Microbes to marketing: Masters of Wine Lognoño Symposium

The Institute of Masters of Wine hold a symposium once every four years. It a chance for MWs, MW students and indeed anyone who wants to buy a ticket to meet, listen to top speakers, debate and of course taste a big range of really outstanding wines.  Four years’ ago it was in Florence which was a fantastic experience – four of the best wine days of my life. In 2018 it was in Logroño, Rioja. Could it possibly be as good? The town is not Florence but in every other way it was just as outstanding. Here is the full programme: LivingWineSymposiumJune2018

The programme is packed. It starts at 8am if you are up for a power breakfast with a short presentation, the main programme starts at 9.30 and runs straight into a sponsored lunch and then through to dinner.  Three nights on the trot I did not get to my hotel until midnight – and I skipped the post gala-dinner party!  Here are a few highlights.

Making pruning sexy: Marco Simonit

Marco is the ultimate cool viticultural dude and is rightly credited with ‘making pruning sexy’.  Simonit and Sirch are in massive demand as the whole wine industry is threatened with trunk diseases. Growers report losses of 10-20% a year, with dead vines needing to be replanted at enormous cost, the best part of five years of no return.  Simonit has resurrected older approaches to pruning. He helps pruners to think about the health of the vine, not the convenience of the grower or picker.  The slide below show the difference between two 15 year-old vines, one badly pruned with lots of black dying wood and one in a healthy state. Fascinating. 

No love for (bad) natural wine

One of the trends in the world of wine is the so-called natural wine movement. In brief this usually means making wine with minimum intervention – without the addition of sulphur, no selected yeasts only and no processing agents (no enzymes to speed the process of pressing, no clarification by means of fining or filtering). We did not discuss this directly but it was clear from audible reactions from the floor that the vast majority of attendees a) find the concept annoying and b) hate the wilder examples of natural wine that can be found on the market. The latter can be cloudy (no problem), and taste as much of vinegar or sweaty saddles as fruit – but can be sold as ‘natural’ and even healthy.  By contrast, the MW community loves the effects of well-administered small doses of sulphur to preserve fruit quality; and it does not like being told that faulty wines are good.  Nor does it respond to the word ‘natural’ being hijacked.  If you leave grapes or juice to its own devices the result is vinegar. And all wine has a high claim to being ‘natural’ – it is the result of the fermentation of juice being carried out in a controlled and monitored way with intervention as necessary to achieve certain desirable goals: fruitiness and a lack of faults as an absolute minimum.

Microbes are the new frontier

The current scientific excitement in the world of wine is the work being done on microbial life in the soil, in the interaction between roots and the soil and in yeasts and in wine. We are the beginnings of learning about the extreme diversity of microorganisms in soil, within single vineyards and in the roots of vines (30,000 species in a gram of root!)  These bacteria, fungi and more affect how the plant assimilates nutrients, its immune response, how it tolerates drought or high temperatures and how they affect varietal expression.  Then there are questions about how vineyard management (cover crops, tillage, conventional v. organic v. biodynamic) influences the microbiome or microbiota of a plant or vineyards. These are the terms for the entirety of microbiological life – a new bit of jargon to drop into a wine discussion!  

The advances in our understanding are due to the new ability to discover and count what is there. In the past if you wanted to examine bacteria or yeast cells, you first had to isolate them and grow them on a plate in a lab. Now with a range of high tech means you can check and count them without going through that business and so much quicker. As a result, there is an explosion of new and emerging knowledge.  

Perhaps the result of greatest interest to wine lovers to date is the work done on the yeast populations in New Zealand’s most famous Chardonnay winery, Kumeu River.  Michael Brajkovich MW has used exclusively naturally-occuring yeasts at Kumeu since 1984. Recent university studies have shown 96 strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the dominant yeast in wine) in just four barrels of Chardonnay at Kumeu. Further they demonstrated that these strains are significantly different from any other Saccharomyces studied in the world. Here is the first underpinning of the contribution of yeast to a specific terroir.  And how are the yeast transported? Take a bow the humble fruit fly which has a remarkably discriminating palate for ripe fruit by aromatic selection!  So here is a question for the geeky pub quiz: what do fruit flies and wine buffs have in common? Who ever said science was boring?  

