Are online tastings the magic we’ve been missing?

Let me pour you a glass….

Stripped of all of your wine knowledge, if you were an ordinary shopper are nosing your trolley tentatively down the wine aisle looking for a bottle you can trust to give your family a glass or two of relaxation at the weekend, how likely is it that your eyes will stray to the top shelf?

I wrote an earlier blog piece about the experience that led me to this realisation – I helped make a wine in South Africa that won a lot of plaudits, but when it arrived on the shelves, it just sat there, and no-one saw it. Because it was a little too far outside the average shopper’s price range, and we gave them no good reasons to look up to the top shelf.

And this is wine’s problem. A category of dreams and romance that is sold on price.

Not enough of the romance and wonder of wine makes it to the shelf-edge, and most shoppers default to a name they recognise, and a price they can afford. What easily discernible reasons other than price do we give shoppers to trade up to a ‘better’ bottle? And how do they know they will like it more?

Many people in the wine trade say that what we need is education. If only people knew more about wine, they would automatically care more about it, choose it more carefully, spend more per bottle, and talk more about it to their friends.

This is proven to be true of the people who DO start down the path of education. They DO spend more per bottle. They DO become more engaged. They DO widen their repertoires.

But most people don’t go very far down that road if at all.

Most people don’t want to be ‘educated’, or to do anything that feels like work. Wine is meant to be fun.

What we really need is to bring wine alive. To inspire people.

And for that we need all five senses firing on all cylinders. Beautiful images to look at. The evocative sound of cicadas, the heady bouquet of a vintage captured in a bottle, released by the swirl of a glass. The texture of tannins gripping the cheeks, and the warming alcohol. The taste of deep succulent sun-ripened fruit woven through with garrigue herbs.

There is no doubt that this is very hard to do at the shelf edge. The best way to deliver this kind of rich experience is with a visit in person.

There is little substitute for a day spent with the wine producer touring the vines, and a tasting in the cool of the cellar. Everything you need to create deep and lasting memories is there. The 3D in-person sens-o-rama experience will worm its way deep into the consciousness of even the most well-traveled guest, and the wine producer will occupy a little corner of their visitor’s brain for YEARS to come.

This is why I am so keen, when thinking about the wine we make in the stunning Roussillon region of Southern France, to bring our Wine Club members to visit us.

And why last autumn, 16 of us spent a weekend picking a tiny block of vines and crushing the bunches underfoot in an open barrel (see blog post here).

These few minutes spent crushing grapes underfoot will form memories that last a lifetime.

And yet…..

2020 is not the best year to be promoting wine tourism

And this has forced us to scrabble around for other ways to reach people stuck inside their homes.

Zoom calls. Webinars. Meet the winemaker events. Online tastings.

All very much second best, right? No substitute for the real thing?

True – but…..

It has slowly dawned on me that we have hit on a brilliant way to reach MORE people. People who would never come to a wine tasting, but who like a good excuse to open a bottle. The kind of people who we have been trying to educate, but they ran away.

People who would never think about spitting a wine out (is it a symptom of our strange little industry that we have to remind ourselves that this is LITERALLY EVERYBODY EXCEPT US?)

People who may not have the budget, the time off work, or the health to take trips to wine regions on a regular basis.

And yet there they are, gathered around their screens. Sitting on their sofas. Making comments about what they are tasting (and often forgetting to mute themselves so that we overhear them as they chat amongst themselves.)

It is Gogglebox, for wine.

People of the wine trade, for the first time ever we are staring into the living rooms of the people actually drinking our wine, in their own habitat. David Attenborough would be getting very excited. This is an unrivalled chance to follow our bottles into the homes and lives of our customers.

And in turn, we are giving them a glimpse of our world.

Katie Jones is hosting DAILY vineyard walks from 7.30 – 8.00am, and pulling crowds of 50-100 people every day!

Ok, so her Mum, and a couple of Aunties are included in the number, but then so are some sommeliers, a couple of journos, a few wine students, and a load of actual wine drinkers. They are asking questions about mildew, because in this context it is FASCINATING. This is not a lecture or a text-book. Here is real life happening in front of your eyes.

And instead of being a stage-managed photoshoot on the sunniest day of spring, it is raining and all the more real because of it. Authenticity convinces more than polish.

