Wine in the Time of Pestilence II

(Thanks to Cathy van Zyl MW, Neil Jing Zhang, and Paul McArdle for some leads which helped me develop this post).

Phylloxera began to spread through France in 1863 – and reached the furthest north around 1890 – so it took its time.  One of the interesting things about its spread is that while it eventually ruined vineyards in every region, before it arrived most regions had a reason why it would not affect them.  Soil, or variety or viticultural techniques: each place would be spared from what the others had endured – because they were, after all, special (thinking about it now, as an aside, I wonder if this played into the later development of notions about terroir?  Hold that idea – perhaps we’ll return to it one day).

The spread of Covid-19 in the western world had me thinking about this more.  The Chinese attempted to ignore it for a few weeks but – with the experience of SARS – when they took action it was severe and proactive.  The same in South Korea.  Yet when it arrived in Italy they took time, and ultimately only locked down a few provinces and regions (which in turn prompted an exodus of people, many crowded into trains whilst no doubt infected, to the south of the country).  Thus it spread rapidly, and with devastating effect.  Spain and France looked on but dilly-dallied.  Certainly we had the sense here that our lockdown, strict as it was, should have come a week or ten days earlier, given what was happening in Italy and Iran.  Boris Johnson should have seen this and acted sooner; and what can one say about the catastrophic shambles of federal leadership in the USA?  In each case there was a sense – even if only unconscious – that ‘we are different, it won’t be quite so bad here we are more special than those who have already suffered’.  I’m not claiming the Phylloxera was as bad as the current disease; it didn’t kill people. Yet the response was similar.  And while Phylloxera killed no one it did reshape an entire industry.  Hundreds of thousands of smallholders stopped producing wine, vast swathes of vineyard land disappeared (Champagne went from between 50,000 ha. and 80,000 ha. to the current 34,000) and what is now Algeria became for a while the main source of French wine.  The fallout from the current crisis on markets and distribution, if not production could well produce changes that are as momentous.

There is another result of Covid-19 which is having an impact on the world of wine.  The plague has shut borders.  A viral mutation has managed to achieve what neither Brexit nor Donald Trump nor even Viktor Orban had attempted in order to keep foreigners out.  ‘The foreigners are dangerous; the disease comes with them; and so, conversely, we need to focus on what our own country offers’.  What are people drinking?  Their local drink, so much safer, more hygienic that that ‘foreign muck’.  OK – I’m exaggerating rather, but it’s interesting that some producers of English wine claim to be doing very well.  Mark Harvey, of Chapel Down, says that ‘retail and online is flying’ – particularly the sparkling bacchus.  Which makes sense, because bacchus (even if created originally in Germany) is the quintessential British grape variety.  Are drinkers in times like this more likely to revert to drinking what their own country produces out of a sense of solidarity with their compatriots and a need to identify with the national fight against ‘the enemy’?

Having said that it maybe that only certain types of wine will sell, and in specific places.  Another friend who works in the UK wine industry said that their premium fizz (pinot and chardonnay) is not moving so much – because it is the drink of celebration, and this is no time to celebrate.  I always remember listening to Yves Dumont, former CEO of Champagne Laurent Perrier, when the 2008 financial crisis arrived.  When there is a recession, the Anglo-Saxons refuse champagne – it is not appropriate in a time of crisis, when belts tighten and we should not be happy.  The French, on the other hand reach for something which sparkles; it is necessary to cheer you up amid the gloom.

This pandemic and the lockdowns which have become widespread have certainly revealed different cultural attitudes to alcohol and wine.  Today (4th April) I received an email from a high-quality wine store in Dijon telling that me that next Saturday would be ‘happy Saturday’ with 20% off all wine.  They are still open, and you can go there to buy what our government terms ‘purchases of première nécessité’ – essential products, which is what wine is after all!  On the other hand, South Africa has banned all alcohol purchases during its lock down, which prompted the following observation from one commentator:

‘The South African government has effectively decided, without consultation, to wean its population off alcohol (and nicotine) cold turkey, a decision that could end up killing more people than the virus it hopes to mitigate. Unmanaged cessation of alcohol consumption can result in death, which is just one obvious shortfall. The other is that people will either end up brewing their own nuclear-powered mampoer, and/or illegal liquor sellers will take hold of the market.’ 

I’m uncertain how many will die from enforced abstinence – but as history suggests that the final prediction is inevitable.  For those with large wine cellars, of course, it will have very little impact. 

