The Wine Economist

Tundra Red? Tundra White? Reimagining Wine in Canada & the Okanagan Valley

OKSue and I were recently in the Okanagan wine region of British Columbia, Canada, for a winegrowers conference. We had a great time — smart people, exciting discussions, interesting wines. Lots to see, hear, and learn.

If you haven’t visited yet, this region should be on  your wine tourism radar. The Okanagan Valley is about 5 hours by car (or a short plane flight) from Seattle or Vancouver. A bit out-of-the-way, but so are Napa and Walla Walla and that hasn’t stopped you.

Reversed New Zealand?

The Okanagan is sort of like an reversed image of New Zealand. New Zealand is a rugged island surrounded by water, oriented north to south, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from one place to another. Endlessly fascinating if you have the time to explore.

The Okanagan, on the other hand, is rugged land that surrounds deep lake waters oriented south to north, with constantly changing wine terroirs as you move from place to place (and one side of the lake to the other).

Great place for a casual visit, but more serious study is richly rewarded. The Okanagan even has a legendary sea monster — Ogopogo. Not sure if the Kiwis can top that.

Pinot Noir and Riesling are here in the cooler spots, a bit of Sangiovese and lots of Syrah there, Tempranillo and Cabernet around the bend, Pinot Gris in many places. Even Sauvignon Blanc, which is appropriate since some of the winemakers hail from New Zealand.

More Than You Might Think

Many of our friends are surprised that there is wine (and very good wine) in the Okanagan. When they think of British Columbia their thoughts turn to cosmopolitan Vancouver or rugged wild Vancouver Island (which has wineries, by the way). Wine? Do Canadians even make wine?

So they are surprised to learn that wine is not just a thing in Canada, it is an important thing. According to the annual industry review issue of Wine Business Monthly, there were 745 wineries in Canada at the start of 2019. British Columbia tops the table with 317 wineries followed by Ontario (242), and Quebec (130).

Since wine is made in all 50 U.S. states, you won’t be surprised to learn that Canadian wine also comes from Nova Scotia (21 wineries), New Brunswick (15), Saskatchewan (9), Alberta (5), Prince Edward Island (4) and Newfoundland & Labrador (2). Manitoba? No wineries … yet!

Changing Times

Years ago Sue and I were visiting Vancouver and tried to order an Okanagan wine from the list at an upscale restaurant. The waiter refused to take the order on account of his assessment of the wine’s low quality (we ended up with something from France as I recall). I think the wine was made from hybrid grapes, which was the norm for years and probably accounted for the waiter’s negative review.

I cannot imagine having a similar experience today. The best of the wines today are made to a high standard and local chefs are keen to pair them with their farm-to-table menus. Sue and I were fortunate to attend a promotional dinner in Seattle where B.C. chefs (plus Seattle’s iconic Tom Douglas) paired Okanagan wines with local seafood.  Terrific.

Tudra Red? Tundra White?

How you see the Canadian and British Columbia wine industries depends on your point of view. If you take the global perspective, for example, you see only Icewine, Canada’s most valuable wine export.

B.C. Icewine is so good that I think it is actually worth its high price, but it inevitably defines Canada as a cold, dark place (the grapes for Icewine are harvested in the dark of night, frozen on their vines). What else could Canada possibly produce? Tundra Red? Tundra White?

This narrow perspective is even true here in the Seattle area, not so far from the Canadian border. The sight of a B.C. wine on a store shelf (apart from Icewine) is rare indeed. We have a distorted view of Okanagan wine because, Icewine aside, production is aimed at the domestic market and exports are limited.

The Rivals?

The perspective shifts inside Canada, where Ontario and British Columbia are seen as strong rivals for consumer hearts, minds, and dollars. Or at least that’s the impression I got from a CBC radio interview that my Canadian friend Joel sent me a few years ago. Click here to listen (do it — really — it is hilarious). A discussion of BC vs. Ontario wines quickly degenerates into name-calling and worse. I didn’t realize that it was meant as satire until Joel clued me in.

