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How fair are government taxes on wine around the world?

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 00.19.37Government tax rates on wine differ significantly between countries and it is difficult and complex to accurately compare them. Different considerations and challenges such as economic, cultural, political and legal determine how taxes are applied. Whether they are fair or unfair depends on your point of view. The wine industry constantly fights to avoid increases in excise duty in order to protect their sales and profits. Producers that rely on local demand call for higher import tariffs in order to protect their domestic wine industry. Alternatively, those relying on exports call for free trade or tax rebates in order to sustain and grow their business. Consumers are principally against any type of tax. Whereas governments rely heavily on tax revenue, yet never seem to be satisfied.

There are huge differences in government taxes. For instance excise duty rates vary from €6 per bottle of wine in Norway to zero in Hong Kong. On the first glance, this significant rate difference seems unfair. Why should consumers pay so much for their favourite tipple in one country while others enjoy much lower pricing? However, comparison of taxes is complicated as the value of rates is based on different cultural, political and economic philosophies of countries. Following a period of alcohol prohibition, Norway’s high taxes are linked with strict restrictions by the government alcohol monopoly Vinmonopolet. Whereas Hong Kong, thanks to its global connectivity has had zero tax since February 2008 with a view to economic dynamism and liberalism.

However, even within the European Union where the majority of members share the same currency and similar economic goals, the excise duties vary so remarkably it can hardly be considered fair. The United Kingdom is one of the highest tax paying countries at £2.05 per bottle in comparison to traditional wine producing country such as France which only charges €0.03 per bottle. So if you buy £5 bottle of wine in the UK (being the average price), 57% is tax and about 28% is retail margin and the liquid is barely 25%, making it poor value for money for consumers. No wonder then that thousands of Brits travel across the channel every year to take advantage of the bargains in Calais.

Governments can receive a significant amount of funding through wine taxes. Some of this revenue is used to offset the cost of crimes and health damage that are related to alcohol abuse. The wine industry in the UK paid over £15 billion in duty and VAT to the government in 2010 yet the Institute of Alcohol Studies claims that alcohol related harm was estimated to cost society (England) £21 billion in the same year. This includes £3.5 billion of NHS cost, £11 billion of alcohol-related crime and £7 billion of lost productivity due to alcohol. This estimate suggests that alcohol consumption brings more financial losses then benefits to the government. However an accurate estimate of the economic cost of alcohol consumption is difficult to calculate due to the number of variables involved.

From the wine industry’s point of view, there is a danger that taxes reach a level where reduced consumption materially impacts sales and profits. In order to avoid this, the UK duty increase was postponed in 2014 (as a result of the Call Time on Duty initiative). It was estimated that action will save the industry £175 – 230 million and protect over 6,000 jobs. On the other hand, the French government (starting from a much lower base) is keen to drastically increase the tax from €0.03 to somewhere between €0.30-0.60 per bottle, estimated to bring an extra €2 billion to the state government.

Taxes vary depending on whether wine is imported or locally produced. For example in Shanghai, tax for imported wines adds 48% to the cost of a bottle compared to domestic wine which only adds 30% to its cost. This protects the local industry. However, in India, the import tax is so high (a whopping 150% of the value of the wine), that a bottle of Jacob’s Creek costs US$40. Imported wines are therefore incredibly expensive and difficult to access for an average consumers. In order to make imported wine more available and pricing more affordable, discussions about reducing the duty to 40% are underway.

In Australia the tax is the same for wines regardless whether they are imported or locally produced. Thanks to the WET rebates, New Zealand wine exports to Australia have increased by 139% since 2005 when it was introduced. This is currently causing a lot of issues for local producers despite its fairness in free trade terms. In order to protect the Australian wine industry and control overseas competition, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia is calling for Wine Equalisation Tax reform to address this issue. It is believed that the reform could earn the Australian government AU$25 million a year.

The notorious complexity of US taxes have been known to discourage wineries from trading directly to consumers. The original idea to lift restraints of the three-tier system in 37 states (including California) was to help the availability of wines produced by small and less known wineries and to promote selling wine directly to consumers. Whereas federal excise duty tax is fixed according to alcohol level, and for still wine up to 14% abv is charged at $0.21 per bottle of wine, state tax is much more complicated. Each state has its own rules and regulations, each requires different record keeping and payments. This challenging tax regime limits the number of states that wineries are prepared to work with and limits consumers’ choice of wine from other states.

Keeping tax systems simple and consistent may seem to be a good idea from administrative point of view. But when it comes to the link between taxes and the alcohol level of wine, there are some who call for more versatile tax bands. It is no coincidence that the majority of red wines do not reach an alcohol level over 15.5%. For example, in the UK still wines with alcohol between 5.5% and 15.5% are taxed the same. The result is that nearly all wines end up being taxed by the same amount which may be considered unfair. In order to encourage responsible drinking, promote lower alcohol wines and introduce fairer trading, many producers together with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association are therefore proposing a different alcohol tax band between 9% and 12% abv.