Western Australia also decided that the crisis was bad enough to introduce limits to the number of purchases people could make ‘to limit excess drinking’ – but their conclusion contrasts with the South African one. From the 25th March the maximum you can buy is three bottles of wine a day!  Hardly a restricted intake for one household – especially when you can add either a carton of beer or a litre of spirits to that.

Meanwhile, in some parts of the Southern Hemisphere it has been harvest.  According to my friend Paul McArdle in Margaret River, cabernet is coming in as I write (where the main health concern was backpackers who pick grapes during the day then ignore all social distancing rules as they party at night).  New Zealand, too, has been facing the dilemma of harvest during a state of emergency.  The wine industry, like agriculture more generally, has a dispensation allowing it to work to harvest and process grapes, with protocols in place to ensure safe working environments.  However, in Marlborough, where over three quarters of all of the country’s grapes are harvested, there has been something of a backlash. It seems that some local residents have complained that the harvest is threatening to increase disease transmission – which is a particular problem as the region has the highest proportion of over 65s in the country.  It was reported that one doctor at the local hospital used Facebook to voice concerns, claiming that wine is a ‘luxury’ and that the harvest is ‘risking lives’.

What to do?  Returning to the sparkling wine theme – I commend to you the words of a French poet-cum-diplomat in the 1930s: Gentlemen in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.’

This blog theme will be continued…

Social distancing in the Burgundy vineyards…

Wine in the Time of Pestilence I

One of my fellow Masters of Wine, one of the most amusing and dynamic, is Fongyee Walker, who runs a Wine School in Beijing.  The one aphorism I remember from her above all others is ‘it’s only wine, after all; it’s not a fucking cure for cancer’.  In these times those of us who work with wine can only sit back and carry on with our work as far as possible but feeling fairly superfluous to the world-changing events unfolding all around us and the very significant work that so many are doing to keep us alive and well.

Nevertheless, enforced confinement in France does give a bit of space to ponder more how alcohol in general and wine in particular is fitting into this world turned upside down.  We are in a state of near lockdown with all but essential services closed, yet this being France I have still received an email from a local drinks store reminding me that (presumably as one of those ‘essential services’) they remain open for all my liquid needs.  I wonder how long that will continue.

One of the puzzling things about human choices in a time of crisis is the obsession with toilet roll – something which appears in Australia, France, the UK, and seemingly everywhere.  Toilet roll seems for many to act as the adult equivalent of the infant’s comfort toy.  As long as we can exit a supermarket clutching three or four super-sized packs of Andrex, Cottonelle, or Charin we will sleep safely at night, knowing we are now able to face any crisis.  Yet it’s not just toilet paper; alcohol too can offer some of that comfort.  When I was in a supermarket the other day the person in front of me was bulk-buying bottles of rosé wine.  Nor is it just wine – as this picture of the lager aisle in a UK supermarket, courtesy of the blog’s editorial manager, reveals.

Some commentators are suggesting that wine is now a ‘crucial survival tool’.  According to an article posted by W. Blake Gray on Wine-Searcher.com the Californian Wine Institute has stated that wineries are ‘essential’ services in their State so that they should continue working during the state of emergency there.  Meanwhile the same article notes that Sonoma County has specifically allowed wineries to go on making wine (although they can’t sell it); the thing is that (as is happening in many places) regulations are issued very speedily yet without precision or clarity.  As a result the Wine Institute have advised its members that they consider what their members do is essential, so they should carry on making wine.  Meanwhile in the UK the Mail Online has noted that sales of wine ‘soar as tipplers stock up on the essentials in case they have to go into coronavirus self-isolation.  Purchases by ‘panicked customers’ mean that Naked Wines have had to suspend accepting orders temporarily.  Again – it’s an essential.

In a time when chaos and disaster seems to lurk just outside the front door we all need treats to ease our worries.  As the Bible says, ‘wine gladdens the heart of man’ (and maybe women as well), and certainly all of us who drink it know how a glass or two can lift the spirits.  Maybe, though, it goes further than that.  Wine is a magical product, which can transform us; we may try to rationalise that magic now, but for millennia drinkers with no knowledge of fermentation attributed the drink to some kind of deity; so because a god or goddess made it so it can magically change us in turn.  Perhaps in drinking wine (or any kind of alcohol) there remains a subconscious belief that the drink will transform us into an immortal, and keep the disease away.  No one will seriously believe this, of course – but then no one really thinks they need 150 toilet rolls to survive the next few weeks.

