The Diversity of Wine, by Chris Losh

There’s been a lot of talk in the wine trade of late about diversity – and rightly so. The industry’s track record in employing minority ethnic, physically impaired or non-CIS people is, to put it politely, not where it should be.

It’s something that needs to be addressed, and which all parties assure us is being addressed. So let’s hope in 12 months’ time it actually has been addressed.

We all know that the industry can move on these issues. There are, for instance, significantly more women throughout the trade than 30 years ago.


After five years working on My Weekly magazine in 1995 Chris Losh entered the world of drinks writing and, despite all advice from his doctor—and the wishes of most South African winemakers—has stayed there ever since. He began on Wine and Spirit International, editing it for several years before moving on to edit Wine Magazine. In 2007, he helped to set up both Imbibe magazine and the Sommelier Wine Awards, and has spent much of the last three years eating, drinking, and listening to French sommeliers talk about minerality. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer Feature Writer of the Year.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that literally every single one I’ve spoken to has got toe-curling examples of thoroughly inappropriate behaviour towards them down the years, from well-intentioned stupidity to outright harassment or discrimination.

That, and the fact that it’s taken, well… ages. Still, not enough of them are in the top jobs. So despite progress on one level, there’s still some way to go. But their influence is growing – and with unacceptable behaviour constantly at risk of being called out on social media, there are fewer places for sexist or misogynist dinosaurs – or discriminatory companies – to hide than there were.

What we need now is similar progress for the other under-represented groups. But much faster and in a more structured way. It simply can’t take 30, 40 or 50 years for LGBTQ+, disabled and non-white people to become not just a regular or accepted presence within the trade, but an influential part of it.

And their journey from here to parity can’t – and shouldn’t – be as fraught with trauma, micro-aggressions and outright opposition as has been that of women.

Certainly, if the wine world is looking for examples of the benefits of being open to ‘otherness’, it could do worse than take inspiration from what’s happening at the production level of its VERY OWN INDUSTRY.

Wine’s first big diversity shake-up happened 30-40 years ago, when the New World blew through the hidebound, slightly complacent European wine scene like a hurricane.  Wine became simple, accessible, fun… It was like someone just turned up at a slightly stuffy European garden party with a ghetto blaster.

Since then, the pendulum has steadily been swinging back in the other direction. Big fruit and simplicity are still there to an extent, but, increasingly so are nuance, complexity and unfamiliarity.

‘When I started in the trade I wanted to demystify wine,’ says Hallgarten Novum’s Steve Daniel, who has lived through all the changes. ‘Now I want to demystify it. I want to put the romance back into it. It’s about where it comes from, the people who make it, the history…’

It is, in other words, about diversity; about accepting it, embracing it and revelling in it.

‘Different’, of course, takes many forms – in wine as in life. But there are three big trends.

 

Emergence of the Ancient World

So, you’ve heard of the New World and the Old World? Well now it’s time to get to grips with the Ancient World.

Georgia and Armenia have been involved in a slightly amusing battle over the last ten years to see who can unearth the oldest examples of wine making. Currently, the record is held by Georgia which reckons it has found fragments of pottery wine jars going back 8000 years.

It’s safe to say that this makes France’s Roman viticulture and the Bordeaux declaration of 1865 look somewhat unimpressive. Winemaking in the Caucasus is ancient indeed.

Armenia was badly served by the communists, who used it largely for brandy production, but has come storming back over the last 30 years with interesting red and white indigenous varieties.

Georgia’s wine industry never went away, and is well on the way to developing a cult following. The white varieties Mtsvane and (particularly) Rkatsiteli are becoming well known, as is the red Saperavi, which has the advantage of being easy to pronounce.

Vachnadziani cellars, Georgia.

Georgia’s tradition of fermenting wines in qvevri (large earthenware jars) has spread worldwide. Zorzal, in Mendoza, for instance, are huge fans of fermenting in concrete eggs.

‘It helps to enhance the character, texture and sensation of chalky soil in the mouth (salinity),’ says winemaker Juan Pablo Michelini. ‘We can show the purity of an enhanced terroir…. The cement egg gives us a much more vibrant, electric, tense, nervous pure and local style of wine.’

David Rego, export manager at Herdade do Rocim in Portugal’s Alentejo region agrees. Like most wineries, they make wines with concrete and also more conventionally, with stainless steel and oak barrels.

‘Clay amphorae are more faithful to the terroir,’ he says. ‘They better preserve each grape character and do not impose themselves over the grapes like barrels do.’

It’s a bit like playing the same piece of music on a different instrument. Amphora-fermented wines are like a cello note: lower, longer and more insistently with depth and texture; stainless steel (plus oak) are more violin: louder, brighter and higher pitched.

There are cases to be made for both, but the added choice is exciting – particularly when it comes to food matching.

Herdade do Rocim winery, Portugal.

Growth of indigenous European varietals

One of the interesting aspects of the New World explosion was the way in which it introduced the public to the idea of varietal labelling. This, in turn, allowed them to buy wines from countries they might not have previously considered, reassured by a comfortingly-familiar grape variety.

It’s one of the reasons you can find Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc et al all over the world; wineries planted them not just because they thought they would taste good, but also because they thought they would be able to sell them.

But now the focus is shifting. Right across the Old (and Ancient World) producers want to show off the grape varieties that have been in their vineyards for centuries, even millennia. Varieties which, surprise surprise, are often better suited to the climate than the international versions.

Turkey’s native Öküzgōzü and Kalecik Karesi reds and the Narince (to rhyme with ‘ninja’) white are fascinating – and, I’d say, much more worthy of your pound than the myriad French varieties the country produces.

Kayra vineyards, Turkey.

More wine savvy customers probably know about Portuguese Touriga Nacional-centric blends from the Douro because of its links to port. But there are great combinations of local grapes all over the country, usually in a highly approachable style, and they’re starting to appear in greater numbers.