In fact, however, Ontario and B.C. wineries have bigger enemies than each other. The challenge, in my opinion, is help make the pie larger rather than worrying about how it is divided. The Canadian market is highly regulated, especially at the provincial level, so selling wine can be as difficult as making it. This is changing, but for now the scale of most Okanagan Valley wineries is relatively small, limited to a certain extent by their cellar door and local market demand.

Take a Closer Look

Now zoom in closer to the Okanagan Valley and neighboring wine regions. What you see are confident winemakers working diligently to understand their varied terroir and take their wines and wineries to the next level.

When I first heard that local groups were busy proposing sub-appellations in the Okanagan Valley I scratched my head in puzzlement. Hardly anyone outside of Canada has even heard of the Okanagan. Shouldn’t you be building the big Okanagan Valley brand instead of dividing it into smaller and smaller regions and sub-regions with little apparent economic value?

I am still suspicious of the movement to make every wine region as complicated as a map of Burgundy terroirs, but I appreciate that local wine industry leaders feel they are ready for that next step. It seems a little crazy from my U.S. perspective, but the U.S. market isn’t (yet) extremely relevant to Okanagan producers. That could also change — some of the winemakers at the Seattle dinner were looking for U.S. importers. Fingers crossed they made the connections they were seeking.

Things are changing fast, so perhaps these perspectives will converge. Come back next week for our take on where B.C. wine is today and where it might be heading.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

Wine Book Review: Ian D’Agata on Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs

Ian D’Agata, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. University of California Press, 2019.dagata

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs is Ian D’Agata’s sequel to his fascinating 2014 book on the Native Wine Grapes of Italy. (Here’s a link to that book’s Wine Economist review).

D’Agata’s 2014 book was all about balancing breadth and depth by … providing both. He wanted to tell you as much as possible about as many of Italy’s native grape varieties as he could. This is an almost impossible task because of Italy’s vast wealth of indigenous grapes, but he pulled it off. What knowledge! That book sits on my bookshelf in a place of honor.

Aglianico to Zibibbo

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs takes the next logical step and will appeal to readers like me who enjoy a deep dive into the world of Italian wine. The most important native Italian wine grapes from A (Aglianico) to Z (Zibibbo, better known as Moscato di Alessandria) and their regional and local terroirs are analyzed in detail.

Some grapes get a lot of space (Sangiovese of course) and others only a couple of pages (Pecoriino), but the entries are uniformly readable, informative, and interesting. I learned something new on every page.

Understanding Vermentino 

Sue and I recently visited Sardinia and Friuli and I wish this book had been available to help us prepare. The entry on Vermentino tells me all about the grape, of course, and about the important differences in terroir between the Vermentino di Sardinia and Vermentino di Gallura.

Then D’Agata dives deeper, explaining why a few extra days on the vine makes a big difference in the character of the Gallura wines. We tasted the difference when we visited Vigne Surrau in May and now I understand where it came from and can appreciate better its importance. It’s a detail that increases understanding and makes a difference.

There are no real tasting notes here, but each chapter includes a short list of “Benchmark Wines” that would be a great checklist for anyone studying a particular region and its wines or to add to a serious wine tourist’s agenda.

Friuli U-Turn

I was particularly interested in the entries for Friulian native wine grapes. These wines are favorites of ours because they are so delicious and distinctive.  We have just returned from this region, but now I want to turn around and go right back because D’Agata has given me so many more questions to examine, nuances to explore, and wines to taste.

D’Agata helps me appreciate that the Italian north-east is a treasure house of native wine grapes and wonderful wines. It is a region that  deserves more attention that it currently gets. D’Agata is clearly enthusiastic about this region, too. It is his terroir — the area where he spent summers growing up and to which he returns frequently.

Bravo. But …

I am grateful to the University of California Press for making these books available. Wine book publishing (along with print publishing more generally) is not especially a growth industry — a fact that my wine writer friends sadly note. Opportunities to publish fine books like this one are not abundant and UC Press has done a good job here. Bravo! And thanks.

But … while I appreciate that UC Press is keeping the lights on and making fine works like D’Agata’s books available, I wish they’d find a way to price them more like trade books than academic books, so that they can reach a wider audience.

Highly recommended.