At a more personal level, I’m currently very fortunate.  At the time of writing, one of the five very specific reasons for which we are allowed outdoors in France (each of us clutching a sworn statement ‘on our honour’ explaining why we are not at home) is ‘short excursions, close to home, for physical exercise’.  As we live by vineyards, hills, and forests we can get good walks (maybe not so short) to break up the monotony of being indoors.  You occasionally meet a few like-minded people, smile and pass on opposite sides of the path, keeping as much space between you as possible.  Then, when we get home, the cellar has enough wine in it to last us a few years if necessary.  Meanwhile the market in the village is still open (although fairly deserted) as are the supermarkets.  Families with uncomprehending young children are stuck in small flats in towns and cities and single frail elderly people struggle even to get necessities.  It induces a level of guilt.  What to do?  I think this is the time to revisit Camus’ greatest work la Peste, which I haven’t read for 40 years.  After that, maybe, read for the first time Love in the Time of Cholera.  They won’t make the world a better place, but may help us to have more understanding of what others are going through and ensure that how we live can take more account of them. This particular blog theme is likely to be continued…

The end of wine as we know it?

A recent visit to the Pfalz offered another perspective on the impact of climate change on wine.  The winemaker at Muller-Catoir noted that making good riesling is getting harder.  ‘We will still make good riesling in 20 years; but in 30?  Maybe not.’  They are increasingly planting the pinots (noir and blanc) rather than riesling.  They are also moving away from lower-level vineyards and up into the traditional vineyards in the hills.

Meanwhile at Bassermann-Jordan we were told that they used to use a sledge every winter; now they have not had snow for the last four years.  Twenty years ago they harvested in October; now it can even start at the end of August.  They are also talking about irrigation as a possibility for the future.

English wine and British wine

Recently I was at at the marketing conference for WineGB – the coordinating body for the English and Welsh wine production industry – mainly high quality, traditional method, sparkling wine.  It took place as Brexit was coming into effect, and the feeling at the conference was very interesting.  WineGB made a lot of the fact that they are British, and proud of it.  Their logo incorporates the Union Flag.  That isn’t a pro- or anti-Brexit perspective, just a recognition that this is what they do, irrespective of politics, and a pride in the fact that they do it well, and have great potential for the future. 

English sparkling wine is just beginning to get a bit of attention in the global world of wine.  Some is sold to Australia; American critics, like Eric Asimov of the New York times has praised it.  With the departure of the UK from the EU maybe there is a real opportunity for it to expand on international markets.  Unlike most British businesses they are not locked into exporting to the continent at this stage – the English-speaking world is more important.  The industry is still exploring how to manage, structure and market itself, and just maybe freedom from the more rigid EU notion of a PDO (appellation) could allow it the leeway to evolve dynamically and creatively. 

A typical English vineyard

One of the things that WineGB want to do as part of their strategy is reclaim the notion of ‘British Wine’.  British wine has been a major part of the market for alcoholic drinks from well before the time of English sparkling wine.  However, its name is deceptive – it has nothing to do with grapes grown in Britain.  Rather, it is made in Britain using grape juice from other countries, and turned into a fortified, rather sweet but pale imitation of good cream sherry (sometimes flavoured).  It’s also very cheap, and beloved of those for whom alcohol intake is more important than complexity, balance and intensity.  The best known of these – paradoxically given its reputation for fuelling hangovers and fights – has been made by an abbey in Devon since the end of the 19th century.  The English wine production industry has skirted around this aberration for some time – scared of being damned by association with a competitor which bears no relation to the drink made made from grapes grown in the cool, sodden climate of the UK.  Now, however, it seems that they want to take the competitor on – and come out as proud of the ‘British’ part of their moniker – which seems obligatory given the name.  Maybe soon we’ll be talking regularly about British fizz and consigning sweet wine from French or Spanish juice to the vinous seconds bin.

Just one question for WineGB though.  What happens to their name when Scotland secedes from the Union and part of the British Isles is no longer included?

Retsina II

27th December 2019

I’ve already written before about retsina – but it’s a wine style which because of its history and very specific cultural context I find fascinating; so you are going to get a bit more of it I’m afraid.

These reflections are prompted by a tasting I was given of retsina when in Greece a few months ago, as well as some background information from a few winemakers.  I need first to clarify an uncertainty I raised in my last post on the subject; it seems, according to Prof. Yorgos Kotseridis of the Agricultural University of Athens, who has carried out research, that resin has no anti-oxidative powers, and cannot protect wine versus spoilage.  I would suggest, then, that the reason for adding it is to cover up the oxidative characters of wines which, in the past with inadequate storage containers, would often become undrinkable within a year or so of production.