Government taxes on wine are so sensitive and impactful that their fairness and subsequent challenges or benefits are being reviewed constantly. Arguably, many governments struggle to balance fairness when applying their taxes. What some producers may view as fair trade others view as a threat to their profits and a limit to their growth. What some view as a restriction of free choice others view as beneficial control of alcohol consumption. However, what is certain is that hardly anyone believes that taxes on wines are fair to them and there will always be groups who lobby for change.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The Big Picture – Marlborough wines in the UK

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Despite all the challenges, the UK is still a very important market for New Zealand and especially Marlborough wines. It holds a reputation as one of the most sophisticated and attractive wine markets in the world and is a hub where many wine trends are pioneered and where both small and large producers can be commercially successful. Despite export market share dropping from first to third place (after Australia and USA), the UK is still worth NZ$318.6 million so it is important not to lose sight of this market.

On one hand, New Zealand proudly shares the premium category with France with average price per bottle growing by 11% in the past year to £7.26. However, the record 2014 harvest (even higher than the oversupplied 2008 vintage) will undoubtedly bring many challenges in order to remain this quality driven growth. The biggest challenge being the enormous volume of low end bulk Sauvignon Blanc flooding the UK market, labelled under mysterious own labels and potentially devaluing the brand Marlborough SB.

The good news is that there is currently a real interest and enthusiasm in wine (and food) in the UK concentrated particularly in London. The explosion of wine bars such as Vinoteca, 28-50, The Remedy, Sager & Wilde is visible proof. On-trade offers customers an opportunity to indulge in a better choice of fine wines while creating a deeper bond with consumers and building their loyalty, lacking in other sectors.   The New Zealand Cellar set up by Melanie Brown encourages wine and food enthusiasts to experience the wide varieties and styles that New Zealand offers by promoting focussed wine talks and dinners.

The wine scene has evolved a lot since my first taste of wine in 2006 while working as an Assistant Manager at Oddbins’ fine wine branch in London. Shops like The Sampler, Bottle Apostle, Vagabond Wines and Hedonism Wines created shopping spaces where people want to be. Using Enomatic machines people can now sample wines before their purchase. By creating relaxing areas with beautiful displays, customers can socialise and be inspired to drink better wines. The most successful retailers don’t just sell wine but offer an experience.

E-commerce has now also become a profitable new route to market. The UK online wine market is worth £800 million and accounts for 11% of total sales with 25% of UK wine drinkers now shopping online. Swig Wines, Naked Wines, Virgin Wines and Direct Wines are just some of the most successful online businesses that offer convenience, personal customer service and an extensive and exciting wine choice.

However, selling wine profitably in the UK is still very much a challenge. Fluctuating exchange rates and the rise of wine duty have pushed prices up and put a strain on consumers’ spending. More than 70% of all wines are sold through supermarkets thanks to on-going promotional activities. Shelves are filled with low priced wine driven by vast competitions amongst the key brands offering miniscule margins for producers and agents and dire selection and no service to consumers.

Directly engaging with consumers through social media has become a fantastic marketing tool especially for wineries that are based many miles from their target market. Being a keen blogger, Facebook and Twitter user myself, I have appreciated the ease with which I can interact instantly with producers from around the world. New World producers such as those from New Zealand and Australia have proved to be natural communicators reflecting their understanding of social media and its value in engaging with consumers and wine trade.

New Zealand wines have successfully penetrated all sectors of the UK market making it accessible to a wide audience, with Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc reputation leading the way. Despite its small yet still growing production (producing less than 1% of the world’s crop) it has grown in importance by focusing on value rather than volume. The World Atlas of Wine dedicated just one page to New Zealand in 1985 for its third edition, but by the time of its latest edition, eight full pages were devoted to the country.

Despite its relatively short history in winegrowing and winemaking, and possibly as a result, many producers are in touch with today’s consumer and offer easy to understand wines with great potential. Most recently, Pernod Ricard has cleverly tapped into the latest UK trend in low alcohol wines. Based on their consumer research they launched Brancott Estate Flight style, premium low alcohol wine (RRP £10.49).

Observing UK supermarket shelves, one may jump to the conclusion that the pungent Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough’s one trick pony. Pony that may be sniffed at by some but the fact that its demand is growing shows its continued importance. Tesco offers 50 New Zealand wines, out of which 40 are from Marlborough and 37 are Sauvignon Blancs. But look further and you will discover pockets of diversity. From rising potential of Marlborough Pinot Noir to aromatic Pinot Gris and Riesling from Awatere Valley. UK consumers can now choose from a number of single vineyard SBs (Ara, Villa Maria), premium oak aged SBs (Cloudy Bay, Dog Point, Jackson Estate), sparkling SBs and organic/biodynamic wines (Seresin Estate, Walnut Block).

All in all, the future for New Zealand wines in the UK is bright. Marlborough, in particular, offers distinctively bright fruit flavours and trademark zestiness which is sought after by the modern UK consumer. But it also manages to attract more discerning wine enthusiasts with its diversity, innovation and premium lead exports and its producers’ willingness to listen to their consumers.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2014 in New Zealand

 

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Going back to school with Wine Australia

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 15.44.09The idea of offering a one day wine school event in London first came from the talented Yvonne May, head of Wine Australia for UK & Ireland. Sadly her battle with illness cut her inspirational and tireless work short but her legacy championing Australian wine continues.

