Portugal joined the wine conferences trend as it hosted last week a particularly ambitious gathering. Organized by two Portuguese journalists, TV star Paulo Salvador and wine expert Rui Falcão, Must Wine Summit 2017 was inspired by two old bottles of Madeira. According to the organizers, the aim of the conference was to cover as many wine-related areas as possible and discuss key issues for the wine industry.
Although they didn’t manage to engage the locals (the seating capacity of Estoril’s Palacio do Congressos was far from full), many ideas and discussions proved highly stimulating and useful for wine producers to develop forward-thinking strategies.
It is rare to see wine experts such as Eric Asimov, Alice Feiring, Jamie Goode, Swiss grape researcher José Vouillamoz, Lulie Halstead, CEO and co-founder of Wine Intelligence, or wine journalist and producer Víctor de la Serna (the only Spanish speaker) together in one place.
Here are some of the most relevant ideas to come out of this forum.
As many as three presentations focused on this subject of increasing interest for the wine industry. All speakers agreed that wine tourism should be built on the broader framework of a region as a whole (thus needing a website packed with practical information and suggestions for visitors), use unique and distinctive stories from the area and the wineries as a peg (good stories abound, they just need to be found) and focus on experiences which could build emotional ties.
“Wine tourism is a subset of experiential tourism increasingly linked to food tourism,” reminded Felicity Carter, editor-in-chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International.
Texas University reserarcher Natalia Velikova dispelled some myths. She said that the “small family winery” or the “unique expression of winemaker’s art” stories didn’t allow producers to stand out from the crowd no longer. Staff training and staff rotation are necessary to tell the story of a winery as enthusiastically as if it was the first time, she added. According to Velikova, “the winery is the only place where producers have total control over their brand and must make the most of it”.
Felicity Carter insisted that wine tourism is a particularly valuable way to contact directly with consumer in a context marked by: 1) wine consumption dropping in wine producing countries and in export markets in the near future when the baby boomer generations retires from the market; and 2) the staggering growth of distributors and importers private labels with producers increasingly losing control of their brands in the distribution channel.
Spanish producer Abadía Retuerta was quoted by Carter among a list of successful wine tourism experiences for their ability to make themselves a wine destination and attract visitors to a relatively isolated area in Spain. Some strategies and benefits suggested for producers include direct sales, testing new wines among visitors, building a list of foreign visitors in order to contact them for tastings in their home countries and, as surprising as it may sound for some, including non wine-related activities. “Visitors don’t want to be treated as wine geeks”, Carter pointed out.
Perhaps the most imaginative examples came from Mariette du Toit-Helmbold who is redefining South Africa’s wine tourism strategies with a brand new collaborative approach among public institutions, producers and the hospitality industry. Du Toit-Helmbold is a great advocate of involving the whole community in what she called “inclusive tourism”, defining unique experiences that can set the region apart from competitors and identifying real stories as a hook to sell the region. According to her, “Airbnb’s success comes from a new way of travelling that allows visitors to feel the energy of a city and connect with the people that live there.” In this sense, visitors do marketing by sharing their experiences.
Some winning experiences in South Africa: family-friendly wineries with separate activities for adults and kids; dining with locals, 20 non wine related things to do in a wine producing region (something to think about), inviting young influencers to the region so they can share their experiences with their readers, collaborating with local sommeliers in the design of wine lists in a way that somms can help guests to visit lesser known wineries and regions once they have tasted and enjoyed the wines.
American wine writer Alice Feiring and British scientist and wine expert Jamie Goode both agreed on their general view of the category but not on the effects of natural wine: “No hangovers” said Feiring. “It’s stupid to say you won’t have a headache the day after”, Goode pointed out. Despite admitting his passion for natural wines, the author of the blog Wine Anorak highlighted some weaknesses: lack of definition, too much emphasis on the process, flaws that cause a loss of sense of place, the obsession with SO2 when the most important part is wine growing. All of this, Goode said, hasn’t helped to separate interesting non-natural wines from industrial wines.
