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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

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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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Everyone wants it but only a few make it

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Everyone wants to sell their wines in China.  As Damien Wilson, director of the MSC in Wine Business, puts it “The (Chinese) market appears like a commercial oasis in a global wine desert”. Ask any producer about their export wish list and the Chinese market is likely to be somewhere close to if not at the top. Ask them again why and how they plan to target China and the answer is less clear. Many have been seduced by the promise of easy money. However, as the transition from a producer economy to a consumer economy is taking place, the Chinese wine industry is no longer what it used to be and is changing very rapidly.

The Chinese economy is thriving and with it the wine industry is also growing. According to official government statistics, the Chinese economy is the fastest growing in the world (only second to the US) and Chinese middle class household incomes have risen tenfold in the last 30 years. Even though the rate of volume increase has slowed slightly in the last two years, wine exports to China are still rising significantly in comparison to other markets. A 10% rise in volume has been reported from 2011 to 2013 (to round 31 million 9L cases) and imported wine now accounts for 15 – 17% of the market. Furthermore, its value is already worth 1/8 of the biggest global importer, the US, which has been estimated at €4 billion (OIV 2013).

Understanding current and future wine consumption is less clear. According to somewhat questionable figures from the IWSR, current wine consumption has plateaued since 2011 from 156m to 155m 9L cases in 2013. Furthermore, the same source is very optimistic about the future, predicting a 40% rise by 2016 but does not offer much explanation for this forecast. If this were all true, the Chinese would be consuming nearly as much wine as US consumers were in 2013 (297m 9L cases according to Wine Market Council’s annual report on US Wine Consumer Trends).

On the one hand, Chinese government encourages wine drinking as it is healthier than the local baiju spirit. At the same time, however, the government’s on-going anticorruption campaign is cracking down on official wine gift giving and wine spending, following the recent leadership change. Many top luxury brands such as Chateau Lafite and Penfolds Grange are reporting lower demand. Despite the large Chinese appetite for luxury goods (China accounts for 7% of global luxury goods consumption), wealthy Chinese spent 15% less in 2013 than the previous year and 25% less on gifts according to The Hurun Report, the Annual Luxury Consumers 2014 Survey. Fewer people are expected to give expensive gifts and many luxury brands are preparing for a disappointing year of the Horse.  “Overnight, the perfect deal-lubricant became a career-blemishing gaffe” Andrew Jefford reflects. One conclusion is clear – if demand does not match the imported supply – stock will start pilling up in warehouses (if it is not already doing so) making it an even bigger challenge for newcomers to enter this market.

Originally, the majority of consumers got introduced to wine through business dinners and karaoke. However, the growing power and the scope of Chinese blogger groups and social networks are now having an important impact on how stories are spread and shared. The Internet generation is not only mimicking Western drinking habits but also engaging with wine more enthusiastically than consumers in more mature markets. Since Google started to provide uncensored search results from its Hong Kong base, now used by people in mainland China, the use of internet has quadrupled according to Human Rights in China. Despite the government intensifying its control and censorship over social media content since new president took charge in March, audience growth is unstoppable. According to IB Intelligence, two out of the five largest social networks in the world are solely Chinese (Qzone with 712m users and Sina Weibo with 500m users). Despite Facebook being blocked in China, it has 95 m users nearly matching the 100m Facebook users in the US.

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As more people are moving to urban areas as part of government policy, changing demographics are bringing a new type of Chinese consumer interested in all price points and hungry for knowledge and education. Big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou all have populations greater than 10million. Moreover, the growing number of second and third tier cities is further driving the consumer economy and the growing distribution of luxury goods. McKinsey & Co 2009 estimated that by 2025 “there will be 221 Chinese cities with a population greater than one million compared to only 35 cities in Europe”. Also wine is no longer only consumed by expats, tourists and urban business professionals with high disposable incomes.

