Friday, 21 November 2014

Observations on Naked Wines


I’ve written very little on this blog about two of the biggest challenges for small independent wine producers. How to raise finance and how to market their wine. Big subjects requiring serious professional research, but I have some observations in a specific context.

Here are some perennial questions. Why is it so hard to sell small grower’s Languedoc wine to the UK market? How can a winegrower expand their business? How can sustainable finance (especially post 2008) be obtained? With limited time and budget, can wines be marketed in far away English speaking countries?
There seems to be an answer that addresses all of these questions to some extent without introducing too many more.

I first came across Naked Wines back in 2011 when it was much talked about (mainly sceptically) on social media. Four highly respected Languedoc domains I’ve followed for years (Domain Jones, Virgil Joly, Domain Saint-Rose and O’Vineyards) are involved so add to my curiosity and intrigue. For a description of Naked Wines' business there are links at the bottom of this post.

In brief, Naked Wines is essentially an on-line mail order platform where customers (can optionally) subscribe to help small wineries with capital and buy wines guided by customer ratings and discussions. There are two further crucial attributes. Everything is wine novice friendly and non-stuffy, plus there are photos and pen portraits of the winemakers themselves. You can even ask the winemakers questions on a shared forum. There are no wine fiches, just a few plain words to communicate the style of each wine.

Back in 2011 I was sceptical, mainly fuelled by: -
  • A buyer cashback scheme felt overly gimmicky. This has been discontinued and the customer proposition nicely simplified. Members, called angels, do pay a £20 monthly minimum towards orders and this, their website states, funds winemakers (until the customer places and order).

  • Pricing has a “normal” along with a typically 25% to 50% discounted member’s price. This plays the game UK consumers love so the reality must be that more customers are attracted by this than put off. After all, the very successful now near nationwide Majestic is always peppered with plenty of rotating buy 2 bottles and save a quid or two deals. UK supermarkets permanently freature BOGOF et al promotions.

  • All the wines seem to be exclusive to Naked Wines so are not available elsewhere. In some cases the grapes won’t be from the grower’s vineyards or even nearby, but this is explained for the wines I’ve checked. This makes assessing value for money guesswork. I have never seen nor received an answer to his, so concluded that if the winemakers are happy with their overall package of funding and sales that’s fine. All wines are scored as the percentage of customers who would buy again (as opposed to not buy). A simple mechanism that should ensure the perceived best value wines sell. Many, including the four Languedoc growers, continue to make and market their regular lines.
At the time of typing a third (21) of the French wines listed are Languedoc-Roussillon and they don’t dominate the cheaper wines. Will this expand the UK market? Given the growers produce separate ranges for Naked Wines then there isn't direct competition with established specialist merchants. A few customers will be lost to Naked Wines, but their marketing isn't really aimed at the established enthusiast or customer who likes a personal service. There are also plenty of quality small grower Languedocs yet to be represented in the UK.

With the emphasis on engagement with the personalities behind the wines hopefully Naked Wines can only nurture new wine lovers to take a more in-depth interest and move on. Growing the UK customer base is the one thing that should benefit everyone.

Jancis Robinson’s piece is here jancisrobinson.com/articles/naked-revisited

Quartz offers an interesting business perspective here qz.com/naked-wines-wine-is-ripe-for-disruption-and-this-man-is-doing-it

Naked wines web site.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

2014 Vintage prospects


For the past two vintages (2012 and 2013) the Languedoc, and indeed most French Mediterranean wine areas, have faired much better than the rest of France. The Languedoc avoided the 2012 wet spring and summer, in fact rainfall was well below par in most sectors. In 2013 the late cold wet spring was shared with the rest of France, but in many areas grenache struggled to set in the early June downpours. After that, buoyed by healthier water tables and sun, things purred along into a 2-3 week late harvest blessed with ideal weather.

By all accounts 2014 is a great deal more encouraging for France as a whole than the previous two growing seasons. However, for the Languedoc 2014 has been one of the more challenging of the millennium along with 2007, 2002 in the east and, for heat reasons, 2003.

First up there was very little rain for the 12 months to June 2014 with the region suffering the driest winter for 20 years. This reduced yield to varying degrees and the vines I've observed had noticeably less foliage as the summer went on. Water stress could have been much worse had there not been several summer storms to keep the vines going although some pockets received very little precipitation.