Nevertheless, natural wines have proved an influential niche with great impact outside the natural wine circle; it goes well beyond the discussion on how appropriate the name natural is or to what extent it questions the absence of naturalness in other wines. So what are the implications? Many producers are rethinking their winemaking practices, using less additives and picking grapes earlier (“this prevents acidification and adding nutrients to fermentation”, said Goode). Feiring added that there is a growing interest on natural yeasts and organic wine growing; new categories of wines have appeared (orange wines and pet nats) together with new maturing recipients, notably amphorae. Natural wines have also helped to bring to light forgotten regions like Ribeira Sacra, she said.
Feiring added that natural wine is a powerful, vital and authentic story with emotional resonance that has managed to draw the attention of non-specialist newspapers and magazines. The New York-based natural wine specialist is convinced that the movement will continue growing with consumption expanding beyond big cities. She forecasts that large importers and distributors will develop their own ranges of natural wines.
Natural wine escapes stereotyping. While Goode spoke about a sort of club-like feeling, its lack of definition is the reason why Feiring argues against certification. In her view, it would be much more “natural” to establish groups of producers sharing similar philosophies and winemaking practices.
Grapes were also discussed at the Must wine summit. José Vouillamoz, geneticist and co-author of Wine Grapes, revealed what he considers are rising star varieties. In the case of Spain: Graciano, Garró (one of the ancient grapes recovered by Torres in Catalonia which was later found to be Mandó), Verdil, a minority crop in the Valencia and Alicante appellations, and Gorgollosa in the Balearic Islands.
His definition of a grape variety was highly illuminating. According to José, a grape is all that comes from a single seed including DNA accidents like mutations. If you take Garnacha for instance, red, white, grey and hairy Garnacha should all be considered the same grape variety. The more ancient a grape is (think pinot), the more diverse its clones and mutations. Every new grape variety has a father and a mother, reminded Vouillamoz. Current DNA analysis have allowed to find the parentage of many grape varieties (Tempranillo for instance comes from Albillo Mayor and the almost unknown Benedicto), but there are still many missing links.
Despite the fact that phylloxera marked a U-turn in worldwide wine growing, Vouillamoz said that there is no evidence of varieties being lost, even if many were clearly forgotten given that in such difficult times, growers favoured the easiest grapes to grow. In fact, the 10 most widely planted grape varieties come from just three countries (Italy, France and Spain) with Spanish Airén and Tempranillo among the top 5.
In his presentation on the return of indigenous grapes after the invasion of international varieties, wine journalist and producer Víctor de la Serna explained the massive expansion of Tempranillo in Spain beyond its traditional wine growing regions with over 150,000Ha planted since the early 1990s. Yet if compared with other European producing countries, Spain doesn’t have a big share of foreign grapes: 79,000Ha (Alicante Bouschet included) representing 8% of the total surface under vine compared with 12% (26,000Ha) in Portugal, 16% (110,000Ha) in Italy and 17% (134,000Ha) in France where the likes of Garnacha, Cariñena and Monastrell were listed among the foreign grapes. De la Serna finished his presentation wondering if the current obsession for recovering local grapes could mean less traveling in contrast with what was so common in the past.
According to The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, the average American wine consumer doesn’t care much whether wines are blends or single varietals and is far more driven by the power of brands. “The niche of unknown grapes is tiny. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to promote a variety which is not particularly distinctive –it’s up to each region. The fact that a country has a flagship variety like Argentina with Malbec is a relatively new dilemma which has resulted in many imitators. Personally I’d rather find a very good wine that I can’t help telling my readers about than the most interesting grape variety.”