Despite the Chinese consuming a mere one litre per person, the nation is ranked as the fifth largest wine-consuming country in the world as there are 1.354 billion people living in China. Traditionally wine in China was not drunk but given. Sometimes a single bottle could pass several hands before the cork was actually popped. Image was very important. In fact, this is still true but now many people are buying wine for themselves and paying with their own money. It is also becoming more of a regular activity as opposed to just a one off treat. Sales used to be driven mainly by men but as more women are claiming their place in the workforce and gaining more confidence and independence, they are also becoming more interested in wine. Yesmywine.com, China’s biggest wine online retailer, reports that males only represent 55% of their customers.

Wine consumption particularly red wine is no longer only associated with health benefits. While this is still the biggest selling point in China according to Jared Liu, co-founder of Yesmywine.com, wine is more increasingly being seen in a social context as it helps you to relax, relieve stress, creates a friendly atmosphere and tastes good (findings of China Wine Barometer and Wine Intelligence research headed up by Dr Justin Cohen).

The biggest selling wine is still red Bordeaux (rather tannic, earthy, bone dry red with subtle fruit flavours) although tasting experiments by AWRI (2008) indicated that what Chinese drinkers enjoy are fruit-driven, soft, slightly off-dry reds, unsurprisingly, like many consumers elsewhere. Sparkling wines are now starting to be in demand with imports increasing from 300,000 9L cases in 2010 to 700,000 9L cases in 2012.  However, they share similar limitations with white wines. Lacking the cachet that red wine has, issues with temperature (a preference for hot water and room-temperature beer) and taste (the bubbles, flavour and high acidity can be viewed as unusual and sometimes unpleasant) and tradition (no health benefit link as with red wine).

French wines still dominate the market with nearly 50% share of volume, Bordeaux being number one with 6 million cases imported since 2000. Chinese consumers buy French wines because they believe they should do so but they are also becoming more price conscious, less brand loyal and generally harder to please. With growing availability of wine information online, drinkers are expected to become more confident about the wines they choose.  The new trend is already turning towards exploration of new wines and countries such as Burgundy, Italy, Australia (13% share), Spain (10%), Chile (8%), Italy (7%) and the US (5%) according to the International Wine and Spirit Research The Wall Street Journal.

The most common mistake that people make is treating the whole of China with the same brush. As Damien Wilson says ‘China is misunderstood by European wine producers”. The wine trade structure is very complicated and increasingly fragmented. According to Rabobank, it is estimated that there are anything from 4,000 to 25,000 importers while only 50 odd bring a sizeable volume. Tastes, traditions and regulations vary widely between regions and cities. According to Canadian International Markets Bureau research into Chinese Consumer Trends (2010), spirits are very popular in Southwestern China as the largest domestic producers are situated here. Northwestern Chinese consumers are more concerned about their health and well-being with Beijing’s biggest trend being fruit wines and low-alcohol beers.

Both Guangzhou and Shanghai attracts the most sophisticated drinkers but if you want to import your wines here you should be ready for a lengthy procedure going through Chinese customs, sometimes requiring things that are either impossible or very difficult. For example, each wine requires a health certificate. It takes up to six week to receive it and many samples are needed. Sending samples however is officially forbidden in Shanghai and therefore producers have to send them to Hong Kong (with simpler wine regulations and taxes) and then have someone carry them into mainland China or try sending them as a gift.

Indeed, China has its dark side too. Smuggling, bribery, trademark hijacking and widespread wine counterfeiting clouds the reputation of the market. Hong Kong is still perceived as the most trusted place with a good reputation for buying wines by collectors. But many still believe that any wine below $25 might be fake and nobody really knows how much counterfeit wine stock is circulating globally. The global fine wine market is now estimated to be worth £2.5 billion. In order to solve this issue, the government is increasing pressure on the wine industry and consumers to work together as there is fear of people dying from fake wine. Since the death sentence has been handed out to forgers of the most expensive bottles, fake bottles are in decline (reported by Decanter 2014). However, counterfeiting is not only for premium luxury products as pretty much anything and everything can be counterfeited in China.

Another issue is that if you want to build your brand in China you had better register your trademark now as you may find that someone has already registered it. Claiming your origins can be timely and costly due to local bureaucracy.  To tackle this issue, China is re-enforcing a crackdown against trademark hijacking through the new Chinese Trademark Law that should enter into effect from May 1, 2014.

