A forgotten corner of Champagne

Most champagne lovers know that while the majority of the grapes for the wine they drink come from the north of the region, around Reims and Epernay, over one-fifth come from the south – a region often called the Côte des Bars, in the Aube département.  These vineyards are 30 kilometres or more to the southeast of the city of Troyes and home to some very good producers.  The best known, perhaps, is Drappier (a favourite of Charles de Gaulle) and also a very good cooperative which produces the wine known as Veuve Devaux.

Troyes is an interesting town.  Its centre is beautiful, redolent with half-timbered renaissance buildings, it has an excellent cathedral, and in the Middle Ages surpassed Reims to be the capital of the county of Champagne.  It was a major trading centre with renowned fairs for the trading of cloth and home to Rashi, one of the most celebrated medieval Jewish thinkers.  It also has, if you view it from the air, a centre carved out by roads and a stream which mirrors the shape of a champagne cork when it has been expelled from the bottle.  Yet for all this, contemporary Troyes is not so much a champagne (wine) centre.  The vineyards of the Côte des Bars are a little too far away, so it has rather turned its back on the most prestigious product of the region; what many locals first remark about it is that it is home to a large McArthur Glen outlet retail park!

Yet wine isn’t entirely absent.  Just ten kilometres to the west is the commune of Montgueux – a single village which has a bit over 200 hectares of vineyards and the right to make the wine.  Although it is administratively in the Aube département, it doesn’t share the same geology as the vineyards to its east; rather it is essentially an extension of the chalky hills of Sézanne, further to its north.  These chalk-rich soils (with a noticeable flint content), and the south-eastern facing slopes, make it ideal for the chardonnay grape and overwhelmingly that is what is planted there.  I’ve entitled this piece ‘a forgotten corner…’ but that is not entirely true.  Champagne lovers have registered some good producers there, led by Champagne Jacques Lassaigne; nevertheless, the small size of the planted area at its distance from the other main parts of the wine region still mean that it is substantially overlooked.

Even more, champagne in Montgueux might not exist today if it wasn’t for the persistence of one man.  When I visited the village recently I met Hélène Beaugrand, the fourth generation winemaker of Champagne Beaugrand.  She has an interesting background, having worked as a winemaker overseas (including Australia and South Africa) in the 1990s.  The domaine was founded by her great-grandfather, Léon Beaugrand and has been selling wine since 1930 (very early for a vigneron in Champagne). 

Records suggest that vines were cultivated in Montgueux back in the 12th century.  Until the 1890s many villages had some vines, with somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 hectares across the region.  Then phylloxera hit and it became too expensive to replant and not profitable enough when more money was made from wheat or sugar beet – and to be a farmer was better than being a vigneron, who were treated as the lowest of the low.  When the appellation was finalised in 1927 it was limited to 34 000 hectares, as most places no longer had any desire to make the wine (including all the villages around Montgueux).  In practice, by 1950, only 11,000 hectares were planted. 

So why are their vines still in Montgueux?  Léon Beaugrand was a grower in the village from about 1900 on – so had faith in the place in the post-phylloxera era.  He had been a négociant from the south of France, selling to Troyes; he liked the village and planted vines there against the trend.  At this time, although the grapes were sold to the large champagne Houses in Reims and Epernay, the wines of the region were considered ‘second class’.  From 1911 to 1927 were major arguments over whether or not the Aube could be included in the appellation, and it was only finally accepted that they should be in 1927.  Léon Beaugrand fought for the right to have Montgueux in the appellation, and tried to get the growers in surrounding villages to join with him – but they weren’t interested, nor were most of his neighbours.  Nevertheless, Léon was persistent, and against the odds, and the reluctance of the institutional powers of champagne, succeeded.  Even so, it was not until the 1950s that vines began to be more widely planted (Veuve Clicquot came to the village to buy grapes) and only in the 1970s did other récoltants-manipulants – the growers who would sell wine to the public as well as just grapes to the négociants – begin to emerge.  There are now 19 of them there.

Meanwhile, the domaine has to evolve.  French succession laws mean that the vineyard land is being split up and Hélène is only retaining part of it.  The wines will evolve and change.  Yet, based on the wines she has been making for the family over the last 15 years, this won’t be a problem for her – and she has plans for how the domaine will evolve.  If you ever get to find the wines they are worth trying, and show the ability of chardonnay, with its elevated level of acidity, to give champagne the backbone to age gracefully and develop real complexity; the cuvée reserve is a good example of this, a blend but based on 2009 and 2010 base wine, very complex and very gastronomic.  They are also made from old vines (dating back to the 1960s and earlier) which is unusual with champagne, where replanting to increase yields normally starts at about 40 years.