The big problem that modern producers face is knowing what style to make.  The Greek author and critic Constantine Stergides gave me a pretty good summary of the conundrum that producers face.  In the past the bulk wine used a lot of retsina, often up to 10kg per tonne of grapes; now, for the most refined versions it is much less – about 250gms per tonne.  A little while ago the main producers started to bottle these ‘lighter styles’ for export markets.  The result was that domestic drinkers gave it up as it wasn’t to their taste any more.  Now it’s made with limited resin and sold to partner with sushi!  This style doesn’t go so well with Greek food which needs a more forceful style – so the traditional market has been lost.  Meanwhile young, Greek drinkers wouldn’t be seen dead with it.  In the north of Greece it’s mixed with coke and trendy modern winemakers recoil from making it. The issue of food was repeated with other people I listened to – especially the fact that it pairs well with sushi, because it can stand up to strong flavours like ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce; it also goes with other intense foods, such as anchovies or pepper. 

Savatiano vines in Attica – the most common grape used to produce retsina

However, the styles have become so light that it is often barely detectable, so that you get onto issues of authenticity – and here we move on from the issue of what consumers would like to drink to what producers think is correct.  If you produce a retsina suited to modern (non-Greek) tastes what is the point of calling it retsina anyway?  This issue of authenticity goes further.  Constantine Sterigdes notes that many producers are now making it with the grape assyrtiko, rather than savatiano or rhoditis.  This – it is claimed – adds elegance but it seems to me that assyrtiko is more probably selected because it has become very fashionable and  easier to sell.  In any event, retsina was never designed for elegance.  One winemaker, Dimitris Georgas,  said he would not use assyrtiko, and that retsina needs a much more robust, even rustic variety such as savatiano in order to shine.  Meanwhile retsina has become a focus of contested ideas of Greek vinous identity.  It was a traditional working-class drink.  As some producers moved towards producing ‘good’ wines – wines which would shine internationally – from the 1980s onwards, there was a shift towards using French grape varieties.  This has been, after all, a world-wide phenomenon; if the French make the best wines in the world then we should use the same grapes as them, to show that we are worthy of respect for our wines.  Think of Chile, Lebanon, Super Tuscans or Georgia amongst many others.  Fortunately Greece has, in part, moved on from this and first assyrtiko and now xynomavro, agiorgitiko, moschofilero, and others are beginning to shine.  However, as Yiannis Karakasis MW has said, ‘retsina is a blessing and a curse; everyone knows about it but it has an appalling reputation’.  Many Greek producers who want to show how good their wines can be wanted to forget about something which can taste so coarse and unrefined.

In the end, as Eleni Kechris, another winemaker, pointed out the question is not how much resin but how good is the resin, and how good is the wine?  It shouldn’t cover the wine’s fruit.  Indeed, the best retsinas are not simply resinous; they can have aromas of thyme and rosemary as well as pine which complement rather than dominate what comes from the grape.  I’m willing to drink retsina not just because it’s a relic of another day, but because, in the right situation, it can be very enjoyable.

If you want to drink this debate, you may find some of the following wines interesting to try:

Gikas Winery Pine Forest 2016.  Very restrained pine – a merest hint.  This is made with assyrtiko and has good acidity.  The resin is collected from May to July and goes into big ‘tea bags’ which are placed in the ferment.  They experiment with it by fermenting at different temperatures; the higher it is the more bitterness is extracted.  It seems that 15-19oC is ideal, for about 10-20 days.

Nikoulou Winery: Botanic 2017.  A sparkling retsina.  Evident resin on the palate but less on the nose.  However, there are also floral and herbal characters (fennel especially).  I found the mousse rather dominant, and it is quite bitter on the finish (which is not necessarily a criticism).

Kechris Winery Roza 2018.  A red retsina made with xynomavro.  The resin is not very obvious.  An interesting wine, phenolic (naturally!), clear acidity, and with some red fruit.

Kechris Winery Afros 2018.  White retsina made from rhoditis.  A residual sugar of seven grammes/litre (so just evident) which, the producer claims, emphasises the resin.  Intense – ‘reminiscent of the old style’ she says.  There is a hint of spritz which also accentuates the resin character on the nose. Very traditional but balanced and good length.

