Welcome to my website about wine, culture, and society. My day job is as a Professor of Wine Marketing – but I have a special interest in how we feel and think about, and engage with, wine. So this site aims to stimulate debate about the relationship of wine to the varying people and cultures who make it and drink it. You won’t find lots of advice on what to buy here – but you will find reflections from my travels around the world of wine about how people think and talk about it, along with various musings related to how we view wine and understand its cultural significance.
find my latest posts below. Older ones
are archived by year, and then by the country or region involved. Because I have close links with Burgundy there
is a separate tab for this region.
I’m writing this blog is that I’m really keen to get feedback on what I say, so
I can develop, revise or even discard my ideas.
So please comment on what I write.
However, I’d just ask that when posting you give your full name; I think
we’re all entitled to know online exactly who is making a claim or accepting or
disagreeing with an idea.
For those who are really interested in the subject, you’ll find links to other websites, blogs and resources which I find particularly helpful. And, although I said that this is not primarily a site about wine tasting, occasionally I’ll make a post about interesting wines that I have tried.
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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 WineryPine 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.
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
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
[Warning – this is quite a long post and may take a bit of
your time. But it’s about an important
issue, relevant to social and economic change in many emerging wine regions.]
I had a long and very comprehensive talk with Markos
Kafouros, the President of Santo Wines, on Santorini. Santo are the cooperative on the island, and
unlike cooperative wine producers in many parts of the world the wines they
make are the equal in general quality of other, private producers; like all the
others they make a crisp but full-bodied white wine mainly from the variety
assyrtiko – and it has carved out a very distinctive place in the affections of
many wine lovers over the last decade or so.
In spite of this, what was interesting me was less the wine and more the
social change taking place in Santorini and how it might be affecting the wine
Mr Kafouros is a grower; he is elected President of the
cooperative by a complex process which involves all of the 1,200 members. He has been in this post for twelve
years. He was also for eight years a
local mayor, a fact which is relevant to what follows.
We sat on the terrace at the cooperative, overlooking the
caldera of Santorini. Around 1,600 BCE
Santorini – which was a medium-sized roundish island towards the south of the
Aegean – was blown apart by a volcano, leaving a horseshoe-shaped remnant
remaining around the crater where the volcano had erupted. The island itself was covered in a layer of
volcanic ash followed by lava. It is
possible that no-one survived, and the devastation inflicted was much wider,
reaching at least down to Crete and possibly to Africa.
Since the 1990s the wine industry has rapidly developed on
the back of a great local variety – assyrtiko.
In this period Santorini has also become a prime tourist destination –
renowned for the views into the caldera and for its white and blue painted
churches. Santo Wines opened the first
cellar door on the island in 1992 and others have followed since then –
although wine isn’t the main focus of most visitors. Nevertheless, for example, another producer,
Estate Argyros, has around 30,000 visitors a year.
As Mr Kafouros recounts, the cooperative exists very much to
preserve the unique agricultural traditions of the island. As well as wine, it has a small production of
fava beans (a form of lentil) and tomatoes (turned into tomato paste) – both
specialities of the place and protected by PDO legislation, just like the
wine. These are all nurtured out of one
of the toughest agricultural environments available; an arid combination of the
hardest imaginable rock plus ash under your feet, the sun engulfing you from
above and strong winds whipping off the sea from all sides. The cooperative believes in innovation and
careful planning – but all towards the end of preserving what has been the
traditional business activity of its 1,200 members. ‘Innovation’, I’m told, ‘cannot stand on its
own; it needs history’. It also needs a
specific environment – the ecosystem that has been created by millennia of
Into this unique little world has stepped the tourist. Maybe two million of them a year (while the
resident population is under 30,000).
Like a volcanic eruption this has blown apart the human ecosystem of the
island. Hotels are everywhere, as are
restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops.
Driving through the narrow streets of Fira, the main town, has become an
exercise in total focus to avoid other cars, mules, pedestrians, and quad
bikes. In response to this rapid change
the cooperative does not just see itself as protecting the island’s traditional
products but also its community. Nevertheless,
it seems to me that such a response avoids dealing with the key issue of the
rapidly developing infrastructure and its infringement on the land available
for agriculture in the area.
