Sunday, 15 December 2013


John Atkinson MW has a particular interest in terroir and soil composition, as you can read in his Terroir and the Côte de Nuits. Now he has planted his own vineyard (pictured) in the village of Tixover, Rutland, in the middle of England. Here he explains what happened when he had its soil analysed.
Superficially, our soil looks like some of the better bits of the Côte de Nuits. The soil is composed of clay (25%), limestone gravel (25%), silt (30%) and sand (20%). In the shallower parts of grand cru Romanée-St-Vivant you hit Bajocian bedrock at a depth of 30 cm, and it's the same for Tixover. Shuffling around on your haunches you might imagine yourself to be in Vosne. The first time I tested our soil, I also submitted samples gathered from across the Côte de Nuits. The results for Romanée-Conti confirmed it as 'a good agricultural soil', with macronutrients falling within the 2-3 range of standard farming indices; endorsing its potential as a wheat field should the wine business ever go to pot. The ratio of potassium to magnesium in Le Chambertin and Clos de la Roche was skewed towards potassium, and the pH for all three sites was between 7.8 and 8.3. The results for the Tixover sample closely resembled those of the grands crus. All four had excessive calcium levels.
The second soil test was analysed in France by AGRO-Systèmes. It introduced me to new concepts such as cation exchange capacity (CEC) and base-saturation. Our soil was high in nitrogen and calcium, but weak in iron and magnesium. The ratio between calcium and magnesium influences soil structure, and soils that are base-saturated with calcium tend to be more porous than soils dominated by magnesium. A high cacium to magnesium ratio generally facilitates water movements within the soil - up, down and sideways.
The most recent test, conducted by Albrecht Agriculture, was also the most thorough, and the results showed worrying discrepancies from the previous two analyses. Iron was recorded at a critically low level, and the CEC was measured at 30 meq, which is high for a soil that is only 25% clay. The 'clay and colloidal matter' bound calcium and magnesium ions in the ratio of 40:1. Our soil, Albrecht warned us, was like a sieve. We needed to add magnesium, lots of magnesium. But at least we were in good company: the three grands crus soils were similarly biased in favour of calcium base-saturation.
Confusingly, iron levels were only measured at 1 ppm by the Albrecht people, but at 15 ppm by the French analysts. We haven't seen signs of chlorosis in the vines, so experience suggests the French analysis is the more accurate of the two. Moreover, despite identifying the chronically deficient iron levels, the Albrecht analysis didn't propose any amendments other than the magnesium. Critics of scientific methodology warn about theory-laden data, and the Albrecht obsession with the calcium:magnesium ratio may explain why in this instance they missed the low iron count.
CEC is a measure of the nutrient holding capacity of the soil, and relates principally to the number of internal and external bonding sites within the sample's clay and colloidal fraction. The meq measurement was elevated in our sample by the mix of clays. Smectite, a volcanic mineral, was incorporated into our clay as it sedimented out, and its inclusion has significantly changed the soil's properties. For agronomist Claude Bourguignon, smectite/montmorillonite clays, with their large internal surface areas, are particularly advantageous for red-wine production. Just why these clays are so interesting to M Bourguignon is worth consideration.
According to Bourguignon, the soils of Pétrus together with most of Vosne's grands crus (Romanée-Conti may be the exception) are luxuriously endowed with smectite. By contrast, the illite-kalolinite clays of the white-wine grands crus have much smaller surface areas, and therefore their capacity to hold and exchange nutrients is considerably lower. Montmorillonite clays are also distinguishable from other clays by the extent to which they expand when wetted. Modest water deficits are seen as advantageous in wine production as they accelerate ripening and generally improve the quality and quantity of extractable solids from the skins, so a clay that absorbs and holds onto copious amounts of water would seem anomalous to the requirements of premium grape production. Montmorillonite clays do have a trick, however. Strong root growth and function require a good level of root oxygenation. The expansion of montmorillonite clays can be so dramatic that root growth and function become impaired. Moreover, the permeability of the clays can decrease due to sealing at their surfaces after wetting. Thus soils may look wet, puddled even, but this moisture is not necessarily available to the roots; a case of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. And just as they expand when wetted, so montmorillonite clays shrink when dried. A sustained period of drought will open up capillaries within the soil which then become exploited by the vines' constantly regenerating mesh of short-lived rootlets. Taking into account the close connection between vacillations in clay particle size and Bordeaux's changeable seasons, it is possible to model a shallow, smectite-rich soil in which the availability of moisture to the vine roots is almost continually held at deficit levels - a terroir very much like that of Petrus, in fact.
Beneath the thin clay loams of Vosne's grands crus is limestone. The ability of vine roots to populate hard rock is limited, but this fact hasn't stopped commentators from positing this hidden union as the very foundation of terroir. However, a more probable explanation of limestone's advantage to viticulture is revealed by a consideration of its physical properties. Limestone can hold large volumes of water, but, as was discussed in the context of clays, we must be careful not to confuse capacity with availability. Movement of water through soils is multidirectional, and limestone can irrigate the clays resting upon it through capillary action. The extent to which the capillaries are opened will in turn depend upon the relative expansion of the clays and the degree to which calcium base-saturation has flocculated these, the most minuscule of soil particles, into larger agglomerations. In other words, the limestone's ability to function as an aquifer is itself dependent upon the structure of the overlying soil. As was the case with Pétrus above, we can imagine a possible balance between local effects whose equilibrium point sustains the vines at a slight and ultimately advantageous level of water deficit.
On the Côte de Nuits the mercurial temperament of Pinot Noir brings colour and texture to the bland realms of geology and pedology. In her excellent articles in the Australian & New Zealand Wine Industry Journal on 'Calcium in viticulture', Valerie Saxton talks of 'terroir-ridden France', and Burgundy can seem like yet another scion of the republic's obsession with taxonomy and hierarchy. So completely pixelated has the map of Côte d'Or's vineyards become, that it's now virtually impossible for outsiders to see the whole picture. Twenty years ago, many New World growers censured the Côte d'Or. It just didn't make sense: grands crus a stone's throw from modest village vineyards; and Clos Vougeot, the oversized Circus Maximus at the centre of this antiquated world, just seemed to lump together everything that the rest of the classification had painstakingly tried to keep apart.
There are historical precedents for Burgundy's sub-divisions, but the acute sensitivity of Pinot Noir coupled to the equally acute sensibilities of those that tend to it is the more remarkable story of this segregation. One way of classifying grape varieties is through their differing responses to water deficits. Anisohydric vines are said to be drought tolerant, whilst isohydric varieties are drought avoiding. The divide is not clear-cut, and relates to the strength of response different varieties show towards hormonal signalling (abscisic acid) from the drying roots. The stomata of isohydric varieties progressively close, rationing water uptake and loss, while anisohydric varieties maintain stomatal turgor, such that gas exchange, water uptake and carbon gain are unimpeded. Isohydric vines are 'pessimistic' and anisohydric vines 'optimistic', inasmuch as the latter carry on as if they expect it to rain again tomorrow.
Some varieties seem capable of both responses, but in extremis, Pinot Noir is anisohydric, and Grenache Noir isohydric. Lavish water use, as exemplified by Pinot Noir, brings with it a vulnerability to sustained drought. Pinot Noir, by rapidly depleting soil moisture, can accelerate itself towards conditions under which its own metabolic processes become compromised, just like the man who saws furiously at the branch he's resting on. Without the self-buffering responses of isohydric varieties, Pinot Noir's own water status is so immediately bound to the vicissitudes of soil moisture that it takes, in unirrigated Burgundy, a very special mix of extraneous pedological factors to consistently produce high quality grapes, ie those that are the result of sustained, but not impairing, water deficits. Vosne's grands crus are, indeed, exceptional.
Claude Bourguignon caused me to depart from thoughts of my own soil analyses and on-going struggle to get consistent data. There have been reasons for optimism in most of the results, and I don't doubt the fact that if Tixover's three blocks of brashy soil were panelled into Morey or Chambolle you wouldn't see the joins, but it's ridiculous to start talking about terroir, particularly when we seem to have spent the last few years acquainting ourselves with a whole load of Nature's disadvantages. I remember with incredulity, a vineyard owner in Long Island exploiting the argument that Bordeaux's crus were the finest in the world, that Bordeaux's vineyards were flat and, as his vineyards were flat, too, it followed that his wines were rivals to those of the Médoc.
As said, there was a time when the majority of New World growers rejected terroir, portraying it as either a perspicacious piece of marketing, or homey make-believe. But somewhere along the track these protagonists either gave up on this line of attack or lost the argument, because producers in Chile, New Zealand and Mendoza nowadays reel-off neat invocations about the contingency of their own vineyard work that wouldn't sound out of place in Vosne. Wine now seems so exclusively 'made in the vineyard', it's hard to know if there is anything left for winemakers to do. In the New World, terroir has gone from being nowhere to being everywhere.
The ubiquity of terroir is problematic. I take from the late Peter A Sichel's remark that only a fraction of Bordeaux's vineyards genuinely exhibit terroir characteristics, that terroir is a title bestowed like an honour or a peerage, rather than a democratic entitlement to which anyone with a vine growing up a wall has an equal claim. Accordingly, Richebourg and Pétrus are the exemplars of terroir, the foundations and acmes of a system in which exceptionality and scarcity are paradigmatic. In this context, the work of Claude Bourguignon, Gerard Seguin and Cornelius van Leeuwen is so pertinent because they are trying, in different ways, to cleave some scientific traction into our understanding of a much abused term. For those who crave more metaphysical accounts of grape quality, who will never be moved by terms like 'vine water status' or 'point quadrant analysis', there is always Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant. But this is to miss the point. When physicists revealed diamonds' atomic structure, they didn't stop them from being a girl's best friend.
I do share Peter Sichel's instinct for parsimony, not least because the over-extension of any term, terroir included, eventually runs the risk of draining all significance from it. The meaning of words changes over time, and despite van Leeuwen's attempts to give terroir intellectual rigour, I feel sure that the term's appropriators will win out. 'Sense of place' will read like a postcode.
More optimistically, the weakening of terroir is not going to stop some very clever people from giving us ever more concise formulations of past viticultural accomplishments, those for whom 'sense of place' and 'terroir' prompt the question: 'And how did we get here?' As for the appropriators, I suspect every nascent English sparkling wine venture will claim its unique terroir, as will every newly planted desert of irrigated Sauvignon. Bertrand Russell once observed, 'The method of "postulating" what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.'

