Beaujolais might appear at first to be a strange choice for Vinexpo to host its third Explorer event, inviting up to 100 buyers from all over the world to discover and explore a wine region that up to now has not had the international focus. But whilst Beaujolais might be so well known, how relevant and important has it been to major international buyers over the last five to 10 years? This was a chance to help them see a new, rejuvenated Beaujolais, with so many new wines and styles to show. David Kermode was there for The Buyer, equally inquisitive to see how this new Beaujolais would perform.
Beaujolais was its glorious best this week as it welcomed buyers from all over the world on the third leg of Vinexpo Explorer’s annual series of buyer tasting and networking events.
When Beaujolais was chosen to host this year’s Vinexpo Explorer, cynics could have drawn some dark parallels – here was a trade event whose obituary was being written by some, choosing a wine region that has suffered a relatively recent near-death experience.
Would ‘Explorer’ resemble a wake? Well, if it did, it was some send off. As buyers converged on Morgon’s Chateau de Pizay, the sun was shining, the mood was palpably upbeat, and business appeared to be brisk.
Vinexpo Explorer offers a deep dive into a specific region, balancing background – terroir expert Nicolas Besset gave a masterclass on the region’s complex patchwork of soils – with a series of vineyard visits, a well-curated tasting – five hours to sample 150 wines, from big co-operative to artisan – and, most importantly for the region’s producers, a version of speed-dating to do deals.
This was the event’s third outing – Vienna was the first host, followed by Sonoma – and the President of Inter Beaujolais Dominique Piron set the tone with his opening address, putting conviviality at its core: “Beaujolais is a wine for sharing, a sign of friendship, a wine not for thinking, but for drinking”.
“I have known the blue skies and I have known the storms”, Piron said, as he talked candidly about the region’s recent travails with its focus on quantity over quality, “but a new story is being written in Beaujolais. A new generation of winemakers, a new generation of wines and a new generation of consumers”.
Explorer a route to Vinexpo’s future
Six months into the job, Vinexpo’s new chief executive, Rodolphe Lameyse, the first to be recruited from outside the wine and spirits industry, was also in ebullient mood as his strategy for the organisation starts to bear fruit: “I will leave here rejuvenated”, he told me, as he outlined his three metrics for the event’s success: “Firstly, we look at the impact for the host and we have really raised the image of Beaujolais with the buyers. Secondly, we assess the volume of business being done and all the signs suggest it has been a smash. And thirdly, we just smell the ambiance as people share their passion.”
Lameyse admits the market for trade shows is crowded, but he believes the Beaujolais event offers a valuable route for Vinexpo’s future: “In terms of revenue, it is small, but in terms of impact it is really important”, he says. “We want to grow Explorer and also deploy the spirit elsewhere in what we do. We are different; we are about a balance between content, business and atmosphere; and we are about re-connecting with the winemakers”.
Lameyse staunchly defends the decision to have another Bordeaux show in France, with next year’s first Vinexpo Paris show, having joined forces with Wine Paris, itself a merger of Vinisud and Vinovision, to create a new wine event with the two shows sitting alongside each other. The first European show of the year of that size will be an opportunity to steal a little march on the mighty ProWein.
“From day one, I said we should change”, he insists, “they were scared when I said we were leaving Bordeaux. I heard people say ‘Vinexpo is dead’, but I said ‘wait and see’ because we have a clear strategy and we will deliver”.
As a measure of Explorer’s increasing importance, after next year’s wine-focused version – the location of which is yet to be revealed – there will be a new spirits edition, making its debut in 2021, with the aim of both shows becoming annual events in the calendar.
Bathed in autumn sunshine, it’s fair to say Beaujolais could not have looked more beautiful as it welcomed the delegates for the three night event that began with a relaxed reception and culminated in Michelin-starred cuisine courtesy of the legendary – and recently departed – Lyonnais legend, Paul Bocuse.
Bringing together 70 buyers from 32 different countries, including many who are yet to import wines from Beaujolais, to meet 60 of the region’s producers, the vibe appeared to be ‘work hard, play hard’. A relaxed family-style dinner on the second night saw a genuine coalescing of buyers and producers, sharing magnums of their best wines from different vintages, over a dinner of delicious ‘Poulet de Bresse’, reputed to be France’s most expensive chicken. The room positively roared to the sound of conversation and laughter, with an ambiance so good you could bottle it.
Beaujo’ has its mojo back
Dominique Piron describes Beaujolais as “a very French paradox: an historic region rooted in tradition, producing wines for the future”, a reference to the fashion for the lighter, brighter styles that Gamay delivers which could not have come at a better time.
Piron spoke fondly about the origins of ‘Beaujolais Nouveau’, as bistros raced to be the first to offer wine from the new vintage on the third Thursday of November, whilst also acknowledging that a triumph of marketing had not necessarily been a victory for reputation: “Nouveau was a strong story, but we did not achieve a balance. Now, Nouveau is only one part of the story”.
Despite its reliance on a single grape, Gamay (Chardonnay represents a mere 2% of production), Beaujolais now emphasises its diversity, with 12 appellations, featuring 10 distinctive Crus at the top end, offering enticingly different experiences from fruit bomb to Burgundian. The tasting session amply reflected this, from the fragrant, floral charms of Fleurie to the precision and power of Moulin-à-Vent. It also gave a nod to the future for the region: the ‘young producers’ section featured nine winemakers, with the youngest, Lucas Mandon, just 21 years old, already making the most of Gamay’s great potential.
As for Vinexpo’s future, with its near 40 year history, Lameyse admits that its recent challenges represented “a mid life crisis”, but he is confident that, like Beaujolais, its best days lie ahead: “I say 50 is the new 30 and we have plenty of ideas for what comes next”.