The aim of this compelling event is to make UK wine professionals aware of the diversity of Australian wines and provide them with up-to-date knowledge about new vineyard and winemaking techniques as well as a concise overview of todays developments, challenges and potential. As we can’t all fly to Australia, this is the next best thing.

So who better to guide us through the day than charismatic and knowledgeable Tim Atkin MW, UK wine journalist and the straight-talking and accomplished Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli in Yarra Valley. The tasting flights were organised by Emma Symington, UK events and education manager, who had the tough job of selecting wines that demonstrate best the typicity of the key regions and their distinctive styles.

The challenge for the speakers was not only to captivate the diverse audience but also to summarise the entire Australian story within one day. It would seem that Australia has had a complete personality change so regardless the level of knowledge or experience in the room, there was plenty to learn. And if you have missed it, here are the highlights.

Australia boasts some of the oldest vines in the world (Tahbilk still has ½ hectare of un-grafted pre-phylloxera Shiraz vines from 1860). Despite only 0.025% of the land being planted under vine, you can find any climate and type of soil here. The diversity of wine styles has few limits. The finest quality wines are produced between 30 and 40 South latitude but you may be surprised to know that you can find wineries pretty much anywhere in the country (for example Granite Belt in Queensland). But some of the best wines come from cooler parts of warm climate regions. This is achieved through either higher altitude (Orange, Canberra district, Pyrenees) or going south with proximity to ocean (Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania).

Australian wines have come a long way since 1845 when the first bottle was exported to the UK. Then the majority of wines were fortified and it was not until the 1970’s that table wines took over the reign. Thanks to introduction of temperature control, the focus on international varietal styles and an open-minded attitude towards marketing, brand Wine Australia established its reputation in the export market for high quality table wines by the 1980’s.

However, as with best things in life, success did not last forever and today Australia is being challenged by a strong Australian dollar hindering its export markets, an imbalance between demand and supply skewed to over-production, limited water access and risk of droughts (it is impossible to establish new vineyard without irrigation) and the seeming lack of strong big brands as the market diversifies.

According to Steve, reducing the vineyard area to 120 000 ha from the current 150 000 ha would help to reduce the overproduction. Furthermore, in order to maintain sustainable profitable growth for producers, limiting their production to wines that can achieve retail value of at least £7 per bottle is advisable if not essential.

Comparing wines from a decade ago to those made in the last couple of years shows obvious changes implemented in the vineyards and wineries. So when was the last time you had a glass of Australian wine? And if you have to think more then five seconds to answer this then you had better visit your local independent wine shop, right?

Many boutique wineries are focussing on organic and biodynamic farming with notable attention being given to the vineyards. Despite the new technology and possibly because of it, producers find it challenging but inevitable to let go and move towards minimal handling. Spontaneous alcoholic fermentations are slowly replacing or complementing the use of cultured yeasts. Earlier picking and only token use of new oak (more French less American) is being reflected in fresher, more balanced, lower alcohol wines.

Riesling is no longer only produced in cooler higher altitude sites of Eden (500m) and Clare Valley (400-570m). But new ventures have proven successful in Tasmania (Josef Chromy) and Western Australia (Plantagenet in Mount Barker) thanks to their proximity to the cooling ocean breeze. Also Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria with its unique granite soil is starting to be known for its fine Rieslings (Mac Forbes), some fermented in old French casks for richer texture (Fowles Wine). There is a move towards slower alcoholic fermentations especially at the end of the ferment in order to reach balance between acidity and residual sugar. The majority of styles are dry but a few are starting to experiment with residual sugar, Grosset from Clare Valley being one the earliest pioneers (try his Alea with RS 12g/l).

Chardonnay, love it or hate it, is Australia’s best grape according to Tim. First planted in South Australia in 1937, it has transformed from a peachy and buttery spotty teenager to more sophisticated elegant grown-up. The trend now is towards extracting more phenolics and focussing on dryness away from sunshine ripeness. The ability to access more suitable and a wider variety of clone material is improving the quality. The combination of earlier picking, more use of whole bunch press followed by spontaneous ferment and minimal oak treatment (more old than new French) is reflected in crisper, delicate Burgundian styles.

Chardonnay is produced almost everywhere from warm & humid Hunter Valley (Tyrrell’s), high altitude Orange (600m) to cool coastal regions in Yarra Valley (Oakridge Wines), Mornington Peninsula (Kooyong), Tasmania (Derwent Estate), Margaret River (Leeuwin Estate) and Adelaide Hills (Shaw & Smith). However, there are strong differences in opinion on what Australian Chardonnay should taste like. Some are manipulating flavours by purposefully oxidising must, using wild yeasts or experimenting with different vessels whereas others prefer minimal intervention and focus on terroir, letting the wines speak for themselves.

