retired) and Chris Hardy (of Charles Sydney Wines, and now undoubtedly the leading wine trade figure in the Loire Valley). The panel was the same across all five days.

The system at the DWWA, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows. Wines are served in themed flights, anything from four wines to twelve, the principal themes being variety and appellation, sometimes nuanced by style, vintage or price. So we might have a dozen Muscadets, followed by a dozen Touraine Sauvignons, then a dozen white Sancerres, and so on. The tasters have all the information on appellation, vintage, price, residual sugar, alcohol and so on, but the blinding as to the domaine and cuvée is rigorous; I imagine anybody who attempted to unblind a wine by removing it from its bag, a cardinal sin, would never be invited back. Tasters don’t even get to handle the bottles, as everything is poured for you by the ‘red shirts’ as they are known. Our ‘red shirt’ was Abdel, who was a star.

DWWA 2019

All four panel members work their way through the entire flight, tasting and retasting as they see fit, writing notes, and awarding marks out of 100. Faulty bottles are always replaced during the tasting of the flight, no mean feat considering the number of wines being tasted in any one day and the logistics involved. A few words might be exchanged at this time (especially regarding faulty wines) but otherwise we keep our opinions to ourselves for the moment. Once all four of us have finished, it’s time for the panel chair to review the notes and scores, for discussion, and for the decision on a final score and a medal position.

Any judging system has strengths and weaknesses. One accusation commonly made about the system used here is that it is ‘tasting by committee’, which would I think be a fair accusation if the final score and position were achieved simply by taking an average of the four submitted scores. But of course that isn’t how it works; there is the opportunity for discussion, to advocate for each wine as you see fit, and the process varies from one wine to the next. If all four tasters are in close alignment – awarding scores, for example, of 86, 88, 88, and 89, all in the bronze medal category – then taking an average is not inappropriate (although an individual could still argue for a specific score if they wish). When the marks start to straddle medal categories, for example 86, 88 (both bronze), 90 and 91 (both silver) then the discussion becomes more important. We all revisit the wine, and the supporters of a bronze award may decide they have underscored the wine, and revise their marks upwards, or they may stick to their guns and persuade their colleagues that silver is too generous. And vice versa for the advocates of a silver medal. A lot of effort goes into ensuring each wine is given due consideration, and the right level is found.

If agreement can’t be reached, there are floating super-judges who can also be asked to chip in with an opinion. The super-judge system worked well this year, although sometimes the decision went against me, and sometimes for me. There was one wine on day two where half the panel were rooting for gold, while half (including me) were less eager, and an opinion from a super-judge nudged it over the line. I lost. But then a couple of days later we were in the same position with a different wine, with at least two tasters rooting for gold, and I was holding back, holding my ground, as I didn’t feel the wine was worthy of that merit. The super-judge came down in my favour. Vindicated! However the wines get there, though, all the gold medal winners are tasted again next week, by the super-judges, and can be knocked back down if not deemed worthy. I doubt that will happen with any of the Loire wines; we’re a careful lot!

The Loire did well this year, and while I can’t reveal anything about the result it won’t be giving too much away to say there were a number of really fine wines submitted, and a nice number of gold medals awarded. The success of recent vintages shone through; although there was frost in 2016 and 2017, the region has had several good vintages in a row, up to and including 2018 (most Muscadet and Sauvignon submissions come from the most recent vintage, for obvious reasons). And quality overall was consistent; although I don’t have any figures, I am sure we rejected fewer samples as simply substandard this year. And among the golds, there were some real superstar wines. Sadly, unlike that other more famous marathon, it takes a good few months for the results of this particular competition to be published. I hope it won’t be too long though; I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what theose superstar wines were.

Get Ready for Peak Muscadet

We haven’t yet reached peak Muscadet, but this wine has certainly been rehabilitated in the eyes of many; that much was clear to me back in 2017 (I can’t believe it was two years ago already) when Decanter magazine not only decided to host a lees-aged Muscadet panel tasting, inviting me along as a panel member, but then went on to dedicate 13 pages of their June 2017 print edition to it. In the post-tasting discussion I made the comment that the tasting proved Muscadet’s perception as a simple wine you just knock back with oysters was dead in the water; when it made it to print that had been toned down a little and it was merely “outdated and should be put to rest”, but I think I prefer my original words.