Hail damage was a France wide phenomenon over summer and, unusually, the Languedoc didn't escape. Vineyards in the Languedoc-Roussillon are a big target with La Clape along with significant parts of Corbieres and Minervois suffering extensive damage.

Grenache vines on 9th October 2014 waiting to make a late harvest style red
Nevertheless, the quality of the grapes was excellent and most whites, along with quantities of early ripening red varieties (such as Cinsault), were harvested before the storms of the 8th September. Further deluges followed on 17th and 29th. Each event deposited weeks, even months of rainfall in just a few hours with the axis from Béziers through to the Pic St Loup particularly affected. The storm of the 29th broke records for a single day's rainfall around Montpellier. I head an extreme story of a vineyard near Montpellier severely damaged by trees carried down by a torrent.

Some vineyard in the flatlands were under water to varying degrees for an extended period. Those on the slopes fared better, but matters were not helped by humid weather after the deluge on the 17th. The normal pattern after rain is for the bone dry Tramontane wind to dry the vines in hours. One upshot is that yields have been reduced further by the necessary triage. All these factors mean that for quality concious domains the harvest is down from 20% to over 60% on 2013. Mourvèdre, the latest ripening popular variety, will have suffered the most. Some good new is that the gaps between the storms were long enough for the acid/sugar balance of the grapes to stabilise.


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A lot of bottle at Villa Symposia


Large format bottles at Villa Symposia impressive winery outside Aspiran. For comparison the labelled bottle is standard size.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

I overlooked Pastis

Following on from my last post on marc and spirits I overlooked mentioning Pastis. Having nothing to do with grapes and wine is a good reason, but love it or hate it, aniseed based spirit and the Mediterranean are pretty inseparable.

Pastis has French origins in Provence and the big and well know names still come from beyond the Rhone. As with wine there are artisan producers, and as with fine and marc, there aren't many. Differentiation from large scale producers is through the use of fresh aromatic plants many producers grow themselves.


My tipple is Pastis des Homs from the northern edge of the Larzac plateau. Added to the aniseed and liquorice base are 15 aromatic plants (thyme, rosemary, savory and the like) grown on site. The result is a taste at the fennel end of the aniseed spectrum with no bitterness. Light, yet is packed with flavour and almost has crunch. I also like the snow white it turns when water is added; most take on an unappetising yellow tinge. About €22, but as a bottle lasts me a season well worth it.

For a deeper star anise style try Pastis aux Plantes from Bernard Marty. Made in the heart of the Hérault at St Thibery several ingredients are included in the bottling so the maceration can continue until the bottle is finished.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Marc

I am not a big spirits drinker. I enjoy an island malt in winter on some of the days I haven't imbibed in alcohol. Needless to say when in Scotland......... I've also enjoyed fruit Eau de Vies over the years and currently the lightly oaked La Vieille Prune from Louis Roque is an at-home malt alternative. After a restaurant meal in France though my digestive of choice is a marc.

At the Faugères high summer fete this year Matthieu Frécon was demonstrating his still. The stove on the left heats the fermented brew and the boiled off alcohol and other vapours pass along the turquoise towel wrapped pipe to the vessel on the right. Here it condenses in a water cooled coil and the dribble of clear liquid going into the steel bucket is the result.


As I understand it the process is repeated before water is added to give the desired alcoholic strength.

Being principally a wine rather than fruit growing area the still is put to work on fermented stalk and skin leftovers. This produces an Eau de Vie called Marc (pronounced marr not mark, a mistake I made for many years). If the Marc is then aged in wood the result is coined Fine which is legislatively/geographically to Cognac or Armagnac as Méthode champenoise sparkling wine is to Champagne.

I generally prefer Marc to Fine for it's purity - the essence of grape stalks, pips and skins without any tannin. Served cold in an iced glass is a treat the more switched on restaurants offer.


Matthieu Frécon also provides a service for other producers. If you can find it, my recommendation would be for Virgile Joly's marc.

This 1895 Faugères Fine (bottled in 1985) was opened at the much missed Le Mimosa restaurant at the end of a soirée back in 2011. A privilege and interesting to try.


