Château Panet: Developing wine tourism in Saint Emilion

Saint Emilion is a significant sub-region on the right bank of Bordeaux. Some of the world’s most famous châteaux are here, producing some of the richest, most luscious red wine in the world. Top-tier properties like Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone are nothing short of legendary, and their three- to four-figure price tags put them firmly out of most reaches. These superstar estates represent a small fraction of the overall production, however, and they don’t come close to telling the full Saint Emilion story.

There are hundreds of lesser-known wineries in Saint Emilion with decidedly more modest reputations. Many of them are only too happy to open their doors and show the wine-loving world what they’re all about. More and more châteaux are vying to attract lucrative wine tourists, and wine tourism in Saint Emilion is big business.

I recently paid a visit to one such lesser-known estate, Château Panet. My friend and former classmate, Bérengère Cariteau, is the wine tourism and communications manager there. She kindly invited me to come along just as the harvest was wrapping up.

Château Panet

Not exactly a household name, Panet is a small property in the commune of Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes, west of Saint Emilion town. It feels rural on approach, all trees, farmhouses and dirt roads. It’s a little anonymous, too, with no signage outside and no great wrought-iron gates bearing corporate logos or family crests. Its appearance is practical rather than ostentatious, with no sculpted gardens and a relatively modest château building.

You wouldn’t know at a glance, but Panet is the base of operations for Vignobles Carles, a family-owned group of right bank wineries. It’s also home to the group’s recently-launched wine tourism program, about which I was particularly interested in finding out more.

Vignobles Carles

The Carles family owns and operates five wine estates here on the right bank. The group is run by brothers Jerôme and Gilles Carles, the fourth generation to be involved in the family wine business. In total, they’ve got 43 hectares of vines, which is sizeable enough for this part of the region. There are four Saint Emilion Grand Cru properties and one in Pomerol.

  • Château Panet is the flagship estate and the Carles’ oldest property, their ownership tracing back to 1880. Their offices are here, all of the group’s Saint Emilion wines are vinified and aged here, and it’s the base of their wine tourism activity.
  • Clos la Rose has been in the family since 1948. It’s a little 4-hectare site north of the medieval village, in the direction of Montagne-Saint-Emilion.
  • Château Haut-Fonrazade has been in the Carles family since 1957. The 4-hectare vineyard lies on the Route du Milieu, part of the famous plateau of Saint Emilion. Chanel-owned Château Canon is perhaps the most renowned occupant here, putting Haut-Fonrazade among quite classy (Premier Grand Cru Classé, to be precise) company.
  • Château Coudert rounds out the Saint Emilion Grand Cru part of the Carles portfolio, having been acquired in 1961. It’s the Carles family home and lies on the plateau of Saint-Christophe-des-Bardes.
  • Château Croix des Rouzes is the Carles’ single Pomerol property, a 3.3-hectare site in the northwest of the appellation. It has its own technical facilities and is the only Carles wine not produced at Panet.

The Carles’ vineyard holdings are 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. Cellar master is Mélanie Raffier, and consultant oenologist is Jean-Philippe Fort, a long-time collaborator of Michel Rolland particularly well-known on the right bank.

The Carles’ vineyards have recently been granted Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE) certification, indicating that they practice a form of sustainable agriculture particularly interested in biodiversity. It’s not as well-known (or as intensive) as organic viticulture, though it’s a step in the right direction.

Vintage 2017 at Château Panet

It’s far too early to say how things will go with the 2017 vintage, at Panet specifically and Bordeaux. 2015 and 2016 were particularly strong, the latter giving a lot of quality and quantity.

Quality aside, quantity is going to be way down in 2017. In a typical year, yields across the Carles’ estates average out at between 35 and 40 hectolitres per hectare. They expect vintage 2017 to yield just six hectolitres per hectare, tiny by any measure and a significant reduction on the previous vintage. Spring frosts hit the vineyards particularly hard, affecting up to 60% of the Saint Emilion production and as much as 70% in Pomerol.

château panet

Grape reception during the 2017 harvest at Château Panet

Developing wine tourism at Château Panet

Wine tours at Château Panet are a relatively recent phenomenon. Summer 2017 marked the first full wine tourism season, Bérengère having taken up the new role halfway through the previous summer.