Six Things to Do With Surplus Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

cabThe wine grape harvest is just around the corner in California and Washington State and, while that’s a great time of the year, it will present economic challenges to some winegrowers. There’s going to be an awful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested this year. Most of these grapes are contracted, but some will be looking for buyers and it might not be so easy.

Cabernet has been the top choice for new plantings for the last several years and it is easy to understand why. It is a noble grape and can make terrific wine. Consumers love it, so growers have responded enthusiastically. The problem, as has been noted here before, is that wine demand generally has slackened just as new supply is reaching the market. For a few years at least there is likely to be a surplus of Cabernet Sauvignon in many regions.

In fact, the surplus is already here, or at least that’s how I read the recent reports from Turrentine Brokerage. Turrentine data show the highest level of Cabernet on the bulk market for many years. Add the 2019 harvest to the current market and you have a problem — not for everyone, but for those who are left with unsold grapes or wine.

Econ 101 Meets Yao Ming

What do you do when you have too much Cabernet? Econ 101 suggests price adjustment — cheaper grapes, cheaper wine, and so on. But there are limits to this strategy, especially since the lower price tiers of the retail market are in decline.

Export sales are another Econ 101 solution and certainly there is an opportunity here, especially if President Trump succeeds in talking the dollar’s exchange value down. But the president’s trade wars have had an offsetting impact on wine exports.

Countries that compete with us in the export markets, notably Australia and Chile, have aggressively sought out free trade agreements to boost sales. The U.S. has recently taken the opposite strategy. U.S. wines are therefore a tough sale today in many export markets including especially China, where Australian and Chilean wines find great success.

Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball legend, has trouble selling his signature Napa Cab back home because of 93% tariffs imposed in response to the Trump administration’s policies. If Yao can’t sell Cab in China, there is not much hope for the rest of us. Export markets are unlikely to absorb very much of the surplus Cab. Other options?

Searching for alternatives, I consulted the most recent Nielsen market figures in the current issue of Wine Business Monthly and found a few ideas to consider if you find yourself holding excess Cabernet this year.

#6 Two Words: Red Blends

Red blends are a useful market category because you can blend away unfashionable or surplus grape varieties without consumers necessarily noticing what’s up. Syrah and Merlot are not as popular as they once were as varietal wines, for example, but blend them together, call the result a Red Blend, and consumers snap them up. Cabernet blends would be very competitive at the right price. This market segment is fairly large but, unfortunately according to the Nielsen data, its growth has stalled a bit this year. That means we need to think about …

#5 Three Words: Sweet Red Blends

See “Red Blends” above but add some residual sugar.  I don’t have a lot of personal experience with these wines, but I see them everywhere. 19 Crimes, which tastes sweet to me, has a successful varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is not uncharted territory. Even better, why not try …

#4 Rosé of Cabernet

Rosé is the fastest growing market segment in the Nielsen table. A lot of that Rosé comes from France, to be sure, but the market is large and fluid.  Picked at the right time, Cabernet makes a nice Rosé and in fact there are a great many produced both here in the U.S. and around the world.

As I noted here earlier this year, there are tricks to the Rosé trade to consider. Rosé is not that easy to make, since color is a concern, and can be tricky to sell because consumers prefer the most recent vintage and demand seasonality is a factor, too. If you like the idea of Rosé of Cabernet, then I think you will also like …

#3 Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

Take two fast-growing categories — sparkling and Rosé — make the wines from Cabernet  and you are ready to go. The only thing that could be better is …

#2 Canned Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

… because canned wine is also a thing (watch for a report here in the near future) and it is growing fast. Have you seen all the new canned wine displays in the supermarkets? Don’t dismiss canned wine too quickly.

Canned sparkling Rosé of Cabernet leverages three hot trends to use up your excess Cab. It is a perfect storm of wine. What could be better? And while you have the mobile canning equipment hooked up, you might consider …

#1 Canned Sparkling Cabernet + Black Currant Spritz

Seriously!

I am paying more attention to the canned wine displays and one thing I note is that canned wine spritz is generally right beside the other canned wines. These seem generally to be mixtures of wine, fruit flavors, and carbonated water. They sound refreshing and they have less than half the alcohol of regular wine. A Cabernet and Black Currant spritz sounds drinkable to me on a hot day, but you might prefer blackberry or some other fruit flavor.