Pinot Noir is everyone’s darling. Numerous winemakers are obsessed with this variety and as a result produce some of the best examples reaching the heights of Cote d’Or. Gone are the days when Pinot Noir was boosted with a small portion of Shiraz. Balance and lower alcohol (sometimes managed by using open tanks which blows off some of the alcohol) is aspired for. The focus is not on creating a particular style but to reflect an individual terroir/vineyard site which is what Pinot Noir does best. Unconventionally, use of whole bunch in order to exaggerate perfume and stalky freshness has a strong following despite being rarely used in Burgundy. Maybe it is all that inspirational and extensive drinking of DRC or Dujac who use 100% whole bunch as a textural component, jokes Steve.

Most Pinot Noir is planted in Yarra Valley (De Bortoli) as it thrives in this relatively free draining clay/silt/limestone soil. However, there are great Pinots made in many areas with cooling influence. From Mornington Peninsula (Ten Minutes by Tractor), Gippsland (Bill Downie), Geelong (Farr), Tasmania (Stefano Lubiana), Southern Fleurieu (Tapanappa).

Semillon used to be called Hunter River Riesling. There is definitely a resemblance to German Riesling with its high acidity, lower alcohol, lemony zestiness and occasional kerosene aromas. Three distinctive styles are produced in Australia. Hunter Valley Semillon (Brokenwood) has low alcohol (10.5% abv) and is dry, fresh and lean thanks to the warm humid climate, very early picking, no MLF and no oak. Their potential to age is timeless (Tyrrell’s). Barossa Valley Semillon (Peter Lehman) is richer but despite being picked early its alcohol resembles classic white wine. Margaret River Semillon (Suckfizzle) has more vibrant character thanks to blending with pungent Sauvignon Blanc. Its style resembles Bordeaux Blanc in many respects thanks to similar gravel and clay soils and French oak barrel ageing. But even Semillon is changing now as the tendency is to make early drinking more instantly approachable wines, possibly to re-capture the interest in these undervalued and possibly misunderstood wines.

Shiraz is the signature varietal of Australia. I feel that to state that there are two styles of Shiraz now produced would not do justice to this exceptional and outperforming grape. The trend is towards producing fresher, peppery, lower alcohol styles using a portion of whole bunch and old French cask than new oak. Suitable climates vary from Yarra Valley – Beechworth (Jamsheed), Pyrenees (Dalwhinnie), Heathcote (Greenstone Vineyard), Canberra (Clonakilla) to traditional regions such as Barossa Valley (Penfolds), Eden Valley (Yalumba), Clare Valley (Taylors Wines), McLaren Vale (Wirra Wirra) and Hunter Valley (Brokenwood). But classic rich, dark fruit-flavoured, full-bodied highly concentrated styles are still around, collecting gold medals and being highly sort after (Torbreck).

Cabernet Sauvignon is the work horse of Australia and after Shiraz and Chardonnay the third most planted. It has been entirely transformed, many examples showing the typicity of bright cassis fruit with bitter sweet spice and fresh tannins. Arguably Coonawarra and Margaret River offer some of the best examples. Coonawarra (Wynns) is a unique region full of contrasting climatic conditions with hot temperature on one side and frequent spring frosts and rain at vintage. Margaret River (Cullen) with its terroir and climate resembling Bordeaux produces remarkable quality Cabernets. Clare Valley’s (Jim Barry) cool nights help to preserve fresh acidity and finesse in Cabernets and despite its relative remoteness it produces newsworthy wines.

Sparkling styles are still rare. Some of the best sparkling wines are produced in Tasmania taking full advantage of its cool climate. Both Jansz and Arras are well-established and distributed in the UK but there are many boutique producers that are waiting to be discovered in order to appear on British shores. The tendency is to produce Champagne style blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but surprisingly Pinot Meunier has not been planted yet in Tasmania.

Sweet wines have been made in Australia since 1982 and De Bortoli Noble One Semillon was one of the first successful brands. What may surprise you is that back in 1920’s botrytised Semillon was also made in a fortified style. These botrytised styles are now aged in new French oak creating a very similar style to Sauternes.

Fortified wines (rare muscats/topaques and ports) once accounted for almost all production but this has dramatically changed to the extent that only a few remaining producers such as Campbells and All Saints Estate in Rutherglen still excel at this blending art and Penfolds producing limited release ports in Barossa Valley.

Whatever the future holds with all its challenges, I believe that UK and Australia will continue their strong symbiotic relationship. The UK still remains Australian number one export market despite the stick that Brits sometimes give to Aussie wines, historically being too ripe and now for being too lean. Brits seek Australian innovation and their easy-to-understand wines that don’t break the bank. As the worldwide focus thankfully tends to premium wine production with individual site distinction improving quality and profitability, Australia is well positioned. After all I believe that this spectacular country is still at a learning stage and the best wines are still to be made and discovered by us.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in Australia

 

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Fresh Face of California

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 21.52.44 What happens when a room brimming full of delicious, authentic and diverse wines coincides with a hipster crowd? You get The Dirty Dozen tasting. True to its name, one of the coolest and beardiest tasting events in London. Amongst all that “I don’t care looks” and skinny jeans, I discovered the new California and learnt a thing or two.

