The Name Game: Porto, Napa Diplomacy and the Fortified Wine Dilemma

portoThe Association of Port Wine Companies roadshow passed through Seattle recently and Sue and I were fortunate to be invited to attend the Porto and Douro Wines Tasting, a ceremony initiating several local wine trade representatives into the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, and a festive dinner hosted by the winemakers.

The events, which involved wines and representatives from eleven Port houses, had two main purposes. The first and most obvious was to introduce or re-introduce local restaurant and trade people to the Porto and Douro wines and to establish or renew relationships. In other words, this was a sales call and I will talk about this aspect next week. But first I want to discuss a secondary purpose: economic diplomacy.

Protecting the Brand

Champagne and Porto have two of the world’s most valuable regional wine “brands.” Sparkling wines are made all over the world, but Champagne can only comes from the Champagne region of France. Ditto Port wine and the Porto region.

When producers in other regions use these terms generically, they potentially dilute or devalue the brand. It is easy to see why this might be a problem. Trade treaties have enabled Champagne and Porto to assert their intellectual property rights here in the U.S., but with pre-existing commercial use “grandfathered” in. Thus Gallo legally sells inexpensive Andre’s California Champagne and Fairbanks Port.21344

Not all of the grandfathered brands are high volume value wines. Prager Royal Escort  Port, made from Napa Valley Petite Sirah grapes, sells for $90 per bottle for the current 2009 vintage release. It may not be real Porto Port, but it is a wonderful wine.

Champagne, Port and the other key regions would obviously like to see there brand rights more strictly enforced and they hoped to accomplish this as part of the big Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement (T-TIP) that has been in negotiation between the U.S. and the European Union for some time.

Shifting Political Winds

But the political winds have changed directions (in case you haven’t noticed) and big trade agreements are now pretty much off the table. The incoming Trump administration seems more likely to dismantle existing trade deals than to encourage new ones. The political environment in Europe is no sunnier.

Even a fairly straightforward trade treaty with Canada nearly collapsed at the last minute when officials in the parliament of the Belgian region of Wallonia raised objections. Reminds me of The Mouse that Roared.

Facing this political roadblock, the Porto producers have turned to the art of persuasion — diplomacy. Thus the photo above, which shows George Sandeman at the October 27 Confraria induction ceremony in San Francisco where Boyd Family Vineyards, Freemark Abbey, Jessup Cellars and Schweiger Vineyards were welcomed into the Brotherhood of Port to honor their commitment to respect the traditional use of the Porto brand.

The Napa-Porto Connection

Napa Valley Vintners was also recognized for their work to protect place names. Napa has particular interest in this issue because the Napa brand itself is very valuable and, like Champagne and Port, is at risk of being diluted in various ways. It is no accident, therefore that the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place Names and Origins,  which an increasing number of regions are embracing, is also called The Napa Declaration on Place. Porto and Napa were founding members of this initiative.

I asked George Sandeman (the handsome fellow in full Confraria regalia in the photo above) about the situation and he noted that “Napa producers switched away from Champagne on a voluntary basis long ago.  Now nobody in Napa Valley produces Champagne, even though they legally may do so according to US law (those grandfathered in the 2006 Wine Accords).  The producers in Napa have made that change as a show of respect to the Champagne region.”

“There has been discussion for several years of doing the same for Port,” he continued, “and now the first handful of Napa producers voluntarily made a switch away from the term “port” to something else, even though they weren’t legally compelled to do so.  It was a sign of respect to Porto and the Port producers, but also an acknowledgment that it is important to “walk the talk” when it comes to respecting and protecting winegrowing place names.”

Not Port: The Name Game

One problem that the makers of Port-style wines face is “the name game” — how to describe their products and market them without using the forbidden terms. It is a tricky business. Poking around our little cellar, for example, I found two examples of winemakers who make interesting wines and work hard to stay inside the lines.mfw

Hedges Family Estate, for example, makes very small quantities of wine from traditional Port grapes (plus a little Cabernet Sauvignon in the example we have). The back label clearly identifies itself as “Fortified Wine,” which accurately describes the process and is one possible generic descriptor of these wines. Unfortunately, the terminology also emphasizes alcoholic strength and not everyone will see that as a positive.

Mosquito Fleet Winery makes a fortified wine called Griffersen Reserve from Touriga Nacional grapes . As with Hedges, the term “Port” is carefully avoided on the package. Small print on the back label describes the product as “dessert wine,” emphasizing sweetness and the after-dinner occasion instead of alcoholic content or production process. This is accurate (at the winery you are served a taste in a small dark chocolate cup– yum!), but is obviously also vague and somewhat limiting as a category.