Hungary, meanwhile, is starting to gain ground with Furmint. The white Tokaji grape has a taut, slightly austere air to it, but its aficionados love its disciplinarian acidic smack.

Countries like Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and even Poland are all coming forward too.

If I had to pick one style that I think really ought to take off, however, it would be Malagousia. Greek whites in general are terrific – zesty, herbal and very different. Assyrtiko – particularly grown on the wind-lashed volcanic clump of Santorini – is, I’d argue, one of Europe’s great wine styles.

But Malagousia, from the north of the country is simply impossible to dislike – kind of a Greek Albariño. It’s a great story, too – with the variety essentially rescued from extinction by one man, Evangelos Gerovassiliou of Ktima Gerovassiliou.

‘It wasn’t normal to grow Malagousia when I was young,’ he says. ‘But I believed in it from the start. It was so expressive.’

You should believe in it too.

Evangelos Gerovassiliou, Ktima Gerovassiliou, Greece.

Old friends in New Places

This final category is, perhaps, the one that has received the most attention. While the New World countries mostly made their name with the classic French varieties of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the northern Rhone, the last 20 years has seen significant experimentation.

Some of this can be attributed to a yen for innovation – New World winemakers don’t like to stand still for too long. But it’s also down to a growing awareness of the nuances of their terroir (new varieties simply work better in some vineyards than what was originally planted), and – inevitably – to climate change.

Water shortages and climbing temperatures have seen Australian growers putting in increased amounts of Mediterranean grapes, which weather the country’s hot temperatures far better than the likes of Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc.

As you’d expect, they tend to be riper than their European counterparts – a Tempranillo from the Adelaide Hills is not going to taste like a Rioja. But they also hold their structure better than French varieties, and – crucially – need less water.

Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola and Tempranillo are probably the most successful reds; for whites, Fiano is a standout with Vermentino a close second.

In cooler New Zealand it’s no surprise that the shift has been to other cool-climate styles as they search for alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc: Riesling is well established, but Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Gris and even Albariño are looking really promising. South Africa’s growers, meanwhile, are paying more attention to some of the old vine varieties that would have been used for port and brandy production, and are making stellar wines out of them.

Some New World growers are even making Trousseau, which isn’t even that widely planted in Europe. Riccitelli are leading the charge in Argentina, so perhaps it could follow Malbec and have a renaissance on the other side of the world.

There is, in other words, an extraordinary amount happening at the moment. These ‘different’ wines might not be cheap – but that’s not their shtick. They’re indisputably different, vibrant, unexpected, quirky. Thinking they should be cheap as well undervalues their uniqueness.

Sure, they might be hand-sells. But whether you’re a restaurant or an independent merchant, you owe it to your customers to embrace the diversity on offer at the moment and at least try.

 

Chris Losh’s Recommendations

Jako Vino, Stina Pošip, Dalmatia 2019

These guys have put a lot of time and effort into reviving an ancient vineyard on the island of Brac, planted with local varieties. I had zero familiarity with the Posip grape, but I’d quite like to get to know more about it after this. When cool, there’s an attractive brisk mint/lime-leaf quality to the variety, which broadens into a beguiling tropical note as it warms up in the glass. One for herbal chicken dishes.

Zorzal, ‘Eggo Franco’ Cabernet Franc 2018

The impact that the egg fermentation has on this variety is fascinating. Cab Franc can be in that leafy coriander area with not much behind the screechy aromatics. It’s distinctly ‘marmite’. But here the aromatics are toned down – it’s pepper-spiced not leaves – and they’re integrated into a broad mulberry palate, that has a great granular texture to it. Really versatile.

Ktima Gerovassiliou, Epanomi, Malagousia 2020

I tend to think of Malagousia as the Greek version of Albarino, and that’s borne out by this wine. It’s like inhaling the aromas from a basket full of cut lemons and limes, but on the palate an attractive fuzzy peach note rumbles away in the background to broaden things out. Great as an aperitif then on with a seafood main course. Impossible to dislike.

Matias Riccitelli ‘Old Vines From Patagonia’, Rio Negro, Trousseau 2018

Trousseau is originally from the Jura, though (known as Bastardo) it’s also grown in the Douro. But it doesn’t taste like this in either place. It’s surprisingly pale – Burgundy Pinot like – with sappy red fruit flavours. But it’s through the palate where this scores. Savoury and even gently earthy, with a brisk acidity and taut tannins. There’s something quite Italian about its structure, so no surprise that it’s a superbly versatile – and different – mid-week food wine.

Bodegas Viñátigo, Marmajuelo, Islas Canarias – Tenerife 2020

The Viñatigo winery is all about reviving native grapes. This is a laudable initiative in itself, but even more so when you get results like this. This Marmajuelo is a deep golden colour, with lush, plush tropical and stone fruit layered over a gentle net of acidity. Cheerfully sun-filled, it’s silky and mouth-filling and absorbs spices and strong flavours without overwhelming them.

WOTM: Undurraga ‘TH’, Valle de Maule, Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Our September Wine of the Month hails from Undurraga’s TH range. A range devised by head winemaker, Rafael Urrejola, who is renowned for his ability to to detect soil types and characteristics in Chile’s regions, using his intuition to find the best spots for planting vines.
Grapes for Undurraga ‘TH’ Cabernet Sauvignon are grown in the Cauquenes area is part of DO Valle de Maule, in a vineyard with deep soils and variable texture. The topsoil consists of clay with high silica content, with partially weathered granite and even quartz in the subsoil; these properties allow for good water retention, releasing it slowly as the vines need it.

In a nutshell

This is an expressive and full-flavoured wine revealing complex aromas of blackcurrant with hints of spice and warm earthy notes, juicy benchmark Cabernet.