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Meaningless Brands


(This was published in 99, and should be read as such. At the time,I was full of admiration for the achievements of the Australian wine industry.
Reading the paper again now, I am aware of how irresistible the forces of commoditisation are in our market. Most of the brands mentioned have struggled to retain equity. I must also admit that my attitudes to AOC have changed: I now see the INAO as an unnecessary evil.)   
In the same way that light is refracted through a prism into its constituent colours, certain product classes divide spontaneously into their brands. So complete is this segmentation for products like cars, soft drinks and perfumes that our entire knowledge of the categories is almost entirely mediated by brand familiarity.

On the face of it, the wine market lacks such decisive brands. “Ernest and Julio Gallo” and “le Piat d’Or are the categories two most popular brands, yet with less than 2% market share neither has any claim on sector dominance. These statistics offer something of a puzzle. Outwardly the wine market seems disposed to branding - consumption is growing year on year, and drinkers are familiar with the notion of a highly differentiated product – so why is it that individual brands show such a disappointing lack of penetration?

Branding begins with the realisation that what people buy are not products, but ideas of quality associated with products. These ideas and associations far from being imaginary must be anchored to the brand. The cycle of consumption means that customers have the chance to measure the brand against the projected ideal, and a brand position based upon far-fetched claims will be unsustainable. In order to count, these associations must be relevant. If the differences between brands do not make any difference to consumers, then price will provide the only reason to buy. Once established, such commodity style markets are characterised by low margins and cut-throat price competition.

At first sight, grape varieties and appellations provide a huge reservoir of available associations that can be tapped to create meaningful points of difference. Thus the Australians took up the batten of varietal labelling and effectively made “Shiraz”, “Cabernet” and Chardonnay their own. Just how successful this appropriation has been is illustrated by a story I heard last year. An Australian winemaker working in Europe was approached by a well-known singer to plant his Algarve estate with vines. “Sure”, the winemaker agreed, “And what should I plant?” “Some of those Australian grapes,” the singer replied.

