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Published:  23 July, 2008

The Rhne is rare among European regions in that it is keeping pace with the New World. Neil Beckett considers the key changes in promotion and production which have sustained the Rhne's renaissance

On his birthday a few years ago, Philippe Viret, a Bordeaux graduate winemaker still in his twenties, got up bright and early. He planted a stick in the ground and plotted the shadow cast by the sun at dawn, midday and sunset. Inspired by ancient China, Egypt and Rome, by Incas, Mayas and medieval Christianity, he and his father went on to build an astonishing cathedral' cellar into the hillside of the family estate, Domaine Viret, producing 120,000 bottles a year of Ctes du Rhne Villages-St Maurice on cosmocultural' principles. They make even the most animated biodynamicists seem less dynamic. A short distance away, at the new Cellier des Dauphins, built at the same time, the Union des Vignerons des Ctes du Rhne, comprising 11 co-operatives, is bottling some 320,000 bottles a day of the biggest brand of Appellation Contrle wine in France. The commercial director, Roland Olvers, proudly refers to it as an industrial product not specifically adapted to needs', and to prove the point it has a back label in French, English and German. Big supermarket buyers, some from the UK, now help to determine the final style. In some ways, these two producers could hardly be further apart, reflecting the tremendous variety still to be found even in one small part of the Rhne Valley. In other ways, they have much in common. Both are producing Ctes du Rhne (Villages), selling at roughly the same price. Both have been making efforts to improve quality. And both now need to promote their wines in the UK. Olvers says that Cellier des Dauphins saw a 500% year on year increase in UK sales in 2001. He hopes for the same again in 2002, and to hit his target of one to two million bottles in less than three years. Along the length of the Rhne Valley, hundreds of other producers are addressing many of the same issues in production and promotion, and with remarkable success. As in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the general quality of the wines has never been higher (an obvious point, but worth stressing) and sales are strong. Already the second largest French region (by both volume and value) in the UK (its largest export market), the Rhne increased its sales by 9% (to 14,716,000 cases) in the year to September/ October 2001 (AC Nielsen). Its share of French wine sales in the UK also rose, from 15.9% in September/October 2000 to 18.5% in September/October 2001. Among Rhne wines, it is the Ctes du Rhne (CdR) and Ctes du Rhne Villages (CdRV) which are performing best. In September/October 2001, sales of CdR rose by 15% and those of CdRV 76.2%, in comparison with September/October 2000, while the 13 crus (AC Hermitage, Cte Rtie, Chteauneuf du Pape, etc.) fell by 10%. The figures for the year to September/October 2001 are +8%, +10% and -4% respectively (Centre Franais du Commerce Extrieur). Quite apart from these positive sales trends, it is CdR and CdRV which also offer, in other ways, the best hope of combating the challenge from the New World in the competitive middle market (3.99-9.99). They now have the consistency and quality, recognition and style (see figure 1), value and volume to do this as effectively as any other French region.

General quality rising Crucial to this new position of strength has been the dramatic rise in quality among the co-operatives and ngociants, who account for most of the production (the Union des Vignerons des Ctes du Rhne alone represents some 25% of CdR and CdRV volume). The admirably candid Berthomeau Report, submitted to the French agriculture minister last year, spoke of the need for greater integration of production. And as in Bordeaux and Burgundy, the best large players in the Rhne are already doing this successfully. As Anthony Taylor, export manager for ngociant Gabriel Meffre in Gigondas, says, It's all about controlling supply.' Although many of the biggest co-ops and ngociants still buy wine rather than grapes, they often provide their suppliers with new equipment, and are more rigorous than ever in their selection. The Union des Vignerons des Ctes du Rhne, for example, has furnished its co-ops with instruments to measure laccase (the highly oxidative enzyme produced by botrytis bunch rot), which has often lowered must quality in the past. And should there be any problem at any stage, it can be traced all the way back to the individual grower. To control quality more strictly still, an increasing number of ngociants are buying grapes rather than wine and advising growers on anything from clones and rootstocks to pruning, spraying and picking times. Whether they buy grapes or wine, they are also, crucially, paying a premium for quality. The co-ops and ngociants have also been getting their own houses in order, investing heavily in plant and equipment. Many wineries are now as high tech as those in the New World. The new Cellier des Dauphins costs e20 million (12 million), while the Cave de Tain l'Hermitage is currently spending e6 million (3.6 million). All of this new technology does not, however, mean that the wines are more processed than previously. In fact, the opposite is more often the case. At the Cellier des Dauphins, as at Domaine Viret, as much as possible is done by gravity, to minimise pumping. Filtration is also less severe than it was. All wines which arrived for blending and bottling used to be treated in the same way, whatever state they were in. Even if they had already been filtered, they were all filtered to 0.45 microns, stripping colour and flavour. Now most are filtered to 1.2, some to 2 microns.