When we put on our first Zoom call, we had no idea what we were doing, or why. And we didn’t have Pro Zoom and got cut off after 40 minutes. But our viewers URGED us to put on another one.

So we subscribed to Pro Zoom, and put on an event about English Sparkling Wine. Brad from Nyetimber and Charlie from Gusbourne kindly agreed to be guests, and Stephen Skelton and several other luminaries joined us. We had a great chat, with 40 people hanging on our every word, and asking questions. Sadly, we still hadn’t worked out how to record it, so that one is lost in the ether.

Nigel Greening tells about lockdown in Central Otago

But we recorded the next one – ‘Muck and Magic’ an exploration of sustainable farming techniques. Nigel Greening from Felton Road called in at 5.30am in Wanaka to tell us how lockdown was going in NZ, and how they were managing to harvest and make wine. Katie Jones told us about being organic in Fitou, and Nick Wenman talked about beekeeping and biodynamics at Albury Vineyard in the Surrey Hills.

Our wine goggleboxers told us they loved hearing from the horse’s mouth, and fired questions at everyone.

Then we put on our first event with tasting samples. The 12 sets of samples we had cautiously prepared sold out in 10 minutes. On tasting day, we treated our tasters to a virtual flight over out vineyards using google earth. Lots of photos and maps. Have a look at our 55 minute-long session here:

Since then the interest has ramped up, and our fortnightly program in June and July is well on the way to selling out too, with numbers of up to 42 per session. Have a look in the Domaine of the Bee shop, and scroll down to ‘Tasting Sample Packs’

Our customers are now inviting their friends.

One lady, who first heard us on Peter and Susie’s podcast 4 weeks ago, has invited ten of her friends to join our next tasting with her, and we’ve been sending mini-bottles of our wines all around the country.

Of course, this is happening now because of lockdown, and when lockdown is over, the demand will abate a little.

But the genie is out of the bottle. People who had never used Zoom three months ago are now hooked. And why pay to go to a scary wine tasting, when you can pay to have some wines delivered to your house, and you can sit on your own sofa to drink them with your family.

Online tastings are here to stay, and we’d better get used to them!

If you want some advice on how to run them, I’ll be happy to share what we’ve learned. Just give me a call.

(And well done to Amber from Spitbucket.com for creating the first directory of online tastings so you can find out who is doing what, when.)

What’s in a bottle?

I want to tell you a story that is pretty fundamental to the way I think about wine.

Let me take you back to 1995, and to invite you to picture a small winery at the top of the Devon Valley just outside Stellenbosch in South Africa.

You are looking at the white plaster walls of an unobtrusively modern new winery building tucked onto the side of the low hills that separate the Devon Valley from the main road north from Stellenbosch.

It is late summer – February – and pretty hot. Maybe 35-36 degrees at midday. And yet when you walk through the large green double doors of the cellar, the 20 degrees of the cellar seems blissfully cool, the floor wet from cleaning and cold droplets clinging to the stainless steel tanks of fermenting Sauvignon.

You are waiting for our first delivery of red grapes – the pickers started at dawn. You were expecting the first load mid-morning, but they are late.

Walking back to the outside means you have to flip down the sunglasses that you have clipped to your NHS glasses – it is not going to be long before you see the logic of switching to contact lenses –  and the blast of hot dry air is like a furnace. Yet this time, above the cicadas which are growing louder and louder in the heat of the day, you can hear the low growl of a tractor.

Winding up the narrow track to the winery is a tractor towing a flatbed trailer, laden with ten half-ton apple-crates full to the brim with gleaming back grapes. Perched on the sides of the bins, a couple of the pickers in their blue overalls and yellow t-shirts.

The Pinotage is here.

You’ve already cleaned the crusher-destemmer thoroughly – after the last white grapes went through last night, and again this morning just to be sure, but you find yourself stooping to pick up the hose once again. You play it across the receival hopper and down into the guts of the machine, the water cooling your hand, to remove any traces of dust that may have settled there.

There are not many tasks in this chain from vine to glass that are your very own, but this is one of them. And you haven’t had much else to do today.

But now as the driver backs ups the trailer, and Koos hops on the forklift to unload the bins, this is where the winery team kick into action, and like a patient arriving at A&E, everyone drops into their own task.