If you called either of these wines Port they would be easy for consumers to understand. The diplomatic initiative to protect the Port producers’ brand would be more effective if someone could find a generic term that works as well for these wines as “sparkling wine” does for wines made in the Champagne style and method. The lack of such a term means that honest efforts to respect Porto’s rights in theory frequently fail in practice. While Hedges and Mosquito Fleet won’t call their wines “Port” nearly everyone else does when they refer to them.

What’s the best way to honor and protect the Port brand while also allowing U.S. producers to identify and successfully market their own fine wines? The name game continues.

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Seems like Shirley Ellis could solve the Porto name game dilemma.

 

Republic of Georgia: First Impressions of a Wine Industry in Transition

qvevri1Sue and I were fortunate to be able to extend our visit to the Republic of Georgia at the conclusion the  of United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism. The conference’s focus was on wine tourism, but we wanted to learn more about the Georgian wine industry itself.

Georgia’s DNA

As I explained in an earlier column, I came to Georgia full of questions about the wine industry here and with a preliminary hypothesis to help me shape the inquiry. Here’s what I was thinking.

Georgian wine is very old and the wine culture is strong. I have never been anywhere where wine was so central to the culture. Wine and vine were everywhere we looked. Wine grapes were a central element, for example, of a Soviet-era war memorial we saw in Sighnaghi. And grape vines are at the heart of the image of Georgia as a Christian nation. Saint Nino fashioned the first cross using her own hair to bind two lengths of grape vine. Wine is Georgia’s DNA.

A great deal of the wine that is consumed is produced by families for their own use and to give to friends and neighbors. The fact of such large family production necessarily shapes the market. Not much imported wine enters Georgia, for example. And a great deal of the commercially produced wine must be exported.

The Russia Factor

Russia was for many  years the largest export market for Georgian wine and because of this the focus was on semi-sweet red wines made in state-owned factories and often sold in bulk. Quantity was a priority over quality. But then came the Russian embargo of Georgian and Moldovan wines in 2006 and in an instant the most important market, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of sales, was gone and did not return until 2013.vino1mo

The Russian embargo was the worst thing that could have happened to the Georgian wine industry in the short term and the best thing in the long run. In retrospect it is easy to see that such complete reliance upon a single foreign market for wine sales was not a healthy situation.

The sudden loss of that market forced Georgian producers to develop new markets, improve quality to be competitive in those markets, and find strategies for product differentiation to raise margins and secure market niches.

Silk Road to China

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

The recent  rise in the Chinese market has been particularly noteworthy and follows on investments in Georgia wine shops and culinary centers that were established in China. There are ambitious plans to open 100 Georgian wine houses there.

One wine executive we talked with noted a “Silk Road” connection that works in Georgia’s favor. Georgia has negotiated a preferential trade agreement with China and Chinese traders and investors who visit the country taste and enjoy the Georgian wines, learn about the country’s 8000 year wine history and its Silk Road connection. Nothing could make more sense than to buy Georgian wine with its long history and connection to China. Very smart of Georgian producers to leverage this cultural advantage!p1110666

Natural Wine Buzz

Here in the United States much of the buzz about Georgian wines concerns natural wines made using the traditional qvevri clay containers to ferment and sometimes age the wine wines. Alice Feiring is a leading advocate of these wines and her recent book For the Love of Wine gives a highly personal account of her passion for them.

No one we talked with is sure how much Georgian natural wine is made by families for their own consumption, but commercial production is relatively limited. One producer estimated total output of perhaps 120,000 bottles more or less with several wineries in the 3000 to 6000 bottle capacity range. Little of this wine is sold domestically in Georgia because of its relatively high cost and the existence of family-produced alternatives.

So the focus is clearly on export to markets where natural wines have a strong presence including Italy, France and Denmark, and developing natural wine markets such as UK, Canada and the United States.

Given all of this my working hypothesis when we left for Georgia was this. The Russian market is the past, now they need to look to the future. But which future? The natural qvevri wines are Georgia’s key to differentiation in the new markets, but high quality natural wine is too narrow a category to carry the ambitions of a great wine producing nation.

Process of Elimination

My hypothesis, based on the process of elimination, was that the way forward is for Georgia to focus on increasing the quality of their conventional wines, making them in a clean international style and differentiating by stressing a small number of exciting indigenous grape varieties (perhaps red Saperavi and white Rkatsiteli and various blends) from among the dozens of native Georgia wine grapes.

In other words, I saw Georgia in a very conventional way, much as I view Turkey or Portugal, for example. That was then. What do I think now? Come back next week to find out.

