Jiles's Blog

Who Am I?

17 years spent living and working in Champagne has allowed Jiles to build up a vast amount of knowledge about all things bubbly as well as a very extensive network of contacts, especially amongst the smaller and less well-known champagne makers whose champagnes will probably amaze you with their quality and diversity.

A job as area manager for Asia and Australia with Moët et Chandon was what first drew Jiles to Champagne after completing an MBA in Luxury Brand Management at ESSEC, a prestigious business school just outside Paris.

After nearly 9 years at Moët Jiles moved back to the UK where he started one of the first online businesses promoting and selling grower champagnes,

However the draw of ‘The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings’ once again proved irresistible and another 8 year stay in Champagne was the result. During this second stay in Champagne Jiles worked with the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de Champagne as an accedited consultant for small, independent champagne makers before setting up his own consultancy.

Jiles now spends his time between England and Champagne.and puts his knowledge and contacts to work helping wine lovers everywhere learn more about champagne and helping businesses and individuals to create their own private champagne brand.

He is the author of two books on champagne, several concise guides to champagne  and is the creator of an online champagne study course called My Champagne Expert

 


 

CHAMPAGNE HARVEST 2016 - A BAD CASE OF WHITEVANITIS AND SORTING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

CHAMPAGNE HARVEST 2016

A BAD CASE OF WHITEVANITIS AND SORTING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

White-vansYou can tell immediately that the harvest is in full swing in Champagne. One tell-tale sign is the rash of white vans that appears all over the vineyards (OK there are a few grey ones too, but there are so many white vans that one suspects that Champagne is keeping the whole white van manufacturing business going)

Another sign is the busy roads. I use the term ‘busy’ loosely because anyone who lives in a major city or town would laugh out loud at what passes for ‘a lot of traffic’ here in Champagne, but nevertheless there are a lot more people around than usual. That’s hardly surprising seeing that it is estimated that close on 120,000 extra jobs are created for the period of the harvest: that’s not just the pickers themselves, but the caterers who feed the pickers, the people who transport the picked grapes and the plethora of other support staff that are needed.

Another sign is the crisscross pattern of black tyre tracks on the road where cars have driven through the sticky mass of juice that drips onto the tarmac from cases of picked grapes that start leaking on the way to the press house.

It’s an exciting time of year and it’s all too easy to let the heady atmosphere go to... well, to your head. This tendency is no more apparent than in the prognostications that everyone and their dog start making about the quality of the harvest, but once again this shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, it’s a rare wine maker who comes out and says “My wine is rubbish this year. Don’t buy it” (although to their credit Nyetimber, for one, did decide not to bother picking their harvest in 2012 because they felt the quality of the grapes was not up to their standards).

Wine makers and wine retailers are far more likely to emphasise the positive side of the harvest. A case in point is the claim recently made in the publication Drinks Business

2016 VINTAGE ‘BETTER IN ENGLAND THAN CHAMPAGNE’

It’s certainly true that France has had a lot of bad weather this year and that the UK has probably had the better of it, but whilst that is promising for UK wine makers, it is not a guarantee that the wine in one country will be better than the wine produced in the other. Mind you, you certainly can’t blame the English wine makers from wanting to get their claim in as early as possible – that’s just normal marketing practice.

However, most serious wine makers, whilst being optimistic about the quality of the grapes as they come off the vines, will tell you that until the first fermentation is done and the wine has had a few weeks or months to develop, it is simply premature to make any sweeping statements about whether or not the juice will make great wine. So, in just the same way as a grape picker has to select only the good bunches and leave any that have traces of rot, it pays to be selective in what you read in the wine media. Even ‘experts’ can get it wrong ,conclusions reached in haste can be mistaken and no one knows for sure what the passing of time will bring.

For example....

Decanter magazine has just announced that it has included Dom Pérignon 1975 into its Hall of Fame

But back in 1975 when they were harvesting the grapes there was little indication about how great the wine would turn out to be. In fact according to Decanter:

On paper, 1975 was not an ideal vintage. Spring was cold and budbreak late, though flowering took place in fine conditions. The summer was warmer than usual, with a few August storms.

Harvest began on 29 September and had to be completed fairly rapidly, as the weather soon worsened. A small crop produced wines high in acidity, which gave many 1975 Champagnes the structure for long ageing.

vinegarFinally, I can’t resist telling you two quick stories about a champagne maker I know who has a mischievous sense of humour and who delights in pulling the wool over the eyes of people who should know better. On one occasion he bought some white vinegar at the local supermarket and put it in the fridge the night before a tasting with some prominent journalists. The next day he served the vinegar, ice cold, as the first wine to be tasted. There were several comments about the ‘wine’ being too cold, a bit rough, or too young, or green, but only one taster suggested that it wasn’t really wine at all.

On another occasion the same champagne maker was visited by a very well-known wine writer. A range of champagnes were served but, unbeknown to the wine writer, wine 1 and wine 5 were the same. Wine No.1 received very complimentary remarks but wine 5 was said to be mediocre at best. Go figure.

