Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Rhône Valley Wine Fair

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Yesterday was the first day of a full week of Rhône Valley wine fairs. I accompanied JP to the Costières de Nîmes wine fair located in a Château in Roquemaure -- for me just a 20 minute drive from Avignon, but a good hour from Vauvert. In the village of Tavel, the Southern Rhône crus wines of Tavel and Lirac were set up. And every day this week, mostly in Avignon, but also up the Rhône in Hermitage and beyond, the various appelations and crus of the Rhône Valley each had their place and time (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras in Avignon, alongside many Côte du Rhône, and up north, Hermitage, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, etc.,). All these vintners were hoping for one thing: to find a couple more importers for their precious liquids.

In our case, the organic wine fair in January had been very promising, and it doesn't look like it will be that difficult for JP to sell his wines this year -- the organic market is up, the region was hit by bad weather (JP's domaine excepted), and his wine is in the right price range for the current economic crisis. Good organic wine at a good price. But nonetheless, no one can take anything for granted, as the direction of the year and the extent of the crisis, are still unfolding.

We set off early in the morning, with the wine samples carefully stored in JP's trunk, the handy notebook and stapler for business cards, new contacts etc., and a healthy dose of optimism and curiosity. The fair was very straightforward. Located in the handsome Château de Clary in Roquemaure (site of a piano concerto festival every summer). Each vintner had a very small stand with a few glasses, a bottle of water, a wine opener, a pen, a spittoon, and above his head, a small flag announcing the name of the domaine/château, etc., The dominant color was red.

We were on time, but the visitors were a bit slow to arrive. However, by 11AM things were bustling and Dutch, American, Italian/Flemish, French and English importers and agents were doing the rounds, tasting and taking notes, or in many cases, catching up with prior contacts, suppliers and friends.

As the potential importers stopped at the stand, we sussed out their lingual preferences, and then either one of us addressed them in French, or I suggested English. This is always a delicate moment, as people who've worked hard to master French are a proud bunch, so, I'm careful not to use my English unless it is desired. This leads to one of those interesting social dances of my speaking French to an American importer, and vice versa. I've come to the conclusion that I most definitely still have a slight accent -- any Frenchman can guess that I'm not French within a couple minutes of speaking with me. However, competent foreign (particularly anglo-saxon) French speakers aren't so sure. I think I bluff them with the sheer speed of my speech. I don't eat my words, but you do need to listen carefully to hear all of them.

As the crowd turned we had a couple Dutchmen taste our wines pretty seriously, pleased to know that they are organic. Once they had passed on, JP and his colleagues commiserated over the fact that in general, whenever they've worked with the Dutch, they typically have to be ready to negotiate hard to keep the price they would like to receive for their wines. Adept businessmen and notoriously stiff negotiators, the Dutch always push for a lower and lower price. On the flip side, American importers don't usually negotiate prices, but they do have all sorts of other elements that make the American market a difficult one to get into, yet with interesting potential. A very sociable Italian who imports to Finland lauded our wines extensively, "ah, Robert Parker would give this one a 95!)... we'll see if he was all hot air, or if his promises of moving into the Polish market are serious. We recognized a couple of retired sommeliers who'd been at the organic fair -- here too to drink at their leisure and go home sloshed? I think their trick is to drive their camper van to the site of any and all wine fairs in France, spend the night and wake up right there, ready to go in and drink away.

Lunch was a strange affair. A dozen preparations designed to be paired with the wines served in plastic glasses no larger than shot glasses. Some were excessively salty (cold sausage and cold lentils), some were excessively rich (blood pudding), some were too acidic (green vegetable purée and ?), others a bland disappointment (oily brandade on top and green shredded vegetables on the bottom). Happily, the bread was good and plentiful. Five slices got me through the meal, and somewhat sated my hunger. Did they pair well? The daube was good, if cold, and yes, an ideal pairing with the concentrated reds of this region. As for the proposals for the whites, they were few, and yes, improved a bit by the crisp and citrus notes of many whites in this region. But, for those of us who were drinking more water than wine and thus were tasting with a sober tongue, it was a bit lacking to say the least.

I care more and more about food and wine pairing. It was always an element to be considered during my years running the cooking school in Arles. Erick and I had acquired a nice cellar after our years of visiting wineries, and it was often my job to choose and suggest the wine(s) to accompany the evening meals. Normally I begin with a dish, and wonder and test which wines will go with it. I work with the basic rules of acidic with acidic, heavy and concentrated with richer fare, lighter reds or roses with white meat and picnic meats, but then it is important to taste and test. The results are occasionally surprising. Out at the domaine we have three wine-tasting and wine-pairing weekends scheduled through the spring and fall. JP will teach the wine-tasting portion, and I'll finish off the weekend with a meal designed to permit sampling the numerous wines tasted and discussed with the dishes served. It is an open-ended art, that even those who teach are willing to admit to the occasional surprise, disappointment, and delightful discovery.

Back to the fair. Always a bit rough after lunch. Those who are there to taste are enjoying their cafe outside in the glorious sunshine, reveling in being in Provence, and those of us who are there to work are starting to feel a bit lightheaded and dizzy on our feet. Nap time anyone? I ducked out for ten minutes of shut-eye leaning against a tree in the garden, then returned to my post. At this point, I saw a serious American importer we'd met at the organic wine fair, caught his eye and encouraged him to come over and chat. But we also had another American agent stop by, his teeth terribly purple at this point, and he tasted each of the wines thoughtfully and carefully, taking careful notes, using his very good if strongly accented French.

All in all, an interesting day. We'll see who turns into a proper sale in the future. Now it's time for the follow-ups.

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