The point of this blog post?  To show that one determined individual with a vision can still shape the direction of a wine region or of a wine brand – whatever the challenges they face.  It’s not all just down to impersonal forces or the larger actors to determine events and craft success.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence IX – Wine Consumption

‘Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy’

Sir Alexander Fleming

When I began planning how I might reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on the wine industry a few months ago, I aimed to finish by looking at how it might change the world of wine consumers – especially the cultures of consumption and the way that society has an impact on how people drink.  Optimistically – you might say naively – I was hoping that this might be the time when things were getting better, and we would have shown that the disease was at least contained, if not beaten.

So, I got that wrong.  However, I still plan to make this the last post on wine in the time of pestilence (at least for some time) so that I can return to considering a wider world of wine and culture and its social context.  What, then, might result from the upheaval of the last eight months for wine drinkers around the world?  Here, then, is a review of what has happened and are a few ideas for the future – and remember that I’d love to have feedback on this.  It’s a fairly extended essay, so you may want to give yourself a little time to engage with it. The first point is that different places responded to the disease in different ways and with often widely fluctuating consumption levels over the first months of the crisis.  In the very early stages of lockdown in the UK people said they were drinking more (though not ‘too much’), although it seemed that this was less beer and cider.  By May this trend to drink more was noticeable with lunchtime and online drinking becoming more common but that people were spending less per bottle. So, the apparent trend of recent years of ‘less but better’ went into reverse for a while!  Young people were least likely to drink more but those aged 25-54 were most likely to increase consumption. By June and July, however, drinking levels seemed to be declining but this was confused by other reports of record sales (e.g. for Naked Wines, during July).  The easing of restrictions on eating out also stimulated an increase in drinking.  The other key change was the decline in consumption early on, but with a rebound once lockdown ended and there was something to celebrate (and no longer the stigma of drinking a celebratory wine during a time of death, depression and decline).

Nevertheless, the trends in the UK weren’t repeated everywhere.  I’ve already noted the success of champagne in the USA for much of the period of struggle against the disease; high-involvement drinkers there were generally spending more, unlike their British equivalents. Australians drank rather more wine but Canadians less in the early stages. In Germany wine consumption was increasing before the onset of the crisis, and stayed higher, whereas it the Netherlands an early increase was not sustained, with Generation Z drinkers reducing their intake.  Sweden, which pursued a much less controlled response to the virus, allowing bars and restaurants to stay open, saw much less change in drinking behaviour – although the Swedes did start to drink less frequently. 

My own research amongst members of the Institute of Masters of Wine, which I’ve commented on before suggests that women were drinking more (which I think, for a time at least was reflected in the wider population), no Australians were drinking less, and some were drinking better by raiding their cellar.  Ritual and the need for little celebrations became important – and wine does offer the chance for a link to a wider world.

What is also interesting is what and when people were drinking.  Local wines were sought out (see below for more on this); large brands (which offer security in a time of threat) did quite well – at least initially – in Australia but smaller producers suffered. Wines available from online stores did well even when overall consumption was declining in the UK.  Consumers also seemed to be stocking up rather than buying for single occasions and buying in anticipation of running out, rather than waiting until they had drunk everything.

Meanwhile, the pandemic reinvigorated the lobby which opposes alcohol consumption on health grounds, and there is some evidence that certain consumers took the need to improve their health seriously and decided to drink less.  However, the (serious) arguments against the abuse of alcohol founder on the need people have during a crisis for treats and easy pleasures, and things which provide a reminder of a former, more secure and wider world; one of the things that clearly offers those links is wine.  Having said that, sales of low-alcohol beers increased substantially in the USA and the UK in the early months of the crisis.

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One of the most interesting graphics that I saw during the earlier phase of Covid-19 was from the excellent industry research organisation, Wine Intelligence.  This was shown in an online presentation, in early June, focused on the United States (primarily concerned with sustainability).  The graphic reflects how people refocused their drinking choices more towards domestic wines in the early stages of the pandemic.  Interestingly it also shows the regions from which people are buying less wine.

(From a webinar: ‘Consumer and Trade Perceptions on Sustainable Wine’: https://wineinstitute.org/press-releases/consumer-trade-research-shows-increased-demand-for-sustainably-produced-wine/)

As one would expect, consumers tended to shift towards drinking US wine.  This was the key take-out from the presentation.  There are a probably couple of reasons for this.  First, Covid-19 was an alien, invasive entity (‘the Chinese disease’ as President Trump insisted on calling it).  This sense of being surrounded by a dangerous and unknown alien world tends to make people focus on what is local, communitarian and perceived as safe (and remember in this regard the Americans are particularly resistant to travelling overseas, which would help them to see how a wider world works.)  The second reason for this shift is undoubtedly because their economy was taking a hit and Americans would, quite reasonably, have wanted to do their bit to help it back to normal levels by buying more domestic goods.  So far, so logical.