As for the 2016 harvest, let’s come back in February or March next year and take another look at how the wines are developing.

“I like your wines but they’re too expensive“. Useful feedback or an excuse for poor salesmanship?

Low-price-imageI am losing count of how many times wines (I am talking mainly about grower champagne in which I specialise) have been presented to prospective importers only to hear words to the effect of ‘I like your wines, but they’re too expensive.’

I think this is a pure cop-out and in my view it is an excuse that is trotted out to disguise the fact that there are way too many people in the wine industry who are either too lazy or who lack the skills to sell properly.

I suspect that many people will disagree with me and I admit that I see only one side of the story so I’d appreciate hearing from importers and distributors and retailers who can tell me why they think I’m wrong ( or perhaps, just maybe, think again about what their role is in the value chain).

Adding Value

That word ‘value’ is a good place to start to explain my point of view.

It is far too easy to assume that value simply mean a low price. The two are not the same.

In my view the sales person's job is to sell at the highest possible price consistent with the quality of the product. Sure you need some help from the producer to provide you with the basic selling arguments and information you’re going to need to sell to your customers, but the producer can’t provide you with the marketing tools if the ex-cellar price has been screwed into the ground.

Besides the role of the importer/distributor / retailer is to add value by convincing the buyer of the quality of the product so that the buyer is happy to pay the price asked so that everyone from producer to consumer has a fair deal. This is sometimes not easy and regrettably, so it seems to me, when faced with any difficulty the easy knee-jerk solution is to tell the producer that he/she must reduce the ex-cellar prices.

Beating the market

Another commonly heard comment from wine buyers in the trade is “The market price for your type of wine is only $X and that means we have to buy at $Y”

I respectfully disagree. This is too mechanist and unimaginative way to approach the issue.

I worked for many years for several major wines & spirits brands. It was always made clear by the bosses that results that were merely in line with the market performance were unacceptable. The people in the sales force – me included – were paid a good salary to exceed the market trends. If we couldn’t do that then management couldn’t see much point in employing us – better to just leave the market to determine the sales results. I think we can all agree that no CEO who wants to retain his job long would accept such a situation. So the sales force had to come up with ways to beat the market in terms of sales volume and sales value and that is exactly what a champagne ( wine ) producer expects from his or his import and distribution partners.

Consumer expectations

Yet another pretext for demanding low ex cellar prices is that “Consumers are more savvy these days. They know what the ‘right’ price is and that’s all they are willing to pay”.

Of course consumers want to feel that they have a good deal but that does not automatically mean a low, low price. You only have to look at the prices paid for some of the top brands to see this is true. Often a price that is slightly above the norm is intriguing for the consumer who wants to understand why. This is a great opportunity for any sales person to use their sales skills and provide the information, justify the higher price and leave the buyer/ consumer happy to pay a little more.

This is particularly true for champagne which is seen as something of a luxury purchase. Buying champagne whether it be for oneself, to share with friends or to give as a gift is an indulgence that is designed to give pleasure to the giver and the recipient. It’s illogical to believe that any buyer would chose only the cheapest price available – where is the pleasure and sense of self-worth in that? It is also illogical, and frankly damaging, constantly to think that marking prices down is the only way to sell champagne.

Two final points

1) Note that I am not advocating that anyone reduce their margins in order to keep the re-sale price as low as possible; quite the opposite in fact. What I’d like to see is better selling and marketing so that margins could be maintained at every level of the chain.

2) I’m leaving aside the question of whether or not the wine is good quality – we have to assume that it is because a) the importer has said he/she likes it and b) no wine sales person who offered wine that he/she truly believed to be poor quality would last long in business.

So that’s why I feel that the plea for the ex-cellar prices to come down and down again so as to re-sell as cheaply as possible is way too facile an approach that demands no skill and produces little or no benefit and little or no satisfaction.

Let me know if you agree or disagree and please say why.

Opportunities in the USA

US FlagThe US wine market has been growing for a number of years and, according to an article in Shanken News Daily, the growth is set to continue for many years to come.

Even though the estimated rate of growth is only 1.1% versus 2015 that still means an extra 3.5 million cases ( or 42 million bottles) in 2016!

Even better news for champagne is that sparkling wines are growing at a much faster rate: +6 % in fact, and total sales are expected to reach a total in 2016 of 225 million bottles.

Much of this volume increase is accounted for by domestic sparkling wine and, amongst imported wines, by prosecco – in other words, at relatively low price levels - but, at +7.7% in 2015, champagne sales volume is also increasing quickly

The best news of all is that in terms of value the USA overtook the UK in 2015 to become the number 1 export market by value.

You can read the full article here

http://www.shankennewsdaily.com/index.php/2016/07/08/15350/exclusive-u-s-wine-market-pace-grow-20-million-cases-2020/

 

Grower Champagnes in Crisis

Prorietaire - Recoltant

Tyson Stelzer, the Australian champagne commentator, recently posted a very detailed article about the state of the Australian champagne maket.

http://tysonstelzer.com/articles/growers-in-crisis-despite-record-smashing-champagne-year-down-under/

The article is full of data and charts and makes interesting reading if you're into statistics. However I was intrigued as to why, with so many topics raised in the article, Tyson chose to use the title Growers in Crisis?