Regardless what you may have heard or think, the Chinese wine market is taken much more seriously now than 20 years ago with a growing number of Trade Fairs (Vinexpo in Hong Kong where close to 20,000 visitors are expected and ProWine in Shanghai). And the Chinese can also start to be proud of their own wines.  Both the volume and quality of their domestic production is rising (quality less so), creating tough competition for imported wines. Probably the most famous awarded wine was He Lan Qing Xue’s Jia Bei Lan 2009 Cabernet blend winning the Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International Trophy at Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) chosen out of 12,000 wine entered. When the results of DWWA 2013 were released, 20 out of 49 Chinese entries received an award including Domaine Helan Mountain, Great Wall or Chateau SunGod.

China produced 14.8m hectoliters of wine in 2012. In comparison, France and Italy each turned out 40 million hl. The high demand for local wines in order to battle against alcoholism (as wine offers a lower-alcohol alternative to the domestic white spirit baiju) and the push for economic growth of poor regions explain the rapid increase of newly planted vineyards. France’s National Centre for Scientific Research projects that China will be the world’s biggest wine producer within five years.

The Chinese may lack the skills and expertise of well-established vine growing regions but they are keen to learn and they are investing a lot in winemaking and viticulture. The top wineries to watch are Great Wall, Changyu, Weilong and Dynasty. Ningxia is one of the rising vine production regions with 26,000 ha of vines.  Due to relatively moderate winters, a long growing season and available irrigation from the Yellow River, this dessert-like region can grow grape crops with success. Despite many challenges, genuine international interest and investment in local wineries and regions is growing. Similarly, wine giants such as Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessy are starting to invest in Ningxia.

China’s biggest challenges with domestic production range from lack of water and labour, disease (leaf-roll) and extreme climate pressure (severe summer monsoons and freezing winter temperatures) to quality pressure from imported wines. For example, due to the increasing difficulty finding seasonal labour in winegrowing regions, producers are forced to resort to a combination of manual labour and mechanisation according to Li Demei, consultant of Wang Zhong winery based in a remote part of Northern China. He calculates that protecting vines from severe winters by covering them with soil and then uncovering them in spring every year represents up to 30% of their total expenses and requires 200 to 300 workers. Specifically designed machines are available as an alternative but despite their efficiency the cost is high (equivalent of £26 per row) and smaller producers cannot afford them.

China is an exciting yet daunting market opportunity and if you plan to invest in the wine market here it is worth investigating thoroughly as easy sales and high margins are things of the past. What ever you do and what ever product you have to sell, understanding Chinese social media is one of the most effective ways to engage with your target audience here. Global oasis or not, Chinese consumption and production is changing the equilibrium of the world’s wine industry.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Getting in touch with reality

Have you seen the new Virgin America flight safety video? No? Well 6 million people did through YouTube, 430,000 shared it on Facebook and 17,000 on Twitter, in less than two weeks. All this without even stepping on a plane!

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In-flight safety demonstrations are desperately boring. Few of us pay attention and even fewer find them entertaining. They have loads in common with wine talks and presentations. Finding ways to connect with people and the achieving the right tone (whether humorous or aspirational) that will resonate with them is not an easy task.

The wine trade is failing constantly while being routinely blamed for not communicating with their consumers. Frankly, this issue is not new. It has been talked about for years and not much has changed. In fact, it is as bad as ever despite all the communication tools we have available now.

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Inside the trade bubble, we all seem to be quite comfortable, boasting of lavish dinners with winemakers, drooling over old vintages and eagerly discussing terroir and minerality. Just mention TCA and twitter will go ballistic. I think we have sucked the marrow out of natural wines, from both viewpoints. What’s next? I can see trunk disease or methoxypyrazines spurring animated conversations for days to come.  But as soon as we are asked to engage with punters we get wobbly knees.

The biggest challenge is to see both perspective and there aren’t many so blessed. Let’s hope that John Atkinson MW is wrong in tweeting that “The geek is always a geek. He can never be transformed.”

