Bergerac Wine Region, SW France: Lessons in Wine Tourism

Caro Feely walks through the Marche de Noel in Saussignac with her usual friendly and confident air.

We smile and greet each other.  I congratulate Caro on her recent important win in the world of wine tourism.   Chateau Feely, of which she is Co-Proprietor with her husband Sean, is one of the 9 Gold Trophy winners in the first French National Wine Tourism Awards: Trophées de l’Oenotourisme.  Chateau Feely won Gold for the Category: Education and Valorization/Recognition and Valuing the Environment.

This trophy award is significant as it puts the achievements of Caro and Sean at Chateau Feely on the national scene.   With their January 2020 inclusion in the Forbes Travel Magazine list of 5 best places to learn about wine, they are now on the international map.    This is tremendous recognition for their hard work and commitment.

In addition to the sale of their organic and now biodynamic wines, Chateau Feely situated in the village of Saussignac, part of the Bergerac Wine Region, offers the visitor a broad repertoire of activities and events.   Wine and Spirit Education Trust wine courses, the organic/biodynamic learning and education trail through the vineyard, ecologically built holiday accommodation are available.   Wine tours and events such as wine harvesting days, the wine club and recently added yoga lessons taught by Caro, a qualified yoga teacher, round out the vacation experiences.   There are also Caro’s three books providing a personal and entertaining insight into their experiences at Chateau Feely over the years.

I ask Caro if I can take her photo and write about what Chateau Feely has achieved in my blog.   She is happy with both suggestions.

I’ve known Caro since about 2007.   When we first met Caro and Sean, with their two young daughters, they were starting to make their way in the wine world in this beautiful part of SW France with their wine farm on the edge of the small village of Saussignac, about 20 mins from Bergerac.

Sean focuses on the farming side of the enterprise and Caro, with her background in marketing in the world of technology, moved the business forward in terms of visibility.   Her leadership skills of focus, strategic thinking, perseverance, entrepreneurship and commitment to action have all contributed to where they are today.

Saussignac, this small village of about 420 residents, resting in the shadow of the 17th Century Chateau with 12th Century and earlier roots, is very much a part of the local wine community, having its own Saussignac Appellation for a late harvest delicious wine made by various wine makers in the area.

The village of Saussignac plays a leading role in wine tourism in the area and highlights the importance of community engagement and collaboration.   Led by a dynamic group of local people, the village hosts weekly wine tastings on Monday evenings in July and August presented by a different wine chateau each week. The Confrérie du Raison d’Or de Sigoulès organizes weekly walks in the surrounding countryside during July and August.   The village supports periodic Art Shows, theatre and music productions.   A new restaurant in the village, Le 1500, with its welcoming courtyard, offers delicious and interesting meals.   Le 1500 and Chateau Le Tap, an organic winery adjoining Chateau Feely offer excellent accommodation.

The Bergerac Wine Region has seen a steady growth in organic and biodynamic wineries, certified or following organic farming principles.   I have written about several of them in the past: Chateau Le Tap, Chateau Lestevenie, Chateau Court les Muts, Chateau Monestier La Tour, Chateau Grinou, Chateau Hauts de Caillevel, Chateau Moulin Caresse, Chateau Les Plaguettes, Chateau Tour des Gendres, Vignobles des Verdots and Chateau Feely.

So what does wine tourism mean?   In France, it is interpreted to encompass the countryside, heritage, history, culture, wine of course and all the people involved. It’s a broad perspective.

The objective of the Trophées de l’Oenotourisme is to shed light on initiatives taken by these winning wine chateaux and their proprietors, who like everyone in the wine industry, work hard every day to put in place strong and attractive wine tourism offerings to suit the changing demands of clients and to encourage others through these examples.

The opportunity to share wine tourism ideas is particularly important as the market for wine changes due to various issues including a gradual change in consumption, the effects of climate change on the grape varieties grown in wine growing areas and the positive focus on quality not quantity.  It’s a sector under pressure and the sands of the wine industry are shifting.

This first national award scheme of Trophées de l’Oenotourisme for wine tourism is a collaborative initiative of the French wine and lifestyle magazine, Terre de Vins and Atout France, France’s national tourism development agency.