However, I feel the graphic has some other interesting implications.  (These are highly speculative and I only have a hunch to support them, not hard data – so if you want to dismiss this as the ramblings of an ignoramus that’s fine).  The first implication is specifically about the performance of Californian wine.  Those buying more of it are much more than the overall increase in American wine purchasing – but the state also registers a higher percentage of consumers who chose to buy less wine from the state.  Why the two extremes?  Think back to the early stages of the crisis in the USA – a federal government that appears to play down the scale of the pandemic and takes no active role in combating it – rather leaving that to the states.  Some of those states, notably New York and California, take the threat seriously, work hard to contain the disease, and are vociferous in their opposition to the laissez faire attitude of the national leaders.  Meanwhile Trump and his allies aggressively attack those state governments suggesting that they have been hard-hit due to their own public health or organisational deficiencies.  The USA is now, notoriously, a very divided, tribal society, with about one third of the population taking fairly hard-line and non-compromising positions on the left and on the right.  My interpretation of the data is that those who broadly oppose the national government will be happy to identify with (and buy from) a state which challenges it.  Yet, when we look at those buying less from California, the percentage has also increased – which suggests that those with sympathy for the President and dislike for the critical stance of the state leadership show their distaste in their unwillingness to drink Californian wine.

What follows is even more speculative – and statisticians will complain that there is no significance level in the data.  We might, however, draw from this that the higher number of those more likely to drink Californian wine compared with those drinking less (19% more and 11% less) means that wine drinkers are more likely to be opponents of the President than his supporters.  Given the demographics of core Trump support, this would seem quite possible.

There is another aspect to this, moreover, which I find interesting.  If you look at those who have changed buying behaviour to purchase more foreign wine there are variable but low numbers for each country.  However, if you look at the negative figures – those turning against wines for other countries, three stand out as being poor performers: France, Spain and Italy, all registering 20% of drinkers who are buying less of their wine.  One other country, New Zealand, stands out for losing less of its market share than anywhere else.  Now, at this time European countries (especially Italy and Spain and to a lesser extent France) appeared to be coping badly in response to the pandemic.  New Zealand famously was (and has consistently) managed to contain it with minimum damage to health and disruption to the country.  There is a suggestion here that people’s willingness to buy wine has a link to an apparent (possibly subconscious) ‘cleanliness’ or ‘uncleanliness’ of a place.  Perhaps, by association with the origin, we may become infected by drinking the wine from that place – so it becomes taboo.  Note that politics does not seem to be so much of an issue in this response.  The government in France is centre-right, Italy populist and left, and Spain and New Zealand socialist.  Perhaps this suggests we need to broaden our view of what makes a country a suitable source of imported wine beyond the obviously political and diplomatic and include factors of perceived healthiness or factors which may provoke distaste, danger or a fear of contamination.

The interesting outlier in this is Chinese wine.  Only 15% are ‘actively buying less wine from’ China, so despite its stigmatisation as the ‘source’ (even creator) of Covid-19 it is apparently less actively targeted than the European nations.  However, at this point the wording of the question that is posed is important.  Wine drinkers would have been much more likely to buy French or Italian wine (with imports from both countries worth over $2 billion) than wines from China (under $15 million) so most people would not need to ‘actively buy less’ to drink no Chinese wine.

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So how might all of this change the future of wine consumption?  Here are a few ideas – but it is important to remember that national differences, even between apparently similar cultures, can substantially alter how behaviour evolves.  Furthermore, as I said right at the onset of the crisis, epidemics like this don’t usually introduce revolutionary change – rather they tend to accelerate changes which are already in motion.  First, this may be the point where the millennial generation (now aged about 24-40, although the precise ages vary substantially) finally moves to drinking wine rather than beer and spirits. This move, much anticipated (including by Millennials themselves) sees a shift away from alcohol volume (beer, spirits and especially premixed drinks) to lower quantity but aesthetic value.  One American commentator has suggested that this will be the ‘awakening’ and the point at which this cohort wine consumption for the next few decades.  Certainly, while young people are careful to get value for money, they don’t equate value with paying less, and they will buy more expensive things if they consider them worth it.  There are a couple of caveats here, however: the first is that almost all research on Millennials is based on those in the USA, rather than worldwide and previous academic research has reinforced that national differences have an impact.  The second limit to this is that the successors to the Millennials, Generation Z is showing a marked reluctance to drink alcohol compared with previous age groups which may skew the longer term wine consumption trend.

Next, will women drink more wine from now on?  Confinement freed many from the thought of the next morning and the need to be up bright and early to get the children to school (still, until now, regularly a gender-defined role).  In the wake of #MeToo confinement, with fathers forced to be at home as well, may accelerate a move towards consumption equality which was already in train for those who were not mothers.  Perhaps even more important will women be equally involved in wine selection – hitherto generally regarded as a male domain, even where women have been drinking as much as their male counterparts.

