If there’s a line of black-toothed people heading towards the Valrhona chocolate shop, it means the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône is on again.
Founded in 2001, it’s the moveable trade fair that begins in Vienne in the northern Rhône and then snakes down towards Avignon, in a convoy of buses filled with journalists and buyers, with full-day stops for walkaround tastings along the way.
There is also a break at Tain l’Hermitage that includes a windy lunch on the fabled La Chapelle overlooking the Rhône after a morning of tasting, followed by a stroll through the tiny town on the hunt for chocolate.
It’s a combination of spectacular landscapes, history and wine, organised by Inter Rhône, one of the most capable regional bodies in all Europe. It’s also a chance to take the pulse of a 70,000 ha region.
The summary is that quality is rising, and white wines are beginning to emerge as an economic force. But there are challenges bearing down on the region, which mirror larger changes within France itself.
White wines on the rise
On Monday, 3 April 2023, a state of the union press conference brought together Philippe Pellaton, president of Inter Rhône, Samuel Montgermont, president of Vin & Société, and Denis Guthmuller, president of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône. Pellaton began with a vintage report, noting that 2022 was hot and dry and that climate change was beginning to bite. “They’re not always the same problems,” he said. “It’s certain that from a climactic point of view, it’s not easy compared to the past.”
The white wines, however, showed “beautiful maturity. Great finesse. Wonderful aromas.”
As for the yields, those were balanced, he went on. Red, as always, remained in the lead, representing 76% of the volume produced over the entire Rhône Valley. Rosé is also moving up the charts, at 12%. “We are the third producer of rosé after the Loire and Provence regions,” Peloton went on.
White wines, however, were the big standout, now representing 12% of total production. “Three years ago, they didn’t have such a stable position,” said Pellaton. “We’re working on white wines and seeing how we can diversify them and push them forward.” Interestingly, they weren’t cannibalising red wine sales, he said.
The demand for wines with some sort of sustainability certification is driving changes in farming methods. “There is a very big increase in certified wine, especially organic wine,” he said, adding that they now represent 18% of wines, versus 12% in 2021. “Many farms are converting to organic.” When HVE certification is added in, up to 50% of production is now certified.
Overall, 2022 was “a contrasting and diverse year,” he said, adding that sales had dropped. While the premium wines, the Cotes du Rhone, were “doing well–the Cru and Southern Cru, and Gigondas, are doing well―some are going up by 6%. The premium wines are not in a performance crisis.”
But further down the regional ladder, the picture isn’t so good. “We’ve got issues with volumes,” said Pellaton. “World politics have, unfortunately, had a knock-on effect on sales.” And there’s no help in sight from the domestic market, as French consumers grapple with inflation. “Households have to make a wiser choice about what to buy. It explains the drop of 6% in sales.”
The export markets
The export markets were looking flat compared to previous years, showing a drop in volume of 7%, to 180 million bottles. “It was a very difficult year,” said Montgermont, adding that shortages plus inflation were adding to the pressure. “Many companies are finding it difficult to get glass, or get a place on container ships.”
As a result, the Rhône is actively seeking to increase its premium exports. “As to the geographical breakdown, 65% of exports go to Europe,” said Montgermont. “They’re also going to North America, representing around 23%. These are countries with potential we need to explore.”
"America brings in the most money."
The reason is self-evident. “America brings in the most money,” he said bluntly. Although exports to the USA were down 10%, the value had gone up. Of other markets, the UK was in second place, with Belgium in third. Germany was up in both volume and value, while China was down 19% in volume and 9% in value.
Generational changes in the French market
Domestic sales represent 38% of sales of Rhône Valley wines, with the majority heading for supermarkets. But supermarket sales were down 5% in 2022, as the French buy less red wine. “That’s something we’ve noticed over the last couple of years,” said Guthmuller. “Older drinkers are being replaced by younger, who don’t drink as much.”
Montgermont said the generation gap was having a major impact on sales of wine. “Before, the culture of wine was passed on from one generation to the next. But things have changed.” The paradox facing the wine sector, he said, was that “there is a lack of training and accessibility. Seventy-six percent of the French adore our sector, but at the same time, people have never drunk so little.”
Wine consumption was down 70% among younger people; beer wasn’t immune either, with sales tumbling 68%, he said. But beer, the panel thought, was responding better, because they made an effort to be present at big festivals and concerts, making a new generation aware of them.
However, added Montgomery, the panel were aware that there were limits to how the wine industry could respond. “We have 6,000 wine growers behind us. We can’t tell them all to change what they’re doing to suit the tastes of the young.”
The panel agreed that at least 50% of Rhône Valley production will need to be sold outside France, to compensate for the decline in French sales.
Plans for the future
Of the wine that is currently exported, too much is heading to the low-value bulk wine market. “I think it’s an old-fashioned way of working,” said Pellaton.
He believes wine growers need to develop their own products. “We’re trying to bring the wine growers into the market, to see the consumer,” he said. “That’s a transformation we want to work on.” To that end, he wants to bring winegrowers on trips to Canada and the USA to meet the market. “Maybe until now our communication was static on social media, so we want to take our traders with us. The more of us go out and meet, the better.”
Another issue, he said, was that the Rhône Valley is a major producer of red wine, at a time when red wine consumption is dropping. Premiumisation is one possible solution. “We’re going to try and upgrade,” he said. “What we want to do is look at our regional appellations and raise the profile. Although not all of our wine is high end, we can push it forward.”
Another is to put more red grapes into rosé production. “Our aim is not to plant yet more white wine vineyards,” he said. “That’s too simplistic.”
More controversially, he suggested that not only could the Rhône improve the quality of its lower level wines, but it should try and make them in styles more suitable for foreign markets.
“Maybe more colour, more concentration,” he said.
“Our aim is to be the leading red wine vineyard in the world."
This brought immediate pushback from the French journalists present, who questioned such a strategy at a time when consumers are actively looking for lighter, less concentrated wines.
“The aim is to bring sweetness, structure and fruitiness to the wines,” said an unrepentant Pellaton. “There is a trend towards lighter wines, but it won’t help us sell abroad. If your product does not correspond to the market needs of the market you’re trying to penetrate, it doesn’t work. We want to widen our consumer base.” He added that if any market does indeed want lighter wines, the Rhône can also supply them.
“We need to increase the value,” he said again, adding that he doesn’t want Rhône wines all looking the same as wines available from other areas.
Guthmuller waded in, saying that if many Rhône producers attempt to make lighter wines, all they’ll end up with is “acidic wines that are overripe.”
Above all, the wines have to be relevant to the market. “There is a trend for fruity wines―we can really see it. If you want lighter wines, why not? But they have to be relevant.”
As Pellaton made clear: “Our aim is to be the leading red wine vineyard in the world.”