Henrik flicks on the crusher, and the low grind of the rollers starts up, followed by the whirring clatter of the destemmer.

You have clambered atop the upturned apple crate next to the hopper and are standing ready with the plastic pitchfork. As the rotating head of the forklift slowly upturns the bin into the hopper, your job with the fork is to hold back the tumble of plump grapes which might block the hopper, and to regulate the flow, so that they feed in at a steady pace. And as the tumble of grapes slows, you coax the last reluctant bunches into the mouth of the machine, where rude, mechanical paddles beat every bunch, knocking the grapes off and into the mouth of the crusher waiting below, and spitting out the stems onto a growing pile in a second trailer.

Jean-Marc busies himself with the plastic measuring funnel, carefully apportioning tiny doses of liquid sulphur to ward off spoilage yeasts and bacteria, and noting kilos of grapes and ml of sulphur in a tiny notebook.

As the sleek rubbery elongated ovals of grape-flash burst between the rollers – a wonderful smell rises up – a heady mix of summer pudding, plum compote and a sweet note of banana.

Bin emptied, the forklift backs up and stacks the empty crate, and you have time to hop down and follow the fat hose from the must pump under the crusher, through the double doors back into the cool of the cellar at top of the winery. The hose snakes along the wooden staging above the fermentation tanks, until it dives over the wide mouth of one of the steel tanks, held in place by some plastic rope, and you hear (and can barely see, until your eyes adjust to the dark of the tank interior) the flurry of soft grape pulp hitting stainless steel.

You stand up and peer over the railing to the bottom of the tank, checking the bottom valve is properly closed, and the door seal shows no sign of leaking before sauntering back outside to hop atop the apple crate just in time for the next bin to be gently upended.

10 bins later, and the 5 Tonne tank is almost full, and you can reach down and touch the top of the grape pulp, which smells divine, and is already releasing a rich ruby red colour from the skins of the grapes into the juice.

For the next two weeks, you twice-daily job is to lie flat on the wooden decking at the top of the red wine tanks, and to guide the gushing hose which bears liquid from the bottom of the tank, over the top of the ‘cap’, or dry skins pushed out of the wine by the fermentation activity beneath.

At the beginning, all is just sweet grape pulp soup, darkening a little every day, and the smells are all fruit-ester – bananas and a hint of nail polish. But then as the fermentation takes hold, and the juice slowly turns into wine, the fermentation heats up. The skins slowly give up their deep black secrets and the smells turn more yeasty, earthy and jammy, until finally the last vestiges of sweetness disappear, and a raw, brutal young black-red explodes with flavour, the heat of alcohol, and the dryness and grip of tannin no longer softened with traces of sweetness.

It is going to be an amazing wine.

Now fast-forward nearly over two years, (most of which no longer witnessed by you) past a full year of the wine resting in brand new French oak barrels, and a second year which started with a bottling. Then a period of sending out samples, the visit of the excited Safeway buyer, and the plaudits of the judges at the International Wine Challenge who gave the wine a Trophy for the best wine in its first year of production.

And that very wine is now sitting in front of you on the shelves of Safeway supermarket.

South Africa. Top shelf. Jacana Pinotage Reserve, £8.99 (In 1997, the cheap stuff is still £2.99, and those well-known South African brands are all £3.99 and £4.99). Nothing much from South Africa sells above £5, unless it says ‘Boschendal’ or ‘Rustenberg’ on it, and even then, not much.

Knowing what you know about this wine, of course you are going to buy it – for you it is bottled history.

The sights and sounds and smells of a year of grape-growing and a year of winemaking locked up inside a bottle.

But stripped of all of that, if you were an ordinary shopper are nosing your trolley tentatively down the wine aisle looking for a bottle you can trust to give your family a glass or two of relaxation at the weekend, how likely is it that your eyes will stray to the top shelf?

And this is wine’s problem. A category of dreams and romance that is sold on price.

To read some thoughts about what we can do about it, continue to part 2

A piece I wrote for ‘In Vino Veritas’

Last year, I was asked by the publishers of the ‘Academie du Vin Library’ to write a piece on English Sparkling Wine for their compendium of writing about wine – ‘In Vino Veritas’. Reproduced here with their kind permission. Buy a copy here

The English Wine Bubble

JUSTIN HOWARD-SNEYD MW (2019)

Justin Howard-Sneyd is a UK-based winemaker and merchant and Master of Wine. He asks if English Sparkling wine’s place as the underdog to Champagne might one day undergo a significant a shift in perspective.