Third, perhaps we will see the ‘new occasions’ for drinking become more embedded in our lives.  Online aperitifs are, anecdotally, less satisfying than the real thing when everyone is present – but now we have experienced it (especially with those who are far from us) it is unlikely to go away, and for the more wine interested at least it is likely to increase in popularity.  Again, the use of the internet for exploring wine has been growing for a number of years now, with some forays into drinking during webinars, but now it has moved away from mere education and into the social sphere, and will probably continue even if it is only second best.

Does this all mean boom time for wine producers?  Perhaps.  There is also talk that we will mirror what happened after the First World War and Spanish ‘flu a century ago, and report the exuberance, dynamism and excess of the roaring 20s.

This would be a reaction to the constraints, austerity and state control of our pleasure during the current situation; we’ll want to party every night, it has been argued.  However, if wine factors into partying, what kind of wine will it be?  Serious and expensive wines (top-flight burgundy, Napa Valley Cabernet or Penfold’s Grange) don’t really fit into nightclubs.  So are we going to see an acceleration of the popularity of undemanding pinot grigio which doesn’t need much thought while we’re dancing, or of fizz (everything from prosecco to champagne), and pink wine for the summer pool parties?  Sparkling wine especially (the one wine consumers consider is ‘dynamic’ – in comparison to most wine which is static or quiet) may continue its upward growth patterns if our world finally becomes more active and frenetic.

The way we buy wine will continue to change rapidly also.  Purchasing was already going online (especially in the most wired-up countries such as China).  That is going to accelerate further.  However, it may be that people will be in the habit of buying more less often.  One of my friends who makes wine in France noted early on in the pandemic that ‘instead of going to a caviste and buying one bottle people are buying six bottles; it’s a big change’ and as I recorded above there is evidence that consumers are stocking up for a period and not buying just when they need a drink.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement which was advancing rapidly and energetically in the two years before Covid-19 hit is also benefiting from some aspects of the crisis.  The threat from the sudden onset of the disease has probably made many of us more responsive to the looming threat from climate change and unsustainable lifestyles – and the fact that this threat could crystallise at any minute.  Wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters while the sickness has dominated will have seemed more intensive harbingers of how our world is deteriorating.  Zoom means we need to travel less for meetings and quarantine makes it less attractive to travel for pleasure.  Many of us noted the reduction in pollution when we had to work form home and the decreased costs associated with journeys to and for work.  So, do we buy wine that is more environmentally acceptable?  That means wine which travels less distance, comes in lighter bottles or even – as is increasingly common – isn’t in bottles at all?

All of the above suggests that the move to drinking more wines locally and less imported wine may be part of a longer-term trend.  Even if the tide of political populism in the world retreats a little in the near future (we’ll see in another week if that is the case!) the resurgence of local identity and commitment seems to have settled in for the mid to long term.  Whatever our political outlook many of us are willing to focus on regional or national products to help our immediate community.  Good news maybe for English, German and US wine producers; less so maybe for New Zealanders, South Africans and other export-focused wine industries.

Yet even if we wish to support local businesses, how many bars and restaurants will actually remain when we come out of all of this?  Despite government support in the small to mid-term a number of food and hospitality businesses have already given up and I suspect that the post-virus economic rebalancing will lead more to follow.  Does this therefore mean a continuation of the growing trend to drink at home?  Yet wine is a social drink, so how do we involve others in our drinking if we are going out less?  Perhaps, however, the return of the ‘roaring 20s’ that many foresee will reverse the trend and reinvigorate an apparently failing service sector.

In this context, what will become of wine tourism?  It has been a key factor for many regions in the long-term growth of wine industries and the creation of place attachment and regional brand loyalties.  Yet, if we travel less, and overseas tourists become less common, how will that play out in the continued growth of many new wine regions and emerging countries?  Again South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (with strict limits on foreign tourists coming in for the time being) and many emerging countries in eastern Europe or the Mediterranean may suffer as a result and another way of profiling their wines and building longer-term loyalty will be lost (as well as many jobs in the tourism sector). The last thing I want to mention is nothing to do with wine: it is the growth of ‘hard seltzers‘. For those, like me, who have been sidetracked by their politics from following the really important developments in American life, these are flavoured, alcoholic mineral waters.  They were only invented in 2013, sales in 2018 totalled $210 million p.a., this went up by almost 600% in the year before Covid-19 and by the end of June this year the 2019 figure had already been exceeded.  So why is this important in a blog about wine?  Well, wine may fulfil many consumer needs.  Of course it tastes good, but at some moments wine is about authenticity, at others it is about aesthetic pleasure – the sense of beauty; it has a lot of symbolic meaning and is a great social lubricant.  While alcohol and its effect are part of its attraction it is rare that people only drink wine for the impact of the alcohol.  Yet with hard seltzers we seem to have reached that end of the spectrum a drink only consumed because it is an easy (the drinks may be sweetened, albeit slightly), unchallenging (they are lightly flavoured) source of alcohol.  So what does this say to us?  That, for some people, the key issue with drinking in a period of pandemic is just to feel better.  There is no story here, no intellectual interest, no authentic sense of link to place.  Can that trend last?