Despite this resurgence in interest, and an obvious awareness that something important has happened in Muscadet in recent times, I see many still struggle to get to grips with the region and its wines. Jobbing wine writers now brave enough to dip their toes in the water often do little to demystify the region. This is perhaps inevitable if you are limited to writing about cheap and cheerful entry-level wines, all of which can be purchased off the shelves of a British supermarket, in the confines of a Sunday Supplement wine column. It can be difficult to spin a tale of tenacity, terroir and a ten-year élevage around such wines.

With that in mind here is my 7-point guide to getting up to speed with Muscadet. And I mean really getting up to speed, not just waffling on about Domaine de l’Ecu because (a) you’ve heard of it, (b) you like the labels and the wax capsules, and (c) you don’t realise those funky wines aren’t actually Muscadet.

1. Don’t start every conversation about Muscadet with a comment about the region’s decline in the 1970s. Yes it happened, but the smart vignerons weathered the region’s waning popularity thanks to the quality of their wines and they are still here, leading the pack. And the smart wine journalists and wine drinkers look to the wines of today, not yesterday. Nobody opens an article on Austrian wine with a reflection on the pros and cons of diethylene glycol.

2. Be mindful that there has not been a revolution in Muscadet, but an evolution. Its sudden resurgence is a false image created by the generalist press (I realise I sound like a left-wing activist when I write this), and reflects not a sudden shift in the region, but a sudden shift in the author’s awareness of it. The region’s current success can be traced back across not years, but decades. Several long decades, of hard work. Some vignerons with less familiar names, such as Bruno Cormerais, have played a big part in this, and deserve credit.

Peak Muscadet

3. To understand Muscadet’s modern-day diversity – it is no longer a name to solely be associated with oysters – think of Muscadet not as a wine, but as a vineyard or region. Nobody thinks of Burgundy, or even a Burgundy sub-region such as Chablis, as producing one style of wine, at one level of quality. And yet this is Muscadet’s fate. Most wine drinkers and wine hacks know there is basic Chablis, premier cru and grand cru Chablis, and while we can still intelligently talk of them all as ‘Chablis’, there is an innate awareness that these wines offer varying taste experiences, a range of quality levels, and they work well with different styles of food. So too with Muscadet.

4. The premier cru and grand cru equivalents in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine are the crus communaux. These wines do not come from a specific hill, like Chablis, but from within specified zones. Eligible vineyards within a zone are identified as cru communal candidates by vignerons, and checked out and signed off by local wine authorities. The vigneron is then beholden to work in a specified manner in the vines (lower yields, better maturity at harvest) and cellars (a longer élevage on the lees). These crus have their origins back in the 1980s (see, it is not a recent revolution). You can find wines from Gorges, for example, from the 1990s. Anyone who has hailed ‘the Muscadet revolution’ in the past five years should probably read this post.

5. Be ready to roll your eyes at the glacial pace at which French wine law adapts to the modern world. The reason this has been an evolution rather than a revolution is in part down to the French wine authorities which seem to work about two decades behind the vignerons they should serve. The first three crus were ratified in 2011. The next four hopefully this year. Try to think of them not by date of ratification, however, but by terroir, as I did in my recent Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective. For the solidity and substance of granite, go for Clisson and Château-Thébaud. For the vibrancy and cut of gabbro, go for Gorges and Mouzillon-Tillières. For the effusive charm and piquancy of gneiss and orthogneiss (and even amphibolite), go for Monnières-St-Fiacre. For the pungent weight of schist, go to Goulaine. There are nuances of course, but this is a good starting point.

6. Do not go on and on about oysters (or the other Muscadet clichés, the cling-clang of the marina, the call of the seabirds, and the briny sea breezes). Cru communal Muscadet, like grand cru Chablis, offers a much greater range of food-and-wine matching possibilities. Keeping it simple, drink any of the crus communaux wines, or any of the long-lees-aged wines made outside the crus (a few spring to mind, such as Trois from Domaine de la Pépière and Origine and Signature from Domaine du Haut Bourg), with anything you would drink top-end Chablis with. For me this means, as well as a huge variety of fish dishes, also chicken, guinea fowl, veal and pork in creamed sauces, various cheeses and crisp sandwiches*.