In the decades to come, we’ll look back at 2018 as the year when English sparkling wine hit adolescence. You know the kind of thing: sudden growth spurts, rebellious behaviour, starting to explore relationships (sometimes with the wrong people), unrealistic expectations, experimentation, arguments… But, how long will it be before it reaches maturity?

The early years were promising. The roots of the modern English industry go back as far as 1951 when Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones re-planted the vineyards at his home in Hambledon, creating the first commercial vineyard in Hampshire (and the UK) for 100 years. But the vines he planted were the modest Seyval Blanc variety. Today’s boom in plantings has focussed on the much more marketable champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, to produce our own English sparkling wine. The change really began in the mid-1990s when the pioneers of méthode champenoise wines – Stuart and Sandy Moss at Nyetimber in West Sussex, and Mike Roberts at Ridgeview (East Sussex) – began to achieve repeated critical success with their wines.

Since then, the demand for English sparkling wine has grown steadily, and until very recently, the supply has struggled to keep up with demand. This has given rise to a very rare phenomenon in the world of wine: a situation where producers can sell everything they make on to allocated customers, and many buyers are left without the wine they need. (The same thing happened with New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc between 1990 and 2005: demand significantly exceeded supply.)

When there is not enough wine to go round, no producer ever needs to price-promote, and no retailer wants to create a price war for fear of running out of stock. This rather artificial environment trains the customer to pay the full price, and to buy the wine they want immediately, when they see that it is available. But this state of the market can very quickly unravel as soon as supply exceeds demand, even by a small amount. And sadly, it looks as if this is where English Sparkling wine may be headed next.

In any market, when there is a large structural oversupply, things can get messy. When this happens, buyers realize that everyone has wine to sell, and they start to play one producer off against another. Producers who want to make sure that THEY are the ones who hit the volumes in their business plan offer tempting deals to the retailers in return for guaranteed quantity sales. The price spirals downwards.

All of which means we may still have some bumpy adolescent years ahead. So how long before we reach the sunlit uplands of maturity? As Baroness Philippine de Rothschild liked to say: ‘Winemaking is easy – only the first 200 years are difficult.’

The great Grandes Marques Champagne houses were mostly founded between 1740 and 1850 (Veuve Clicquot in 1772, Pol Roger in 1849, Bollinger in 1829, Moët & Chandon in 1743), and while many of the names we know now have survived for two centuries, there were also a number of early names that fell by the wayside. Now, I have no doubt at all that in 200 years time, we’ll have our own English Grandes Marques, and a number of the names established already will be among them. But, will the current owners’ descendants still control their families’ businesses, or will the cold winds of commercial reality cause fortunes to be lost, as well as made?

You need deep pockets to set up a winery from scratch, and to keep financing it until any future investment can be funded out of cash flow. And to get a return on that original investment takes many more years of generating sufficient profit to pay back the capital. In practice, most successful traditional European wineries have written off the original investment many years ago. But this is not the case with our own wine estates.

Until recently, perhaps the deepest pockets in the English wine business belonged to Eric Heerema, owner of Nyetimber since 2006. It is estimated that that the purchase and operation of Nyetimber since he bought this prestigious property have soaked up over £65 million. It has never made a profit, and, in 2018, Nyetimber made a significant loss – admittedly during a phase of considerable investment in further expansion, and while securing further retail and restaurant listings.

Two new players on the scene may have even deeper pockets.

Mark and Sarah Driver founded the Rathfinny Wine Estate near Alfriston in Sussex in 2010, with the stated aim of making a million bottles of wine from 400 acres of land. And just this year, another Mark, Monaco-based businessman Mark Dixon, owner of Provence’s second largest producer Château de Berne, is said to be planting 1.25 million vines at several locations, including Kingscote Vineyard in East Grinstead (West Sussex), having purchased the property in 2016. In a good year, Kingscote should start yielding nearly two million bottles.

With all of the other investments in new vineyards, large and small, from new and existing players, we now have enough vines in the ground in the UK to make over 10 million bottles of fizz every year – and over 20 million bottles in a generous year. And planting is still on the increase.