This blog theme will not be continued…  At least for the time being.  Normal service on wine and culture is now being resumed.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence VIII: Champagne

[Thanks to Dr. Liz Thach MW for some of the USA information I’ve used here].

Covid-19 seems to have dealt the champagne business a severe blow.  Remember when I started blogging on the plague I said that it doesn’t change the world – it will accelerate changes that are already happening.  That too is happening I think to champagne – although many will disagree with me and say it has overturned the existing landscape.  However, let me explain what I think is happening.

Right at the beginning of the crisis it was noted that champagne sales were plummeting, although the perennially optimistic CIVC was saying that it expected an upturn before the end of the year.  Fifty percent of the wine is (still) sold in France – though the amount has been declining for the last decade but much is sold in bars and restaurants.  With these closed for around four months volume reductions of up to 70% were seen.  Meanwhile, as I’ve noted before, the English speaking world avoids anything which smacks of celebration or success during a recession and it has moved away from champagne.  By the end of May the champagne industry was suggesting a possible loss of sales of 1.7 billion euros for the year and the original hopes for a recovery in fortunes passed by.  More recently it has been suggested that they will sell 100 million fewer bottles this year than normal. The result of this was a big split within champagne.  On the one side were the large houses, already sitting on huge levels of unsold stocks and not wanting to augment them – who thus demanded a big reduction in this year’s harvest.  On the other side the growers who have much less need to sell wine but who rely primarily for their income on selling lots of grapes, and in the middle of the current crisis could not afford to lose perhaps 25% of their income or more.

Nevertheless, if you look at the recent history of champagne none of this decline is quite so revolutionary.  For seven years, from 2001 to 2008 the business was on a roll – continuing the fairly continuous rapid growth seen for the region’s wines for the previous 50 years – as the table below shows.  I remember, in May 2008, hearing a leading member of the CIVC pronouncing publicly that champagne had ‘learnt how to beat the cycle of booms and downturns’.  If only! I assume he was eating his words six months later.

Table courtesy of Dr David Menival

The global financial crisis prompted – naturally – a downturn, with a sales loss of almost 15%.  Yet a few years later the business seemed to be bouncing back, so that by 2011 over one half of that loss had been clawed back.  However, it wasn’t as good as it seemed – as the graphic below shows.  What could be seen as a growing market up to 2011 turns into a stagnant market from 2009 to the present, and despite a good year for the value of sales in 2019, even before Covid-19 arrived this stagnation wasn’t really changing.

What does this mean?  The champenois have been concerned from some time about the threat of sparkling wines from other parts of the world; I think that is too simplistic a view.  My interpretation is that the reason for this longer term stagnation has complex origins, some of them quite long term.  The rise of ‘lifestyle’ rather than social class as one significant marker of identity means that the old obvious signifiers of the community you belonged to, based on a traditional hierarchical symbolism of the things we use, is breaking down; champagne, once the symbol par excellence of the French bourgeoisie and the British aristocracy has less cachet than before and less use as a means of conveying who you feel you are.  Add to that the fact that a new generation of consumers is much less likely to swallow marketing hype (and thus the assumption that ‘champagne is naturally the best because we all say it is’) and you have a tendency to move away from the fizz.  This was reinforced by the instant response of the champagne industry to the economic crisis of 2008, which was to reduce prices to push up sales.  That’s great in the short term, but in the longer term, with some champagne priced a little more than a good crémant from Alsace, or a better Spanish Cava, subliminally it suggested that it wasn’t such a special drink as all that.  Finally, over the last five or ten years, a more general move to nationalism and national introversion (think Trump, Putin and Brexit) and consumers are again moving away from the luxury drink from another country.

Yet, as always with wine, there are exceptions to this.  Blips for some of the summer in Britain and Norway. Most interesting is the USA.  Sales were stagnant there at the beginning of the year – yet astonishingly, whilst they have collapsed elsewhere in the English-speaking world, they have been rising in the United States.  At the end of July Nielsen, the data tracking organisation, claimed that champagne sales had risen 65% since May.  This is an astonishing turn around – so why has it happened?  Nielsen themselves found it hard to explain to us.  There was general comment about the warmer weather, people coming out of lockdown, and doing more gardening – as well as the popularity of ‘quarantini’ cocktails!  Hardly responsible, I’d say, for such a big growth in an expensive drink.  If anyone has any suggestions I’d love to hear  them.