Asimov criticized Parkerized wines, standardization and the raise of product above place with wines becoming a lifestyle (“a word I hate”) expression. In his opinion the documentary Mondovino by Jonathan Nossiter marked a turning point. From that mo-ment, Burgundy replaced Bordeaux as the new ideal (the vigneron is the new hero) and natural wines explained the extent of manipulated wines and questioned conven-tional wisdom. People started exploring those regions listed in the “Others” section; interest in authentic wines grew as Internet helped to spread the word. What Asimov refers to as “the raise of unappreciated grapes” implies a change of attitude: “Finding appropriate grapes for each terroir instead of planting whatever you want wherever you want”.
Data mining was represented by Wine Searcher, the powerful search engine that enables to compare prices and buy wines worldwide. Their data set includes 8m wine prices, 500,000 wines listed, 28,000 retailers and 58,000 wine producers. Their trends forecasts are based on six-years of accumulated data.
Wine journalist Cathy Huyghe presented Enolytics, a company co-founded by her and committed to use all kinds of data in order to increase business intelligence and give answers to the queries required by each client. Some of Huyghe's recommendations to improve online presence include: check wine data published on platforms like Wine Searcher and Vivino; find the way to be listed by wine.com, the US biggest online retailer and an excellent entry-door to reach millennials –for wines to be listed they need to be imported and distributed in California and New York; visualize data to improve analysis and continuously monitor data –information is dynamic and changes constantly.
Lulie Halstead, CEO and co-founder of Wine Intelligence, spoke about the motivations and attitudes of millennials (the generation born between 1981 and 1995) towards wine. Millennials, she established, account for 27m regular wine consumers out of a total population of 95m in the US and 24m out of 48m in China.
“Millennials are not that different from other generations at their age”, Halstead said. It is significant that millennials are generally driven by the instant and the individuality when it comes to wine. In this respect, key trends are mindfulness (they associate wine with something special, sharing, relax, being authentic), obsession (they love to focus on something very specific no matter how complicated it may be), fusion (mixing up, adding ice cubes to wine, cocktails) and activation (engagement, taking part).
Curiously enough, a label study carried out by Wine Intelligence showed that millennials don’t favour vintage, comic-style designs. They prefer classic, elegant labels showing prestige. In the end, they want their wine to look like wine. Halstead’s final recommendation: use all data available, but don’t get obsessed with millennials; don’t communicate just to age groups but to those sharing similar interests.
The two speakers from China at the conference, Huiqin Ma, professor of China Agricultural University, and wine educator Stephen Li, reassured attendants’ fears in terms of the increasing surface under vineyard in their country as 80% accounts for table grapes. China is currently the sixth largest wine producer worldwide above Australia, but reliable data are not always easy to find. As Li pointed out, it is usual to blend Chinese wine with batches imported from other countries.
Professor Ma explained that alcohol in China is consumed outside of the home (family meals are simple and frugal) to socialize. Compared to traditional spirits, wine is seen as a healthy beverage, a factor that counts more than quality and flavor. When dining in a Chinese restaurant, most dishes are served at the same time, so pairing food and wine doesn’t make much sense.
The Chinese palate has little tolerance both to alcohol and astringency (associated to the risks of eating unripe fruits) and a low perception of subtle flavours. Chinese people are not used to cool beverages or dishes, all of which helps to explain why red wine dominates their market. “Rather than flavor, consumers focus on price and other external features (label, a heavy bottle) and trust the country of origin, the region or the brand. Chinese people can be easily persuaded,” Ma explained.
Chinese consumers want to learn, added professor Huiqin. In China, where the use of smartphones to buy online is widely extended, technology provides new tools to communicate with consumers, yet language remains a big barrier.
Paul Symington, president of Symington Family Estates, mentioned sherry in his presentation about the status of fortified wines in the modern world of wine ("we’re no longer a commodity or an everyday wine but an specialist”, he said). He acknowledged that sherry was more food-friendly and praised the project set up by Equipo Navazos and the high-quality Tío Pepe range that González Byass has created.