Although labelling by variety is now common in Europe, the continent's strongest associations are still with geographical origins. Consider Burgundy: awareness is high from centuries of exposure, and the litigiousness of the INAO successfully protects the appellation nomenclature form imitation. . Moreover, the complicated dissection of the region into Crus has provided an enduring qualitative message. But just as the VW Golf tag-line “2846 improvements” doesn’t have prospective buyers reaching for the Haynes Car Manual, so Meursault drinkers don’t need to memorise the villages of the Cote d’Or to embrace Burgundian modishness. It is perceived quality associations that drive brands and seduce consumers; complicated facts are liable to leave them cold.

Burgundy provides the price ceiling to the wine market’s vertical stretch; at its base are the value brands, and these too have come synonymous with certain countries and regions. Bulgaria has been a reliable source of entry point and value wines over the past 10-15 years. Before the iron-curtain fell, subsidised sales provided valuable foreign exchange, but with the subsidies gone the domestic wine industry has been forced to consider other ways through which it can become self-financing. Raising quality in the hope that margins and prices follow suit is an attractive option that seems to have a precedent. Australia’s entry into the table wine market coincided with Bulgaria’s, and twenty years on, their profitability and premium image contrasts sharply with the latter’s value positioning. So, if Bulgaria follows Australia’s lead, will acceptance and profitability follow?


From a marketing perspective I think that in the short to medium-term the answer to this question is “no”. The reasons for my negativity are varied, but spring principally from the fact that delimited origins far from being an arbitrary source of association serve as a compulsory form of branding. As such, each delimited country and region has a value proposition, - a quality perception amongst consumers –that is fairly inelastic to real changes in quality.

Awareness provides a strong argument for the claim that countries and regions act as quasi-brands. The point was made above that product classes like cars divide almost hermetically into brands. Ask drivers to identify quality and value in the car market and they are likely to respond with brand names such as BMW, Mercedes, Ford and Nissan. Put similar questions to wine drinkers and you will be lucky to get a couple of brands, a few grape varieties and a short list of countries and regions.  The fact that only a few brands are likely to be recalled shouldn’t surprise us. Origins have provided a means of distinguishing one wine from another for a long time. Furthermore, in most European wine regions production continues to be piecemeal, with appellations containing hundreds, possible thousands of individual growers. Their numbers may be thinned-out by the time they reach the UK market, but for regions such as Bordeaux, Rioja and Chianti, the choice is still manifold. Faced with this proliferation, consumers buy on words they recognise. It stands to reason then, that from both a simplistic and exposure standpoint what sticks for the occasional Rioja drinker are not the brands of the twenty or so Riojas he or she has been exposed to this year, but the name “Rioja”. The unfortunate truth for individual brands is that in a market that values brevity, their name runs the risk of appearing one complications too far.

If regions, appellations, even countries can function as brands in the wine market, then what are the values they communicate? At a time when wine has itself become fashionable, there has been a tendency to dress the product up in the jargon of the day as “just another product”. Inasmuch as it competes for supermarket facings this may be true, but from a marketeers perspective, we are also interested in what distinguishes our product class from others. I can buy a toothpaste endorsed by the Dental Association in the belief that it will freshen my breath; if people breathe easily in my company I can be satisfied  that the brand has delivered on its promise. Likewise, I can buy a Nissan on the premise that it is reliable, and find that after 50,000 miles driving I haven’t lifted the bonnet once. Both brands communicate particular qualities, and their claims are tested during the brands use. With wine, the endorsement of quality is not so clear-cut. When poured blind, what can we learn from the fact that the majority of drinkers struggle to distinguish a £5.00 from a £100 bottle? Well, to start with the large difference in price tells that quality really does matter; presumably consumers wouldn’t be willing to pay for differences in quality if they thought they didn’t exist. Moreover, the vertical stretch in pricing shows these differences are very important to consumers even though they struggle to distinguish between them. In other words, there are acknowledged differences in quality, and these differences are communicated through price.

The link between quality perceptions and price provides the core for each region’s or country’s value proposition. It may well be that Bulgaria can raise the quality of production, but after decades of exposure to value pricing, consumers are unlikely to meet the new price demand. In fact, the most probable outcome is that they will trade away into another country's wines. As the German wine industry found out to its cost, low pricing creates a perception of quality that is difficult to escape. By the same logic, a brand aspiring to establish a reputation for quality within a lowly appellation will struggle, because the reputation, the value proposition of the appellation will hang like an albatross around its neck. Worryingly, the real opportunities exist for those who undermine the value proposition by producing poor wines that they sell-off cheaply.  Perceptions of worth move downwards much more rapidly than they move up, and cutting price and quality to gain market share can all too easily accelerate the downward spiral towards commodity. This problem becomes particularly acute in regions where large numbers of producers qualify for the geographical designation. All too easily, price rather than quality becomes the driver of the market, sending the appellation’s value proposition into freefall.

In this context we can see how the spectacular rise of the Australian wine industry was facilitated by careful management of the “Australia” name.  With four large companies responsible for 80% of the annual crush, the destiny of the country’s table wine industry was concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. These individuals soon realised  a shared marketing vision would serve them better than disparate and possibly antagonistic strategies. As a consequence, the Australian industry was able to build brand equity through strong qualitative associations, without the fear that a competitor might milk these associations to gain credibility for an inferior brand. Thus, the image and equity of individual brands like Penfolds is intimately linked to the early articulation and protection of the “Australia” moniker.

The other feature that characterised the Australian revolution was rapid acceptance and use of technological innovation, and the practice of interregional blending to produce wines that are badged with a varietal name. The singer’s  request for “Australian grapes“  shows the extent to which the Country has developed strong associations with imported grape varieties; yet unlike regional links, the names of grape varieties become the shared property of whoever grows them. Success breeds success, but it also encourages imitation, and the availability of Chardonnay and Cabernet is steering the Australian industry towards a system of geographically delimited points of difference.

I think, in the end, it is their very ubiquity, the looseness of the franchise that prevents grape varieties also being considered brands. “Chardonnay” maybe one of the key words that triggers the purchase decision, but burgeoning production means it lacks the fixture and solidity for other association to be meaningfully hung from it. Consumers may still search out “Australian” or “Chilean” Chardonnay, but as the tide of production rises, Chardonnay is likely to slip the anchor of its origins and drift towards the ranks of commodities.