Paradoxically, as I’ve also noted previously, outside the USA other forms of sparkling wine have seen sales behave more buoyantly.  Maybe this is, partly, due to the success of champagne producers in separating their wine from other forms of fizz.  Champagne has been marketed for over a century as the wine for celebration, success and seduction; all other wines with a sparkle – prosecco, cava, Tasmanian, even English – are for having a good time with friends or family.  In lockdown, and even more as lockdown eases it’s the latter which benefit – we want to be sociable again; however, we have nothing to celebrate, there is no success yet, so champagne is not appropriate.  Perhaps more than any other part of the world of wine champagne must be hanging out for a vaccine, and the wild parties which will inevitably follow.  Maybe that, too, will enable them to transcend not just the current crisis but also the longer-term stagnation.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence VI – Wine Production

As I said in my last blog post, I want to devote the next few posts to the world of wine and its changing social and cultural context post Covid-19 (then a more normal service will resume!)  The last post also explained how I think that the impact of the plague will not be to revolutionise the world of wine but to accelerate existing changes which are in train.  So in the current post I want to use this lens to examine how wine production and its culture may be changing in the future.  There are two things which I want to consider: one is how the structures of wine producers may change and the other is producer contact with consumers.

I don’t want to be too economic or business focused, but we need to start with a little bit of business economics.  One is the historic failure of wine businesses to make a return on investment – that is to pay for all of their expenses, including land value, and make a profit as well.  In many parts of the world wineries are not profitable.  One well-known New World wine region, famed for its (often expensive) Bordeaux blends, was the subject of a study a few years ago which suggested that only two of thirty vineyards made a profit; they were kept going by money from other sources.  Equally, in much of France domaines are only profitable because the current owners inherited the land.  Thus, as land prices rise dramatically in regions like Champagne and Burgundy those who inherit vineyards valued at many millions of euros per hectare cannot make the business pay in the future. 

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate this.  In France we already see a number of smaller hospitality businesses close because it just isn’t worth continuing, and this is a good place to stop.  Likewise, I heard anecdotally early in the crisis that it was suggested that in excess of 700 (mainly) small wineries in Australia would have to close because the plague would destroy their distribution.  The age of the ‘lifestyle winery’ (the New World especially) or the domaine without a viable business plan (all over the world) may be drawing to a close.  That doesn’t mean all small and medium-sized producers will disappear: many will stay.  Yet it isn’t a question of the quality of wine – rather good wine allied to business sense – which will keep the survivors going.

Different places will have differing problems with Covid-19.  Champagne grapes are all picked by hand.  Each harvest the sides of the vineyards are full of coaches parked with Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian and other eastern European registration plates; 120,000 pickers, most from other countries, pour in for the harvest.  Lockdown in Europe is easing – but will the same number of pickers want to risk the journey for a few French meals and a fistful of euros?  This source of labour is likely to dry up at some point soon anyway as the eastern economies grow and approach those of the west.  Why do eight hours backbreaking work in northern France when you could have two weeks on the beach in Crete, Croatia or the Costa del Sol?  Perhaps, then, the pestilence will accelerate this trend; the problem, consequently, will be who will pick the grapes?  The French no longer want to, nor do students, nor the Spanish nor the Portuguese; yet the grapes must be picked by hand. 

In a wider sense, the management of harvest – starting in the northern hemisphere within the next six weeks – will be complicated.  How do you maintain social distancing when people pick or work in the cellar in proximity?  Furthermore, how do you stay healthy when you party afterwards?  Are we going to have to revise the protocols for working together not just this year but for the mid-term?

There may be a different issue in the vineyards of California.  Traditionally these many of these were worked and harvested by hand, because cheap Hispanic labour needed less capital than machines.  This has been changing in the last few years; the obvious reason for this may be the xenophobic policies of the current President yet there is another cause too.  The boom of the now-legal cannabis industry has caused many agricultural workers to shift from vineyards to cannabis plantations.  The money is at least as good and the work is less back breaking: cannabis plants are easier to work.  Again, it may well be that the plague will accelerate this trend, thus producing the more rapid mechanisation of the vineyards.

Meanwhile, the fledgling UK wine production industry thinks it is in crisis.  As a comparatively new entrant to the world of wine making it is less secure than most other wine regions.  Additionally, its wines – while excellent – are comparatively highly priced, in a country where price points are culturally very important for wine consumers.  (Wine there, although quite cheap generally, still has connotations of luxury for some consumers – especially sparkling wine which is the main focus of the local industry.)  This is compounded by fears for the coming harvest.  As in Champagne, much has to be picked by hand, and following Brexit the supply of harvesters from eastern Europe is even more under threat than it is in France.