 Many Californian producers have been in a pursuit of finesse for years but it has been only recently that this new wave has washed onto UK shores. Mainly thanks to Roberson Wine team, pioneers of new trends and finders of the best regional wines, our perceptions and misconceptions of what Californian wines taste like are being challenged.

 A place that was once dominated by rich, powerful and highly alcoholic fruit bombs is now being replaced by newly emerging bright and fresh wines. The reputation for over-ripeness and heavy-handed oak treatments was legendary. However, whereas it’s great for collecting high scores and awards, it results in wines that taste very similar and are more difficult to enjoy.

 But thanks to early picking and a focus on diversity and balance, numerous winemakers are producing wines that people would actually like to drink. That is not to say that Californian producers have ceased to produce late-picked concentrated blockbusters but many are reacting to the changing emphasis toward lighter, purer more vibrant wines.

Flowers Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast (The Wine Treasury £48)

The 2011 was picked early showing higher acidity than expected from classic Chardonnay. Yet the low yields ensured full ripeness indicated by fruit richness and texture well-balanced by moderate alcohol (13.7%) abv thanks to the cooling Pacific Ocean influence (2 miles away) and delicate roasted almost nutty notes more reminiscent of flat white than espresso. 100% spontaneous alcoholic fermentation and ageing in French oak barrels for 14 months (only 18% new) ensured elegance and defined fruit vibrancy.

Sean Thackrey “Pleiades” [plee-uh-deez] (The Wine Treasury £32)

This is one of Sean’s famously controversial and experimental non-vintage blends of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre. With pretty aromas of pear, donut peaches and Toblerone white chocolate it is reminiscent of white wine but the taste brings you undoubtedly back to red. Despite its premium price, the wine is labelled as Table Wine due to its unique combination of different regions and vintages. The wine changes every year. Sean is not giving much importance to the terroir element or paying much attention to winemaking rules but the main focus is on sourcing the best fruit. Some suggest that this wine taste better the day after it was opened.

Broc Cellars Green Valley Valdiguié [val-dih-gee-ay] (Roberson Wine £22)

In comparison to Sean Thackrey, Broc wines are vineyard specific. Chris Brockway, the winemaker follows the philosophy of early picking, spontaneous whole cluster ferment with no/or low sulphur dioxide additions and minimal intervention. The Solano County Green Valley AVA is located southeast of the Napa Valley taking advantage of maritime climate with its cooling ocean influence mediating the summer heat. Valdiguiè is quite unique red grape variety, known in California as Napa Gamay, capable of producing fresh scented low alcohol (12%) wines. The 2012 is charming juicy tipple with lovely sour cherry streak and pretty floral brightness.

Wilde Farm Anderson Valley Pinot Noir “Donelly Creek” 2012 (Roberson Wine £39)

This is a single vineyard expression of Pinot Noir. Fresh, bright and beautiful on so many levels. Showing defined complexity full of rhubarb, cherry blossom and wild flower notes thanks to careful selection of Dijon clones. Nothing added nothing taken away this is a pure and magical Pinot.

Copain Syrah “Halcon” 2009 from Mendocino County (Roberson Wine £54)

For Syrah lover like me it only took seconds to fall for Halcon’s charms. Despite the warm and dry summer of 2009, the high elevation of Yorkville Highlands (760m) ensures that the wine achieves balanced moderate alcohol level (12.8%). Wells Guthrie, the winemaker, creates Syrah that shows Rhone attitude yet has Californian roots. The 2009 is perfect to drink now but if it does not match your budget try Tous Ensemble (‘all together’) Syrah 2012 which is available for the fraction of the price (£23). Still delicious but more approachable and blended from selected vineyards within Mendocino County.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in California

 

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The joy of taking the Master of Wine exam

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Ever wondered what it is like to take the Master of Wine exam? Notoriously one of the most demanding exams in the wine world consisting of three flights of 12 wines tasted blind and 11 theory papers all over four days. It has been two weeks since I attempted this challenge in London but the feeling is still very much fresh and racing through my mind. There is not a day that I am not asked what it was like and how I did. So here it goes.

The first day of this exam marathon is about to start and we (the candidates) stand nervously around waiting to be shown to our tables. Barely a word is spoken. The hall is filled with the future crème de la crème of the wine trade but anxious smiles and tense breathing belie that. Never mind how well prepared we are or how talented we may be, there is a palpable air of barely concealed panic.

We are all aware of the hopeless statistics of acing this exam. There is less than 10% pass rate on the tasting, the theory shows touch more success. Some people are more natural in blind tasting and others are more comfortable writing structured essays but I believe that anyone can learn both skills. I guess if I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.

Sitting at the end of the well-lit but rather soulless industrial room, I have a view of all 40-odd candidates. The overwhelming thoughts of who will be the lucky one this year come to my mind. This is our time to shine but all I can do at this point is breathe in shallow gulps and try and force some positive thoughts.

It seems like a century before we can start pouring our wines and then we are off like racing greyhounds. The wines are cold at first (Paper 1 is always whites) so you hold on to the glasses with your palms as if your life depended on it. I sniff all wines first and quickly assess what they could be. No grids for me. One thing I have learned is that the first initial judgement is usually the best and most accurate.