The value of the name   “Chardonnay” is one of the dilemmas currently facing the wine trade. Varietal labelling was welcomed by most of the trade when it came to the South of France as it simplified the purchase process by utilising more familiar and potentially friendlier associations.  But simplification invites replication, and by projecting quality in the form of a grape variety the wine business runs the risk of losing points of difference that have traditionally added value. When I asked Mike Paul, MD of Southcorp, why Lindemans chose to market Chardonnay as “BIN 65” he replied it was a deliberate obfuscation: “The secret of strong branding” he said, “was to prevent people from completely understanding your brand.”

Above I claimed that what counts for consumers is perceived quality - a representation. Volkswagen realise that “2864 improvements” is a better way of communicating quality than an exhaustive list of their new Golf’s features.   I think this is what Mike Paul meant when he spoke of “not completely understanding your brand”; it is a brand’s gesture towards a realm of complex facts that ultimately drives our perception of quality.  Hence my assertion that Meursault drinkers don’t need to memorise the villages of the Cote d’Or to embrace Burgundy.

It has been argued quite seriously that what the wine market needs is simplification, and the popularity of labelling by variety is very much part of this strategy. Unfortunately, as the World’s Chardonnay growers are starting to realize, recycling the same associations means undifferentiated products. What seems to be at issue for those who are pushing for greater simplicity in the wine market is a conviction that consumers need to be in possession of all the facts about a particular wine before they can be persuaded to buy it.  It therefore follows that the existence of appellations, sub-regions and crus provides a barrier to customers with no appetite for knowledge. As I see it, the weakness of this argument stems from the assumption that the specification of a brand needs to be immediately transparent to customer scrutiny in order for it to become part of some initial consideration set. Successful branding in other categories shows us how a background of opacity and complexity can add value by driving and anchoring qualitative associations. In other words brands can communicate complex information “implicitly”, as a reference; there is no further requirement that consumers should understand the brand’s specification “explicitly”.

This article began by considering why does a product class that outwardly appears so suitable to branding lack dominant and decisive brands. Why is it when ask consumers to define value and quality in product classes such as cars and perfume, they invariably give answers linked to brands, while the same questions put to wine drinkers yield a mix of brands, grape varieties, countries  and regions. In part the answer to this question derives from the fact that the precedent for labelling wines according to their origins predates most wine brands. Moreover, the fact that the production of most regions is thoroughly shared means that exposure to a named origin is more frequent than exposure to individual brands, prompting greater awareness.

Accepting that origins exhibit brand characteristics can help us account for some of the problems regions and countries encounter when they look to improve their market positioning.  As quasi-brands, origins communicate impressions of quality and value, and in a product class as inscrutable as wine, consumers will tend to take their quality prompts from price. This conclusion presents real problems for regions that have traditionally supplied the value end of the market or countries that see supplying entry level as a foothold into a market that can be leveraged at a later date, as all too easily perceptions of quality correlated to price become frozen in the minds of consumers. Moreover, even within regions with established reputations for quality, price competition can lead to the gradual erosion of equity, as shown by the weakness of the Grandes Marques in the French domestic Champagne Market.

The diminution of equity is common to most agricultural crops. The wine market faces similar pressures, but unlike other agricultural crops the drift towards commodity is resisted by the notion that grape quality can vary from site to site. In turn, this principal has become the basis for appellation prescriptions around which much of the added value of the European industry is structured. It is for this reason that origins as a means of differentiating wine should be encouraged. Those who prefer to divide up the wine world according to more utilitarian notions of quality, such as grape variety or winemakers, overlook the fact that wine drinking is still aspirational; a sign of social mobility and increased affluence. Wine’s status is maintained because quality associations are passed from the premium end of the market to entry level. By contrast, simplification of the category makes not only makes the procurement of quality associations easier, but also erodes equity as qualitative thresholds are unchallenging. Thus, we can understand the temptation of French farmers to label their d’Oc Syrah as “Shiraz”, but our sympathies must lie with the Australians who have spent years nurturing the reputation of the variety.

The articulation and protection of quality perceptions is an important part of our business and the responsibility of all those who work within it. Equity is eroded away all too easily, but by basing quality communications on inimitable origins rather than readily procured associations, the value added nature of the wine business can be preserved. The need for more detailed and discriminatory regulations runs in the face of those who advocate simplicity, but regions are notoriously bad at regulating themselves. Brand owners in other product classes are familiar with the idea that detailed specifications need only to be used implicitly, and this is the lesson that those who attack appellations as over complicated must learn. Idealistic, yes! But ideas are what we all buy.        

Monday, 2 December 2013

Critical Thinking - Aspiration and Inspiration

In a recession, your job changes; the first line of your job description now reads, Looking after your Job, which in our business means protecting income and lifestyle. The foreign travel and restaurants are perks that some speedily get accustomed to; in fact, the sense of entitlement can become acute when we start living-off other people’s expense accounts - ask Charles Saatchi. PR agencies are awash with tales of irate wine writers ringing-up in the middle of the night to get their rooms changed because “the view isn’t a view, and the pool's too small to do lengths, if it ever warmed-up here, that is!” When people tell me they want my job what they really want is to sit in l’Arpège and Guy Savoy, though for my part, I’m never at home in these surroundings; there will always be part of me stuck in the Salford fish and chip shop where my family’s culinary roots were first put down.

The wine trade is in a mess. After years of expansion, people are drinking less wine, and once you strip out the Chancellor’s duty accelerator, they aren’t spending much more either. Robert Joseph continues to offer a Gibbon-style analysis of this decline and is fastidious and clear in his warning that if we don’t change our thinking now we won’t even be afforded the luxury of repeating past mistakes.

Everyone has their theory as to what went wrong - over-supply, cosy relationships between press and trade, discounting – but in 30 years of growth, the UK wine trade failed to significantly increase  equity within the category, and most wine drinkers view the different regions of production with a sense of equivalence that’s reinforced by an alternating offer in which the World displays all its diversity at discounted prices.

The situation is no better in the on-trade. “Support” is needed to facilitate many listings, and support has morphed from retros and incentives to upfront payments that have as many noughts as those premium bond cheques whose winners used to be paraded on the ITN news back in the 80s. Sommeliers can seem embarrassed at times, passing on the corporate neediness of an unseen FD - “And this guy” they will tell you, “doesn’t care if your Chablis is bigger than the other guy’s Petit Chablis, he just wants to see the size of your wad.”