The producer

Undurraga is one of Chile’s most prestigious wineries, consistently receiving high scores from top wine critics. Founded in 1885, Undurraga owns 1,350 hectares of estate vineyard in Chile’s premium wine producing areas such as Leyda, Cauquenes and Itata. Head winemaker Rafael Urrejola has spent a great deal of time researching and understanding the diversity of Chile’s vineyard sites; the result is the emblematic ‘Terroir Hunter’ range. Undurraga cultivates their vineyards with respect for the environment and follow a philosophy of minimal intervention in the cellar in order to showcase the terroir.

The wine

The grapes were carefully selected to remove any green or dehydrated berries. The healthy grapes were crushed and cold macerated for five days at 4 to 6°C to obtain good intensity of colour and aroma concentration. Fermentation took place with natural yeast at 26 to 28°C, lasting for 18 days with three daily pump overs. Post-fermentation maceration took place on the lees lasting for 14 days, enhancing the structure. The wine was racked into French oak barrels, of which 30% were new, where malolactic conversion took place before being aged for 14 months.

The Homeric Vineyards of Vatsa in Kefalonia

We recently welcomed the wines of Domaine Foivos to our portfolio, from the incredible island of Kefalonia. Expert on all things Greek wine, and part of the Foivos team, Cyril Meidinger, recently shared his thoughts on the viticulture and the history of the vineyards on Kefalonia; particularly the Vatsa Vineyard, just outside the Domaine Foivos winery, where the Nautilus and Pandrosos wines are grown.

Odysseus, famous for his long journey, trying to return home after the events of the Trojan War was met with endless seas of vineyards upon arrival. The fruits of his labour presented itself in more than one form. Whispers of magnificent vines as early as the Homeric times reveal themselves today. In celebration of the hollow horse creator’s victory, indulging in a delightful Kefalonian wine, made for the ultimate reward. The taste of Kefalonia being the most pleasurable for the palate and senses.

Legend describes the creator of this enchanting vine as a king named Kefalos whom journeyed from Attica. In an effort to preserve the memory of his native land, vines were planted as a daily reminder of his heritage in a place known as Thineia (‘’Athenian land’’). Today this ancient vine is cherished and protected by the people of Kefalonia, continuing to keep the legend alive.

Part One

Domaine Foivos has been cultivating vineyards in the Vatsa area of Kefalonia since 1999. The vineyards are located on the south peninsula of the Island in an area called Paliki, which is said to have been the kingdom of Odysseus. Those Vineyards have been planted hundreds of years ago and this specific area is already mentioned 1200 years B.C. by Homer in his writings. They have remained phylloxera-free on their own indigenous roots ever since, at about 800 meters from the Mediterranean Sea in a plain enclosed by small hills. The Vatsa vineyards are composed of about 30% Mavrodaphne, as well as Muscat a Petit Grain, Muscatel, Tsaousi and Vostilidi on clay and limestone soils. The terroir of Vatsa is perfect for growing quality vines, having accumulated all the fossilized seashells from the nearby hills in its underground.

Mavrodaphne is also cultivated mainland, though in Kefalonia, the focus has been on dry vinifications of this variety, resulting in its own PDO Mavrodaphne of Kefalonia. Yannis Karakassis MW describes this variety as ‘’of particular interest as they yield intensely complex herbal wines, with aromatic character, mild tannins and acidity’’ based on his 2017 study of The Vineyards & Wines of Greece. Vostilidi is also a jewel of Kefalonia, saved from extinction as Vostilidi’s cultivation is mentioned in Latin literature as early as in the 16th century, during the Venetian rule on the island. During those times, sweet Muscat of Kefalonia was entirely exported to Venice and received international recognition early on.

The overall yields on the 100 + year old vineyards are tiny, averaging about 2.5 tons per hectare and cultivated biodynamically, without the use of pesticides. Majority of the vineyard is actually made of bushvines, which create perfect conditions and shade resulting in ideal ripeness of those ancient varieties, whilst preserving a unique acidity.

Due to the age of the vines, they have adapted to the environment and have been shaped over time to withstand adversity and stress. These vines have learnt to cohabitate with their enemies and to survive, providing the best and most delicious grapes, with minimal viticultural efforts needed and most importantly, with minimal interventions. This long-term familiarity with their growing environment made the vines resistant and immune to diseases, whilst farmed dryland without the use of any pesticides and with a biodynamic approach.

Part Two

The Vatsa vineyards are a true treasure that needs to be maintained and preserved for the generations to come. This part of the island hasn’t been affected by phylloxera, therefore the vines are still on their own indigenous ungrafted roots, producing an intensity and a complexity that can’t be replicated. The vineyards have been revamped initially just after World War I around 1925, and a second time in 2015, grafting new vines on some of the older roots. The technique used there is to cut the trunk of the original vine just above the ground, and from there vine grows new shoots from the original trunk and roots or by planting in the ground some of the existing shoots and cut them when they create new vines and roots. The original roots are so deep into the ground that they reach all minerals and water needed to produce exceptionally concentrated and healthy grapes.

Of the above varieties grown on our Vatsa vineyards, two PDO Sweet Wines, Mavrodaphne of Kefalonia and Muscat of Kefalonia as well as two PGI Mantzavinata Wines (white and red), which are blends of all those indigenous varieties are produced.

Theodore Orkopoulos and archaeologist wife Stavroula have made it their personal mission to maintain those historical parcels of indigenous Kefalonian varieties in order to prolong this heritage for generations to come.

With merely a total of 160 hectares left on the island of Kefalonia, it is paramount that such ancient vineyards get the attention and the fame that they deserve. Assyrtiko and Santorini have been in the spot light over the last few years, we believe the time has come for Kefalonia to take the international stage with indigenous varieties like Mavrodaphne, Robola or Vostilidi coming from some of the oldest vineyards in Europe.

Conclusion

Perhaps Odysseus’s plan to sack the city of Troy using a giant hollow horse, started with a conversation with fellow comrades enjoying a delicious glass of Kefalonian wine. Perhaps one could say that Kefalonian wine is a potion for creative victory. One thing is for sure, this undiscovered ancient wine of Kefalonia poses the power to unlock the extraordinary.