Institut Rhodanien Many of the smallest growers, as well as the largest producers, have benefited from the advice offered by the Institut Rhodanien, Inter Rhne's research and technical facility, founded in 1994. Using all of the latest equipment (gas chromatography, high pressure liquid chromatographythe works) it conducts more than 50,000 analyses of samples a year. One of its major research projects, now in its sixth year, is Observatoire Grenache. In a carefully controlled experiment, it is exploring the role of terroir, in the hope of identifying the sites best suited to the dominant grape variety in CdR and CdRV. (A similar study at the Universit du Vin helped Domaine Jaume, one of the best estates in Vinsobres, identify what is now its Clos des Echalas, source of its top wine.) The Institut is also involved in Inter Rhne's programme of downstream quality control (suivi aval de la qualit), started in 1999. In a system similar to that used in Bordeaux and Burgundy, Rhne wines are randomly selected from retail shelves in major markets (including the UK) and tested. As Christophe Riou, director of technical services, explains, It's crucial for us, so that we know exactly what the problems are.' Producers whose wines are found to be unworthy are offered advice on how they can improve. And any who do not comply may be referred to the Service de la Rpression des Fraudes.

Agrment disagreements While the programme is constructive as far as it goes, there are those who would argue that it would be better to identify problems sooner rather than later. As in other French regions, there is considerable debate about the agrment (the annual award of AC status). Richard Jaume says that the analysis needs to be far more stringent, and that as well as being tasted shortly after it is made, a wine needs to be retasted shortly before it is bottled - which may be as much as two years later. A crise may have developed before the mise.

Laying on the style There are two key issues, less related to quality than to style and typicity, which may figure increasingly in agrment discussions. And if not there, then among buyers and consumers around the world. The first is extraction (or over-extraction). The danger is greatest with grape varieties high in polyphenols, such as Syrah and Mourvdre, and particularly severe in dry, hot years such as 2001, when skin-to-pulp ratios are high. Older potential problems (high fermentation temperatures, long macerations and hard pressings) have been joined by newer problems - automatic pigeage or remontage, delestage (rack and return') and flash dtente (a form of thermovinification). The last technique, adopted over the past three years by the co-op at Rochegude (a member of the Union des Vignerons des Ctes du Rhne) and others, may be used to produce darkly coloured and richly structured wines, but at the expense of identity and subtlety (as even those who use the technique readily admit). The second issue is maturation in wood. Although large, old oak vats (foudres) are still extensively used, producers are less bound by tradition than in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and many are experimenting freely with different shapes, sizes and types of vessel. At ngociant Ogier Caves des Papes in Chteauneuf (owned by Languedoc giant Jean-Jean), they still have 70 foudres, ranging in size from 35-85hl, which are up to 30 years old. But they have also had, for the last five years, 14 conical vats (115hl), such as are used for fermentation in Bordeaux and the Rhne, but are here used for maturation. According to Ogier's Matthieu Coutton, they are used for the best CdRV and some cru wines, which then have even more accentuated fruit aromas than if they had been aged in foudres. The oak is much more evident in wines aged in a type of barrel which was quite widely used 40-50 years ago and has now been re-introduced - the 600-litre demi-muids, of which the company has 110. They are replaced every four to six years, and are used at Ogier for the best cru wines. Finally, there are 300-litre barriques, larger than those in Bordeaux (225 litres) or Burgundy (228 litres), but which still impart marked oak aromas and flavours. Roughly 60% are French oak, 40% American, and they are used for CdR and CdRV wines designed for early consumption. Coutton says that they were introduced to meet market demand, and that the wines need to be hyper-fruit', with sufficient structure to survive the wood. Whatever oak treatment is used, no distinction is made on the labels, which state only that the wines have been lev en fts de chne'. Some producers have embraced lavish oak treatment more readily than others. At Meffre, head winemaker Thierry Boudinot introduced a range of reserve wines, Laurus, eight years ago, and the reds are now aged in the recently re-introduced 275-litre demi-queue de Vaucluse, made from Bertranges oak. Taylor says that they like the effect, but not the taste of wood', though the wines certainly live up to the marketing slogan Laurus semper Voluptas' (Laurus always voluptuous'). At ngociant Les Domaines Bernard (part of the Boisset Famille des Grands Vins'), they are even less apologetic about wood. We like to follow trends in different markets, without forgetting where we're from,' says export director Frank Protin. So we do a lot of oak ageing, all in French oak.' Some of the most thoughtful use of wood is to be found at Domaine Jaume, where all of the CdRV wines are aged in barrels. Richard Jaume experiments with a range of sizes (225- and 228-litre barriques and 600-litre demi-muids) and woods (French, American and European'). He says that Grenache, which oxidises readily, is better in demi-muids (never new), but that Syrah can stand new oak barriques. He is also an advocate of malolactic fermentation in barriques and btonnage on red wines (a growing trend even in large co-ops, such as that at Beaumes-de-Venise). Both techniques, he says, add body and fat. Other producers, however, are much more conservative in their use of wood. At the Cave de Rasteau they do not use any wood on their CdRV, even on the stylish top wine, Les Hauts du Village' (and it is hard to see how the expressiveness of the fruit would be improved by it). At Domaine de la Genestire in Tavel, the new, talented young winemaker Frdric Mayllet (24) ages all of the Lirac in foudres. He is starting to use oak barriques for a new special cuve, but will always have enough of the wine in foudres to reduce the oak influence, if necessary. At Domaine Viret, Philippe Viret ages all of his Grenache in foudres, and any barriques he uses for Syrah are all at least one year old (purchased from Chteaux Margaux and D'Yquem).