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So why is it that we have not been able to capture the audience as many other industries have done so successfully? Look at spirits for example. With their rapidly growing global consumption  – by close to 9% in the last two years – they are literally changing our drinking behaviour.

This success is primarily driven by innovation, creative advertising, digital marketing and celebrity endorsement in spite of the weak global economy. The problem, as I see it, is that many wine professionals focus on changing and educating those new to wine. In fact, what we should be doing is interacting and connecting with them.

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In the UK, the highest portion of wine is sold at £4-5 price bracket, the average price of bottle of wine is at £5.15 per bottle, nine in ten will be sourced from the major supermarkets and 60% will be on some type of promotion.  If you want to inspire people to drink better wines, this is what you are up against, people not wanting to spend much and discounts offering the strongest incentive.

Talking to consumers at the recent London-based wine fair organised by Spirited Wines/Nicolas, it became very clear that people are just not that interested in wine. Something that Robert Joseph, the ever-controversial wine critic, has been warning us about for a while now.

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So there was me equipped (optimistically) with a large-format map of Burgundy and ready with details of soil and oak management for each wine. After all, I was presenting prestigious Albert Bichot wines including Grand Cru Moutonne. As an MW student I was ready for any wine-related questions coming my way.

Well, guess how many people asked me about the Burgundy? How the wines were made? Who made them? Count the fingers on both hands and you would not be far off.

Instead, people were eager to find out about me. Now I am not a particularly exciting or interesting person but many were keen to know why I study wine and what I do.  What wines I like and what wines should they buy. We talked about everything and anything  – sharing our holiday experiences, comparing our top dining encounters and gossiping about the latest TV shows.

What I learned that people like to talk to wine experts but only if they make them feel comfortable and communicate on the same level in a fun and engaging way. Not trying to blow my own trumpet too much, and mainly based on the punters’ feedback and enthusiasm around my stand, I think I did ok. I guess there was that gorgeous Grand Cru that probably had something to do with it too.

To get that perfect balance between being down-to-earth yet at the same time delivering an aspirational message is a tough nut to crack.  A great recent example is the Berry Bro & Rudd ad at the Telegraph. It manages to connect to the reader in a down to earth way and yet be aspirational.

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“As well as the odd wine for £9,000 and quite a few wines for £90, we also sell Good Ordinary Claret for £9. It is not the greatest wine ever made, but it is a great wine for £9. For us, wine is not about the price tag, but about passing one simple test: Is it good to drink”

So clever on many different levels. It pricks the pomposity of wine with the £9 price tag but also subtly it says that BBR sell wines that are far more exclusive.  It simultaneously appeals to people with a sense for value but also those who aspire to finer wine.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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This is why we don’t have to panic about running out of wine!

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 23.02.39 Plenty of articles have been written in the last couple of days reflecting on and mainly disputing the original and rather naive Morgan Stanley piece warning us that the world is facing a wine shortage. Here is a summary of some of the more eloquent responses:

BBC – World faces global wine shortage by Morgan Stanley’s analysts Tom Kierath and Crystal Wang

Time Business & Money – How China Became the Wine World’s Most Unlikely Superpower by Kharunya Paramaguru

Reuters – There’s no global wine shortage by Felix Salmon

Wine Industry Insight – Wine shortage is bull: Here’s why by Lewis Perdue

SFGate – Experts dismiss prediction of global wine shortage by Stacy Finz

Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV) – World wine production has increased significantly in 2013 while consumption is stabilising

The Telegraph – Have no fears about a world wine shortage – the glass is still half full by Victoria Moore

Wineanorak – My take on the global wine shortage story by Jamie Goode

Jancis Robinson – The phantom global wine shortage

Decanter – Global wine shortage fears exaggerated, say analysts by Chris Mercer and Ivana Lalovic

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The Myth Behind Minerality in Wine

id_2013_by_myth_dragon-d5vyn6p “Elegant palate with good minerality and the potential to develop. Nicely understated with firm, fresh fruit and good acidity. Well crafted.” Domaine Jean Bilaud-Simon Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir £35, Decanter