In order to calm my nerves I start with the flight of questions that I am most comfortable with. This time we were blessed with four lovely Rieslings that were instantly recognisable. Tasty too. A couple of swallows to build some courage, the heart rate starts to slow down and a hint of welcome relief follows. Before you know it we are asked to stop writing and put our pens down.

No doubt if I had more time, this would be so much easier but this exam is about the skill of wine knowledge as much as decision making and fast writing. There are 300 marks to be had and to pass you need to get at least 195 marks. You have a minute or two to decide what each wine is and then spend the rest of the time justifying your decisions on region, grape variety, quality, age, commercial potential, winemaking etc.

Fresh air tastes so good after the first exam I tell you, even with all the traffic heading towards Blackfriars Bridge. A quick cup of tea and a bite to eat and we are back in our seats getting ready for the first theory paper. It’s simple – you have 3 hours to write 3 essays that will be marked with equal importance. This is where true geeks shine.

This year the questions were tough but pretty fair – from management of the vineyard through quality control procedures to brand building and wine industry legislation. They are designed to test our breadth of knowledge but some were very specific so you really needed to be confident about the subject before answering. Choosing the right question is always crucial.

The biggest challenge here is the timing. Three hours may sound like a long time. In that time you could run a marathon if you were fast or half marathon if you were slow. But to write three academically structured essays filled with well-chosen global examples in a confident and critical manner is what gives this that punishing edge.

For the next two days you follow the same format. The pressure and stress lessens somewhat but the fatigue and lack of sleep start to play their toll. On the fourth day, we are allowed to show off our personality tackling more contemporary issues. The final whistle went off just after midday on Saturday, followed by generous helpings of Bollinger.

And how did I do? Well – we will find out in September!

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Viticulture exploiting climate change

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What impact climate change has on viticulture worldwide and how can producers moderate the effects?

Forget what happened in 2012 and 2013. If you want to understand the impact of climate change on viticulture, simply observing yearly snapshots is misleading. Nigel Sneyd, director of International Winemaking at Gallo, argues that “climate change is a along-term phenomenon and people too readily take three-year or at best ten-year trends as unequivocal signs, they should be looking at centuries of data”.

Our climate is naturally variable (some regions getting colder and some hotter) and the change is so slow. Researchers at the University of Southern Oregon carried out extensive research and reported that the average temperature in thirty classic high quality wine producing regions worldwide has risen by 3 degrees in the last 50 years. They also predicted a rise of 2.5 to 4.7 degrees by 2050. Dr Richard Smart, an Australian viticulturist, claimed that just one degree of temperature rise can wipe out an entire grape growing region. However, there is strong evidence that growers are managing to moderate climate change effects successfully through careful vineyard management and location.

For several decades Chilean, Argentinean and South African producers have been taking advantage of unique coastal and altitude conditions that guarantee sustainable production of high quality wines in areas that would otherwise be too hot or arid. Cold ocean currents and cool air coming down from the Andes at night helps to stabilize temperatures and moderate very warm and dry climate with infrequent rainfall.

High temperatures have always been a reality in the Douro. However, Fernando Alves of the Association for the Development of Viticulture in the region warns that “intense exposure to sunlight and repeated periods of drought in recent years have put deep stress on the vine and soil”. One way of tackling this issue is to plant grapes at various elevations. Mr Alves suggests that “one variety that thrives now at 600 meters might be planted at a site 100 meters higher or situated with a different exposure to the sun, and so be coaxed to adapt to its new growing conditions”.

Awareness of climate change on vineyard location is key for sustainable viticulture. For example, on-going research by Prof. Silvia Guidoni of the University of Turin in the vineyards of G.D.Vajra in Piedmont discovered that south facing vineyards that used to have perfect exposure now are too hot in some years. It is west-southwest vineyards that now seem to be more successful as they benefit from the sun taking longer to warm them therefore avoiding reach high temperature exposure.

The way we interact with our environment is directly influenced by climate change. Producers may choose to modify row orientation in order to minimize sunburn. In regions that lack cloud cover, canopy management can be used for better protection and shade with the possibility of overhead trellising. Whereas in cooler climates, open canopy allows required sunlight to reach the grapes and allow full ripeness. For example, in Tasmania, Andrew Hanigan of Derwent Estate chooses to remove leaves at the bottom of the vine in order to reduce methoxypyrazine concentration in his Sauvignon Blanc.

Similarly, delayed pruning encourages delayed budburst, which decreases the risk of spring frost damage. In order to tackle this seasonal damage, Albert Bichot in Chablis uses electric wire in the vineyards and Hattingly Valley, UK sparkling wine producer is experimenting with Frost Guard that can create temperature fluctuation reducing ice crystal formation. In extreme cold temperatures such as in Ontario or Northern China, producers may choose to bury their vines mitigating their bud loss.

By careful selection of clones and rootstocks that are more resistant to extreme temperatures and saline soils, vines can better tackle heat waves or rain storms. Chris Williams of Meerlust in Stellenbosch is experimenting with Paulsen 1103 rootstock for their Merlot as it is better suited to drought conditions and has a very good tolerance to salt.