The Revolution in Lebanon

16th November 2019

I’m writing this in Hong Kong, in the wake of the protests which have paralysed the city for a week now.  And I want to talk about protests – but not in Hong Kong, rather in Lebanon, and how they may reflect what is happening with wine in the country.

I’m prompted to do this by a curious confluence of movements in our cosmopolitan world.  A student of mine in Dijon, is doing an internship here, helping to distribute French wine in this Special Administrative Region  of China.  Roland is a trained winemaker, and his family have a domaine – in Lebanon – to which he will return shortly. Read the rest of this article here

Will there be wine from Santorini in 20 years’ time?

I’ve made this post after my return from Greece.   The title sounds as though it is some portentous, vinous, doomsday-focused, film – but it was prompted by a presentation we had in Santorini from Yiannis Paraskevopoulos.  Yiannis is the winemaker at Gaia Wines – who produce wine in various parts of Greece but are, to my mind, one of the best producers of Santorini assyrtiko.  Yiannis is also, however, a professor at the University of West Attica with a PhD in oenology and has coauthored papers on topics such as the phenol content of wines and fuzzy logic in grape variety identification.  It was he who said he thinks that ‘the statistics suggest that wine will die out on the island in 20 years’ time’ and if he, with his background, believes that, it is worth paying attention to.

So what do the statistics say?  First, that there has been a 47% drop in the production of assyrtiko over the last 14 years (3.4% p.a.).  If you take just the last eight years that decrease becomes 7.6% p.a. Why this drop in supply?  Some of it can be attributed to climate change.  Santorini is a rocky island, with little water-retaining clay, and average rainfall has decreased by over a third in the last 15 years, now at about 250 ml per year – drier than almost any other quality vineyard region in the world.

Beyond that, however, there has been a gradual abandonment of the vineyards.  Older growers retire, and they aren’t being replaced.  Working the vines is hard, and you can’t easily mechanise.  Tourism (or migration) is much easier.  And even if vineyards are not taken out of production, with fewer people to work them the vines are less well managed and therefore yield less.

This concern for the future was mirrored with a very wide-ranging but detailed interview with Matthaios Argyros, of the eponymous domaine, one of the biggest private producers on the island – and family which has been growing grapes since the early 19th century and making wine since 1903 – so he has a long-term view on what is happening on the island.  He makes the point that what eight workers could achieve on mainland Greece requires 13 or 14 workers here at twice the salary. He agrees that fewer young people want to learn the skills required and work manually in the vineyard– viticultural skill is dying out. Even the new wineries which are being set up may not have the skills or experience to work vineyards effectively.  Only his estate and one other, the well-known Sigalas (also making great wines) have actually planted new vineyards in recent decades. Matthaios is also exercised by the way that that the price of grapes has risen – as I noted in my last post.

This has benefited the growers, and may persuade some to stay in business, but a rise from 1€ per kilo in 2011 to 2€ in 2015 to 5€ in 2019 means that the price of the wine has to rise dramatically.  This is something I’ve noticed; four years ago the best wines were a bargain (and deserved to be pricier).  Now they compete with premier cru Chablis, even top white wine from the Côte d’Or.  It’s not that the wines don’t bear comparison in quality terms – but they are not comparable in terms of reputation and the awareness of most consumers.  Additionally, Matthaios points out the 5€ price is across the board.  It isn’t a premium for quality; meticulous, quality-focused growers get the same as the careless and uninterested.  So what incentive is there to bother?  What is more, the increasing value of grapes doesn’t seem to have stemmed the decline in production.  In 2016 the price per kilo went up to 2.75€, and in 2017 it touched 4€ before reaching 5€ this year.  Yet these three years have shown the steepest recent decline in grape production, from 2750 tonnes to just above 1000 tonnes.  Yet even if you ignore this recent acceleration in the decline of yields, projecting what has been happening since 2005 suggests that sometime around 2037 no more wine will be made on the island.

Paradoxically, if these wines were lost to humanity it would be the end of vineyard systems which date back to the time of the great explosion around 1600 BCE, and with vines that – because of the propagation systems used and the lack of phylloxera in the island are often 300 or 400 years old.  It would also be the end of a wine that is the result of a unique volcanic terroir that humans have been responding to for centuries – not just the idiosyncratic but effective pruning, but the terraces, the walls and the canavas – ancient family cellars.  That would be a sad loss to the human cultural heritage that UNESCO tries to protect and just as devastating as the destruction of a classical temple or a Mycenaean royal tomb.

A typical, dusty volcanic Santorini vineyard.