What a lot of us are wondering – journalists, buyers, salesmen, managers - is what’s next? Like economists calling the end to the recession, we need to see a couple of quarters of growth and greater spend to confidently announce a recovery, but quite where and how this will come about is not clear. Jamie Goode recently challenged Robert Joseph to offer solutions rather than, as he saw it, challenges. I have some sympathy with Jamie Goode; I once joined a company that had a vortex of MBAs at its centre. Every week they confronted me about wine profitability (not their core business), put hurdles in my way and then forced me to jump over them. I took their questioning in good faith; I believed they were leading me in a particular direction - to an answer - but after 6 months of inquisition, I realised I was just going around the same piece of track, jumping the same hurdles. We were all lost.

On twitter, Tim Atkin MW offered “inspiration” and Robert Joseph “aspiration” as possible remedies for the trade’s current malaise. That day, Tim Atkin was inspiring 3000 people in Manchester with stories and wine, an effort which Robert Joseph likened to a “finger in the dyke”.  Joseph suggested that Parker 100s had created a culture of aspiration in the States, which still persists. Aspiration develops an aura of desirability, whereas inspiration promotes interest and access through improved understanding and education.

As bystanders to the argument, we don’t have to take a side. Both arguments are persuasive, and I think by accepting one you don’t exclude the force of the other. I’d raised “inspiration” in a previous exchange, when I wanted to draw out some similarities between books and wines. I don’t think Robert Joseph took exception to my likening the trade to a community of deluded literary critics who mistakenly thought people read Jackie Collins as a preamble to Dickens. Part of the misguided thinking of the 1990s was a belief that consumers who bought their wine from the supermarket gondola-ends were stepping onto our escalator; all we had to do was wait at the top and skim them off with lists of expensive Claret and Burgundy. It never happened.

The Robert Parker argument proposed by Robert Joseph is intriguing; Parker awarded 100s, but he also slammed underperforming Cru Classés. In a tweet last week, Steve Heimoff said that he could avoid giving low scores to his friends’ wines by writing rather than scoring.  I replied at the time that Heimoff’s attitude illustrated the difference between a fact and telling the truth, and that consumer trust didn’t arise from the facts, but from the truth behind the facts.  Robert Parker gained our trust and encouraged aspiration because he incorporated this distinction into his criticism from the start. The 100 point scores wouldn’t have meant so much if he wasn’t red-inking 50s to the underperformers at the bottom of the class.

The relationship between the press and producers is complicated. As Chris Kissack reminded me the other day, the critic must always be on the side of the consumer, never the producer. Chris is very principled and, as far as I’m aware, funds his own trips, but his expertise resides in the Loire and Bordeaux, short-haul destinations. Funding your own trips to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand is beyond the means of flying journalists, so inevitably there is a conflict of interest if they accept the hospitality of trade bodies or producers. I am not sure if this can be resolved other than by charging for content. I am with Tim Atkin and Chris Kissack on this inasmuch as you forfeit your right to criticise them if you are not prepared to pay for their content. We must recognise our part in this economy of trust; we shouldn’t expect their output to be free, and if we do, we have no grounds to doubt their integrity. I would go further: I would argue that paying for content builds trust, and is part of the solution to our current woes. Aspiration needs to be grounded in trust.

Just as a neglected truth is required for the establishment of trust, so, I believe, there is a forgotten but shared truth anchoring our interest in wine.  Wine has a primal scene: it is the unbroken process of production - viticulture and enology - achieved and guided by human force and sensibility. Proximity and human agency, the coalescence of viticulture and religious devotion delivered us Burgundy, but these artisanal attributes became repressed through wine’s industrial evolution. The expansion of the wine business in the 80s and 90s exaggerated an already established trend for discontinuity within production. Mechanisation, contract growing and increased scale dehumanized the conception of wine, and caused us to forget the deeply personalised origins of our trade. Inevitably for some industrialisation is a heresy, but I am sure Damien Wilson is correct when he says that wine has to expand in order to protect itself; I think it is enough that we should remember and respect what came before, and thus resist the temptation to believe that there is an easy equivalence between the artisanal and the industrial. If we can hold onto this distinction and keep it separate from complicated considerations of terroir and appellation (the meaningless and the failed, from my point of view), we might nurture the same kind of interest and care for production that has helped develop value in categories like bread, whisky and beer. Returning to my analogy of hapless literary critics, the trade developed a delusion of uniformity: we started talking about the cheap stuff as though it had all the intrinsic values of the expensive stuff; it was as if we believed we could flog extra copies of Bleak House by calling Lucky a novel and declaring Jackie Collins the rightful heir to Cervantes.

Interestingly, the Californian wine Industry has a long history of bulk manufacture, but it is the recent increase in artisan and small scale production that has helped drive values up. As Jamie Goode consistently proves with his well-informed coverage of wineries and regions, we can desire both a product and the production of that product. How things are made really matters to some of us. There is a lot of new and untainted wine out there and we have some excellent people covering this emergence of talent; I just happen to believe if we paid them it would be even better.

California is blessed with a great climate and an industry that’s well disposed to developing its customers’ experience with wine. Up to this point, UK wine drinkers have been largely denied this sort of familiarity with production, but now, with the growth in domestic estates, vineyard access has never been easier, and a combination of cellar-door sales and chauvinism might help us to deepen consumer interest in the product. The UK industry is young and premium-priced, it just has to be very watchful about how it goes about nurturing its reputation; you are not going to maintain people’s trust for long by calling 2012 a good vintage.

 In my blog on the 1855 Classification, I warned about the dangers of rationalising wine into groupings and hierarchies. The 1855 classification is hyperbolic; it created its own reality of division by restraining opportunity for the majority of estates. From the Jura to Muscadet, individual producers were branded with an appellation name the value of which was determined by the worst offerings of the region. There was no escape, no consideration, and no incentive to change; the fate of individual growers was bound to the laziest and least sanitary domaines within the appellation’s boundaries. Now, with the advent of social-media, we are witnessing the democratisation of opportunity, and the concomitant weakening of the INAO’s authority. Regions long repressed by AOC law are beginning to flourish; their estates are profiled; the previously anonymous detail is being brought into the light. The hegemony of Burgundy and Bordeaux is loosening. There has never been a better time to be a wine drinker, if you have money and an open-mind.