“Firm, stony mineral nose. Tight-knit palate with a mineral backbone. Powerful and understated.” Domaine Wiliam Fevre Bougros Cote Bouguerots Chablis Grand Cru £40, Decanter

“Accesible, fresh quaffer with bountiful amounts of fruity appeal. It’s elegant, also, with delicate peach aromas and quite a long, mineral-tinged finish.” Sainsbury’s Taste Difference Gavi, Piedmont £7.99, Decanter

“This is classic, zesty Sancerre with a deliciously refreshing structure supporting vibrant, grassy aromas and textbook minerality.” Waitrose In Partnership with Joseph Mello Sancerre, Loire Valley £10.99, Decanter

“Well balanced Douro red at an attractive price, with subtle, spicy oak, good minerality and acidity and tarry, brambly fruit.” Tanners Douro Red, £7.95, Tim Atkin MW

“Subtle, flinty, yet ripe, with good almostGraves-like concentration and notes of gooseberry and minerals.” Reuilly Les Coignons, Denis Jamain, Loire Valley £14.25, Tim Atkin MW

“Lively, bracing, pure mineral nose. The Palate is dry with lovely mineral, citrus, pear and baked apple character. Very precise with a spicy, mineral core. Generous and ripe but with good acidity and a dry finish. Weighty but precise, showing beautiful poise.” Van Volxem Saar Riesling Mosel £15.95, Jamie Goode

“Very bright and fresh, this is a lean, lemony, mineral style of Chardonnay with keen acidity and some subtle toasty notes… There’s a little bit of matchstick minerality here. Tight, fresh and precise with some waxy, pithy complexity. Quite Chablis-like.” Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay Tasmania, Jamie Goode

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Minerality is a romantic tasting descriptor. Its popularity is driven by our obsession with terroir. Its puzzlement follows the same mystique of making wine, or as many marketers would have us believe. It is a magical word that describes a sacred quality and makes the wine taste better whenever anyone mentions it. It is more than just a tingle on the tongue.

With ever-changing trends, we also change how we talk about wines. Look at tasting reviews and you will find that chalky Chablis, gravelly Sancerre and slatey Mosel Riesling are being replaced by the minerality phenomenon. With huge success appearing even in some ‘lucky’ New World regions.  Its noticeable overuse in the last couple of years, for any style, any price, any wine has spurred the flood of prose trying to unravel the mystery behind it.

Despite its mystique, minerality is a very unique concept universally understood to be good, indicating a specific provenance. Yet casual wine drinkers still have no idea what we are on about. In fact even wine experts cannot seem to agree on a simple definition or explanation. Tasting notes of wines with restrained aromas are glittered with it. More upfront and fruit driven wines less so. Marketing catchphrase or not, we seem to be obsessed with it. I am as guilty as anyone.

What do we actually mean by it? Ask any wine expert and you will receive a different answer.  It is impossible to define. And this is one of the reasons why there is so much debate about it. Some describe it as a zingy & acidic sensation or wet pebbles & chalky flavours, some speak of a smoky or salty taste, and a small few associate it with complex sulphur compounds and reduction. It is almost as controversial as biodynamic or natural wines and similarly difficult to explain (scientifically at least). In fact it is a very misleading concept because it is so subjective.

My experience tells me that it is the acidity that reinforces minerality in our minds. Both Bevan Johnson from Newton Johnson and Manfred Ing from Querciabella describe it as a perception of liveliness and freshness that is not just acidity. If you look at the type of grape varieties and the type of cool climate that minerality is associated with (Mosel Riesling, Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir etc.) then this seems a very plausible explanation. Too often have I found myself hedging between high acidity and minerality and in my opinion they both are very closely knit.

UK wine writer Andrew Jefford is more sceptical. He argues that low acidic wine can express more minerality than high acidic wine. US wine critic Chris Kissack also believes that acidity and minerality feel very different on the palate.