– Cyril Meidinger

WOTM: Kershaw Wines, ‘Clonal Selection’, Elgin, Chardonnay 2018

A new addition to our portfolio, made by one of the few MWs making his own wine in the world – Kershaw Wines, ‘Clonal Selection’, Elgin, Chardonnay 2018. Awarded 92 points by Tim Atkin, the grapes for this wine come from eight to 10 small parcels of vineyards in several locations in the Elgin Valley. Elgin is the coolest wine region in South Africa and is situated on an inland, hexagonal-shaped plateau, at an altitude of 300 metres.

In a nutshell

A restrained, mineral style focussed on elegance with a white fruit character, a touch of oatmeal and delicate oak spice notes.

The producer

Made in tiny quantities, Richard Kershaw MW’s wines are always in high demand. Born in Sheffield, Richard trained and worked as a chef before discovering wine. After extensive travelling he settled in South Africa in 1999, and by 2009 he was Group Winemaker at Mulderbosch and Kanu. He established Richard Kershaw Wines in 2012, specialising in the cool-climate wines of Elgin. Being one of the few MW’s to make his own wine, he uses his vast knowledge to craft stunning wines that are easily a match for some of the world’s very best wines.

The wine

The grapes were hand-picked in the early autumnal mornings and were gently whole bunch pressed up to a maximum of 0.6 bar or until a low juice recovery of 615 litres per tonne was obtained. The juice was transferred via gravity directly to barrel, without the use of pumps. The unclarified juice underwent spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts. Malolactic conversion was discouraged, retaining a crisp style. The wine matured in Burgundian French oak for 11 months in total, of which 39.4% was new oak; and of that 82.2% was aged in 228 litre barriques and 17.8% in 500 litre casks, before racking, blending and bottling.

 

The three pillars of sustainability

People – Planet – Profit. 

Sustainability. A hard and complex thing to define, as it covers so many different aspects but it does seem to be the current buzzword as we are all increasingly becoming more aware of our health, well-being and the environmental issues around us.

I recently attended a webinar on sustainability where it was mentioned that 25% of all greenhouse gases come from agriculture and animals, and the care of vines is no exception. The concept of ‘regenerative farming’ is central to an increasing number of wine producers who believe in the importance of biodiversity and the harmony of nature in the vineyard.

As a vineyard is in essence a monoculture of a perennial plant, disturbance to the soil should be kept to an absolute minimum to ensure that the natural micro-organisms in the soil are encouraged and maintained. Cover crops can be grown to capture carbon and to minimise water use, particularly where water used for farming is expensive to buy and may be short supply at certain times. Sheep are sometimes encouraged to graze in the vineyard on grass, and cover crops to encourage plant growth and biodiversity. Selected rootstocks may also be used to restrict the vine’s vigour, requiring less control. All of these different processes will encourage vines to use their own resources to work hand in hand with nature.

A good proportion of a winery’s emissions come from the use of diesel vehicles so far-thinking producers are making the investment in electrical vehicles for working their land – as we all will probably need to do in the not too distant future. Or indeed, revert back to the traditional use of a trusty plough horse leads to less compaction of the soil and is also a lovely thing to see!

A few of our producers are installing beehives in their vineyards to promote pollination and obtain honey as a welcome by-product! The composting of pruning and grape pomace for natural fertilisers is also becoming more widespread, rather than sending for distillation as in the past. Using sexual confusion in the vineyard from insect pheromones as an alternative to chemical pest control is becoming increasingly popular with growers as they realise the advantages for the environment.

Many people would automatically think that an organic wine would be sustainable by definition but with the contentious use of copper as a treatment against diseases in the vineyard, which is allowed under organic viticulture, and which can contaminate the soil as a heavy metal if it is used too frequently; the issue is more complex than just acceptance of all organic wines as sustainable.

Biodynamics are a continuation of this theme, where all vineyard practices (and winemaking) are carried out according to the moon phases, using specific treatments for disease prevention as well as natural fertilisers and which are now being recognised as more main stream – previously perhaps dismissed as rather hippy and ‘woo-woo’. I know from tasting wines which are produced using biodynamic and organic techniques that they seem to have more depth of flavour – more ‘soul’ and energy, if I can express it that way. One of our producers, the redoubtable Gérard Bertrand in the South of France is fully embracing this way of working with all of his estates either already certified as biodynamic or in conversion, and the results in the quality of his wines speak for themselves.

While researching the sustainable credentials of our suppliers, I was struck by how many of them have this ethos central to their production values and guides everything they do from vine to bottle. A great many of them have gone the extra mile and gained certification in their country – such HVE (Haute Valeur Environmentale) in France, WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association) in South Africa, Sustainable Wine of Chile, Bodegas de Argentina Certified Sustainability, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, to name a few – all of these regulate the use of insecticides and pesticides as well as fertiliser and water usage with protection of the environment in mind, and to maintain the biodiversity of the local area.

Climate change is also necessitating a rethink by wine growers who have difficult choices to make if their vineyards are affected by the extremes of weather which we currently seem to be experiencing – by rot in the case of excessive humidity or Summer hail damage, whether to irrigate (if even allowed and if the vineyard is set up for it) in case of drought, loss of fruit caused by Spring frosts; the challenging factors are unfortunately endless.

If they are passionate about the environment and their philosophy is to avoid chemical treatments, the choice is stark. Either compromise on their principles and lose their sustainable or organic status or accept the loss of their crop with the accompanying loss of income. I remember talking to one of our organic producers a few years ago who had had to make that choice – and he decided to remain organic and lose the majority of the crop. I felt so sorry for him but admired his tenacity and adherence to his principles. The news coverage of the frost in France’s vineyards in April where the countermeasures taken in the form of burning straw or heaters raised their own issues with complaints about damaging the environment through smoke contamination is another case in point – faced with losing your burgeoning crop or taking these extreme measures, what decision would we make ourselves?