Friday, 4 July 2014

Restaurants and wine

Wine lovers generally despair about how much restaurants mark up wine but fortunately have better knowledge than most to find value. They often spend more seeking something interesting but avoiding the overpriced and overrated icons many restaurant feel they just have to list (Grange des Pères is one of the most common Languedoc examples). Too many restaurants operate percentage mark-ups making more expensive wines unattractive.

A few years ago, pre banking meltdown, we stopped visiting one of the "best" restaurants in Pézenas - hardly high praise given Pézenas has always been a dining minefield. The house wine, that I discovered retailed at under €5, reached €20 making the mark-up on the trade price scandalous. Even more galling was that this neo-bistro (l'Entre Pots, now with new ownership) didn't have to fund such overheads as swish service, linen table cloths and flash stem-ware.

A fairer and more transparent system is to operate a fixed mark-up, the "droit de bouchon". In France, wine bars invariable double as a caviste, café and informal restaurant and the norm will be to typically add €7 to €12 on to the caviste price. Only expensive/rare bottles will be understandable exceptions to reflect the risks. To be fair, many restaurants that take wine seriously operate something closer to a fixed mark-up and value can be found with more expensive wines.

Drink locally is a tried and tested restaurant tip in wine regions.  For a start they should be a match for the food and will invariably be sourced directly from growers and often at wholesale prices. Spot these and everyone wins.

I came across this faith restoring example at L'Ami Paradis, a new seasonal café resto at Mourèze in the Lac du Salagou area. Putting aside the fresh and tasty lunch (the main course "les burines" is stuffed courgettes) their short wine list represents near caviste prices. I'm not familiar with Domaine Campaucels. Trois Terres is seriously local and all about maximum Languedoc oomph. My (biased) pick would be the Ribiera Causse Toujours.


I put the 31 days in June down to post France World Cup celebrations.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A wine book the Languedoc could do with

Wine books specific to the Languedoc are a mixed bag, but then that's the case for any wine region. The challenge; the Languedoc-Roussillon is vast and a hotbed of new entrants. This makes the useful half-life of any book covering growers and their wine much reduced.

Three books stand out for me.

Languedoc-Roussillon: The Wines and Winemakers by Paul Strang has given most pleasure. Published in 2002 and out of print, but still worth acquiring second hand.


Rosemary George's The Wines of the South of France is of the same era, 2001, and is the definitive English guide with a focus on producers. Available for the Amazon Kindle, a physical copy will be tougher to track down. Fortunately Rosemary is a prolific poster on the region's definitive wine blog tastelanguedoc.blogspot.com

While the above two will appeal to aficionados, The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon by Wendy Gedney (2014) is an up to date introduction that will excel at inspiring and educating wine lovers to the region's total wine culture. Don't expect many producer recommendations - that need is best served by blogs these days. Read more about Wendy, her wine holidays and her book on www.vinenvacances.com

I must also mention Virgile's Vineyard: A Year in the Languedoc Wine Country by Patrick Moon
(2004 and 2013). More an insight into local life with an appeal well beyond wine buffs, although I found Patric's food and produce orientated follow up Arrazat's Aubergines: Inside a Languedoc Kitchen and even better read.

The reality of publishing and publishers today means new specialist subject books are in decline. However, there is an alternative approach for authors. A year of so ago I took a punt and helped "crowd fund" Wink Lorch's book project Jura Wine. She regularly presents at my local Charlemagne Wine Club and the evenings are always left-field, passionate and through provoking.

Sufficient backers paid for a copy in advance to go beyond just securing publication and Wink was able to write 350 pages with some tasteful professional photographs. Wherever you need it delivered to, you can purchase a copy directly from Wink here jurawine.co.uk/jura-wine-book


Does the Jura and Languedoc have anything in common?  For any overlap in wine styles you need to go the vin naturel route - the Jura is home to the father of modern natural wine in France, Pierre Overnoy. Less tenuous and more relevant, both are under appreciated and little understood regions.

Is such a fine book viable for the Languedoc? The Jura has 200 vignerons and the majority are presented in Wink's book and required several months of research visits. The Languedoc is simply so much bigger. The Herault valley area alone has over 200 producers and even Rosemary George's master-work covers barely 20.

I can't see anything remotely comprehensive in print happening, but more musings on this later.