The tastings: spoilt for choice

Needless to say the 450 attendees were treated to a fantastic range of tastings. Apparently during the event, 5,000 bottles of wine were tasted and 20,000 Riedel glasses used – Riedel is one of the principal sponsors of the Institute.  That is 44 glasses and 11 bottles of wine per head! Not surprisingly there were three major tastings of wines from Spain. Wines of Argentina, of Greece and Australia provided suitably bibulous, sorry, tasting lunches.  ‘Discovering new terroirs throughout the world’ ranged wildly from England to Japan to new regions of Argentina to 2,500m of altitude in China. But two of the Spanish tastings really stood out. ‘The New Spain’ was a great showcase for mostly younger growers making crisp, low oaked, wines with the focus on fruit and acidity in a wide range of places. Old vines, local varieties, extreme terroirs, low intervention winemaking.  The old stereotype of over-extracted wines, weighty reds with ponderous oak, was well and truly confined to the bin. 

But the zenith, at least for me, was the ‘Inspirational Spain’, the final showcase tasting of Spain’s finest wines, with the winemakers or owners introducing them. 

Marketing to keep you awake after lunch

Imagine you are the only speaker at a major conference who has a whole hour to fill on his own … and that your slot it directly after lunch (sponsored by Wines of Greece with about 10 wines) and before that a huge walk-around tasting of younger new wave Spain.  Well, Michael Walton managed the graveyard slot with aplomb. He interspersed his serious presentation on an ‘adaptive wine business’ with jokes, ribbing his audience for being slightly drunk (true enough), and getting them to stand up for a version of the options game.  And the take aways? Strong organisations have a clear mission and set of core values which are transparently put into practice, a flat management structure, excellent leadership and above all an ability to communicate.  Bravo. 

Inspirational Spain

My three favourites start with  Enoteca Gramona, Gramona, 2001, a magnificent 15 years on the lees, showing how great Cava can be with 75% Xarel.lo and 25% Macabeo – intensely savoury and layered, remarkably long. The bubbles were followed by a wine I have been trying to taste for years but have never seen, Lopez de Heredia‘s Viña Tondonia, Rosado, 2008, the rosé version of the famous vineyard.  Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia explained that it is only made in the exceptional years when there is enough Garnacha to spare for the rosé which would otherwise go into the famous red wine.  This is a blend of 60% Garnacha, 30% Tempranillo and 10% white Viura, macerated on the skins for three days, co-fermented, and then aged in used American barrels for two years.  Salmon with a bronze tint in colour, initially a quiet if multi-faceted nose with a great crescendo of fruit on the palate: raspberry, peach, smoke and vanilla. Thirdly, Único, Vega Sicilia, Ribera del Duero, 1996, 13.5% was a stunningly good example of Spain’s most lauded wine.  This is made from the estate’s best fruit, 100% Tinto Fino (i.e. Tempranillo) with a remarkable ageing regime which is a testament to the power of the fruit: six years in a mixture of American and French oak barriques and vats, new and used.  The wine is released around 10 years of age with extraordinary further ageing potential.  This 22-year old example was drinking perfectly: great aromatic range – lifted raspberry and cranberry alongside black cherry and plum, light mushroom tertiary notes, supple body, tight chalky tannins, outstandingly long finish.  

Also excellent were: two single vineyard Mencia-based wine, a further testament to the new Spain: Ultreia, Raul Perez, Bierzo, 2014, 13.5% made in ‘back to the past’ style (60-day maceration of whole bunches, then aged under flor (!) 6-8 months for a light nuttiness and the elegant, intense and modern take, La Faraona, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Bierzo, 2015, 14%. Last but in no way least, the painfully young Pingus, Ribera del Duero, 2015, 14.5%, made from old vine Tempranillo. It seems a shame for our lucky group to have consumed around 36 bottles of the total 6,500 bottle production when one could really only admire the dense potential of this great wine.   

Fiesta

Finally, the Spanish did us proud in their warm hospitality, the fantastic food and the wines poured on the three evenings of the symposium – in the Logroño bullring (discuss!), at individual wineries on the second evening (Bodegas Beronia in my case: thank you!) and finally at the magnificent gala dinner at Marques de Riscal. Tapas, flamenco, Michelin-starred chefs, great array of wine including a 1955 Riserva from their own cellars for 450 guests.  No evening is complete without opening three dozen bottles of old wine with the heated tongs method!  

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