The list of the 9 Gold Trophy winners is noted at the end of this article.   I have looked at the websites of each of the winning chateaux and found that exercise interesting and informative.  In addition to these 9 chateaux, there are many others throughout France pushing the envelope on wine tourism.

When considering how people choose to spend their discretionary money, it is interesting to look at the world of retail.   It appears people are buying fewer ‘things’ and spending their money on experiences.   This seems to be a trend in vacation planning.   As Caro says: “Our clients are looking for more, that extra something, when they go on vacation, and we provide that through our educational and environmental approach”.

We live in an age of increasing stress with the many diverse demands place on individuals and families.   Mental health is a significant workplace safety and wellness consideration for individuals and organizations.   A vacation in the countryside where one can have enjoyable experiences learning about nature, the environment, benefit from exercise, fresh air, good fresh food and excellent wine sounds like a healing proposition.

What are the lessons one can take away from observing what is happening in the world of wine tourism?   These include:

  • Keeping up to date on trends, particularly about the evolution of the mature wine market.
  •  Learning new skills and expanding knowledge of relevant topics
  • Using technology effectively to communicate with potential visitors
  •  Investing time, energy and money (sourcing development funds where possible) to remain current
  •  Adaptability. **
  • Collaboration and networking
  • Community engagement

To benefit from this awards initiative, one way of looking at these Wine Tourism Trophies and their 9 categories is to see them as case studies of success and adaptability.   In this way, they offer value to students and observers of wine tourism. One new idea can have far reaching results.  In an era of change in the wine industry, these learning opportunities take on greater significance.

Congratulations, Caro!

References:

Here’s the list of the 9 Gold Trophy winners:

Les lauréats des premiers Trophées de l’Œnotourisme:

Catégorie Architecture & paysages –Château de Pennautier (11610 Pennautier), 
Catégorie Art & culture – Maison Ackerman (49400 Saumur), 
 Catégorie Initiatives créatives & originalités – Château Vénus (33720 Illats)
, Catégorie Œnotourisme d’affaires & événements privés – Champagne Pannier (02400 Château-Thierry)
, Catégorie Pédagogie & valorisation de l’environnement – Château Feely (24240 Saussignac)
, Catégorie Restauration dans le Vignoble –Château Guiraud (32210 Sauternes)
, Catégorie Séjour à la propriété – Château de Mercuès (46000 Cahors)
, Catégorie Valorisation des appellations & institutions – Cité du Champagne Collet (51160 Aÿ-Champagne)
, Catégorie Le vignoble en famille – La Chablisienne (89800 Chablis). I googled the chateau names to look at the websites.

 

Chateau Feely                                              www.chateaufeely.com

Chateau Le Tap                                           www.chateauletap.fr

Chateau Lestevenie                                               www.chateau-lestevenie.com

Chateau Courts les Muts                           www.court-les-muts.com

Chateau Monestier La Tour                      www.chateaumonestierlatour.com

Chateau Moulin Caresse                          www.moulincaresse.com

Chateau Hauts de Caillevel                      www.chateauleshautsdecaillevel.com

Chateau Tour des Gendres                      www.chateautourdesgendres.com

Vignobles des Verdots                               www.verdots.com

Le 1500                     https://www.le1500.rocks     (restaurant and accommodation)

Terre de Vins   www.terredevins.com

Atout France     www.atout-france.fr

Forbes Travel Magazine                             stories.forbestravelguide.com

2017 Reflections in the Glass

 

It’s that time when people attempt to make sense of the passage of time over the past year.   We think about what’s been achieved, or perhaps not achieved or let slip and what to focus on in the following year.

Spending time each year in both Canada and Europe, I attempt to share information in a supportive way about wine from areas where I have some familiarity.   In this way, wine can open doors to culture, art, geography, history, people and understanding.   Having the opportunity to lead a tasting of Canadian wine in London is one example of this.

One of the major experiences shared this year by the areas I am familiar with has been the challenging effect of climate change: wildfires in Western Canada and hailstorms and diminished rainfall in parts of France.    Addressing nature’s unpredictability through science, intellect, creativity, and imagination will be a major challenge for the wine industry going forward.

At the same time, I see the continual quest for improving wine quality.   This is a topic of great interest to me that I discuss with an oenologue friend in France, who shares his knowledge and helps me increase my understanding of the subtleties of wine making.