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Thanks to the Georgia National Tourism Administration for inviting us to extend our visit to Georgia and generously providing  us with help in visiitng the wine regions and meeting wine producers.

Global Wine Tourism Conference in Georgia: A Preliminary Report

Sue and I have recently returned from the untwo2United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and I know just what you are going to say. What in the world is the UN doing sponsoring a wine tourism conference and why was it in the Republic of Georgia?

First Things Second

Let me answer the second question first. Georgia is the self-styled “Cradle of Wine,” with documented wine production going back 8000 years so it certainly has standing. It is also probably the most wine-centric culture I have ever experienced. Wine is everywhere. Just about everyone drinks it, most families make it for their own consumption, and its symbolic and practical importance is everywhere to be seen. Wine and vine — these are key elements of the Georgian DNA. Really.

Georgia is a poor nation, especially outside of Tbilisi’s bright city lights. Mexico’s per capital GDP is about $9000 according to World Bank statistics. Georgia’s is about $3800. So anything that can create employment opportunities (especially rural jobs) and spur economic development is welcome here. Tourism of the nature and adventure varieties is a big contributor to national income. Why not leverage Georgia’s rich culture, and especially its deep wine traditions, to create economic opportunity?

So it is easy to see why Georgia would volunteer to host a conference like this — and they did a magnificent job.  But what’s the UN connection?

Wine Tourism Rationale

The basis for UN programs in tourism and now wine tourism is surprisingly strong, as the “Georgia Declaration on Wine Tourism (pdf),” which was promulgated at the conference, makes clear.  The UNWTO’s mandate, for example, states that,  “The fundamental aim of the Organization shall be the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace and prosperity, and universal respect for, and observance of, human  rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. Tourism cannot accomplish all these goals by itself, but it can be part of the process.

Tourism is one way that we experience and understand other nations, peoples, and cultures. It creates jobs, of course, but it has the potential to also increase understanding. International tourism has been one of the global growth industries of the last 30 years, so it is not unreasonable that the UN pay attention to this economic and cultural exchange vector.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the  United Nations General Assembly in 2015,  includes tourism as a tool for sustainable economic development. “By 2030,” the document specifies, the UN should “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

The UNWTO had previously identified gastro-tourism as being an important element of its sustainable tourism development program. The wine tourism initiative and this conference were organized as part of the gastro-tourism program.

About the Conference

The first UNWTO Global Wine Conference attracted more than 250  participates from 42 countries. My panel on best practices in wine tourism included speakers from Italy, Canada, Japan, Argentina and the United States  (I talked about Napa’s success and also its challenges).

The organizers designed the program to minimize talking head blah-blah-blah and maximize focused interaction among the participants. (I have never before traveled through 11 time zones and back in order to speak for 10 minutes!) There was a lot of knowledge and experience in the room and it made sense to draw it out through small group discussion.

I think the strategy worked on the whole and  Sue and I feel our time was well spent, but I wish there have been an opportunity for greater depth on at least some topics. The conference moves to Mendoza, Argentina next year — it will be interesting to see how the program evolves.

One interesting innovation was to move the conference out of the typical sterile hotel ballroom or convention center environment and to have the sessions in wineries, where wine tourism strategies could be seen in practice as well as discussed in theory. Come back next week for an analysis of what we learned from these experiences.

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uncorkSue and I were delighted to meet Matt Horkey and Charine Tan at the UNWTO conference. Their fist book, Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, was published last week and it is recommended reading  if you are planning a wine tour to  this region or are interesting in these wines generally. Sue and I found their recommendations for Georgia and its wines on the mark.

I like this book so much that I wrote a publicity “blurb” about it. Here it is:

Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan take us along for the ride as they travel the wine roads of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia in their intriguing new book Uncorking the Caucasus. It is exciting to see these ancient wine regions through their eyes and to experience the ways that the very old and the very new come together through wine. A perfect read for wine lovers looking for new wines, new regions, and new perspectives. Pack your bags and join Matthew and Charine as they uncork the Caucasus. Highly recommended.

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This is the first in a short series of columns on the UNWTO conference and the Georgian wine industry. Thanks very much to the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Authority for making our participation in this conference possible.

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

A Sneaky Preview of a Work in Progress: “Around the World in Eighty Wines”

80daysI am busy working on the third draft of my next book, which will be released at about this time next year (lots of work left to do!). It is called Around the World in Eighty Wines and I am sure you have already guessed that it is inspired by the famous Jules Verne adventure story.

It is too soon for details, but I thought I would tease you just a bit with a pair of maps. The first map (above) is my lame attempt to plot out the route of Jules Vernes’ hero Phileas Fogg. He started in London and worked his way from east to west around the world and back to London again.