But UK sparkling wine sales have yet to exceed an annual four million bottles and only increased by 6% in 2018. So it is hard to see how we are going to drink all we now make.

Both Marks are intelligent businessmen who have taken good advice, and both are prepared to take a long-term view of their investments. And given their net worth, they can both stand several years of losses before their bank managers start to look concerned. But 200 years? Hopefully it won’t take that long.

How many more wealthy individuals will be gripped by the fizz-lust? And is English wine beginning to look like a mere bubble?

Here’s what I predict for the future of this awkward teenager:

Firstly, there is going to be a short term glut. It may well manifest itself this harvest (2019), if the predicted yields are anything approaching last year’s record crop. The price of grapes will collapse, and people will start to question their contracts. New contracts will be signed at lower prices. Second, the large volume 2018 vintage will start to hit the market in 2020 and 2021. English sparkling wine will push deeper into supermarkets, and the wines will become available at under £20. Many more brands – those who have avoided the supermarkets so far – will realize that they won’t get close to their volume targets unless they deal with the ‘Big Four’ (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons).

Thirdly, promotional activity will become commonplace, and brands that have established themselves at close to £30 a bottle, will be seen price-cutting to around £20 a bottle. For wineries who participate, the resulting sales spikes will become addictive, and their sales above £30 will slow to a trickle.

Then producers who sell through the supermarkets, but who don’t participate in promotions will be starved of sales, and their volumes will decrease. They then may lose their listings. There will continue to be success for well-established producers with deep pockets who make the right decisions, keep investing and hold their nerve. They will be investing real marketing money in competing with the Champagne houses to buy listings and strike deals with high-profile events partners like Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden etc. But that success will be hard won and expensive.

These brave wine companies will not see a profit for a while.

Newcomers will stop establishing huge vineyards, and the rate of planting will slow to a trickle as the market slowly catches up with what has already been planted. There will still be a structural oversupply of grapes that will feed a market of supermarket own-labels, and tactical brands that will mostly trade in the £12 to £18 sector of the market, undermining the premium price positioning of English sparkling wine, and possibly eroding the quality perception too.

On the plus side, the quality of the wine from the best producers, and the international reputation of English sparkling wine, will improve dramatically. Export sales will grow slowly (it is expensive stuff, and this market segment, already dominated by champagne, is not large), and the best brands will become desirable in smart restaurants and wine shops in the likes of Tokyo, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Those that don’t make the grade, or run out of money, will be swallowed up by larger players. Champagne houses who can’t plant any more vines in the their own region, will seek out ways to expand; many may invest in vineyards in the UK.

Eventually, in 20 to 30 years time, the Grandes Marques of England will emerge from the pack as stable, long-term businesses, no longer requiring further injections of cash. Some will do so under their current ownership.

I predict that we will drink as many bottles of English sparkling wine in the UK as we drink bottles of champagne, and our fizz will be talked about in the same breath in opinion-leading markets around the world, not just by journalists and buyers, but by drinkers too.

English sparkling wine will have finally come of age – and paid off the mortgage!

Wine and cheese – goes together like a horse and marriage?

Why is everybody obsessed with ‘red wine and cheese’?

It is one of the most irritating memes. In the vast majority of cases, it is actually WHITE wine (or sweet or fortified wine) that goes better with cheese than any red wine.

And if a red DOES go with cheese, it is much more likely to be a youthful, soft, fruity red than a mature, tannic Bordeaux.

But such is the demand for ‘wine and cheese’ matching sessions!

In planning the 40th ‘Sunday Times Vintage Festival’, we decided to get together with leading cheesemonger Paxton and Whitfield to create the ‘Cheese and Wine Academy’.

Today, we had our first full tasting session. Dan Bliss, and Alan Watson, two of Paxton and Whitfield’s leading cheese experts, Grant Hedley from Laithwaite’s shop at The Arch and I opened 12 bottles of wine, and tasted 20+ cheeses, with a view to creating four different sessions.

We are hoping to bust some myths, raise some eyebrows, flex some tastebuds and create some cheese and wine magic.

Spending some time with Dan and Alan, what struck me more than anything else was how similar the jobs of a cheesemonger and a wine merchant are.