The UK wine trade is in a period of decline and change. Last time I saw him, John Hoskins MW astutely remarked, “That perhaps the old stuff needs to die-off so that the new stuff can come through.” It’s not just the wine market that’s altering, production is too; among the vines there is a churn of birth, reinvention and mortality. Wine's New Testament march around the Globe has slowed, though the personnel that brought that burgeoning offer to the UK are still largely in control of it. At the time, I thought John was referring to Australia – he was backed against a fantastic wall of antipodean bottles - but reflecting on what he said now, I’m not so sure he wasn’t just talking about me.


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Abe's Bookshelves


In a short video, Abe Schoener is talking and making wine at the Scholium Project. He says something about wine being somatic and sensual, but I’m not going to allow myself a second viewing in case I’m wrong, and this whole edifice of words comes crashing down. In one scene Abe is greedily devouring grapes, like a boar. Next, there is a beautiful tattooed woman treading white grapes against smoking nuggets of dry ice. It looks fun. Abe’s in a barrel, but the woman’s barrel looks more accommodating.


Then it’s back to Abe, now sitting in front of a bookcase talking rapidly about “the carnal, the body…” You can view it for yourself on Hawk was a philosophy professor, as
was Abe. Philosophy has a loose connection with wine: Paul Draper, Randall Grahm and Jancis Robinson all studied the subject, and they are much better qualified than me to discuss its content. Indeed, if they ever read this they might become irritated at the thought that a non-philosopher is queering their patch, but then aren't we all on each other's patch a bit now, anyway? Besides, I've read books, some of which had philosophical themes. And it's the books that catch my eye on Abe's shelves, particularly the pastel 1983 Pelican reprints of Freud. Abe must have bought these at the same time as me - they're in my cellar now - but given the different directions our lives have taken, Abe obviously read his Standard Edition much more closely.   

I'm watching Abe in the barrel and remembering Eric Peter. In 1983, Eric was washed-up on the shores of Guadeloupe in a barrel, Ton-tiki. Penniless and wearing only a pair of jeans, he immediately claimed the record for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest ever vessel. “I knew I had to hit some land somewhere,” he said. “It didn’t matter where.” He had no compass, said he’d lived on a diet of Spanish olives and almonds, and drank rainwater which had collected in his barrel during a 4 day squall. The record was never verified.  (Daily Record, 8th February, 1983)


I know as little about Abe as I do Eric. Abe cast off the obligations of being a professor of Greek Philosophy, came over to wine, and immediately cast off the obligations of being a winemaker too. Some of the sauvignon blanc bunches arriving at the winery reception in the video will be eaten by Abe, the rest will make an orange wine, unless the whole vat gets tipped away. Abe seems as frivolous about outcomes as Eric seemed blasé about his starting point. Eric originally sailed from England. The elements were against him. He launched into the surf, but the first big wave lassoed him back to the shore where he was arrested and his barrel confiscated. His enthusiasm undiminished, Eric began his successful navigation from the Canary Islands, whose easterly flowing waters were outside UK jurisdiction.

Winemaking and archaeology have their methodologies, strict codes of production that encourage re-production rather than freedom and virtuosity.  Thor Heyerdahl was a serious student of reed boats and hardwood rafts. Ra and Kon-tiki – part of the unseaworthy fleet built by Thor - were archaeological replicas. Ra 1 was an ethnographic experiment that sank (but then, I guess, reed boats have always sunk, otherwise the global village would have been with us since antiquity); and when Ra 2 eventually dumped its emaciated ultra-blonde crew on a tropical beach it had the buoyancy of a turd.

Eric's adventure sounds ridiculous, suicidal, but then, so do Thor’s. It’s hard to separate the rational from the irrational here. The fact that Ton-tiki and Con-tiki achieved the same thing just reminds us that stupidity and reason progress through time together, like matter and dark matter; like interlocking talons, which you prise apart at your peril.  Plato put reason on a plinth, separating the mind and alienating the body, and it took Freud, listening to hysterical voices two and a half thousand years later, to fit them back together again. Freud thinks Greek when he places the irrational id and burdened ego into a dynamic relationship with the instinctual drives, but he sounds like Jackie Mason when he says our best hope in life is to attain “the normal level of human unhappiness.

Wine is full of numbers, scores, cod-commentaries, and classifications. It tries to reproduce itself in styles, such that “Bordeaux-like” and “Burgundy-like” have become the trade’s two most overworked phrases. There is an attenuation of interest that comes with rationalisation, a narrowing of thought. Returning to those pastel reprints of Freud, I remember reading that we are drawn to those who exhibit patterns of desire we once had, but have now given-up. I am attracted to the Scholium Project, even though I’ve never tried a bottle, because their relationship with wine seems to be one of pleasure, expansion and indulgence; things I’ve repressed as my tastes have become more institutionalised; as I’ve drifted into a self-censorship that refuses to acknowledge wine in the immediacy and purity of its effects. Abe is right: we need to drink wine with our bodies, not just our minds.     

Monday, 4 November 2013

Champagne: The Power of Blends



It's worth considering that Champagne is not an extracted wine; the ratio of juice to phenolics derived from low yields can be detrimental to the quality of Champagne. Starchy tannin has a place in red wines, but in acidulous vin clair its presence only exaggerates austerity and bitterness.

Blending originally comes out of pragmatism, and the need to overcome seasonal climatic anomalies, but it has become creatively refined. Bad blends repel, like the identical poles of magnets that are forced together. The Chef de Cave is looking to create vectors of flavour, small synergies, and energies of combination. Too often blending is depicted as a potlatch which proceeds haphazardly, crashing the new into the old.

The Chef de Cave is like the Jesuit priest who takes the child and returns the man. He makes decisions at a very early stage of the process, the final elaboration and consequences of which may not become clear for 10 years.

Yields are something of a red herring in Champagne. The prise de mousse boosts the wine's power and intensity. Wines coming off a low yield may end up lumbering, particularly if the time in the cellar is over-extended. Champagne offers drinkers a reflux between refreshment and sapidity: salt, citrus, bubbles, malt. It entices its drinkers to drink again, so it needs to combine delicacy and intensity: delicacy comes from the climate; intensity from the terroir, blending and the prise de mousse. The best wines are mutually dominated by their origins and Champagnisation. Heavy base wines from low yields that are subjected to long lees ageing can be every bit as poor as wines given the minimal term in the cellars.