Promotion However good the wines, and whatever the style, the efforts of most producers are now divided between production and promotion. John Livingstone-Learmonth's prediction this time last year (Harpers, 9 February 2001) that the old marketing tranquility is about to end' has already come true. The Rhne has spent more on marketing than any other region of France over the last three years, and Cellier des Dauphins advertises at major sporting events all over the world. Christophe Cardona, export manager for Cave de Rasteau, came from Jean-Jean, and affirms that now promotion is the key'. Frank Protin, at Les Domaines Bernard, came from Gallo, and uses the word aggressive' a lot. We need to do what Australia and California have done. We need to take our suitcase and go sell em.' The major marketing initiative launched in March last year - Discoveries in the Rhne Valley' - appears to have been a success. Over the five days, some 10,000 professional visitors attended tastings in 18 different venues throughout the region, where 4,000 wines were on show. The next such event will be in 2003, when Gigondas will be participating for the first time. (Chteauneuf - the only other high-profile AC not to take part - will, again, not be present, as it is still divided between squabbling producer syndicates.) Meanwhile, Inter Rhne will be continuing with its animal cartoon advertising, and its slogan Think different. Think Ctes du Rhne.' Thierry Mellenotte, marketing export manager for Inter Rhne, says that most wine advertising is boring', and credits the campaign with raising spontaneous awareness, our biggest problem three years ago. Our strategy is to make it as simple as we can.' The marketing power of Ctes du Rhne (Villages) has certainly risen. Even such a big brand as Cellier des Dauphins regards it as essential to its success. Gigondas, the second cru of the Southern Rhne, sees advantages in being under the Inter Rhne umbrella. And Richard Jaume in Vinsobres (a candidate for elevation to independent AC) admits that there may not be any marketing advantage in being the last of the crus, rather than the first of the villages'. But while rising sales suggest that the strategy is working, two challenges still need to be addressed by those on both sides of the Channel: how not to confuse consumers with stylistic variation among Ctes du Rhne on the one hand, and how not to sacrifice the terroir variation among Ctes du Rhne Villages on the other. Although some of the advertising in France now features the names of the 16 villages which are allowed to add their name to the Ctes du Rhne AC (Cairanne, Rasteau, Vinsobres, etc.), Mellenotte does not envisage this in the UK for some time yet'. All those in the UK who have an interest in the wines, therefore, also need to think different - to explain the thrilling variation between villages, and make sure that consumers do not confuse Valras with Valdepeas, Rasteau with Rambo, St Pantalon with St Pantallon (or worse still, St Pants).