7. Also be ready to roll your eyes at efforts to make the most basic Muscadet more saleable by allowing the blending in of other varieties such as Chardonnay or Colombard. It’s like trying to make bottom-end Burgundy more appealing by allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache in the blend for Bourgogne Rouge (actually that sounds rather attractive……OK, OK, I’m joking). I have long said that the solution to Muscadet’s image problem and the financial difficulties that face some vignerons will come from the top end (the crus communaux cuvées) dragging the region into the limelight, not from bottom-end manipulation where bulk wines sell for less than €1 per 75 cl. A sentence ridiculing this move should be mandatory in any article about Muscadet.

Stick to these seven rules, and when we finally hit peak Muscadet – which will presumably be when Robert Parker comes out of retirement to start up a new publication specialising in Melon de Bourgogne and its wines – we will all be able to roll our eyes together. In the meantime, I am off to choose another ten-year old Muscadet cru communal wine for tonight’s dinner, which at the moment is looking like free-range chicken breasts in a sauce of madeira and shiitake mushrooms. I’m thinking Monnières-St-Fiacre.

*maybe not

Nantais 2018: Some Figures

I have just received some figures from the Fédération des Vins de Nantes regarding the 2018 vintage in the Nantais.

The 2018 harvest for Muscadet alone brought in 420,000 hectolitres, a yield of 56 hl/ha on 7,500 hectares of vines. This is heartwarming news after the 2016 and 2017 vintages, both of which were blighted by frost. Stocks held by the vignerons in Muscadet are at a record low (just 130,000 hectolitres as of July 31st 2018 – not even equal to one-third of the 2018 harvest) and so a strong harvest as seen in 2018 will allow the vignerons to meet demand as well as build up a buffer of stock in the cellar.

Nantais 2018 Harvest Figures

It was interesting to see the Muscadet vineyard has declined further, to 7,500 hectares. The figure I have in my head for Muscadet (all the vineyards, including regional zones such as Sèvre et Maine, and the crus communaux) is 8,000 hectares. The drop in 500 hectares is, according to the Fédération, down to some vignerons making use of the Vin de France designation rather than the Muscadet appellation. While this is a well established trend in some parts of the Loire Valley, aside from one domaine which springs to mind (Domaine de la Sénéchalière), and the occasional cuvée here and there from others (e.g. Melonix from Jo Landron, pictured above), this comes as something of a surprise. Who are the Vin de France guys in Muscadet?

Lastly, it is also good to see a record-breaking volume of crus communaux wines being made. Even so, this remains a relatively niche interest in the region, with just 150 hectares (out of 7,500) committed to this category in 2018. The harvest was 6,000 hectolitres, so a much lower yield of 40 hl/ha, as we should expect. The limit set for cru wines is generally 45 hl/ha (lower than for the other Muscadet appellations).

The harvest for the region’s greatest appellation Gros Plant du Pays Nantais (that one was for you, Vincent Lieubeau) held steady at 33,000 hectolitres on 470 hectares.

This is all great news for the region, a vintage of both quality and quantity. And I am looking forward to seeing how those cru wines are doing a couple of years from now. In the meantime, as well as my Luneau-Papin report today, and my 2018 Nantais report, I have plenty more notes and reports on 2018 in the region coming up.

Being Ahead of the Curve

It was a surprise to hear the name of Richard Leroy crop up in conversation this week. Not my conversation admittedly, but a conversation between Fiona Beckett and Liam Steevenson, hosts of the excellent wine-focused podcast Bâtonnage, and their guest Jamie Goode. Bâtonnage is one of only two podcasts I listen to regularly (and the other one is politics not wine), which hopefully says something about its quality. I have enjoyed all of the ten episodes released thus far and I can’t wait for series two.

Richard Leroy was cited as an example of a vigneron making wine in a very reductive style. Before I come to the meaning behind the title of this blog post, let’s just dive a little deeper on Richard and his reductive style. It is true that his wines are very reductive, provided you are talking about the wines released onto the market during the last five-or-so years. It was only in the 2011 vintage that the style chez Leroy, Richard having had something of a Burgundy-inspired epiphany, suddenly lurched towards reduction. Prior to that the wines had been classically ambitious Anjou Blanc (even if they switched to Vin de France in the 2008 vintage). They were concentrated, polished, sinewy, laden with intent, and they were frequently also wrapped in new oak in their youth, a fact that was overlooked by many who would cry “spoofulation!” at a similar use of new oak in less favoured wines. It never really bothered me; like all great wines they deserved time in the cellar and with time the oak would be absorbed.