Champagne Houses understand the relativity of consumption. Most of their drinkers don't go through the Newtonian ritual of the ISO glass before taking a sip. Festivity is Champagne's natural form of expression, but this does not imply a lack of integrity on behalf of the Houses. Just as the handsome architectural facades of Reims hide a subterranean world of hard work, so most blends are the articulation of hard earned preferences. The best wines are an extraordinary expression of intellectual property that can't be revealed by disgorgement dates and the like. Sometimes it's best to wonder at a process, particularly one as beguilingly creative as blending.



Thursday, 29 August 2013

Early Season Leaf Removal - Poni and Kemp

Over the last decade viticulturists have rowed back from Richard Smart’s original hypothesis that improvements to the light environment of vine canopies unanimously benefit the quality and quantity of grape harvests. In particular, it has been shown that the combination of high ambient temperatures and strong UV light can negatively impact grape colouration. In the warmer regions of the World it is possible to get too much of a good thing, and Smart’s original prescriptions are now customised to site and variety.

In separate studies, Dr Belinda Kemp and Professor Stefano Poni have researched the consequences of early season leaf removal. Belinda Kemp found that for Canterbury-grown (NZ) pinot noir, mechanical leaf removal around the clusters 7 days after flowering improved the perception of fruitiness for tasters, whilst simultaneously lowering the negative ascription of “green” characters. to the wine. Similarly,  Poni, working with grenache, sangiovese and graciano, attributes accelerated ripening and a rise in the ratio of desirable tannins and anthocyanins within the must to early season leaf removal.  Moreover, for both Kemp and Poni early season removal conditions the clusters to ultra violet light, and consequently the berries don’t scorch or sunburn. If complete fruit zone leaf removal at veraison improves a wine’s quality, then the chances are that leaf removal at flowering will bring an even greater gain, as long as you are prepared to tolerate some drop in productivity. Removal of basal leaves diminishes the vine’s photosynthetic potential at a crucial stage in the development of both this year’s inflorescences and next year’s buds

Poni has speculated that early leaf removal might bring about physiological changes in the vine that favour the production of phenols, but as yet no mechanism as to how this might work has been forthcoming.  Returning to Smart’s work, it seems logical that at fruit set intra-bunch shading – berry-on-berry light interception - is minimal, whereas closed or veraised clusters only present a fraction of their cumulative berry surface area to direct sunlight.  Strip leaves off early and the clusters expose every bit of their green-skinned-selves to mid-summer’s forceful sun.


Pinot at fruit set
UK Conditions

Dr Steve Smith estimates that at the equivalent latitude, New Zealand’s vineyards receive 40% more UV than those of France; whilst the regions of Champagne and Burgundy intercept between 15%-25% more light through the growing season than does Southern England. Moreover, differences in seasonal temperature accumulation between England and Continental Europe mean that even in our warmest vineyards, flowering and veraison occur later in the year than they do in Central and Northern France. On the Cote de Nuits, pinot veraises around the beginning of August, when UV levels are high and the sun tall, whilst in England veraison takes place three weeks later, when days are shortening and the sun’s trajectory is much lower. If you want to make a still pinot noir in England then the autumnal sun might just not be the strong radiating source you need.

With this in mind we have adapted the principles of Kemp and Poni to our vineyard. Removing leaves at flowering maximises cluster exposure to sunlight at a time of the year when light levels are at their highest and intra-bunch shading is at its lowest. It gives the grapes every opportunity to build their defences against the light, and we hope these adaptions will ultimately benefit the quality of our wine.


Pinot Noir

We have a few different clones - 777, 828, Abel - and some rows of massales.  Between flowering and veraison the clusters are held above the horizontal which means that it’s only necessary to remove the primary leaves (by hand) from the node adjacent and immediately above the second cluster (assuming two clusters per shoot). This has the advantage that the basal nodes retain their leaves which seems prudent given that we spur prune. We also remove the laterals around the clusters, which at flowering are just starting to elongate. In this way we create a window in the canopy just above the clusters. Poni and Kemp experimented with stripping primaries and laterals through nodes 1-6, but in our situation this wouldn’t necessarily increase the exposure of the clusters to direct sunlight. 

Pinot Noir with reflective mulch between the rows
Over the last three years, cluster exposure has been good all the way through to harvest, though this year we have only trimmed the vines once. Ripening grapes in a cool climate requires an active canopy late into the season, and we have taken the decision to retain more laterals this year. Sunlight exposure on the clusters may be slightly less through September than it was previously, but more leaves should potentially mean higher sugars and the prospect of increased hydric stress on our shallow soil. I am happy to eulogise the advantages of a long, cool ripening period, but vines slide inexorably towards entropy and rot under October’s lowering skies.  I am hopeful that the intermittent periods of hydric stress and photon flux experienced over the previous 3 months can cumulatively get us across this year’s finish line.


Acolon at veraison with two leaf excision
Acolon’s (blaufrankischxdornfelder) phenology is more precocious than of pinot. Veraison begins in the middle of August, when one hopes the energy in the atmosphere is dedicated to drawing water from the soil rather than depositing it at its surface. Acolon has a different growth habit to pinot noir, it grows straighter with fewer laterals, and berry and cluster weight is twice that of pinot. Retaining leaf area invariably means a tall canopy, so we’ve adopted a policy of green harvesting to one cluster, with 12-13 primary leaves retained per shoot.

We planted the acolon at a high density – 0.6mx1.5m – which is very crowded by UK standards, but rocky soil, spur pruning to four buds and the use of 161-49 throughout seems to have balanced the vines’ vigour. Close planting also keeps our yield per hectare high, so losing the 2nd cluster doesn’t seem such a hardship.

The latter arrangement reminds me of UC Davis’s Mark Matthews comment about leaf plucking and green harvesting, that “It is the journey and not the destination that matters”. Viticulture is a way of gilding nature’s lily, not creating it. On a vigorous site you can hack at vegetation like the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, but you may never find your Princess.  If you are always fighting the impulses of the vine, the chances are your vines are in the wrong place. To paraphrase Smart: you think you’re in the wine production  business when you are actually in lumber.     

