The greatest concentration of Masters of Wine ever seen in Spain went somewhat unnoticed for the national press. After all, the IMW symposium, which was attended by some 450 wine professionals, is an internal event held every four years in a different country. Although we met several producers and members of the Spanish wine trade, the bulk of the attendants were MWs, WSET trainers and students and MW candidates.
As the symposium gained international relevance so has the MW title, which was launched in 1953 to improve the standard of education in the British wine trade. The first editions were held locally (Oxford in 1982, Cambridge in 1990, Bristol in 1992), but since then it has taken place in Perth (1997) Vienna (2002), Napa (2006), Bordeaux (2010), Florence (2014) and Logroño. Within four years it will return to Adelaide in Australia.
Logroño’s nomination was led by the Foundation for the Culture of Wine and supported by the national and regional governments, ICEX and Rioja’s Regulatory Council. Spanish wine expert Sarah Jane Evans, who was at the helm of the Institute between 2014 and 2016 and co-organized the symposium, played an important role on the choice of Spain as host country. "Spain is the most exciting country in Europe for wine, with exceptional wines and winemakers,” tweeted Evans, who has just published her book The Wines from Northern Spain.
The symposium coincides with a larger Spanish presence in the Institute. Pedro Ballesteros, who became an MW in 2010, was joined in 2017 by Fernando Mora MW and Andreas Kubach MW. Winemaker Almudena Alberca has just handed in her final research paper and is set to become the first Spanish female MW. Spain is also the country of residence of Norrel Robertson MW, a Scotsman who fell in love with Calatayud and David Forer MW, who moved to Barcelona a few months ago.
All of them took part in the four intensive days of presentations, tastings and convivial meals. These are our highlights of the event.
Both people and institutions involved gave their all to turn the event into an unforgettable experience. The most memorable moment was probably the disgorgement with hot tongs of a great deal of Riscal 1955 bottles that were served at the gala dinner held at this historical winery in Elciego (Rioja Alavesa). With enough wine for the 450 diners, Riscal even replaced corked and musty bottles -quite common flaws in old wines.
Gramona brought 36 out of just 76 bottles left on their cellar of its top Cava Enoteca 2001. They were painstakingly disgorged five weeks earlier in order to make a point that Cava can be a great sparkling wine. Vega Sicilia dazzled the audience with a top-class 1996 Único whereas Valentí Llagostera (Mas Doix, Priorat) generously poured his rare 1902, made from very old vines, at the symposium’s welcome dinner.
Producers hosting dinners for small groups also pulled out all the stops. I enjoyed an impeccable experience at Franco-Españolas, a historic winery founded in Logroño in 1890. Two old vintages of Bordón Gran Reserva were served while we were shown around the 125-year-old facilities: a high acidity 1978 which was still lively and a fascinating 1994 with all the complexity and finesse expected from a classic Rioja.
Pedro Ballesteros MW fulfilled his goal to inspire participants at the symposium’s last tasting. He explained that Spain is not only capable of producing world-class wines but also of delivering singular and diverse styles. “Spain is much more than sunshine and beaches; it is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland, a fact that brings great diversity," he said. “Geography, old vines and plant material are solid elements to put Spain in the map of fine wines," he argued. “Right now, we also have the people plus a third element which is inspiration," he added.
Seven wines were presented by their owners or winemakers, each of which was previously introduced by a Master of Wine:
In line with the symposium’s title, Living Wine, one of the most inspiring presentations came from Laura Catena. Her training as a doctor helped her to offer a stimulating and provocative perspective on soil microbiology. She compared the parts of the plants (leaves, roots ...) with body organs and said: “We are more microbes than human beings". Catena insisted on the need to understand how bacteria and microorganisms act on vines, what they transmit to them and ultimately to wine. Research conducted at Catena Institute of Wine has proved, for instance, that neighbouring vineyards can have completely different microbiota.
Her suggestion to redefine terroir including new elements like elevation, plant selection, soil bacteria and “women” was warmly applauded. Confronted with the dichotomy between science and wine romance, the Argentinian winemaker said she was committed to science in order to preserve the art of wine, its style and traditional flavours. "To make a good wine you have to understand the science behind it," she argued.
Arguably the most exotic tasting at the symposium was conducted by Jasper Morris MW under the provocative idea of presenting some wines that might be on a wine list or in the MW exam in 15 years’ time. It commenced with two English sparkling wines from Hambledon Wineries and an in-depth presentation by founder Ian Kellet who argued that soils and exposure are almost identical to those in Champagne (it would be great to see more Cava presentations supported by similar technical, scientific background).
We tasted a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Franc from Nagano in Japan, an area with distinctive volcanic soils, less sunshine hours than Burgundy or Bordeaux and high levels of humidity -in fact, grapes must be protected from rain during the ripening stage.
I found more expression in the two Argentinian reds (a Malbec and a Cabernet) introduced by soil expert Pedro Parra. Both came from Gualtallary, where Parra has identified several areas of limestone, his favourite type of soil. With grapes sourced from vineyards grown at 1,250 and 1,300m above sea level, both wines combined high acidity and the sun-drenched character associated with the impact of high levels of UVA rays.
The Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend made by luxury group LVMH in the Himalaya’s foothills in Shangri-La (China) put an end to the tasting. Elevation here stands at 2,200-2,600m. This results in a fresh, peppery, fine red with vibrant acidity and a long finish. The high price (around €220) reflects both the numerous challenges of growing grapes in the area and LVMH’s philosophy.