Cheesemongers can tell you as much about rennet made from thistles, and how Napoleon ‘redesigned’ the shape of a Valencay, as a wine merchant can wax lyrical about malolactic fermentation, or explain how Dom Perignon ‘tasted the stars’

We both travel obsessively to the places where our producers work. We both seek out small quirky producers doing interesting things, and get excited by the geeky details.

But we both also respect the classic styles that keep most of our customers happy. For the cheesemonger’s cheddar, brie and stilton, we wine merchants have our Chardonnay, Merlot and Bordeaux.

Wine merchants have their cellars, corkscrews and spittoons.

Cheesemongers have very cold shops, and those proper cheese knives with holes in.

And we both get to drink wine and eat cheese on a sunny Friday morning in St James’ and call it ‘work’.

Come and taste our brilliant matches at The Sunday Times Vintage Festival on the 10th and 11th May 2019. The Saturday sessions are sold out, but there is still space on the Friday. We’d love to see you!

The future for NZ Sauvignon Blanc in the UK

Here’s a link to a speech I was asked to give at the NZ Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough in January.

My messages?:

  • Don’t chase volume at the expense of quality
  • Work out where ‘Marlborough-ness’ comes from, and preserve it
  • Take out poor wine from the market…. and destroy it.
  • Only export bulk to people you trust to bottle it in top condition
  • By all means explore regionality and aged styles at £12-£25 a bottle, but stick with ‘classic’ styles at £7 – £12
  • Invest in premium labels and packaging to trade people up to higher prices

An afternoon at Felton Road

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We are not allowed to visit wineries when we are on holiday. That’s the rule. It’s not my rule, it’s Amanda’s, but I am happy to go along with it. I see enough wineries in my day job. And Amanda’s interest in wineries only stretches so far.

But all good rules should have exceptions. Like the time we took a 36 hour side-trip to visit Bodegas Colomé in Argentina – until just recently the owner of the highest altitude vines in the world. And even better than the winery was the mind-expanding James Turrell Gallery next door. In the middle of nowhere. At 2,300 metres above sea-level.

Or when we visited Capri’s only wine producer who grows a hectare of vines on arial trellises 20 feet above the vegetables and olive trees because of the sheer lack of space on the tiny Italian island.

But those belong to another story.

Amanda and I have just returned from a wonderful holiday having spent 2 weeks touring around New Zealand.

I’m here on a wine trip, both before and after our holiday, so I have other opportunities to be fully immersed in the finest wines from New Zealand. Figuratively at least.

So, who to visit in New Zealand, who will be able to hold Amanda’s interest for a couple of hours, and enhance our understanding of the region we are travelling in?

It has been a long-held dream of mine to visit Felton Road in Central Otago.

I’ve heard Nigel Greening speak a couple of times – in fact he spoke on a panel that I compered at the Cool Climate Wine Symposium.

It adds a little to the mystique that he looks a bit like a nutty professor, with wild, fly-away grey hair – think Doc from Back to the Future.

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He speaks with both passion and self-deprecation – an endearing combination that, for all its modesty, belies a seriousness and clarity of purpose.

Felton Road was originally planted back in 1992 by a man called Stuart Elms, and Nigel got to know them in 1998 when he moved to Central Otago, and began to explore the idea of making his own wines. He bought and planted a vineyard at Cornish Point, and was looking around at where he might make the wine, when he had a call to tip him off that Felton Road might be up for sale. He couldn’t believe his luck, and immediately made an offer. Without much warning he moved his family out to New Zealand to become winemakers.

His background as the organiser of large staged events, both in the music industry, and later for large corporates (he worked for many years for the likes of BMW) brought Nigel both sufficient funds to take a punt on an unproven winery in an unproven region, and also a savvy marketing head.

Felton’s quietly spoken winemaker Blair Walters radiates calm bonhomie, and is the anchor to Greening’s sail, while long-standing vineyard manager Gareth King is the one who works the biodynamic magic.

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‘I don’t really believe in the Harry Potter stuff’ says Nigel, grinning engagingly – ‘but it seems to work – and besides, all of our interns just love it. On the days where we are preparing a treatment, everyone gets up early and sets up the dynamising barrels before dawn. A couple of people cook breakfast for everyone, and they all walk around with huge smiles on their faces’.