This common search for insight, whether on a global level or personally in the glass, is one of the ongoing pleasures and challenges of deepening my learning about wine and winemaking.

A big thank you to the wine makers and many others who have generously given their time during the year to discuss wine making in its many guises  with me and a big thank you to you, the reader, for joining me on the learning journey.

Best wishes for 2018 from,

elizabethsvines

Reflections on 2017:

 

Living the Dream: Château les Hauts de Caillevel, Bergerac Wine Region, SW France

Winery proprietors Sylvie Chevallier and Marc Ducrocq are living their dream at Château les Hauts de Caillevel.   Nearly twenty years ago, after careers in the corporate world, they decided to change course, live in the country, raise their children in a pastoral setting and make wine.    Sylvie and Marc see themselves as partners with nature in the creation of wines from their property.

After successfully completing oenology courses, Sylvie and Marc settled themselves at Chateau les Hauts de Caillevel in 1999 with the objective of making wine in the most environmentally friendly way they could.   This approach culminated in their official certification as a “Bio” or a biologique/ organic farm in 2010, an achievement that deservedly gives them a sense of pride and satisfaction.

The vineyard is located high above the river valley on the plateau village of Pomport; approximately 20 minutes drive from Bergerac.   Château les Hauts de Caillevel offers camping facilities as well as tastings to visitors.  It’s a relatively small wine producer farming 18 hectares of which 8.70 hectares are red grapes and 9.30 hectares are white grapes and they produce eleven different wines.

Driving along their expansive drive to the house and vineyard office, I feel the peaceful calm of this pastoral setting at the edge of the escarpment, which faces across the valley to neighboring villages.   It’s the same sense of benign energy I have felt at another Bio winery in the Region, where I expected to see a unicorn appear from the surrounding woods at any moment.

It’s a chilly, misty December day and we are dressed warmly for the weather.  I have made an appointment to visit the winery and meet Sylvie Chevallier on the recommendation of a colleague in the Confrèrie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès, the wine confrèrie I have had the pleasure of being a member of for several years.     Sylvie Chevallier has a reputation for making good wine, recognized by the Guide Hachette.   She is also someone who is recognized for her significant contribution to the area through her community work over the years.

December is a busy time for winemakers and so I appreciate the opportunity to visit this winery, which I did not know about previously.

As it turned out, Sylvie had other vineyard priorities she had to attend to on the morning of our visit.  Undeterred, we have the pleasure of meeting her husband Marc.   Over a coffee and warmed by the wood burning stove in their office, we settle down for an interesting conversation with Marc about wine making at Château les Hauts de Caillevel.

Several things stand out from that conversation that imply to me that here are two people who are risk takers and confident in their vision of making their own path in the wine-making world.

After completing their oenology training, they learnt about winemaking on the job with the help of external, experienced wine consultants.

They include in the suite of grape varieties that they grow an indigenous grape variety in the region called Périgord Noir, which has a lower alcohol by volume percentage than the typical varieties. In this way, they believe they are responding to the trend of consumers wanting to enjoy wine but with lower alcohol levels.

They grow Chenin Blanc, a grape variety more usually associated with the Loire Valley in France and in South Africa.   According to AOC regulations, this variety can be blended in small quantities in the Bergerac Region white wine and Sylvie and Marc use Chenin in this way.   They also make a 100% single varietal Chenin Blanc wine outside the AOC Bergerac Wine Region framework.   I am interested to taste this as Chenin Blanc produces some of the greatest white wines in both Touraine and Anjou-Saumur in the Loire Valley. It’s a white wine that ages well.

We have a wide-ranging conversation and exchange of ideas about wine making both in France and Canada.   We also talk about the trend to organic winemaking and the overall reduction in chemical usage, whether vineyards are formally certified Bio or not, that is widespread across the Bergerac Wine Region.

Towards the end of our visit, I ask Marc what was the biggest surprise in being a wine-maker over the years?   His immediate response was the effect of nature and how one is at the mercy of the weather. His view is that wine-makers have to be a fatalist to accept what the weather brings.   It’s an important reality check to hear this comment.   I expect that wine makers also have to an overarching sense of optimism to cope with the unpredictability of nature.

After a pause, Marc also comments that the other surprise for him is how difficult it is to market wine due to various complications in the related processes.       He feels this is a real issue for the smaller local wine producers, who can have difficulty making a living.