We are probably just at the start of the sustainable journey and I look forward to seeing how viticulture, and winemakers, adapt over the years to come.

WOTM: Brezza, Vigna Santa Rosalia, Nebbiolo d’Alba 2018

A new addition to the Hallgarten portfolio, our July Wine of the Month is Vigna Santa Rosalia, Nebbiolo d’Alba 2018, from Brezza was made organically, with minimal addition of sulphur. Recently awarding it 16.5 points, Jancis Robinson describes the wine as having “freshness and texture in spades.” We are very excited to have this, and the full range from Brezza, in our portfolio!

In a nutshell

A pale, perfumed wine with notes of berried fruit with characteristic hints of roses, violets and subtle earthy, savoury and leather notes.

The producer

The Brezza family own 12.5 hectares of vines split between the commune of Barolo (in Cannubi, Castellero and Sarmassa), the two hectare Santa Rosalia estate just outside the Barolo DOCG zone between Diano d’Alba and the town of Alba itself, and two further plots in Monforte d’Alba and Novello. Throughout the vineyards, the family practices an environmentally friendly approach to viticulture and the estate has been certified organic since the 2015 vintage. In the cellar, winemaker Enzo Brezza follows a traditional approach with minimal intervention. In order to maintain freshness and purity, many of the wines are bottled with glass Vinolok closures.

The wine

The grapes come from a 1.2 hectare single vineyard called Vigna Santa Rosalia, which was planted in 2004. Located around the town of Alba, it has been organically farmed since 2010. Situated at 300 metres’ elevation, the vines are planted at a density of 4,000 vines per hectare and have a westerly orientation, capturing the afternoon sunshine. The Nebbiolo vines are the Lampia and Michet clones and are grown on rootstocks K5BB and 420A. Guyot pruned and espalier trained, the vines are carefully cultivated by hand, with green harvesting and thinning taking place to control yields and increase the concentration of flavour in the grapes. Green manure is employed to enhance the vitality of the soil and the cuttings from the grass cover crops are left on the soil, to help increase the nutrient value. In accordance with organic viticulture, copper and sulphur are used when necessary; herbicides and pesticides are not employed. Harvest takes place by hand.

Wine descriptions, are they a waste of ink?

So let’s just say I’ve got some previous with wine descriptions on lists. Saying that I’ve got beef might be a little strong, but you could definitely conclude that I’ve had a love-hate relationship over the years.

From very early on in my wine career I decided that the generic descriptions made available to sales reps left a lot to be desired. Now this sounds a little arrogant but I remember thinking at the time, they don’t really mean anything, let alone activate sales. Let’s take a look at the following tasting note and see how inspired we all feel:

‘A lovely, refreshing wine with aromas of grapefruit, citrus, stone fruits and delicate notes of fresh acacia flowers on the nose.’

Blah, Blah, Blah! It’s just so boring and are consumers really that interested in this kind of information? Do they even know what acacia flowers smell like? I don’t, and I love a bit of gardening. I’ve always believed that customers would only read one or two generic descriptions before switching off.

Anyway, more on this later, but for now let’s get back to a young Joe Wadhams who thought he was going to reinvent the wine description. So the first problem that I encountered was that writing your own quirky descriptions takes a very long time. You’re constantly trying to not repeat yourself – which when you’ve got a limited Essex vocabulary like me was pretty tough. My theory was simple though: try to describe the wine in a way that consumers could relate to, and try to make them laugh at the same time. Some were definitely more random than others. I once described an Assyrtiko as a ‘volcanic Chablis on steroids’ or I might have even said it was ‘like licking a volcano’ – I was drinking solidly back then so it’s a little hard to recall. So you get the general idea, they were pretty random but strangely consumers were lapping them up. They actually sat at the table and took the time to read them, I was amazed but at the same time I felt vindicated. If you want someone to read something just make it interesting.

Anyway fast forward a few years and I moved onto one of the big boys in our industry. So my less than orthodox talent for writing rubbish and getting people to read it soon got noticed. Before I knew it I was thrust into a huge project with Matthew Jukes to write interesting descriptions for about 100 of our wines. Let’s just say our approaches were a little different, but after a couple of months we’d completed the mission. Matthew’s way of writing is fantastic but his descriptions were incredibly detailed, so I was tasked with giving them a little trim. So you could say that for two months I was Matthew Jukes’ Editor – I like the sound of that.

Moving on a couple of months and I was standing at our portfolio tasting and the company had decided to put some of our wine quotes up on the wall. One of the ones they used from me I’d actually ripped off Olly Smith after I’d seen him on the box. I remember it as if it was yesterday – ‘this wine is like taking a chair lift up the rock face of sheer freshness’. So you can imagine my unease when Olly and I are standing under this quote at our tasting with his eyes moving upwards towards my undoubted plagiarism. He took one look at me and then thankfully we both started laughing!

It’s safe to say that after this period I completely lost the plot. I’d quite simply OD(ed) on writing descriptions so I then took them in a new direction. I decided I no longer wanted to tell the customer anything about the wine, and instead concentrated on writing descriptions that made little sense. Two of my weirdest were as follows:

‘A smoking jacket and beagle are recommended with this Claret’

And my all-time favourite:

‘Anglo French writer Hillaire Belloc once wrote “I forget the name of the place; I forget the name of the girl; but the wine was Chambertin.” 

The crazy thing is customers still loved them. It does make you think that customers just want to read something that’s engaging. This reassured my belief that notes about flavour mean very little to the average consumer.

After this period of tasting note madness I went into retirement and haven’t written a wine description since. I reckon my hiatus has lasted for roughly 8 years now. During this period I played around heavily with style headings. My theory was that many consumers only needed to know what style of wine it was. For example with whites were they Crisp, Aromatic or Rich. This approach might seem incredibly simple, but it seemed to work a treat and did make training staff a whole lot easier. Plus I was no longer sitting up half the night spewing out random quotes from Anglo-French poets!