One thing leads to another at Felton Road.

The ten interns that they attract every year to study biodynamics (drawn from a pool over over 100 applicants) are frequently the children of small Pinot producers from around the world. The interns love being at Felton, and many apply to stay on for a second year. And when they head back to their countries of origin, they become brand ambassador for Felton, helping to ensure that it is always seen as the international reference for Otago Pinot in some very exalted circles.

Serendipity.

Nigel is not really a rule-follower, or really even a rule-maker. But he is an innovator, and is forever spotting connections, and finding ways to make a virtue out of what life brings.

Here’s a couple of examples:

The bushes of wild roses brought to Otago by the Chinese gold miners in the Gold Rush of the 1870s now cover all of the hillsides above the vineyards (and indeed almost all the hillsides in Otago). So Nigel bought a herd of African Boer goats to keep the rosebushes at bay. This means more pasture for the highland cows (which provide horns and manure for the biodynamics) and the young male goats need to be culled, providing a very welcome source of delicious locally sourced meat to keep everyone fed.

And the rabbit population needs to be kept under control, which means shooting them periodically. But leaving out rabbit carcasses every few days at the edge of the vineyards attracts the Harriers which circle the vines looking for the next feed. Which helps deter the birds which can besiege a ripening vineyard….

All of this makes a great story, and Nigel is a great story-teller.

It is hard to be sure whether the creativity is all Nigel’s or Blair’s, or Gareth’s but it is a hallmark of the Felton Road way, and marks them out as true leaders, and chief ringleader of the collaborative ethic in this region of otherwise self-reliant pioneers. Blair modestly claims that ‘in this region, we all help each other out with whatever problem we may have’, when what he really means is that when the other winemakers have a problem, they bring it to him.

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Two hours, and a short tasting later, we climb back into the camper van full of enthusiasm, and make plans, on Nigel’s advice to explore the local trout river the following day.

At this rate, on our next holiday, I may even be allowed to visit two wineries.

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Campaigning for Grenache!

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NEWS FLASH – NOW STOCKED AT ODDBINS IN THE UK – at £16.50 a bottle

Why is Grenache not a better known grape?

Lots of people love the taste of Grenache, (the main variety in Cotes du Rhone, and many popular southern French and Northern Spanish wines) and yet it rarely appears on the label.

Time for supporters of this marvellous grape to rise up and demand the world’s attention!

Grenaschista is a celebration of the joys of Grenache grown on the schist soils of the Roussillon, in French Calatlonia.

We’ve taken rich, full-bodied Grenache, predominantly from the schist-rich soils around Maury and the Agly Valley, and created a blend to challenge the Mindless Merlots and Boring Bordeaux Blends that seem to fill our shelves.

Pioneering UK retailer Oddbins is the first to stock Grenaschista, and it will be arriving on their shelves in early June.

Spread the word – the Grenache revolution starts here!

“We praise the soft, lush, gentle wild strawberry
and kirsch flavours of the mighty Grenache.

Solidarity with the brave vines of the Roussillon, who
struggle in the hot sun to produce the rarest fruits.

Power to the schist soils of Maury which
nurture our brave vines.”

#forthemanynotthefew #redordead #grenacherevolution #grenache

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The Bag-in-box is back!

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Commentators and critics in the world of wine, and wine business, have been predicting the demise (or decline) of the 75cl glass bottle for some time now.

Let’s face it, it is strange that we still drink wine from a vessel that represents the approximate lung capacity of the mediaeval glass blower’s lungs.

75cl may be about right for two people having dinner together on a weekend, but what when you only want a glass, or you want a red and your partner wants a white? What if you only take a glass or two out of a bottle, and travel / dinner / theatre / diet plans mean that the next occasion when you will need another glassful at home is a whole week later?

Many solutions have been presented, and all have found a small place in the market – the airline bottle, the half bottle, the single plastic glass with a peel-back lid – but nothing has taken off yet.

One of the obvious answers has been with us for 30 years – the Bag-in-Box.

So why hasn’t this format made inroads into the UK wine market? (in fact its share started to decline when the ‘half price promotion’ became a thing)

The answer is that our prior associations with Bag-in-box in the UK have been with lowest common denominator generic wines of only average quality.

But two things have changed.