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One group in the production process often overlooked by wine lovers is the grower.  Many people assume that wine makers own all their vineyards, but of course that is not the case.  If there is a declining wine market then smaller and medium-sized producers use their own fruit first and cut down on bought fruit, so growers suffer disproportionately during a vinous downturn.  A report in California has predicted a difficult year for growers in the Central Valley – the powerhouse of the State’s wine production. 

Champagne growers, dependent on the large Houses for their market, also have specific problems.  Sales, having been stagnant for around six years, have dropped dramatically this year.  As a result the CIVC may well reduce the overall yield for the year; so will growers in the region be able or willing to continue.  The slow but noticeable move by some houses to buy land or tie growers in to long-term contracts may accelerate, thus consolidating further the Houses power in the bipartite management of the industry.

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Covid-19 is also forcing wine producers to change the way they engage with their consumers.  Many have had to think about selling more wine directly in the future as distribution, and especially the hospitality sector, has collapsed.  Those producers who have already been active in wine tourism have often – with temporary pauses – been able to respond with some flexibility.  Others, particularly those who do little but receive clients into their house may have lost markets. 

There is a cultural context to this: many (especially in Europe) practice wine tourism by receiving guests – but don’t believe it is a tourism activity; they are just farmers, after all.  Thus, they just welcome customers.  When those customers can’t come they don’t realise that they should react, maintain the link, and create a sense of community for past visitors.  Many of these also are uncomfortable with the technology required to reinvent wine tourism.  I’ll explain this with a story.

One of my colleagues at work teaches a course on Wine Tourism to MBA students.  This normally includes visits to wineries and wine regions.  In April, of course, that was impossible, so my colleague arranged some virtual wine tourism for the students, using Zoom.  One of her regular visits, a small domaine in Beaujolais was really uncertain about this.  He wasn’t sure about talking to students on his smartphone when he was used to taking them round the place he works.  How could he convey what his place was like?  Yet my friend persisted and so he started talking.  Then, as he talked about his winery, he realised that he could in fact use the smartphone to show them the cellar.  Even better, he could walk out into the vineyards and show his special terroir.  He became more and more enthusiastic.  By the end of the virtual visit he realised, very happily, that he could offer the same to his loyal clients with an online wine tourism service.  Without being challenged, however, he would never have seen what was possible.

Other parts of the world, where wine tourism is culturally much more part of the wine experience, have responded much more proactively. 

There has already been pressure to reduce intercontinental travel because of its environmental impact.  Covid-19 seems likely to strengthen this change.  Some in the wine industry have already seen this so that the owner of the Chateau de Pommard in Burgundy has started talking about launching a new vintage of wines with a virtual campaign, then creating a specific digital platform to allow purchasers of their wine to get full, visual wine experiences wherever they are in the world.  It’s also worth pointing out that the Chateau de Pommard is owned by an American who will perhaps be more attuned to what is possible than some of his more conservative neighbours. Other countries have managed the pandemic better than the USA or some parts of Europe.  By early June New Zealand was seeing resurgence of wine tourism and a chance for the industry to revive as social distancing restrictions eased a little.  However, at just the same time in South Africa sales of alcohol were being resumed but there were warnings that small producers, with limited space, would struggle to meet the health and safety conditions for allowing visitors, and with restrictions on restaurant and other hospitality services.  It’s important to remember that the country was much stricter towards alcohol – banning all sales as it went into lockdown.

So, what do we make of this?  Successful businesses may thrive, or at least survive; less successful ones – which in our world means those which only focus on the style of wine rather than their market – will suffer; as I’ve suggested before, Covid-19 will accelerate this change in the short to medium term.  Yet, as always, culture, social expectations and history all pay a major part in creating the environment and the individual approach which explains where and who is likely to be more successful.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence V

My last few posts have explored how the Covid-19 pandemic is intersecting with different cultural and social norms to change people’s attitudes to and behaviour with wine.  The danger hasn’t passed but many countries are at the point of leaving lockdown or confinement.  Thus, although we aren’t at that point yet, in the next few posts I’m keen to explore how the world of wine may change in the post-pandemic world. However, first I want to ponder a little bit of history.  This isn’t just because I like history; I’m hoping it may also set a bit of the framework for the next three or four posts I’m planning (so for those who really don’t like history, stay tuned for my next post). I’ve already written briefly about Phylloxera in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – but I think that a further exploration of how it changed wine, wine consumption and the wine industry, may be helpful in thinking about how the current plague may reshape our world.  Phylloxera, of course, was an insect and not a disease, and whilst it devastated vineyards it was never dangerous to humans as Covid-19 is; no one died from its activity.  Nevertheless, within the very limited world of wine production its impact was overwhelming, undermining established businesses and transforming everything from viticultural methods to regional reputations and market preferences.  However, I would suggest that its major impact was not revolutionary; it overturned nothing.  Rather it was a catalyst; it did nothing new but accelerated what was already happening.