Randall Grahm, winemaker and founder of Bonny Doon introduced an idea that minerality may be confused with reduction or mercaptans/thiols. Flavours such as that well-known appealing scent of cat’s pee and passion fruit, or less favourable characteristics of a struck match or flintiness. Sam Harrop MW points out that yes you can get a flinty smell from two rocks rubbing together but you can’t rub this smell into the final wine. His view is that sulphides produced during fermentation are responsible for this aroma.

How many times have you heard wine critics describing the smell of wet stones as minerality in wines? There is actually such a smell. What happens is that rocks covered with organic matter and plants release a volatile compound petrichor after rain, which is responsible for this unique kind of earthy smell. In fact, it is not the smell of the rock but the organic matter that we associate with minerality. But none of that is relevant to the sensation on our palates.

So how is minerality produced? Despite digging deep, there is no scientific explanation and therefore no solid answer on offer. However, let’s be absolutely clear about one aspect. Minerality in wine and whatever this represents to us, is irrelevant to the geological minerals in the soil despite its literal suggestion. As Alex Maltmam, geology professor confirms “ Whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals derived from the vineyard geology.”

Vines do absorb minerals but only in the form of dissolved ions (not the actual geological rocks) together with essential water and nutrients through their roots. It is then unlikely that any amount of rocky minerals (feldspar, quartz, gypsum, graphite) or nutrient minerals (ions of calcium, sodium, potassium, aluminium, silicon, manganese) is transferred to the grapes. No matter how rocky or nutritious the soil is. After all, almost all mineral nutrients are flavourless and odourless. Their concentration is so low we just aren’t able to taste them.

This is not to say that soil does not influence the flavour of wine. For example, alkaline soils such as limestone and chalk predispose high acidity and low ph in wines. It is also essential to have mycorrhizal fungi and humus present in the soil in order for the roots to transfer nutrients to the plant. It is logical to conclude that a fertile soil is the pre-condition for minerality sensation as well as having an influence on wine taste, balance and quality, even if indirectly. However, in practise it is the poor rocky soil with deep roots that we associate with minerality.

Anyway going back to our search for the source or cause of minerality. Neither can we claim that it is produced during fermentation despite some minerals such as aluminium, calcium and iron being present during this conversion. While it is true that some minerals influence the metabolism of yeast and therefore the outcome of fermentation flavours.  Two Czech scientists observed that minerality “was more to do with the relationship between the nutritional stress of yeasts and succinic acid production, which can result in a final difference in the taste of wine. The more succinic acid the greater the perceived minerality there was in the wine”. (Dyson & McShane) Succinic acid is produced during fermentation and we perceive it as a salty or bitter taste in the final wine. But this is very rare.  Similarly it is very rare to have traces of sodium chloride which gives the sensation of saltiness.

Fining with bentonite, that can leach earth elements to the must, doesn’t present sufficient grounds to be the source. The amounts are miniscule, cannot be tasted and not all wines that are described as having minerality have been fined by this method. Neither does it develop during ageing. In fact, both potassium and calcium are transformed to potassium bitartrate crystals during ageing and therefore reduced even further.

As minerality comes in so many guises and with no convincing pattern, we are unable to define or explain it. The only answer is the fact that minerality sensation has several pre-dispositions. Whether it is cool climate, grape variety, high acidity, level of pH, composition of soil, production of mercaptans or succinic acids during the fermentation or something totally different and as yet undiscovered. The question is, should we search further for the most credible answer? Or alternatively we can just continue using it metaphorically in the same way as we describe lemony notes of Riesling or pencil shaving flavours in Claret.

SOURCE & USEFUL READS

Alex Maltman (2013) –

http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/handle/2160/10840/minerality_in_wine.pdf?sequence=1

Andrew Jeffford (2013) –

http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/529708/jefford-on-monday-a-fashion-for-stones

Chris Kissack (2013) – http://thewinedoctor.com/blog/2013/09/minerality-is-confusing/

Jordan Ross (2012) – http://www.enologyinternational.com/articles/Minerality_reprint.pdf

Sally Easton MW (2013) – http://www.winewisdom.com/articles/describing-minerality/

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane (2013) –

http://www.livingwines.com.au/Articles/Minerality-in-wine-Part-2.pdf

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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