One is that in Scandinavia, in a market that doesn’t allow price promotions, a 4 bottle wine box is typically sold at a decent discount to the regular price per bottle. So they are enormously popular. Around 60% of all volume sold in Sweden is in BIB.

And this means that much more premium producers have been encouraged to look at the BIB sector, and they have shown that good wine tastes great in a BIB.

Secondly, technology has made it easier and easier to physically handle the shipping and filling of BIBs on a small scale.

No longer does a winemaker have to fill a 24,000 litre steel tanker with their precious wine, and wave goodbye while it makes its way to some wine factory in Germany or Newcastle, where hundreds of wines a week are pushed through the system and given the same identikit, safety first treatment.

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Now, small, often organic, producers who have loving laboured over small batches of delicious wine can fill much smaller vessels that sit nicely on a pallet, and can be shipped on the normal wine transport network. They can be sent to a fellow winemaker in a small winery in the UK, who understands each individual wine, and tailors the filtration regime to the absolute minimum necessary, and uses as little sulphur as strictly necessary, to respect the lower sulphur levels used by organic producers.

About six months ago, I was approached by four siblings from the Lea family of Suffolk, Oliver, Tom, Alex and Rebecca (who is now a ‘Roberts’). They had a dream that they could be the ones to open up the Premium BIB market in the UK, had founded The BIB Wine Company, and were looking for a founding partner to help find producers to work with, and select the wines.

Six months later, and after several trips to European wine fairs, organic wine events and visits to individual growers, we have pulled together a range of 12 wines to launch this month, including a wine of my own – Bee Pink – made with the help of Jean-Marc Lafage in the Roussillon – which I also sell in bottle on http://www.domaineofthebee.com (new vintage arriving in May).

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What have we learned?

  1. Winemakers are really interested to supply us – it is a new route to market, and a premium one (we pay WAY higher prices than the standard ‘vrac’ price.)
  2. Winemakers like having their label on the box, and being associated with the other growers in the range.
  3. Every wine gets a lot of input from the winemaker as to how they would like it to be handled.
  4. Now that we have packed them, we know that good wines DO taste great from a BIB!
  5. There is a big market out there of engaged wine drinkers easily persuadable about the convenience, and the environmental benefits of BIB.
  6. The commentators and critics are keen to write about this revolution in Bag-in-Box quality.

Our London launch is this week (26th April). We are nearly at capacity, but if anyone interested in coming along reads this, drop me a line at justin@thehivewine.com, and I will see if we can squeeze you in.

And sales on the website go live in a matter of days. For now, it is just informational, but to sign up to learn more, have a look here – https://www.bibwine.co.uk/

Join the revolution!

Justin is awarded major industry accolade

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At the International Wine and Spirits Competition Awards Dinner on Wednesday night, Justin was delighted to be jointly awarded the Julian Brind Memorial Award for outstanding achievement in the wine industry.

The judges described Justin as ‘one of the industry’s most creative thinkers and most active do-ers’ and singled out his role in the success of the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium.

Justin said ‘I was lucky enough to work with Julian for a short time at Waitrose, and he instilled in all of us his insistence of quality first. He was also a man with a keen eye for a bargain!. He was an inspiring man, and a pioneer.’

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Sharing the award with Ross Carter, the man who revived the London Wine Fair, Justin and Ross follow a worthy list of other wine trade luminaries including Sam Harrop MW, Xavier Rousset MS, Dawn Davies MW and Michael & Charlotte Sager.

The celebration began on stage, and lasted well into the night….

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At the French Embassy to see Jancis awarded her gong!

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We picked a fabulous day to gather on Kensington Palace Gardens at the French Ambassador’s Residence to see Jancis receive her medal for services to the French WIne Industry – she is now an ‘Officer of the Ordre du Merite Agricole’.

All of the other guests have previously been awarded (or were also awarded today) the lower level of award – the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Agricole, and we were all allowed to wear our medals for the day – very proud! Good to see Mr Tony Laithwaite, and Mr Allan Cheesman in good form – two important mentors in my wine life.

French wine has been good to us, and we have all done our bit to champion wines from this wonderful country. And days like this allow us to pause and give thanks for being in a position to help.

One small observation – we tasted some delicious wines at lunch, but each bottle went round a table of eight. Perhaps this is how the French stay so elegant and thin!

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