Adaptation of different grape varieties is also one of the solutions counteracting climate change. For example Touriga Nacional, known for ability to photosynthesize for a much longer period than many other grape varieties, could be planted more widely outside Portugal. Introducing new grape types however could result in a loss of regional character and it may be problematic since many Designated Origin wines are related to the type of grape used. Less restricted areas such as England are already taking an advantage of their freedom. A more Mediterranean climate in southern England has spurred a boom of new plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which now account for more than 50% of all England’s plantings and are destined for sparkling wine production.

However, for some growers who are short of money following several bad vintages, it may now be too late to act. It is estimated that over 200 Beaujolais producers are in danger of bankruptcy after frost and hail affected the 2012 harvest particularly badly. As a consequence, many are lacking finances to move from the goblet to the trellis system in order to better manage the vines and rely less on chemical fertilizers and pest control.

The impact on the Champagne region is rather more controversial. There are those such as Arnaud Descôtes, environmental manager for the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, that believe that global warming is a good thing. There is a higher number of released ‘great’ vintages as the average flowering is now earlier due to warmer climate, hence the grapes are ripening earlier (14 days earlier according to CIVC) and therefore they are less prone to poor weather at the end of the growing season. It also allows more vines to be planted in the region. On the other hand, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have a very narrow ideal average temperature band during the growing season (Pinot Noir 14-16°C/Chardonnay 14-18°C) and it is likely that any deviation from this range will produce less distinctive wines lacking full-body elegance.

The situation in Piedmont indicates a similar predicament. Whereas rising temperature had a positive effect overall with a string of good to outstanding vintages since 1996 (except 2002) and significant improvement of lower quality Barolo, unpredictable rainfall is causing significant soil erosion. Despite overall rainfall remaining fairly constant, its unpredictable distribution is creating more very dry and very wet periods, with the local silty soil crusts struggling to cope with the extremes.

Philippe Guigal, chief winemaker of Maison Guigal in Rhone is positive but cautious about climate change. He says that there is “a much better correlation between the physiological maturity and the phenolic ripeness of Syrah in the north of the region now”. 25 years ago chaptalisation was a regular procedure but now grapes have a natural potential strength of 13% to 13.5% that is perfectly satisfactory. However, recent research by Conservation International warns that production in the Rhone will decline as warming climate will make it harder to grow grapes here by 2050.

In Bordeaux many producers have also noticed a slow yet significant change in growing conditions. The shift to a compressed growing season is resulting in uneven grape ripening and sugar accumulation, reflecting in unbalanced yield and low-acid wines that lack complexity. It has been proven by recent research by the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation (GWRDC) supported by Treasury Wine Estate. Open-top chambers were designed where temperature was increased by 2°C above ambient to represent warming projections for wine growing regions under realistic vineyard conditions. The key finding was that there was a shorter harvest period, putting logistical pressure on producers and directly affecting wine quality.

Luckily, vines are much more resilient to climate change than we give them credit for. However, the recent rapid spread of new pests and disease is a visible sign of warmer temperatures according to Dr Richard Smart. The multi-coloured Asian ladybird that taints wines with methoxypyrazines is already causing problems in Canada, Italy, Spain, France and England now too.

Dr Smart also warns that Esca, a type of trunk disease linked to climate warming, could pose a far greater risk to our viticulture than phylloxera. It has been spreading rapidly in Burgundy, particularly affecting Sauvignon Blanc as the fungal pathogens affect a vine’s vigour and life span through delayed and stunted growth. Louis-Fabrice Latour of Maison Louis Latour confirms that Burgundy is producing less wine now than in the 80s and 90s as a result. However, climate change is only one factor blamed for spreading this disease. Sodium arsenite fungicides, historically used to kill trunk disease, were banned 10 years ago due to their destructive impact on soil. In addition, electric pruning shears are increasingly used which make bigger cuts when cutting the old wood, creating more infection.

To think that in 20 to 50 years, Champagne will be over-shadowed by sparkling wine production on the coast of Scandinavia or that Southern Rhone producers will grow pineapples and mangoes instead of their beloved Chateauneuf-du-pape, seems far-fetched. There is still no visible proof that countries such as Sweden, with its mere 50 hectares currently under vine, are benefiting from any of these changes. In fact, wine production in these countries is still very much in its infancy.

Of importance are increasingly extreme weather patterns and their unpredictability. Hail, frost, storms, snowballs the size of potatoes, sudden rainfalls, heat waves and prolonged droughts have a direct affect on vineyards worldwide. Whereas change of temperatures can create new opportunities while influencing vine physiology, berry composition and wine attributes, extreme weather conditions have severe consequences. Sudden hails storm can ruin a chateau’s annual production in a few minutes.

Burgundy’s new regional association (ARELFA) invested this year in a new technology to protect the region from devastating hailstorms. Spurred by continuous crop loss over the last 15 years, ground generators were developed in order to control weather patterns in the sky. Test already showed 50% success and is more affordable (€10 per hectare) than anti-hail rockets.