So as I’ve said, this carried on for some time until the other day when I was hosting a tasting with one of my key accounts. We were tasting a wine from Kefalonia which is aged underwater, and to be honest is a little leftfield but damn good. The common consensus from around the table was, ‘we love it but how are we going to sell it’? I then had some sort of out of body experience and shouted across the table, ‘why don’t we do descriptions’?

I tried to catch the words but it was too late, I’d said it. So it looks like I’ve now gone completely full circle and I’m back where I started. What style am I going to go for? I think they will definitely be more grown up but I’m hoping they will still be interesting. My boss sent me an email the other day about a new Mencia we’ve brought in from Ribera Sacra. He said: ‘A sort of mid-way point between Pinot Noir and Syrah, but with high acidity’. I thought to myself, if I can combine information like this with a touch of light humour the balance would be perfect. So wish me luck.

The reality is descriptions can work but let’s make them count, and try to engage and relate to the customer. If we don’t that really would be a waste of ink.

WOTM: Domaine Foivos, ‘Robola of Kefalonia’, Robola 2020

Our June Wine of the Month is a new addition to our portfolio, and one that screams summer – Domaine Foivos, ‘Robola of Kefalonia’, Robola 2020! From Kefalonia, an island off the west coast of Greece, and made from the island’s most well-know indigenous variety, the grapes for this cuvée come from 20 year old vines that are ungrafted and grown on their own indigenous roots in a vineyard in Fragata, on the free-draining slopes of Mount Ainos.

In a nutshell

An incredibly fresh and pure wine that is full of tension. The herbal and citrus aromas create a harmonious fusion through to a palate with lime citrus intensity and mouth-watering freshness.

The producer

The Foivos winery evolved from the historic Mantzavino winery, one of the oldest in Greece. The winery was bought in 1996, and in 1999 Theodorous Orkopoulos produced his first vintages. The winery specialises in rare Greek varieties as well as the better known Robola.

The grapes are farmed organically and biodynamically, and Foivos also explores alternative winemaking practices such as fermentation in Amphora and ageing under water. This winery is making some excellent terroir-driven wines that rank among some of Greece’s finest. Many people believe Kefalonia to be the next Santorini: watch this space!

The wine

The grapes were carefully selected and sorted in the cellar, destemmed and gently pressed. The must was fermented with wild, indigenous yeasts at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks to retain the purity of fruit and aromatic integrity. The wine was gently filtered prior to bottling. Made in an unoaked style to fully express the character of the Robola variety and the mountainous terroir of Mount Ainos.

The Challenge of Winemaking

Vines love a challenge…

If vines were human beings they’d be into extreme sports, wakeboarding on the surf or abseiling down skyscrapers.

You see, give your average vine some nice cosy conditions – great weather, lots of luscious deep juicy soil – and they’ll give you lots of, well, average fruit. All quite worthy, if a bit dull. Then they’ll go down the pub. But give them a challenge; soils which are so barren and rocky that every sensible plant has given up the ghost, or a mountainside so steep that you’re in danger of falling off – and they’re in their element. Bring it on!

Which is just as well. Because every vintage has a story. Every vineyard is on trial.

Only a few weeks ago Bordeaux was hit by one of the worst frosts in decades. Hundreds of hectares were damaged. But while Estelle Roumage, owner of Chateau Lestrille, gazed at the devastation and shed a silent tear, her vines stood defiant. Battered and bruised, their buds lost, crippled but indomitable. “Don’t worry; we’ll be back. We’re vines, you see.”

Mount Etna erupted seventeen times between mid-February and the end of March this year. Imagine waking up and not knowing if your vines have been covered in ash. (Or whether your house is about to be consumed by lava!) Yet that is what our winemakers at Santa Maria La Nave and Al-Cantara face. We – and they – feel those slings and arrows are worth putting up with because of the fabulous complexity of wine which those vines produce.

Chablis lies at the extreme of the great winemaking areas. Philippe Goulley, winemaker at Domaine Jean Goulley, summarised the last vintage for us and included a weather report: “We had spring frost and hailstorms but they weren’t as significant as recent years. Then we had drought and a heat wave in June and July which totally changed the situation. In the end, the quantity was okay but not as good as we’d hoped.” This stoical acceptance of fate happens every year: Chablis suffered tough vintages in 2016, 2017 and 2019. Such is the lot of the winemaker – and the vine.

Weather can be capricious. California is often prey to forest fires – which can destroy vineyards or cause smoke taint. In 2020 the state recorded the hottest August and September on record, during which time thousands of vines were destroyed. We can only salute the fortitude of our winemakers at Far Niente, Raymond Vineyards, Lockwood Vineyard, Oak Ridge Winery and Quady, as well as our newest addition – Sanford.

Australian winemakers face another hazard: drought. They have always had to contend with agricultural risks such as frost, hail and flood. But climate change has made things tougher for growers and winemakers. Wineries rely on natural rainfall for their grapes, but in drought season, irrigation is a must. The amount of water being drawn for the river systems and the underground aquifers may be unattainable in a hotter drier climate. (And that’s before China pulls the plug on Aussie exports!) We’re grateful for wineries such as Berton Vineyards for continuing to produce amazing wines and amazing value-for-money wines in the face of such adversity.

Of course, just as most people prefer the easy life, some people – like vines – love a challenge. Operating out of often impenetrable and inaccessible vineyards within Galicia, winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio has produced a stunning collection of wines as a result of a personal quest: to find wines with unique personality from more risky processing zones and with a very marked identity. He is no respecter of fashions and conventions. His main challenge is to respect and express the soil, variety and area – producing wines with soul and personality.