This is best explored by looking at the Champagne region (although it had a similar impact throughout Europe).  Phylloxera arrived in the southern part of Champagne in 1888 but it took another four years for it to get to the centre of the vineyard area.  It spread slowly there, so only reached its peak a little before the First World War.

In 1888 champagne was produced from a large area – somewhere around 50,000 hectares of vineyard land (but down from perhaps 80,000 a few decades before).  Despite the success of the fizz on international markets over the previous 40 years wine production in the region was of predominantly still, red (or deep pink) wine.  It might be made for local consumption or sold quite cheaply, mainly locally and in northern France, including Paris, as well as Belgium.  Yet, it was comparatively expensive to produce in a cooler climate; yields were much lower than now and the cold meant that vintage variation was substantial, both in quality and quantity.  Since the railway link between Paris and Languedoc had been finished less than 40 years before southern French wine producers, blessed with sunshine that offered consistent, large volumes, had been selling cheaper, red wine to the metropolis, made from high-yielding varieties like aramon and carignan.

The vineyards in Champagne were owned by small-scale growers (sometimes farmers rather than just vignerons) and they would have seemed – to modern eyes – a mess, with vines planted higgledy-piggledy in the vineyard at many more plants per hectare than the current 10,000.  When you needed a new vine, you buried the shoot from an existing plant, let it root, then cut it off from the mother (the same system is still used in some parts of the world – notably Santorini).  The grapes included all the ones known today (though without so much chardonnay) but also such lower quality varieties as alicante and gouais.

Sparkling wine, although the minority of production, was growing, produced by the négociant elite who became wealthy on the back of its success.  The vignerons, of course, could not afford the capital needed to produce fizz, nor could they afford to leave it in their cellars for a few years to mature.  Increasingly there were disputes between the négociants and the growers: the former focusing on branding (and willing to be fuzzy about exactly where ‘champagne’ came from in order to keep the raw material cheap) and the latter seeking to defend the economic territory from which their grapes came and concerned to push the price up given the success of the sparkling wine.

So, what changed after the insect destroyed the vineyards?  The first thing was that many small growers – already impoverished as the négociants were paying them so little – gave up.  Planting new vines from cuttings cost nothing: buying Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks was expensive, and they could not afford it.  The contraction of the vineyard, already taking place, was accelerated.  Many sites became arable or root-cropped and if land had good potential as vineyard it was bought by those with money: négociants and richer growers. 

Much of the land given up was planted with red grapes, and the supply of cheaper red wine, both locally and to Paris and Belgium, dried up – Languedoc had won the battle for the Parisian working man’s throat.  The focus in Champagne evolved to be entirely on sparkling wine.

In turn, this augmented the power of the négociants as they had the capital to make, age, and export sparkling wine.  And with that power they could press down even more the price paid for grapes from the growers – whose sole role now was to supply the négociants.  In the longer term, moreover, it accelerated the development of grower cooperatives, which were being founded just as Phylloxera arrived.

What also happened, though, were a series of changes which were used to reinforce the quality and reputation of champagne – and thus justify the high price charged for it.  The first of these was a long struggle (only really completed in the second quarter of the 20th century) to rely only on the ‘quality’ grapes (chardonnay and the two pinots – noir and meunier) and push out the lesser varieties.  This has become part of the mythology of champagne – that only these three will do for great wine.

Alongside this was the battle – again one which pre-existed Phylloxera – to determine what champagne is; that is, what it represents.  Was it a style of wine, made by a well-known House, or was it wine made from a specific and clearly marked place?  The latter view was that of the growers, because limiting the origin of the grapes preserved their scarcity and thus enhanced the growers’ bargaining power.  In the end this was a battle the growers won (with the support of some of the more perceptive négociants who saw that to underline the reputation of the place Champagne would add other forms of value to their wine).  Ultimately this focus on place as the defining character of wine (which was being articulated at the same time in some other French wine regions) led to the appellation system in the 1930s and the modern world’s focus on origin as a defining label for a wine (unlike, say, beers, or many spirits).

Thus, a pestilence changed champagne, and in turn shaped the modern world of wine.  (For those who want to know more about this evolution there is a great book by an American historian, Kolleen Guy, When Champagne became French: Wine and the making of a national identity.)  Phylloxera changed viticulture, industry structure, image management and wine styles.  Yet the key point I’m making – and one which will give the context for my next posts – is that in the end the louse did nothing new; what it did was just accelerate the pace of change which was already happening.  It was not a cause, it was a catalyst.