Since the consumer segment that is interested in low alcohol products is growing, I can see how this trend might persist.  Something to consider.

Seems Like a Stretch?

Bottom line. The U.S. industry is going to need to find uses for its  excess Cabernet Sauvignon if the potential surplus materializes. These examples are ways to take advantage of the small number of growing wine market segments. If it seems like getting Cab products into these segments is a stretch, then it shows how much more pressure there will be on the traditional product markets.

I hope the market can absorb all the Cabernet that’s coming its way. Fingers crossed.

Is Sustainable Winegrowing Sustainable?

Is sustainable winegrowing sustainable? Yes. But there are headwinds and challenges to overcome before this expanding movement will achieve its full potential. Here’s my report.

sonoma

Sustainability is a powerful movement in northeast Italy where Sue and I participated in a program sponsored by the Consorzio Collio. I spoke on a roundtable panel on sustainable winegrowing’s many sides. One of the other speakers had recently converted his family vineyards to organic viticulture and he talked about the experience and his commitment to sustainable winegrowing.

A hand went up. Now that you are spending less on chemicals and so forth, a journalist asked, will be you passing along the cost savings to consumers?

Wow — I didn’t see that question coming. Implicit in the query was the assumption that organic or sustainable wines should be cheaper than other wines, not simply better for the environment. Most winegrowers, however, hope that sustainable practices will be rewarded in the market place — that consumers will be willing to pay higher prices for sustainably-produced wines, not demand a discount. Environmental sustainability needs to be economically sustainable to survive.

Survey Says …

I would like to say that wines that are certified as sustainable or organic or biodynamic do command a price premium, but I don’t have the data to support this broad conclusion. Wine is a complicated product category and it isn’t easy to compare sustainably-produced wines with similar wines made using conventional practices in order to extract the existence and size of a general price differential (more about this below).

Much of the research on this subject, therefore, has involved surveys that ask consumers how much they hypothetically would be willing to pay for sustainablly-produced wines compared to others.

pay-more-for-eco-certified-wines

A good example of this research is a study that Sonoma State Professor Liz Thach MW reported in 2017, which is the source of the graph above. The survey sample of 301 wine consumers, which was weighted towards women (74%) and Millennials (65%), found a generally strong willingness to pay more for wines with sustainable certifications.

payup

Recently Lullie Halstead, CEO of Wine Intelligence, presented the results of a larger study of U.S. wine drinkers that both reinforced a strong willingness to pay and uncovered significant generational diversity among Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boom consumers. Millennials in the study, for example, were more than twice as likely as Baby Boomers to say they would be willing to pay a $5+ sustainability premium while 43 percent of Boomers said they wouldn’t pay any extra at all.

The study suggests that consumers would be willing to pay about $3 more per bottle for a sustainably-produced wine. What do you think? How much more would you be willing to pay?

Walking it Back to the Vineyard

Since it is hard to determine if sustainable wine actually receives a price premium in the market, I decided to work backwards. If sustainable wine sells for an average $3 premium, then sustainably-grown grapes should sell for a premium, too. How much? The Law of 100 holds that in general if grapes cost $1000 per ton more, then the wine has to sell for at least $10 more per bottle ($1000/100) to pay the bills. It’s a back of the envelope sort of calculation — a long way from rocket science, but useful here.

Working backwards, the Law of 100 rule of thumb suggests that a $3 higher bottle price should translate into a maximum of $300 per ton grape price premium. That could be a substantial incentive for winegrowers to farm sustainably depending on the region.

What is the sustainable premium for wine grapes? Once again it is hard to generalize because there are all sorts of special cases in grape contracts. But I consulted two well-connected California colleagues and the answers they provided were very consistent. In general, sustainably-farmed wine grapes receive a premium of $15-$25 (average of about $20) per ton. That’s a lot less than I was expecting. It implies a very small potential bottle price premium — nothing like the $3 survey result.