South African and Australian producers are used to heat waves and droughts and are very much aware that access to water will become increasingly important. Whereas South African growers lack the scope to move polewards, Australian growers are exploring cooler regions such as Tasmania, already showing great potential for sparkling wine production.

Soil salinity is also a threat in Australia and the use of saline tolerant vines that are able to absorb water will become significant. This problem, caused by imbalance of the hydrological cycle or irrigation, is particularly significant in Western Australia, South Australia and Murray-Darling Basin according to CSIRO, the national science agency.

Water management and the sustainability of water sources is on everyone’s mind. Permitting irrigation where currently appellation laws forbid it for the production of high quality wines (PDO and PGI) is an obvious change that producers are bound to fight for.

It has been estimated that in order to produce a bottle of wine, 1,500 litres of water is used, therefore conserving water for use in vineyards and cellars will be a key factor in water resource planning. Growers will be competing with another as well as (and arguably more importantly) other agricultural areas. Areas such as California are considering enforcing mandatory water restrictions due to 7 years of consecutive droughts and after experiencing one of the driest year’s on record in 2013. The price of irrigation water in Riverland, Riverina and Murray Valley has tripled in recent years and 40% of producers are struggling to afford it. But there are smart vineyard practices that help to balance the cost increase. Bryson Brothers at Morambro Creek in Australia use mulch cover which protects evaporation and saves 20-30% of water.

Dramatic and unpredictable vintage changes harm individual producers much more then the overall average temperature rise. As more extreme weather conditions occur greater vintage variations appear, highlighting the importance of innovative viticultural techniques. To become sustainable, producers will need to better understand their vineyard locations and their water sources. There is much work to be done in the vineyards and the emphasis will shift significantly towards the vigneron’s work alongside the winemaker’s. However, there will be plenty of new opportunities and plantings in new areas, that should hush any warnings of global wine shortages.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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32 shades of pink

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 20.48.34

Spring is here and so the love of rosé resurfaces like daffodils. The supermarket shelves will soon be covered by beautiful pink hues and our glasses will be filled with many different shades of blush. For several months, rosés will rule the world yet again.

Rosé wines are becoming very popular and not only amongst the ladies. We are drinking more rosé than we ever did and all the signs point to further growth. Those new to wine are more likely to pick a bottle of rosé as it is more accessible and palatable more than many reds or whites. The figures reflect this trend, the worldwide production of rosé has increased by 13% in the last 8 years becoming an important category now within the drinks business and accounting for 10% of total wine production (CIVP).

French lead the way as they both produce and drink the biggest share. In fact they consume more than they can produce at the moment. But consumption trends differ very much depending on the country. Americans and Germans are said to be fond of residual sugar whereas French and Spanish prefer dry styles.

So what type of rosé wine drinkers are most Brits? The trend is not as one sided here as the stock on shelves suggests demand for both dry and sweet styles. However, the overriding trend is lighter and more off-dry styles at affordable prices. Indeed, it is the style that leads the category as opposed to the region of origin. This is brilliant news to any winemakers that are willing to listen to consumers and create rosé styles that are in demand.

Whatever the style, Brits are becoming very fond of rosés despite the variable weather. In fact, one in eight bottles of wine bought is rosé now and Brits spend close to £700 million per year on this category (Nielsen).

Despite all this success, there are still many, like me, that would rather have a good bottle of white or red. To me, rosés are like movies that never became a blockbuster. A good cast but the plot lacks depth and interest. The fact that rosés are rarely made in their own right, and despite all the best intentions, quality is compromised as generally only degraded/left-over red varieties are used in production.

A recent blind tasting of 32 top rosés has not persuaded me otherwise. The wines consisted of 2012 and 2013 vintages, priced at premium £15 – £30 and the range was 70% from Provence, and the rest from Loire Valley, Rhone, Bordeaux, Navarra, England, Piedmont, Australia and New Zealand.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of reductive notes (rubber, struck match) and even a couple of cases of reduced taint (cabbage, onion) across this range. To me, the reason why rosés are so successful is due to their attractive colour and seductive perfume. Reduction unfortunately spoils the fun.

What also did not help was that the majority of wines lacked fruit. I would have hoped that even serious rosés such these would offer some fruit pleasure. All the wines were dry, but despite my personal preference I believe that just a touch of residual sugar would lift those hidden (or should I say restrained) aromas and flavours.

However, the packaging didn’t disappoint. In fact I think that these days rosés have amongst the smartest and most aesthetically pleasing packaging, with a clear message and presentation. Colours are so versatile from a pale shade of strawberry to bright cherry lollipop so that everyone can find their preferred shade.

All in all, here are my top 5 rosés from the tasting:

1. Sancerre Rose Chavignol, Dom Laporte 2013 Loire Valley – £16.50 – Lea & Sandeman

2. Chene Bleu 2013 Ventoux (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault) £15, Justerini & Brooks

3. Domaine des Diables Rose Bonbon 2013 Provence – £13.95 – Lea & Sandeman

4. Domaine Sainte Lucie L’Hydropathe 2013 Provence – £15.95 – Lea & Sandeman

5. Domaine Tempier 2012 Provence – £23.95 – Lea & Sandeman

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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