My quest, which also starts in London, is to travel the world in eighty wines, not eighty days. Each individual wine needs to represent something important about wine and the places and people and cultures that produce wine. Since there are thousands of wines in the world, you might think this is an easy task. But you would be wrong (or at least that’s the premise of the book).

Telling the story of wine and its world with just eighty bottles — that’s insane. But I think it will be fun and I promise that the readers who come with me for the ride will find much to learn, love and laugh about along with (as in the Jules Verne story) some inevitable challenges and confounding frustrations.

80winesThis map (above) is my obviously amateur attempt to plot out the route that my book seems to be taking us (books have minds of their own — sometimes it is the story not the author who calls the shots).

If you compare the two maps you will see that circumnavigating with eighty wines is obviously much more difficult than doing it in eighty days. Just look at how much more complicated our route is than Phileas Fogg’s!

My maps are terrible, but that’s OK with me because I don’t want to give away too much just yet. Maybe you can guess where the journey will take us and perhaps you can even channel some of the wines. But I guarantee some surprises even for the most clairvoyant readers!

Where would you go on this adventure? Which wines would you choose to fill the eighty spots in your wine case? What fun we will have together finding the answers and the wines to go with them!

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BBC presenter Michael Palin took on the 80 day version of this challenge in 1989. Here’s a snippet of the 7-part television series that recorded his adventures. Enjoy!

It’s Complicated: Four Things I Think I Learned at Riesling Rendezvous 2016

rrSue and I are back from Riesling Rendezvous 2016, a gathering organized by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen. The conference brings together winemakers and industry leaders from the four corners of Planet Riesling for three days of tasting, discussion and debate.

I have been fortunate to attend four of the five editions of Riesling Rendezvous beginning with RR2 in 2008. Herewith a quick accounting of my takeaways from the 2016 meeting.

1. Talking around in circles

One constant of the conferences has been a tendency to talk around in circles during the formal tastings — twenty dry Rieslings on Monday and twenty more off-dry wines on Tuesday. (Twenty wines for three hundred participants each day– that, my friends, is a lot of stemware to set up, fill, dump, and replace and a lot of bottles to organize.)

Don’t get me wrong — these tastings are amazing. What a great opportunity for winemakers to benchmark their own wines and assess the state of the industry than by tasting forty of the finest Rieslings on earth and hearing from the winemakers. Truly a priceless experience.

But as the discussion unfolds I have found that the same issues seem to come up over and over again. Do you really think this is a dry Riesling (often stated as an accusation more than a question)?  The focus often shifts to the analytical data (RS, TA, PH), which is another set of circles. Then the big question: is this Old World or New World (the wines are tasted blind)? It is as if each wine must fit neatly into a set objective category and, of course, they don’t because wine isn’t really like that.

These debates, unlike the actual tasting of the wines, seem like a dead end to me. Perception of sweet and dry is individual and subjective, so what is dry to you might be sweet to someone else. The analytical data have limited significance, as Jamie Goode, who also attended the meetings, recently explained.

And it doesn’t matter to me very much if someone can guess where the wine is from — wine should not be a game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. In any case, even the experts usually couldn’t answer the Old/New geography question with confidence and there were many surprises when makers and regions were revealed.

Talking around in circles doesn’t lead anywhere by itself, but I think it does serve a purpose. Like the tasting itself, it brings people together and often puts them in a frame of mind to take action either in their own winemaking or address the industry’s collective problems.

2. Actions speak louder …

The good news is that once the Riesling folks get beyond ritual circle talking they can and do accomplish quite a lot. One problem that is often noted is that many consumers think of Riesling as a sweet wine, unaware of its great diversity of styles and unable to figure out what is what. The International Riesling Foundation and its very useful Riesling  scale came out of earlier Riesling Rendezvous gatherings. Not every winery uses the scale as a back label way to communicate with wine drinkers, but those that do give consumers useful information and the confidence to try a new wine.scale-300x103

Chateau Ste Michelle uses the scale, for example, and has seen significant growth in both its Dry and sweeter Harvest Select wines that share shelf space with the big-volume off-dry Columbia Valley bottling. Consumers seem to be able to find the particular wine style they like best and come back from more. That’s progress.

The “winemaker only” sessions at Riesling Rendezvous allow for transfer of knowledge as well as a frank exchange of opinions and it seems like these discussions have had an important impact. The quality standard of Riesling has risen as technical expertise about vineyard and cellar practices have been shared. That’s progress, too.