We run out of time to taste the wines of Chateau Les Hauts de Caillevel and so a return visit in 2018 will be planned.     We do take a quick tour of the tasting room and I buy several wines including the 100% Chenin and a 2015 red, called Ebène, which is a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend, to enjoy at home.

I appreciated Marc’s candour about the realities of being a wine chateau proprietor.  Having the opportunity to visit and speak personally with winery proprietors in this way is for me, what makes wine come alive;  recognizing that flow from grape to glass.  

I look forward to a return visit.

References:   http://www.leshautsdecaiilevel.com

Anyone for Rain Dancing in SW France Vineyards?

The vine leaves in SW France look beautiful at this time of year.   Most days when I walk beside the vineyards, I photograph the vines and marvel at the changing nuanced colours of the leaves; gold, scarlet, bronze, green, and by extension at the changing colours of the landscape.

I never tire of looking at the view; the winding road disappearing into the distance, the tall, ghostly coloured water tower on the hilltop and the sprinkling of farmhouses. The straight lines of vines marching up and down the undulating landscape which fascinate and remind me of David Hockney’s colourful paintings of the Yorkshire dales.

There is even a friendly cat of no fixed address that parades each day in front of the local cemetery.  I call him the Cemetery Cat.

At the same time as we enjoy the autumn sunshine highlighting the local beauty and warming us as we walk about, the local newspaper, Sud Ouest, is raising the alarm bells about the effects of climate change in the area, in particular the reduced rainfall.

Each day on the back page of the paper, there is a table showing the minimum and maximum temperatures in southwest France on the same day over the long term: 15, 30 and 50 years. The figures indicate that it appears that it is the minimum temperatures that have been affected;  in other words the weather does not get as cold now as it did 50 years ago in this area.   The newspaper also provides local 2017 climate statistics showing sunshine days are up and rainfall levels are down.  2017 is described as a dry and sunny year. The weather forecast for the next 15 days also indicates less rain than “usual” for this time of year.

The Sud Ouest local newspaper for Bergerac and Sarlat areas has a headline on Monday, November 13, 2017 that reads: Va-t-il falloir faire la danse de la pluie?     In other words, “Will we have to do the rain dance?”

Perhaps.

Certainly, some vine growers, aware of climate warming, are becoming concerned about the reduced level of precipitation at key moments in the vine production of grapes.   In July this year, for example, there was 50% of the usual rainfall for the month.

The newspaper references individuals in the winemaking community who are saying its necessary to start the discussion and debate about vine irrigation in France, where it is essentially prohibited due to the multiple authorizations necessary to irrigate vines and with few exceptions for specific reasons, e.g. newly planted vines.

Currently, when there is lack of water, the stressed vines search for water in the ground below by sending down deep roots.

Vine irrigation is a sensitive topic.   Some wine makers are concerned that irrigation will negatively affect or reduce the bountiful impact of vineyard ‘terroir “and lower the quality of the wines.  Many believe that marginally stressing the vines helps to produce superior fruit.     Some consider that France should allow vine irrigation as elsewhere in the world, where vine irrigation is well established. Others are concerned that irrigation will lead to increased production and affect the wine market and prices.       Additionally, irrigation in periods of reduced precipitation will place demands on water management in the area, another  consideration.

There is no question that the topic of vine irrigation in France will be on the table for discussion and debate going forward.   This is an important discussion to follow in the wine world.

In the bigger picture, the reduced level of precipitation and increased temperatures affect more than the vineyards and wine making.

So, what to do?

Back to the newspaper’s question about rain dancing.   Getting out the rain dancing shoes may be a good idea.   It’s certainly one approach. However, I interpret the suggestion of rain dancing as code for the fact there is no easy answer to these questions.   What’s interesting is that the local paper has taken the initiative to present a two-page article about the reduced rainfall this year.   It has specifically commented on the impact on the wine industry, which is a major economic driver for the area.

Beneath the beauty of the area and the elegance of the wines are challenging issues to be addressed.     Fortunately, there are imaginative, informed and creative wine makers in the area considering these issues and over time undoubtedly driving change in winemaking practices to accommodate environmental impacts.

Rain dancing?   Perhaps, but to a new or different melody.

References

Sud Ouest Newspaper, November 13, 2017 Bergerac and Sarlat edition.