A viticulturalist who has listed all South African vineyards known to be older than 35 years, Rosa Kruger’s presentation focused on roots. Her approach was very much in tune with Laura Catena’s. She insisted on the importance of healthy soils -not compacted, well-drained and with plenty of microbial life. According to Kruger, these are key elements for the proper development of roots as "plants interact with the earth and the soil through the roots."
In Kruger’s view, the lesson to learn from old vines is the balance of roots, leaves, yields and soil. With beautiful images of ancient vineyards in South Africa on the background, Kruger explained that “old vines have more roots and give sweeter, berries that can attract birds so that they can reproduce themselves despite their old age.” Other advantages she highlighted were naturally low yields and climate memory as a powerful adapting tool.
Kruger has actively worked to develop the Certified Heritage Vineyards programme that provides a specific seal to South African producers making wines with old vines. This should serve as an inspiration to Spain, whose old vine heritage in notably larger.
I really enjoyed trying Spanish grape varieties produced in other countries, notably Australia. At the tasting of wines made by MWs, David LeMire MW was pouring two wines from Adelaide Hills: a Tempranillo rosé and the striking, fruit-driven, peppery La Línea Mencía 2017 which I found closer in style to Galicia than Bierzo.
Andrew Caillard MW, author of a new book about Marqués de Riscal, brought a Mataró (Monastrell) from Barossa Valley featuring the classical ripeness of this sun-drenched region. And at the closing lunch hosted by Wines of Australia I tasted an old-vine Garnacha from Barossa and a single-vineyard Graciano by Landaire Wine, a ripe, fruit-driven style in contrast to the herbaceous, high acidity Gracianos found in Rioja blends.
I also liked the Domaine La Tasque Carignan 2014 made by Juliet Bruce-Jones MW in Languedoc. It shared the punch and liveliness of some Catalan Cariñenas.
Among Spanish MWs, Garnacha was the star grape. Andreas Kubach MW (Península Viticultores) presented a floral, captivating Cadalso 2017 made in Gredos which has just been released. From Valdejalón, a humble wine region in Aragón, Fernando Mora MW brought the juicy, ultra fresh Supersónico 2016 red made from vineyards at 1,000m above sea level. Finally, Norrel Robertson, who continues to use ingenious names for his wines, presented El Cismático 2016 from his highest plots in Villarroya de la Sierra (Aragón).
Marco Simonit can be credited with the most striking images in the symposium and perhaps also the most passionate speech. An Italian expert in pruning, Simonit warned against bad practices shortening the lifespan of vines and providing a gateway to bacteria and wood diseases. His images of sections of vine trunks contrasted some healthy, white-coloured wood against dead wood turning darker in mutilated branches. “The identity of great wines has to do with the age of the vines and wood being alive,” Simoni pointed out.
He showed how by cutting brunches both the history of pruning and nutrients responsible for feeding shoots are lost. According to Simonit, new branches produce thinner shoots with lower quality fruit. His goal: to put vine health first and manage growth and spatial development. “Wood diseases have economic, productive and quality consequences and involve the loss of wine heritage,” he concluded.
"The new Spain" was one of the most talked about tastings of the symposium. It featured a bunch of young, innovative producers working in new regions and with local varieties. There were no wines from Rioja in Sarah Jane Evans’s selection, but it showed the exciting diversity of styles available at present in Spain. It was fascinating to taste Baboso Negro from Tenerife alongside Hondarrabi Beltza from Bizkaiko Txakolina and Galicia’s Espadeiro and Caíño next to an amazing Carrasquín from Cangas. Bravo for showing this remote, mountainous, almost unknown wine region in Asturias (Northern Spain)! It was great to compare these wines with those from the dizzying, steep slopes of Malaga's Axarquía in the other end of the country where Lauren Rosillo makes still wines under the Sedella label.
In terms of whites, many participants confessed it was the first time they had the chance to taste White Carignan and other obscure grapes like the Dona Blanca from Monterrei poured by José Luis Mateos, Cámbrico’s white Rufete from Salamanca or the blend of minor grapes still grown in the Sherry Triangle represented in Ramiro Ibáñez’s Encrucijado.
Wine making tradition was also behind the originality of some wines like the skin-contact, amphora-fermented Muscat made by Pepe Mendoza (Casa Agrícola in Alicante); or the fresh, aromatic style behind the wines of Comando G in Gredos and the Envínate team in Tenerife and Ribeira Sacra. Sweet wines were represented by Primitivo Quiles who poured an old Fondillón and Victoria Torres (Matías i Torres) who brought her concentrated, deep Malvasía from La Palma (Canary Islands). Garnacha, an exciting trend all over Spain, showed at its best in the high-altitude wines of Scala Dei in Priorat and the lighter, refined style produced by Viña Zorzal from Navarra. No wonder Fernando Mora MW encouraged participants to share Spain’s wine revolution when they get back to their respective countries.
Flamenco and sevillanas dominated the symposium’s festive events. Most of the participants were fascinated by the welcome dinner held in Logroño’s bullring as they could match their food with wines from Corpinnat, Grandes Pagos de España, Ribera del Duero, Alicante, Murcia and many other producers and regions. Flamenco singer El Cigala was the star of the night, despite confessing that he is not a wine guy -he managed to down a couple of G&Ts during his performance.
During the gala dinner at Marqués de Riscal we were greeted with carnations -for the ladies’ hair and gentlemen’s buttonholes- and a lively show of sevillanas dancers who managed to put a graceful performance under a suffocating sun. Meanwhile at Franco-Españolas, other music styles were chosen -a duet playing an extensive repertoire by The Beatles was a pleasant surprise.