Markos Kafouros accepts that. He points out though that there are three
levels beyond the wine industry: national and local government, and the local
community. They have attempted to review
the impact and potential development of tourism on the island – but national
and local governments change, and their agendas and priorities change. Some legislation has been passed at national
level to allow general zoning to protect agricultural land, but it is very
broad and perhaps unsuited to dealing with the specific situations which may
arise here. Meanwhile the cooperative is
trying to provide incentives to members to stay in agriculture – mainly by
paying its members a high price for the grapes they deliver – around 5€ per
kilo – making this probably the second most expensive region for grapes in
Europe after Champagne. Furthermore, he
says, the growers remain emotionally attached to their land – and they are
proud that their grapes, which had no market outside the island a decade ago,
are making wines sold in the best restaurants in New York and Melbourne or
being praised by the top British and German critics.
I’m still not convinced.
Crucially, why would growers continuing back-breaking work in the heat
and wind of the island if they could sell their small plot of vineyard land for
a few hundred thousand euros?
Traditionally small-scale agriculturalists in Southern Europe would not
sell. Partly because their land was
their security but even more because of a cultural view that they were not
owners of the land, but stewards of it.
They had inherited it from their forebears and had to keep it to pass on
to their descendants. Now, however,
their children are reluctant to take on strenuous work in the vineyard when
they can get easier employment in hotels or gift shops – and many would prefer
to get a better job in Athens or beyond if they can. Even more, tourism has kept the island going
through the decade of Greek austerity – indeed, it has become more prosperous
while the rest of the country has struggled.
The wine industry has also grown over this period. This is not just the rise in grape price but
the fact that outsiders have been coming in to start their own wineries; now it
is almost as if there is a ‘waiting list’ of companies who want to move in,
just waiting for some land to come onto the market so they can buy it. This has a positive side – it can help to
guarantee a good grape price for growers and it brings in more capital. On the other hand, the incomers may have less
understanding of how to make wines from such a bizarre terrain and may be less
committed to working mutually with the existing producers. Big companies,
especially, in such a limited vineyard area may push the boundaries of where
vines should be grown, pursuing quantity over quality. This wouldn’t be the first emergent wine
region where this has happened. As
Markos expresses it succinctly, the Santo philosophy is ‘not to be in all the
markets in the world but to be in the best markets.’
So how can you help to protect the wine industry? One way would be to strengthen the PDO
regulations on production. My host wants
to have a rule that all wines must be bottled on the island (traditionally
bottling in the region of origin is assumed to protect quality). He would also like to develop a cru system
(selected top-quality vineyard land) to enable the best wines to be
identified. And to improve the island’s
reputation for quality he would like to reduce the maximum yield allowed –
maybe by up to 25%.
Another possibility that has been suggested is seeking
UNESCO world heritage designation for the island’s unique vineyards – a
recognition of an interaction between humans and their environment. When I was last in Santorini, about six years
ago this was being mooted – but I was told at the time that many local growers
didn’t want it, as it would limit their rights to sell their dry, dusty,
rock-bestrewn land for a small fortune to local developers. But the proposal was worked-up by the local
authority and a file has been lodged with the national government, who have to
decide whether or not to promote it.
They are now about 3-4 years into what could take ten years or
more. But there is a Greek saying
according to Mr Kafouros that ‘the start is half of the whole’. If it’s granted this designation will create
a series of legal constraints on development in the designated area, and
protection of what humanity has carved out of the rock over the last three and
a half millennia. He accepts that there are
a few who oppose the idea but suggests that the problem is not with individual
growers, but some opinion leaders who manipulate them – mainly people outside
the wine industry. So the process is in
motion – it remains to be seen if it will be successful. Critically, he feels that they will only move
forward by discussion and education (the Greek is paideia, which I’m told has dimensions of culture and understanding
in it as well). This will be one of the
chief roles of the cooperative.
All in all, a fascinating conversation with a very
thoughtful man. The cooperative is lucky
to have such a balanced and engaged person providing a vision for their future. As well as producing grapes which he sells to
the cooperative, he also has some tomatoes and fava beans as well – and is a
bee keeper, hoping that maybe in the future there will be a PDO for island
honey. His father is 87, and still works
each day in the family vineyards from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Thanks to Stela Kasiola who translated our
discussion and added a few insights of her own as well.