According to Symington, wines with intensive winemaking, extended aging times and the ability to age should be marketed as a luxury product –he even admitted to being scared at the idea of port being used for cocktails as it is happening with sherry. He pointed out that producers who have survived the fortified wine crisis have switched from being négociants to become winegrowers because having control over grapes is essential. “The concept of terroir was lost due to the fact that Port was traditionally aged in Vilanova de Gaia, but quintas and red wines are bringing it back”.
Symington said he firmly believes in the power of Douro’s dramatic landscape, one of the most unique in the world, and with amazing wine tourism potential, to gain new consumers. Some of the biggest challenges for the region are: to turn Douro into a leading red wine producing region on the same level as Supertuscans, to identify and research those grape varieties that are best suited to fight climate change (the rise of 1,6ºC since 1973 is having an effect on Touriga National’s performance in particular) and to rely on altitude to gain freshness despite the fact that the longtime established vineyard classification rated the highest areas lower.
The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov hit the nail on the head by asking if the biggest challenges were for fortified wines or sweet fortified wines. In fact, another presentation focused on Madeira and led by Portuguese wine journalist and Must wine summit organizer Rui Falcão talked about the much better prospects for fortified wines made in this small island. Things are rather different in Madeira given its smaller size, low number of wineries (barely eight producers with only a new player emerging over the last 60 years) and the fascination of its everlasting wines (the oldest bottled wine in the world is a 1715 Madeira) and extended aging times. Falcão highlighted how food-friendly dry Madeiras could be with Verdelho as a perfect partner for Asian dishes.
Obsessed as we are in Spain with the low average price of our wines, I found that the two presentations on emerging wine regions, Canada and English sparkling wines, could be of interest for Spanish producers.
Sommelier and educator Michelle Bouffard charted the quick development of Canadian wines since the first vitis vinifera were planted in 1980 –vines planted previously were hybrids, the standard choice for regions with extremely cool climate conditions. Boasting over 670 wineries and 1,770 wine producers, the country’s main challenge lies in promoting their sparkling and still wines and showcase that Canada’s wine industry goes beyond ice wines (they account for only 5% of the country’s production although they represent 25% of exports). Bouffard thinks that appellations have greatly contributed to the development of Canada’s wine industry, but the key issue now is to get critics to talk about the region so that wine consumers can discover and buy Canadian wines.
On a smaller scale, the UK’s sparkling wine industry has developed relatively rapidly without relying on appellations. According to The Daily Mail wine critic, Matthew Jukes, who talked about the past and the present of English wines, the collective feeling of crafting a high quality product has worked pretty well so far. With production centered in England and Wales, the first modern English vineyard was planted in 1951 and the first sparkling wine was produced by Nyetimber in the 1992 vintage. Surface under vine totals 1,400Ha with grapes being handled by 103 wineries. Jukes announced that by before the end of the year British embassies are set to be asked to replace Cham-pagne for English sparkling –what a brilliant promotional campaign.
In terms of market share, Prosecco is the best selling sparkling wine in the UK market followed by Champagne, Cava comes third and English sparkling is fourth ahead of France’s non-champagne fizz and Australian sparkling wines.
The conference evidenced that we are living in a rapidly-changing environment and wine is part of it. Wine trade professionals devote plenty of time and effort to keep up to date, particularly with new wine regions and countries constantly emerging. Sommelier Paz Levinson experiences this daily and works hard to compete in trade contests. Given that the main goal of sommeliers is to work in a restaurant, she recommended the Master Sommelier courses against the WSET which is geared to the wine industry. Her tips for competitions: work with mentors, schedule tastings and study time, motivation, look for sponsors (preferably not producers) and step outside the comfort zone.
Geoff Kruth, sommelier and founder of GuildSomm, a community that promotes education and cooperation among its over 15,000 members, said that as important as wine knowledge was the use of effective learning techniques. He values a multidisciplinary training including tastings and visits to producers and wine regions and combining written, audio, visual and tactile materials. Lots of homework after the Must Wine Summit brainstorming!