Well, I think the topic is very relevant. In fact it deserves a closer look and when you do delve a bit deeper I think you’ll see that the situation is both better and worse than Tyson suggests...

Meunier Fights Back

The middle week of April has come to be called ‘Champagne Week’ here in Champagne: over 6 days some 18 different associations of independent champagne makers host tasting events at which anyone involved in the wine business can taste still wines from the previous year’s harvest (2015 in the case of this year’s events) and also a few of the champagnes made by each producer.


The events offer a fascinating insight not only into the wide and very diverse world of the small champagne makers  - with at least 10 wine makers in every association you could potentially meet 200 champagne makers, or more, if you have the stamina to visit every event - but also into the champagne making process itself and in particular to the complex skill of  blending which involves finding the perfect combination of still wines that will produce the result the champagne maker wants when the wine has been transformed into champagne and  is finally ready to sell at a date many years into the future.

Meunier-Institut-300
Each event and every association is interesting but this year I wanted to seek out some of the newly created associations of champagne makers and decide to visit the Meunier Institut at their event in Basiieux-sous Chatillon, a good 20 minutes’ drive outside Epernay down la Vallée de La Marne and consequently one of the less busy venues. As the name suggests the members of the Insitut are avid proponents of the virtues of Pinot Meunier (or just Meunier as we are encouraged to say now).


In the past there has been much said about Meunier  and  lot of it has not been very complementary:  ‘it’s rustic and lacks elegance’; ‘it has no finish and just disappears from the palate after a fairly short time’; ‘it’s OK for young blends but it doesn’t age well and it will never make great champagne’; it’s too sweet’. All these accusations and more have been levelled at Meunier, and perhaps – especially in the past -  there’s been some truth in all of them, although it should be remembered that Krug sets great store by Meunier and it always features significantly  in their blended champagnes – if it’s good enough for Krug it can’t all be bad.


However the members of the Meunier Insitut are no longer content with saying that Meunier is better than you might imagine, they’re presenting a different view of Meunier as a grape of great potential that can make superb champagne. Here are a few examples that may well make you want to take another look at Meunier.


Barnier-300Champagne Roger Barnier (Village: Villevenard)  100% Meunier Extra Brut
Just looking at the label is a delight for a real champagne lover – lots of information to absorb not least of which is the fact that the champagne is already a very respectable age although that is nothing compared to the age of the vines, the youngest of which were planted in 1955. Another thing that struck me about this champagne was how very light and floral the aromas were – quite the opposite of what you might have expected if you blindly default to the stereotypical view of Meunier as a varietal that produces champagnes that are pleasant but are fairly ponderous and simple.

Originel-300Champagne André Heucq (Village : Cuisles) Cuvée Originel 2001
Cuisles is prime country for Meunier: situated in a valley running perpendicular to the Marne River Cuisles is one of the rare villages where there is a layer of green clay (illite) in the subsoil that adds its own unique character to the wines.
 Actually this The Cuvée Originel wasn’t one of the wines that was being offered for general tasting so I was lucky to have the opportunity to try it and as a champagne from the 2001 harvest ( which was not one of the greatest)  it certainly gave the lie to the idea that Meunier champagnes don’t have any ageing potential. True it isn’t a pure Meunier because the blend is 30% of Pinot Noir, but there is still plenty of life and freshness is this excellent wine that must surely be thanks, in part at least, to the high proportion of Meunier.

Meteyer-from-decanter-300Champagne Météyer (Village: Trélou-sur-Marne) Brut Exclusif 2007, zero dosage
Interestingly this champagne was being offered from a decanter which opens up a whole new topic for discussion, but this cuvée would certainly be an eye-opener for anyone who thinks that Meunier wines are all too sweet. Yes, the natural fruitiness of Meunier does create a full, soft sensation on the palate that may give the impression of sweetness, but to the best of my knowledge the sugar content natural present in Meunier is no higher than in any other varietal.
This zero dosage champagne strikes a lovely balance between fresh acidity and soft texture in the mouth thanks to the character of the Meunier, the age of the wine and the fact that decanting has reduced the natural effervescence of the champagne.


The moral of the story?
As in all things to do with champagne and perhaps with wine in general: ‘Don’t accept what the accepted wisdom is until you have tried and tasted for yourself’.


The champagnes of the other members of the Meunier Institut are too numerous to mention them all here but there are all worth discovering. The other members are:
Eric Taillet (Village:Baslieux-sous-Châtillon)
Moutardier (Village : Le Breuil)
Xavier Leconte (Village : Troissy-Bouquigny)
Serveaux Fils (Village : Passy-sur-Marne)
Roger-Constant Lemaire (Village : Villers-sous-Châtillon)