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Prelimary discussion on water deficts in a UK limestone vineyard

The soil we have in Rutland looked so much like the Côte de Nuits that I talked myself into planting Pinot Noir: fissured Bajocian oolite with a gravelly 25 cm covering of clay loam. I’d spent so long in the company of Burgundians that I was entirely convinced that the ceiling for wine quality was set by geology, and that limestone is the plinth upon which great reputations are constructed.

And limestone isn’t just my obsession: the stories of Ridge Monte Bello, Bell Hill and Calera have the rock at their heart. For Paul Draper and Josh Jenson, limestone is intrinsically superior to other soil/subsoil/bedrock combinations.

Limestone is not homogeneous. Chalk, Dolomitic, Bajocian, and carboniferous differ in their physical and chemical properties; their hydrology is diverse, and these variances are carried over into the soil and subsoil to which they give rise. The high magnesium content of Dolomitic limestone can lead to water logging, while calcium carbonate from chalk can flocculate the overlying clays, making them free draining. We need to be circumspect when discussing limestone generically.  

Elsewhere I have written about the relationship between hydrology and grape quality in Burgundy; water deficits between 30%-50% of cropevapotranspiration (CET) positively effect gene expression, encouraging ripening rather than vegetative growth, whilst simultaneously increasing the ratio of skins to juice. Smart claims that reduced vigour impacts canopy density, and the resulting improvement in the light environment benefits grape quality, particularly in cool climates. Conversely, too much stress lowers quality and can lead to a cessation in grape development.  Again one needs to be cautious about extending these principles indiscriminately to all varieties and all environments.

The soil and vine combination we have at Rutland references some of the Côte de Nuits’ best sites. Calciferous clay loam, 25-30cm deep over limestone is the referent for many of the Grands and Premiers Crus, but the clay could be illite, kaolinite or montmorillonite; and the limestone fissured, massive, oolite or marble. Notwithstanding this, our soil/subsoil/base rock sequence could be neatly fitted into the Côte de Nuits fractured geology, I’m just not sure where!

Soil Moisture Results

The Sentek monitor gives us five soil moisture readings at soil depths10cm, 20cm, 30cm, 40cm and 50cm. These readings are aggregated together in the graph below.


Together the two datasets show how the rate of extractability of water varies with soil morphology. Water is extracted easily from the clay loam soil, and its reserves are rapidly exhausted. With a full canopy, CET on an average Southern English summer’s day is about 4.5 mm of water, but can peak at around 7mm on a hot sunny day if access to water is unlimited. When the soil is “full”, water is extracted unevenly: extraction from the clay loam is three times greater than extraction from the limestone, even when we mulched the soil surface with plastic to stop evaporation. Our vines are eight years old, so we might speculate that root density within the clay loam is much greater than that within the rock, and that the mechanical resistance to root penetration and the kinetic movement of water in response to plant suction is different for the limestone. From “full” to “onset of stress”, the extraction of water from the limestone was a constant, at around 1mm per day.  

The period between 14-07 and 24-07 was a period of high water demand: the sun shone continually; daytime temperatures peaked at around 28C; and night time minimums averaged 15C. With the moisture in the upper horizon of clay loam depleted the limestone became the vine’s principle source of water, so despite the fact that soil moisture was midway between the “full” and “onset of stress levels”, water rationing had already begun. In fact, with extraction constant at 1mm per day the reserves were sufficient to cover another fifteen days without rainfall, and 30 days without significant precipitation is rare for both Rutland and Burgundy.

The distinction between water deficits and stress is a fine one. If water is available for a prolonged period at less than 20% CET, vine metabolism and physiology may become compromised. We began to see shortening shoots and internodes on some of the shallower soils of the vineyard towards the end of the dry spell, when CET was equivalent to 7mm per day, but water extraction was only 1mm per day.

On the Côte de Nuits, certain cultural practices are utilised that might exaggerate vine dependency upon the regulated deficits provided by limestone. High vine density yields high numbers of leaves per hectare, so the water demand will rapidly exhaust the moisture content of the upper layers after rainfall. In Rutland, the difference between the soil being “full” and reliance on the limestone aquifer is approximately 30mm, or about 4-5 days of warm, dry July weather. Moreover, in the context of this year’s Burgundian deluge, it is worth pointing out that once the soil is full, it cannot hold any more water, so intense episodes of precipitation will not adversely slow the return to deficit. Poor weather may impact flowering or the health of the crop, but stress will be established as rapidly after 150mm of rainfall in two days as it will after 50mm over the same period. It is conceivable that vines growing on the Côte de Nuits’ stonier Grands Crus were in water deficit within 4 days of July’s 70mm storm.

Ploughing is frequently used in the Côte de Nuits vineyards, and eradicating roots from the upper soil layers forces the vine to source its water from the deeper limestone aquifers. On a particularly shallow soil like “Le Musigny”, ploughing will restrict the roots almost entirely to the limestone strata, which offers the intriguing possibility of a vineyard almost completely buffered from the vicissitudes of seasonal precipitation, collapsing clichéd climatic thinking about calling a bad vintage, or the hapless reductionism of considering the fate of all the Côte de Nuits vineyards together.

The Rutland data also makes the case for vine age. Our vines were planted in 2005, and mechanical resistance to rooting over the intervening years was still limiting extractability in the spring of 2013. The meagre 1mm of water per day proved insufficient for parts of the vineyard, even when the vine shoots were at the 10-12 leaf stage. In all probability, our roots will further explore the limestone over the next decade or so, at which point they should maintain the vine at a beneficial level of water deficit rather than at the current potentially stressful level of extraction. The same is true for the Côte de Nuits, and this is recognised in AC stipulations about vine age.

Climatic differences between Rutland and the Cote de Nuits make comparison complicated. CET rates are not only higher in Burgundy, but phenology is more advanced. Moderate water stress at veraison encourages carbohydrate partitioning to the fruit, and in Burgundy this pivotal growth stage coincides with the warmest part of the year, whereas in Rutland CET rates are declining by the time verasion is reached. Post-veraison, water deficits also accelerate the ripening process, and again this is less likely in Rutland through late September and October. All this points to the delicate balance that exists on the Cote de Nuits between geology, climate and viticultural practice; just having limestone isn’t enough: leaf area, vine age, ploughing and climatic patterns all converge advantageously on the best sites.

I will post again at the end of the season on whether the use of vigorous grasses and water exclusion in Rutland can help overcome the disadvantages of a sluggish phenology.