Some contracts provide a premium up to 7.5 percent, I’m told, which can be valuable depending on the underlying grape price and yield. In many cases, however, the premium is exactly zero. Grape buyers specify sustainably-farmed fruit, but are not willing to pay extra for it. Bottom line: growers generally farm sustainably because these are sound practices, not (yet) for the money.

Why is the Sustainability Premium So Low?

Why is the sustainable grape premium so low? One answer is that premiums are low because it is a buyers’ market for some grape categories these days. With surplus grape supplies and wine in tanks from previous vintages, buyers don’t pay more because they don’t have to. That is bad news for growers in the short run but better news in the long run because the supply-demand imbalance is likely to adjust over time and perhaps improved prices will follow.

A second answer is that the grape premium is low because the premium for sustainable wines is low — much lower than the $3 per bottle estimate. How can this be? Are the survey-takers fibbing? Well, sometimes people do give “aspirational” answers to survey questions. But there’s another answer. Consumers may be willing to pay more for sustainable wines, but they can’t tell for sure which ones they are.

Organic and biodynamic are very clearly defined wine terms (although consumers may not fully understand them — especially biodynamic), but sustainable does not have a single meaning or certification standard. Most of the regions we visit have their own sustainability certification programs, each tailored to local conditions. So the term sustainable shows up a lot and doesn’t always mean the same thing. This is one reason why it is hard to calculate the price premium for sustainable wines.

My colleague Danny Brager tells me that his team at the Nielsen Company tries to track sustainable wines (by their measure they account for about 2.1 percent of the table wine market by value, growing at a fast 8.1 percent rate), but the lack of a clear definition means that anything that has “sustainable” on the label gets counted. That’s probably as good as most consumers can do because they don’t fully understand the difference between certified and non-certified wines or the variations among certification programs themselves. But it makes deeper analysis difficult.

Why Can’t Wine Be More Like Fish?fish2

The term sustainable is popular in part because of this ambiguity. I found one wine that boasted “Sustainably Dry Farmed” on the front label. On the back label I learned that this meant that the vines were actually irrigated (which seems like the opposite of dry farming to me) … but only as necessary to sustain the vines themselves. The fluid nature of the term “sustainable” makes all the difference.

Does that mean a one-size-fits-all certification program? No. I actually think that the fact that there are many regional sustainability programs is a good thing, even if it confuses consumers a bit, because it increases the proportion of the industry that adopts sustainable practices.

Sue points out that consumers support sustainable practices in other sectors when they understand them and appreciate their importance. Sustainable fisheries are important, for example, and many retailers and restaurants make a point of featuring sustainably-harvested seafood. The existence of different certification programs doesn’t seem to diminish the impact.

What? How? Why?

We meed to make sustainable wine as transparent and appealing as sustainable fish. Perhaps the key is to focus less on the what and how — what we are doing (certification) and how it is done — and more on the why. The why is pretty clear when it comes to sustainable fisheries. Maybe we can make the why of sustainable wine clearer, too.

Sustainability would be more sustainable from an economic standpoint if we could communicate better with wine buyers so that the sustainability premium is greater and trickles down to growers better than it does today. Sustainable sustainability? That’s a goal worth pursuing.

The Trouble with Being King of the Hill

mappa-collio

For a long time Collio and its neighboring regions in Italy’s upper right-hand corner have been King of the Hill when it comes to Italian white wines. It started in the 1960s when Collio, which had long been known for its excellent hillside terroir, abolished the old share cropping system, which favored quantity over quality, and got a head start on many competitors in the adoption of modern temperature-controlled white wine fermentation practices.

Exceptional grapes were combined with winemaking techniques that preserved fruit and aromas. The results were some stunning mono-variety white wines — Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and native varieties, too — that established the region’s reputation.

The Trouble with Hills

As I noted last week, Sue and I have been coming to Collio since 2000 and the wines have gotten more and more interesting — strength built on strength. But the trouble with being King of the Hill is that you must constantly defend your position against determined competitors and this has been Collio’s challenge.

Collio’s distinctive terroir is impossible to copy, but other wine regions have worked hard to reel in Collio’s early lead in vineyard and cellar practices. Now there are excellent white wines from many regions of Italy north, south, east, and west. Some of the Vermentino di Gallura wines we tasted recently in Sardinia, for example, were absolutely world class.