A different sort of challenge is faced by the winemaking team at Frescobaldi. How to live up the expectations of a Florentine family with thirty generations dedicated to the production of great wines across six Tuscan estates? Well, you do it with a combination of tradition and innovation. With the goal of being the most prestigious Tuscan wine producer, and with over 1,000 hectares of vineyard, Frescobaldi firmly believes in respecting the local land while focusing on the highest quality grapes for its wines. This means different winemakers for each estate, each forging the terroir’s identity, while all living up the quality standards demanded by Lamberto Frescobaldi, chief winemaker. Gambero Rosso awarded Frescobaldi with the prestigious ‘Tre Bicchieri Winery of the Year Award 2020’, in recognition of its uncompromising commitment. Here is one family living up to the challenge!

How to reinvent something? That’s a challenge. For Badiola, a change from a quality hierarchy based on terroir rather than on ageing was a paradigm made possible by the change to the Rioja classifications of 2018. They set out to make wines of place rather than wines of style. The Vino de Pueblo wines are sourced from 300 plots in three villages in the foothills of Sierra de Cantabria in the Rio Alavesa from vines with an average age of around 50 years (many were planted in the 1920s, 30s and 40s). A challenging concept, but thankfully the wines are brilliant.

And then of course there are some winemakers for whom one challenge is not enough. They want to be challenged every day. Take Gérard Bertrand. It would have been easy for him to have rested on his laurels when inheriting his father’s domaine in Corbières. But the drive which saw him play rugby at the highest level saw him purchasing numerous estates, then upgrading them painstakingly. This was followed by his conversion to biodynamic farming, following the principals of Rudolf Steiner.

Now, he presides over some of the most prestigious crus of Languedoc-Roussillon. Formerly the IWC Red Winemaker of the Year and Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year, his expertise ensures that wines bearing Gérard Bertrand’s signature have a unique style, driven by the values of excellence, authenticity, conviviality and innovation. In 2020, Gérard Bertrand was awarded Green Personality of the Year, by the Drinks Business Green Awards. He is arguably the most dynamic winemaker on the planet. Now there’s a chap who loves a challenge.

WOTM: Lake Chalice ‘The Raptor’, Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc 2018

When you think of Sauvignon Blanc, which region springs to mind first? We, and we are sure a lot of consumers, automatically go to Marlborough. To celebrate this grape variety, we have picked a quintessential Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – Lake Chalice ‘The Raptor’ 2018 – as our May Wine of the Month to coincide with 07th May or, International Sauvignon Blanc Day.

One of the world’s most popular grape varieties, and one of the most widely-planted, Sauvignon Blanc is recognised worldwide for its fresh and aromatic qualities.

The grapes for this wine were sourced from a single vineyard in the rich loamy soils of the Dillons Point area of Marlborough’s Lower Wairau Valley. Shaped by a slow convergence of tectonic plates, the Wairau Valley offers a veritable patchwork of contrasting soil types linking the Alps in the west with the Pacific Ocean in the east.

In a nutshell:

Ripe grapefruit and lime aromas are neatly framed by notes of blackcurrant leaf followed by a textured palate bursting with sweet passionfruit and ripe pear with a hint of white pepper on the finish.

The producer:

Lake Chalice was established in 1989 with a vision of producing internationally recognised wines from the heart of the Marlborough region. New Zealand’s native falcon, the ‘Kārearea’, is proudly displayed on every bottle of Lake Chalice wine. Kārearea favour the remote mountains and foothills of the upper Awatere and Wairau valleys and these valleys are home to Lake Chalice’s three unique vineyard sites. Each vineyard has a diverse microclimate, biodiversity and terroir which are seamlessly translated into multi award winning wines by talented winemaker Chloe Gabrielsen. Taking a boutique approach she handcrafts parcels of fruit from single vineyards into elegant, aromatic, fruit driven wines and has garnered a global reputation of outstanding quality. Certified ‘Sustainable Winegrower of New Zealand’

The wine:

The grapes were harvested in the cool of the evening to retain the freshness and quickly pressed off the skins to ensure minimal skin-contact time. The juice was settled and cool fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks with carefully selected yeasts to encourage maximum thiol characters. Thiols are the compounds naturally found on the Sauvignon Blanc grapes which are responsible for Marlborough’s signature tropical notes.

How have Wine Merchants adapted to COVID?

A lot has happened since the first lockdown was announced on 23rd March and as this is being written, we are about to enter a second national lockdown on November 5th. It has taken a good degree of ingenuity and resourcefulness to navigate the different tiers and rules associated with these for a consumer, yet alone a business owner, and it will continue to pose challenges for operators throughout the country.

Whilst our On Trade cousins have been incredibly unfortunate not to be fully open for business for several months, Off Trade wine outlets have been permitted to carry on operating. We are truly grateful for the support of all our customers in these uncertain times, and in tune with this special edition of Assemblage, we wanted to highlight a few of those customers and how they have managed to thrive in the face of adversity over this year.

 

Loki Wines

Despite being able to open their premises when the Prime Minister said wine shops were on the permitted list, owner, Phil Innes, decided to keep the Loki Wines shops closed until 4th July to focus on their online offering. At the beginning of the year he had already put the wheels in motion to make his online sales a key part of Loki’s strategic plans, so he was well placed to capitalise on the situation; but its success has been phenomenal and what Phil described as an ‘insignificant’ part of their business now represents 30% of his sales. Central to this success was the ability to adapt to, and market online tastings via social media.

By pairing up with a local deli, Phil has been able to provide a wine with food tasting, often featuring winemakers as an added dimension. Free same day delivery for the produce being tasted is offered in the local Birmingham area, and next day via courier for those living further afield. The tastings have been a roaring success and they have regularly sold between 200-300 tickets for each session to participants all over Europe – even as far away as Canada!

Business has been brisk and never one to stand still, Phil is close to opening his third site, saying:  “Although online has become a really important part of the business, I still believe that the core business in the future will be in the bricks and mortar. This is because what sets us apart from online is our ability to hand-sell every bottle to the customer, and give them an experience in a store that starts the journey to enjoying the wine”

 

Wine Down

Wine Down in the Isle of Man was faced with closing their premises for On trade sales and the prospect of losing a significant amount of turnover, so owner, Anne Harrison, lost no time in emailing a daily changing menu and wine offering to her extensive database for delivery the next day; it became a vital part of her income during those initial few months. So much so that she was able to retain all kitchen staff and floor crew for taking, preparing and packing the orders for delivery with her husband and son – who was an enforced return from university – in support, to undertake the deliveries.