There’s plenty of competition in the area. Saint Emilion châteaux are not as large and imposing as those in the Médoc, though there are some grand estates that can really put on a show for wine tourists. I’ve been impressed at the scale of the architecture and the warm welcome during visits at the likes of Château Soutard and Château Pavie, to mention just two. Such properties have a lot to work with regarding architecture and have also demonstrated an evident willingness to invest in wine tourism activities including such things as tasting rooms, gift shops and picnic areas.

Pavie and Soutard are just two examples from my recent memory. I could equally point to the likes of Château Tour Saint Christophe, Château Champion and Château Ambe Tour Pourret. No two of these estates are the same, of course. Market positioning and financial backing vary widely, to mention just two of the more pertinent factors. Yet, each has developed an impressive wine tourism offer, often lightyears ahead of what their neighbours are doing.

It’s early days for wine tourism at Château Panet, and the size of the estate calls for a different approach.

Little by little: Building wine tourism at Château Panet

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a world-class wine tourism program. Panet is a modest property compared to some of the examples above, and there’s physically not a lot of ground to cover during the visits. The estate itself has charm, though is not inherently as photogenic (or Instagrammable) as others. Any wine tour program here needs to work that little bit harder, then, to attract and retain the attention of visitors.

They’ve done a commendable job so far. Limitations aside, they have undertaken a sensible strategy of doing things on a small scale and doing them well.

Building a wine tourism strategy at Château Panet

From my visits to the property and discussion with Bérengère, I can identify four specific points that have contributed to the success of wine tourism at Panet so far.

1. Limited group sizes

Panet tries to keep groups small, allowing for a more intimate and personal interaction between visitor and guide. Where possible, they don’t mix groups, and the majority of tours are “private”.

Small groups where people know each other can make for a more relaxed environment than larger groups comprised of pockets of strangers. This setting is more conducive to discussion, for visitors to ask questions and ultimately get more value from the experience.

2. The personal touch

I asked Bérengère what she felt made wine tours special at Panet, and she mentioned a word that consistently comes up in reviews on TripAdvisor – patience. Tours last for around an hour and fifteen minutes, and I have seen Bérengère take the time to make sure that her visitors genuinely understand what she is saying.

This requires a knowledgeable tour guide, of course, but also one with the emotional intelligence to gauge the audience’s level of comprehension and the charisma to quickly adapt and adjust accordingly.

3. Fair pricing

Tours here offer value for money. The standard tour and tasting costs €8 per person. For €11, there’s a wine tasting exercise thrown in. For €17, visitors taste an extra wine and get a plate of local charcuterie. These prices are fair and accessible to everyone, where some other châteaux use high rates as a way to filter the sort of visitors they receive.

What’s more, Panet has a small gift shop with some back vintages of each Carles wine. If I remember correctly, the most expensive bottle is around €20. There’s a healthy quality/price ratio to the overall wine tourism experience here – I don’t imagine anyone could leave feeling that they hadn’t got their money’s worth.

4. Effective collaboration with third parties

Vignobles Carles works with some external organisations to assist in their wine tourism offer, notably when it comes to booking tours and providing transport. There are both in-person and online collaborations.

Working with the Saint Emilion tourism office is a no-brainer for a small property like Panet as it’s where many tourists get their information and book visits when they are on the ground in Saint Emilion. The Saint Emilion Tuk-Tuk is an easy and environmentally-friendly way for tourists to get around the Saint Emilion vineyard without the need for a car. Neither requires any booking on the tourist’s part. Direct communication between the château and third party make it possible to arrange visits and transport with very little notice.

Online services like Wine Tour Booking, Vinizos and enable tourists to arrange visits to Panet ahead of time. A surprisingly small number of châteaux make efficient use of these platforms. This makes Panet more findable than most, putting it at a distinct advantage to many more significant players.

What’s next for tourism at Château Panet?

In little more than a year, Bérengère has implemented a substantial wine tourism program here. There was considerable year-on-year growth in visitors between September 2016 and September 2017. I imagine this will continue, particularly with the refinement of the program and some smart investment in people and facilities.

Many tourism-focussed wineries have teams of four or five people dedicated to receiving visitors, though Bérengère currently works alone. Hiring additional staff could increase tourism capacity without sacrificing small groups or cutting visit times. Investment in the property could be as simple as new signage, or as complex as developing a dining or events area.

I’ll indeed be back to Château Panet next year to see how things are progressing. I’d recommend anyone planning a visit to Saint Emilion to stop by, too.