And of course there are competitors from all over the world to be considered starting of course with New Zealand, which was only a fly speck on the world wine map back in the 1960s. There is a lot of competition today for the title of King of the White Wine Hill.

Grape Expectations

Collio’s challenge is ironically made more difficult today because of its focus on mono-variety wines. Pinot Grigio was easy to understand in the early days compared with wines identified by appellation. That was an advantage. But today there are Pinot Grigio (and Sauvignon and Chardonnay) wines from all over the world and the Collio brand is perhaps overshadowed in New World consumer minds, which often focus on grape variety more than region.

The focus on grape variety unexpectedly puts Collio in directly competition with New Zealand, California, Australia, France, and a host of other regions. The advantage of a hilltop position is diminished. The fact that Friulano, the region’s signature native wine grape, has been serially rebranded (Tocai, Tocai Friulano, Friulano) under orders from the intellectual property police hasn’t helped.

So Collio is facing increased competition from other parts of Italy and other parts of the world. There is also more competition within Friuli itself. We heard reports of massive new plantings out on the plains that threaten to flood the market with cheaper wines and drive down precious margins. They won’t be Collio appellation wines, but they will still compete. Yikes!

Collio Bottleneck

There are as many responses to the the increased competition as their are growers and producers. One important initiative is Collio Bianco, a signature white wine blend that producers hope can help establish the region’s brand more concretely in consumers minds. Think Collio (not just the grape varieties) for exceptional white wines .

bianco

The official definition of Collio Bianco has evolved. Once this wine was a simple field blend. Then it because a loosely regulated blend of native grape varieties that was noteworthy for its lack of distinctiveness. Kitchen sink wine, made with leftovers not used in the favored varietal bottlings.

More recently Collio Bianco was been defined as a white blend made from just about any mixture of native and international grape varieties. The idea is to give winemakers freedom to make the very best wines and have them bear the Collio label and fly the region’s flag.

A special bottle shape was created to further distinguish this wine from others on the shelf. What do you think?  The longer, thinner neck requires a special cork. Choosing this bottle (it is a voluntary program and the special bottle is not required) is a commitment to promoting the region’s brand as well as the individual producers’ products.

One Blend to Rule Them All?

Our hosts arranged for our press group to taste 24 examples of Collio Bianco. Vintages ranged from a 2013 (Primosic Klin  — it was spectacular) to several 2018s (bottled earlier than usual especially for Vinitaly and maybe not at their very best when we tasted them).

Some of the blends focused on the native grape varieties. Gradis’ciutta, for example, presented a Friulano, Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla blend.  Others producers combined native and international grapes. Venica & Venica’s Tre Vigne blended Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon. Ronco Blanchis blended Friulano, Malvasia, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Marco Felluga’s Molamatta combined Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Ribolla Gialla. It was, as you might guess, a pretty interesting experience, especially since we tasted the wines blind.

The Weight

The question now is what is Collio Bianco and can it bear the weight of expectations? The wines we tasted showed high quality but, given that they come from different producers, sub-regions, and vintages using different grape combinations, we struggled to find any other defining characteristic. And I guess that was the point of the exercise. Only after the fact did I realize why the tasting was titled “Characterized by not being characterized.”

So Collio Bianco wines have quality and they are diverse. Each is a bit different from the rest and consumer experimentation is richly rewarded. This is surely something, especially since the wines from some other regions sometimes seem to all taste alike. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

The good news is that many Collio producers recognize that the challenge of being King of the Hill and they have determined that quality and distinctiveness is the right response. The region also benefits from a consorzio organization with strong leadership and, just as important, pretty good follower-ship — not something that we always find. The greatest mistake would be to rest on past accomplishments, ignoring the competition’s gains,  or to think in terms of quantity instead of quality. That’s the fast track from the top of the hill to the bottom.

Rediscovering Collio’s Iconic White Wines

 

Collio, the beautiful wine region in Italy’s upper right-hand corner near Slovenia, along with its neighbor Colli Orientali del Friuli, is one of our favorite places to visit and makes some of our favorite wines, too.  We’ve been there three times and each visit has revealed something new.

