If wine and food are considered non-separable as a lifestyle product, culinary tourism for a segment of wine lovers is an equally integral part. Many wineries offer wine tastings and tours that, combined with exploring different aspects of food and the destination, have made many wine specialists and tour operators converge on this aspect of wine, making it a lucrative business as well. The Barcelona-based Wine Pleasures owned by an Englishman Anthony Swift who perhaps speaks more Spanish than English after living in Spain for over 25 years, has been organising such international conferences, the previous year being in Georgia which was a sequal to the one in Umbria.
The Conference in Reims on April 8-9 in Marne saw about 250 delegates and professionals where the wine tourism specialists from 40 different countries spoke about the potential in their countries and several tourism bodies showcased their services at the exhibition for delegates at the venue-Reims Congress Center.
A grand reception was held in the charming city of Reims in the grand City Hall on 7th April, followed by snacks and Le Breun de Neuville Chardonnay NV Brut served at the perfect temperature of around 7-8 deg C. This was followed by dinner at Brassi Conti, a beautiful restaurant which is a part of the Grand Hotel Continental, my sojourn for the next four nights. A great way to start the week full of bubbly activities with chunks of foie gras, never-before-tasted Salmon dish and exotic styled Tiramasu. This was perhaps the only time we would have a Bordeaux encounter in Champagne- Kressmann Reserve white from 2013 and Chateau Les Belles Murailles 2012-both adequate but not a strong match against the dominating quality of food.
Philippe Harant is a Director of the Champagne Marne Tourism Office France. After the delegates were welcome by Anthony, he talked about the different Champagne areas and routes on the first day. Harant is passionate about the Marne and was all ears to those interested in promoting the region.
In another seminar the following day he focussed on Iter Vitis a cultural organisation promoted by the Council of Europe, which is working for sustainable wine tourism. It has been formed to share and protect the patrimony of Europe, given by previous generation. He said it was very important to know the cultural background of an area. Citing the example of Champagne region, he said one cannot imagine champagne producers to be poor but many years ago they were really very poor. Vineyards were uprooted in Marne since they didn’t have money to even buy stone to erect walls.
The 10-country member Association also takes up the cause of wine industry as a culture and lobbies with the government, a very important aspect as the French government is toying with the ideas of even stricter controls on the industry to combat the problem of increasing alcoholism.
Tatiana Livesey, partner of the UK- based online portal, Winerist, spoke about the changing profile of the wine tourists and said that the Wine and Dine popularity has spurred the interest in experiential travel. People travel as education for the soul and don’t believe any longer a bucket listing. They don’t want to visit an Eiffel tower but want the local experience. They want more adventurous, more authentic, more gourmet experience that may include a lunch for 5 hours or going to Norma in Denmark or try local dishes. The millennials want to know the story of wine makers and not the label alone. She also presented the result of a global online survey of 500 people, which showed interesting facts for the operators- 88% buy wine when travelling, 70% book holidays online, 98% are wine and food lovers.
Hillarie Larson talked about wine tourism business as selling the dream and reinforced the concept that wine tourists are into engaging themselves and the experience. They want to do out –of the- box things. They expect quality, knowledge, attention and value- and wine tourism has got it all. It involves all of our senses. The experience starts way before you set your feet in the plane and the planning starts well before hand. She emphasised that the first impressions count and stressed the need for the website and Social Media presence.
Susan Lanier Graham focused on the $7 billion Deluxe Tourism market. The deluxe customer expects a custom experience, available only to a few- something where one does not have an easy access. One needs to create a unique experience. It could be a private tasting, a chat with the winemaker, and opening special bottles for the customer or adding on an experience-like a dinner at French Laundry for a Napa Valley visitor. It’s about exclusivity and privilege. She also emphasised that the millennial luxury tourists want something that they can relate to-for instance a barrel tasting or the winemaker talking to them.
There were two very inspiring talks from speakers in London. Ashika Mathews talked about wine tourism in the sparkling wine industry in UK with special reference to the Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall and how the owner has used twitter to communicate and engage with customers and increase the data base. Her talk was really captivating and witty. On a similar note, Christopher Walkey spoke about the importance of the digital and social media for the sparkling wine industry. He said for his business Glass of Bubbly, he had found twitter as a highly powerful tool, where Facebook wasn’t as much help.
A total of around 30 seminars with 3-4 running concurrently made the choice of selection rather difficult at times. There were talks from Hungary, France, Australia, Spain, USA, China, Georgia, Argentina, Canada and Chile on the related topics. India was not behind, with Lavina Kharkwal talking about the state of wine tourism in India. Though it had not yet started in a significant way, she expressed hope that the future would be bright.
The highlight of the First Day was the Grand Tasting where 7 producers show-cased around 21 champagnes. Cité du Champagne Collet- Cogevi (a co-operative with Collet as the popular brand), Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte (another big co-operative), Champagne Bonnet Ponson (a grower champagne producer-who produces wine from their own grapes and don’t buy from outside like the big Champagne Houses), Champagne Dom Caudron (specialising in 100 % Pinot Meunier), Champagne Pannier, Champagne Michel Gonet (whom I had introduced in India about 10 years ago with an evening organised by the Indian Wine Academy at the French Embassy. They worked with Hema Connoisseur in India for a while but could not sustain) and Le Brun Neuville (who had served their Blanc de Blanc Brut the previous day).
Before the tasting, Marie-Anne Louvet, a local Champagne expert took the audience through a quick journey of Champagne and how to taste Champagne. She talked about the grapes used- Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Petit Meunier (though seven grapes are authorised but less than .3 % use the minor 4 varieties and are inconsequential). It was interesting to learn from her that the bubbles would be less if the glass was very clean.
Dinner with VCP champagne
The champagne binge continued into the dinner at the well-known Yellow label (hard to miss) VCP (Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin) owned by LVMH and already sold in India. Music and a magician paired as well as the delicious snacks that were perfect so well with the famous VCP. They also presented their demi-sec Champagne at the end, which wowed the entire entourage. However, they missed out an opportunity to taste a few of their other Prestigious Cuvees including perhaps the famous Grand Dame, ostensibly because of the diversified nature of the guests that included sommeliers, journalists, educators and tour operators.
The Champagne-Marne Tourist Office and Aube en Champagne Tourisme et Congrès had done an outstanding job of organising the event followed by visits to various Champagne Houses in and around Reims, Epernay and Troyes. The hospitality extended made the conference and the Post-conference visits to the Champagne Housed (to be covered in future issues) a pleasant, memorable and bubbly affair.