Emboldened by the success of the Off Trade wine sales and in preparation for re-opening, she grabbed the opportunity take over the next door premises, and create a dedicated shop and bar area. It would be easy to suggest that it is business as usual on the Isle of Man because they have no cases of COVID, but as business and leisure visitors are not permitted, and events like the TT races were cancelled, footfall is significantly down which has had an impact, so they need to be as rigorous as ever in their pursuit of a great wine offering and service for their residents to maintain their position as the best wine retailer on the island.

 

Love Cheese

As the name would suggest Love Cheese is first and foremost a cheese shop, but their wine sales have trebled since the pandemic. Whilst they have stayed open throughout, Harry Baines explained that they were forced to reduce their opening hours in order to cope with the increase in deliveries. Love Cheese is another example of an operator rapidly adapting to the online tasting platform; they decided to advertise their cheese and wine tastings via Facebook in order to gain traction quickly.

Their customers would receive a box of 5 wines – decanted into smaller format bottles – and five cheeses, sufficient for two people. They began by offering weekly tastings, selling 46 boxes for the first one and 150 boxes for the second – given the labour intensive nature of the preparation, it prompted them to conduct the tastings once a fortnight instead. They sold 285 boxes for the latest tasting in November, so there are no signs that the interest is subsiding, and Harry believes this is a direct result of “people looking for distraction and entertainment”. On the back of the confidence he has built with his customer base, the café which was always attached to the shop has morphed into a wine bar which was beginning to do well ahead of the second lockdown. He is convinced this new look bar will do well once again, as customers crave a return to social interaction and a normal life.

 

This is not an exhaustive list and there are too many examples to mention everyone, but we trust these real-life scenarios can bring a ray of light, a glimmer of hope and the prospect of better days for all of us!

Has COVID-19 caused lasting damage to the Restaurant Sector and will it ever truly recover?

The short answer is yes, it will recover, and it will do so in a way that will bring pride to the entire nation. This might seem a little unwarranted, but I do need to point out at this early stage that I am an eternal optimist. What makes me so confident, put simply: I believe in the people involved. Our industry is built around the people that work within it; whether it be the visionary owners, the tireless managers or the charismatic front of house team that make our frequent visits so memorable. It’s the People that give me Hope.

I am writing this article a couple of days after the second lockdown to our industry was announced. Like thousands of operators around the country this came as a crushing blow. I woke up the following Monday morning, took the kids to school and my journey home took me past the large stainless steel vats of the Wiston winery on the A24. Let’s just say that the wines are far better than the location! For some reason I made a quick decision to pull off and see if the head winemaker, and my good friend, Dermot Sugrue was around. Not only is Dermot one of the country’s leading winemakers, he’s also a force of nature. Spending time with him is like getting a shot of adrenaline, and it just so turns out that on this morning he was just the tonic I needed.

Over the next 30 minutes he danced around the various vats and barrels extracting base samples from a tap or, in some cases, a large syringe. He was not worried about our current plight, he was excited about the eventual bounce back and what the customers would make of his new vintage – ‘The Trouble with Dreams’ 2015. For the time I was with him I completely forgot about COVID. It was a brilliant impromptu Monday morning and without me sounding too corny, my wee Irish friend gave me hope.

I then got home and started to think about our industry and what else should give us optimism for the future. One important fact to remember is there are huge swathes of the population who can’t cook restaurant quality food at home (and long may this continue)! Restaurants, when allowed to open, will always be busy because guests crave that unique experience, don’t they?

Another reason for optimism is seeing how the trade has adapted during the pandemic. During the first lockdown some of our customers turned their restaurants into wine shops and started peddling wine across their local community. We have one such customer from Winchester who ended up doing up to 20 deliveries a day out of the back of his estate car. Absolute madness, but utterly inspiring!

The ‘finish at home’ concept was also born, which enabled customers to create restaurant quality dishes in the comfort of their own kitchen. Even Michelin starred chefs such Michael O’Hare got in on the act – I am sure that some menus were easier to finish than others! Sunday Roasts also got the delivery treatment. I mean, come on, what is wrong with people…? They must really hate doing the washing up.

Zoom was also being beamed straight into customers’ homes in the form of online tastings and live cookery classes. The ability to diversify was inspiring, but was any of it profitable? Absolutely not, but it really wasn’t about that. The aim was to keep their brands alive and stay within the head space of their customer base.

Seeing this unfold gave me immense hope, so when the trade reopened on the 4th July I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. And the bounce back didn’t disappoint – it was huge. Central London aside, the population of this country turned up in their droves to support their local pubs and restaurants. I think we were all proud to be a part of our fantastic industry.

Then the tier system crept in and literally took the wind out of people’s sales! Tier 2: welcome to no man’s land – you’re open but who’s coming in? You’re hoping for a Valentine’s Day style service every night of the week and then good old family time at weekends. It’s just never going to happen, so maybe the second lockdown, with furlough support, is the lesser of two evils?

How much more can the hospitality industry take and has permanent damage been caused? You have to say for those unfortunate operators that haven’t survived, absolutely, but for those who have it’s probably made them stronger. Operators have had to really look at every facet of their business and how different aspects can be streamlined, therefore making them more efficient. Longevity has to be the common goal.

One thing is for sure. When this has all been put to bed, the hospitality industry will enter a boom period like no other. A period that is prolonged steady growth, rather than the boom and bust cycle we often see. In my opinion this industry is just too dynamic to be held down. The general public’s love affair with the restaurant sector appears to have been galvanised, which I hope will continue for a long time to come.

Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder

– Joe Wadhams,
Business Development Director