Flashback to 2000

We were lucky on our first visit in 2000 because we stayed at Venica & Venica, a top producer that was just getting started developing its hospitality program.  We happened to arrive on Cantine Aperte day when all the wineries in the region were open and welcoming guests. Ornella Venica gave us the key to our room and handed us a map. Get going, she said, You have a lot of work to do today! And so we did. What fun.

A few days later we moved to a rustic cabin at the Sirk family’s La Subida. The cabin was great because we could eat at the famous restaurant when we wanted to but also use our little kitchen to create our own meals. This gave us the chance we were looking for to explore the markets and try even more local delicacies.

The wines we found were a revelation — mainly white wines with a few reds (notably Merlot) mixed in. We were especially drawn to Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc here), which had a fascinating brightness and precision. We found ourselves on a beautiful island of great white wines in what seemed like a vast sea of Italian reds.

Fast Forward to 2015

Somehow it took 15 years for us to return to this part of Italy, but we finally found an opportunity when I was invited to give some talks at the Conegliano wine school in 2015.  This time we stayed at BorgoSanDaniele in Cormons and then, at the urging of friends, at Il Roncal in Cividale del Friuli. It was not Cantine Aperte day, alas, but we visited a number of memorable wineries, which I wrote about in articles for The Wine Economist.

A lot had changed in 15  years. Revisiting Venica & Venica we discovered a much expanded winery and an ambitious winery resort hospitality complex.  The region was growing into its potential as a wine tourism destination. We tasted more sparkling wines than on our first visit, a reaction to the changing market conditions created by Prosecco’s success. And we encountered more (and I think better) red wines. Climate change at work, we were told.

We still loved the Sauvignon wines (including one from Tiare that had recently been named the best such wine in the world), but this time we were drawn to the native grape varieties, especially Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Tocai Friulano among the white wines and the various varieties of Refosco among the reds.

Enjoy Collio Experience 2019

We vowed not to let so much time pass between visits to this region, so we were delighted to receive an invitation to participate in the Consorzio Collio’s  Enjoy Collio Experience 2019.  We took part in the activities of a press and trade tour and I spoke briefly for a roundtable discussion on sustainability.

We stayed at the elegant Castello di Spessa, which includes vineyards, winery, golf course, restaurants, rooms, and of course a castle all just a few minutes from Cormons. Giacomo Casanova lived here at one point and his name and image are everywhere.

The focus of this event was clearly on Collio, so we were able to explore its special terroir in more depth (see Stephen Quinn‘s excellent video above) and get to know the wines and winemakers at blind tastings led by Richard Baudins and through winery visits, dinners, and other events.

What stood out in these experiences? Well, we were attracted to certain producers we didn’t know before including Primosic, Gradis’ciutta, Livon, Bracco, and Ronco Blanchis. (A tasting of 12 vintages of Friulano at Ronco Blanchis, which has a very special terroir, was memorable.) And we had an opportunity to learn much more about the region’s designated white wine ambassador, which is called Collio Bianco.

Once upon a time Collio Bianco was a simple field blend, but then it evolved into a sort of kitchen sink wine. Winemakers took their native white wine leftovers and mixed them up. I am not sure it was a really bad wine, but it didn’t represent the best that could be done.

Starting in the 1990s, however, there has been a determined effort to remake Collio Bianco into the region’s flagship wine. Winemakers were given more freedom to blend their best grapes in order to produce distinctive white wines that are brilliant when young and have the potential to evolve over time.

The Collio producers are so proud of their Collio Bianco that we devoted one complete morning to blind-tasting 24 of the wines from different producers in different parts of the region, made with different combinations of native and international varieties, and from a number of different vintage years.

How were the wines? And why is Collio Bianco important to the region’s future? Good questions! Come back next week for analysis.

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Video credit: Magic soils of Collio from Stephen Quinn on Vimeo.

Many thanks to the Consorzio Collio for inviting us to participate in Enjoy Collio Experience 2019. Special thanks to Klementina Koren and Matteo Bellotto for their help and hospitality. Cheers to all the Collio winemakers and international journalists we met along the wine road. We hope to see you again!