Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Oliver Conti - the case about a dream

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I feel incredibly privileged this summer to be working on two projects. I said from the start that I wouldn't be doing an internship just because right ... well, sometimes patience and stubbornness pays off. It took me until damn near the end of the term, but I did find two projects that fit exactly what I was looking for, and that I could genuinely be excited about. The first one is writing a business case for IESE about a winery in the north of Catalunya, by the French border in a small village called Capmany. Oliver Conti has been in business for 20 years in the DO Empordà, crafting wines from French varietals and pushing for quality in a region that is virtually unknown, even in Spain. The second project will begin in a few weeks, and will be in Zaragoza. But let's talk about this one first.

The wine business is tough, and ever so apparent when you begin seeing it through the perspective of the winery. Margins are thin, negotiating power is tiny ... what is a small producer to do? More marketing/brand-building? But how do you afford it? Go international? But how do you attract distributors who've never heard of the Empordà? Tough. Real tough here.

I visited Oliver Conti last week. What a beautiful place. Right at the foot of the Pyrenees, all sun, wine, and wildness. There is a northernly wind that always blows - it was particularly vicious the day we were there. That's why all of OC's vineyards are planted with a northern exposition, to protect the vines from simply being blown over. A huge wildfire ripped through the region in 2012. You can still see the blackened trees, with entire tracts of pine forests wiped out. OC lost 25% of their vineyards. Nature gives and with the same hand, takes away. They have about 20 hectares of vineyards planted, with high density. For whites, they plant gewürztraminer, muscat, and sauvignon blanc. For reds, pinot noir, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and marselan (a cross of cabernet sauvignon and grenache). Aged in French oak, the wines reflect the man behind the brand - elegant, sophisticated, and utterly, utterly sincere.

But how does the wine make me feel? Because really, that's all that matters. All that I really care about, and I wouldn't be up at nearly midnight writing this nonsense if I didn't care. This visit taught me so many new things, in wine and otherwise. First, the power of family. The only thing of importance and significance in this ridiculous world we live in. Second, the need in this industry for vision. The distributors have all the power with setting prices, the kinds of wines they want to carry in their portfolio ... consumers either are slaves to trends or have no goddamn clue what they want ... so what's a winery to do, if there is no vision? With a clear path, a clear idea of what your brand represents - that's the only way to make it. The man behind Oliver Conti, my mentor for writing this case - he taught me all those things. So onto the wines, with the exception of the Marta (a sweet gewürztraminer), tasted at the winery, and again at home over 2 days ...

2013 Treyu: a blend of gewürztraminer and macabeu, aromas of gewürz right away, that tropical, spicy fruit; subtle, very dry on the palate tensile and quite linear; long

2010 Blanc Etiqueta: same gewürz/macabeu blend, with 12 months in new French oak; oak apparent immediately, creamy and quite rich, with an elegant palate; high acid on the finish, bright and very intense

2012 Pinot Noir: Niagara here? Bright red fruits, spice, a brambly character that evokes what I know (and love) so well; not much in way of structure, but high acid and spice, great elegance

2011 Turo Negre: both cabernets in the blend with merlot and garnacha; dark here, earthy, with a bit of that road tar aroma from the cabernet; great freshness and structure, very good here for the price

2011 Ara: a blend of garnacha/cabernet sauvignon; more subdued on the nose, some oak, darker, quieter; very high acidity, fine tannins

2010 Carlota: 100% cabernet franc, very unusual for this region (and Spain); immediately my favourite of the lineup, full cabernet franc character on the nose - slightly green, juicy fruit, fresh and vibrant; pillowy texture while retaining excellent acidity and fine tannins; a gorgeous wine

2010 Negre Etiqueta: same blend as the Turo Negre; some alcohol here, elegant with some tarry, earthy aromas; juicy fruit on the palate, bigger, but remaining elegant; extracted, crunchy finish; an excellent wine

Wow. The character of the Empordà and Oliver Conti shines through the entire lineup. In their words, the seek to achieve two things: aroma and elegance. And boy, do they ever do it. Gorgeous fruit throughout, impeccably balanced, with great acidity and fine structure. French-style wines, perhaps, but retaining that wildness, that absolute beauty of the Costa Brava. I've always been a believer that to fully appreciate a winery is impossible without walking the vineyards, to breathe the same air as the vines. Inspired? Definitely. And motivated, now more than ever, to tell their story.

DF

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