Being Ahead of the Curve

Then in the 2011 vintage all of a sudden the wines were painfully reductive, and tasting them in their youth was like sucking on shards of flint rather than wine. In fact it went further than that, as aromatically the 2011 Les Rouliers went from a mildly reductive barrel sample when tasted in 2013 to a pungently reduced wine, marked by eggy notes of hydrogen sulphide, the extreme end of the reduction spectrum, when I tasted it from bottle in 2015 (I need to revisit it soon). Having produced a wine in this style, for the first time Richard was sufficiently confident to add no sulphites, a philosophy he has persisted with in most (but not all) vintages since.

Fair enough, you might say. But what does this have to do with being ‘ahead of the curve’?

Well, this mention of Richard Leroy perhaps signifies something else I have long predicted. There was a time, not that long ago, that Richard Leroy was a name known only to committed Loire geeks. Any use of his name in conversation would have elicited the response, even from serious wine geeks and sommeliers, along the lines of “you mean Leroy, in Burgundy, right?”. I sense in the past few years this has changed; Richard has broken through into mainstream wine consciousness, in the same manner as the late Didier Dagueneau once did, along with the likes of Clos Rougeard and Nicolas Joly. When mainstream ‘cult status’ is attained, demand increases, and with the supply of bottles naturally limited the price inevitably follows suit. Back in 2013, advising my subscribers to buy, buy, buy, I wrote in a tasting report:

“I do fear that with increasing global demand for Richard’s wines we will see the price rise and availability decrease, but for the moment there remain relatively few hurdles to finding and buying these wines.”

That is certainly no longer true. In the past few years the retail price has quadrupled; that’s if you can even track down a bottle. The driving forces for this shift include, firstly, the absolute quality of the wines, although to be fair I could rattle off half a dozen vignerons working in Anjou and Savennières who turn out wines of equivalent standing. As always in the Loire Valley, cult status is not just about what is in the bottle. Secondly, the wines are in increasingly short supply, giving them a ‘rarity’ appeal. Even when the vineyards are in full production supply will always be finite, but in some recent vintages the vines have been hit by frost, decimating production. Yields have often been between 13 and 20 hl/ha, with frost reducing this figure to zero in 2016, and zero on one terroir in 2017. Thirdly, Richard has an image of an independent man battling against greater foes, our wine-minded David to a variety of Goliaths. He is set against the wine authorities, ditching the Anjou Blanc designation in favour of Vin de France. He has fought Mother Nature and lost, his biodynamic vines hurt by mildew and frost. And yet still, against the odds, he turns out his precious, jewel-like wines. With this sort of reputation it was perhaps inevitable that his appeal would spread beyond pure Loire geeks.

While sommeliers pop corks of increasingly pricy Leroy wines, surrounded I hope by crowds of natural wine fans, all chanting “Chenin!, Chenin!, Chenin!”, I am happy that with Richard Leroy I was well ahead of the curve. I have bottles of just about every cuvée and every vintage he made, back to about 2003, which should keep me happy for some time. And while I will try to track down a bottle or two of 2017, and some 2018s too, it may be that with the prices as they are, I now have to let go. If you discover the wines today you will get just as much pleasure as I have out of them, but you may have to pay through the nose for the privilege. There is no doubt you are behind the curve.

In the meantime I will continue my work rooting out young (and some not-so-young) vignerons who are turning out wines of comparable (or superior, in the case of one guy working in Anjou I can think of) quality, so that I can continue to stay ahead of the curve, drinking brilliant wines as yet unblessed by cult status. This is how I drink well without having to sell one of my kidneys. And of course I will continue to point the spotlight at these vignerons, so that my subscribers can also – provided they follow my advice, as I know some did with Richard Leroy – stay ahead of the curve with me.

So now I am off to pop a cork, maybe on a 2009 Les Rouliers (to celebrate its tenth birthday), and I will get back to listening to Jamie, Liam and Fiona talking wine faults. It’s called Bâtonnage – do check it out.

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.

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.