3. Riesling’s rising tide

One impact of the rising quality tide, as noted earlier, is that even the  experts find it more difficult to tell Old World Riesling from the New World wines. At one point in the dry wine tasting, for example, Tom Barry (of Jim Barry wines) responded to a question by looking at the unidentified wine in his glass and saying simply and approvingly, “This is a nice wine from somewhere.”

The days are gone when Old World wines were typically better made than their New World competitors. Now there are well-made wines from all the regions that participated in the program. But I don’t think the wines have been reduced to a homogeneous “international style” — there is still great diversity even if there is also a trend, well documented in John Winthrop Haeger’s recent book Riesling Rediscovered, toward market-friendly drier styles.12182-110

The big moments of the earlier meetings happened when we found a stunningly good wine (and great wines still earned applause in 2016). This time most of them were stunners and the oohs and aahs were loudest when we encountered a wine that surprised  by walking a tightrope defined by terroir, vintage or technique with great success, like the memorable 2014 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling from British Columbia. The rising quality tide has served to accentuate and reward originality and authenticity, which is a good thing in my view.

4. Keep it complicated (and tell stories)

Riesling is special — it is my Desert Island wine if I have to choose one. The wines that we tasted spoke clearly and truthfully about Riesling’s progress around the world.

But as quality has increased Riesling has also become a bit more like other wines in the sense that the key factors are not simple dichotomies — Old versus New, dry versus sweet, good versus not-so-good and so on. And this is also a good thing.

Riesling Rendezvous revealed a wine world taking the next step from dichotomies to richer ways of thinking. As Ernie Loosen said at the opening session, complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways. How is this done?  People understand complicated things through the stories they tell about them.

And that’s where I see Riesling headed now. The story of what is happening today is complicated and important. It’s time to move beyond dichotomies and develop richer narratives about Riesling wine in the Loosen style that will attract and engage consumers, especially younger ones, by connecting them more persuasively to the people and places behind the wines and to their friends who they invite to share them.

Riesling Rendezvous has an important role to play in shaping those stories and helping producers get their complicated messages out. Can’t wait to see (and taste) the next chapter.

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Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen for sponsoring Riesling Rendezvous and allowing us to attend. Thanks to everyone we met and talked with for your insights.

The Three Ages of Wine Cork Production: A Visit to Corticeira Amorim

corf_forests

It is impossible to drive through the Alentejo region of Portugal without seeing the dark trees that dot the landscape. Pretty soon you notice the lines on the trunks where the bark has been harvested and then you know for sure that you are in a cork oak (Quercus suber) forest, the densest concentration of these trees in the world (see map above).

Cork’s Medieval Roots

Planting a cork oak tree is a statement of faith in the future. The first harvest must wait for 15 years and then the cork will be of low quality, unsuitable for natural cork closures. The second and better harvest that yields more usable cork comes 9 years later. Only 9  years after that (and every 9 years into the future) can the highest quality cork be taken. Few other things in the world of wine (producing 40-year old Tawny Port, for example) can compare to cork in terms of optimistic forward thinking.

Sue and I visited both Porto and Alentejo during our recent trip to Portugal and Antonio Amorim and Carlos de Jesus of Corticeira Amorim, the world leader in cork closures, invited us to visit their factories in these two regions to see first-hand what I am calling the Three Ages of cork.

Cork is an ancient product — the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans all sealed their wine jars with cork. The harvesting of it is laborious hand work since each tree has its own configuration. Photos of modern cork harvests could easily be mistaken for medieval paintings.Cork1

Industrial Revolution

Stepping into the Amorim factory in Coruche, you get an initial sense of moving forward in time to the industrial revolution. There is still a lot of hand work here. Sorting the processed cork bark pieces, for example, still requires human judgement as they are inspected and graded for quality one at a time. The key to making a profit in cork is to waste nothing, so each cork piece must go to its best use and the waste at each step recycled into a lower-priced product.

Almost nothing is thrown away. One item that was headed for the power-supplying waste burner was a piece of cork that was badly infected with TCA, the source of cork taint. What a horrible smell!  Until a machine can consistently detect all the potential problems with cork including TCA, cracking, insect damage and so on, these workers’ jobs are very secure.

The factory was loud with the clamber of industrial machinery as every task that could be mechanized was mechanized. It gave me a sense of what those 19th century British textile mills must have been like.

Interestingly, the finest corks closures made from the best quality raw material are hand-punched by skilled craftsmen (see photo above). These corks need to be as close to perfect as possible and so far nothing can replace the human eye for seeing just where the cork’s sweet spot is (and what parts should be recycled down the line for other products).

NDtech: Cork for the 21st Century

It would be easy to think of cork just this way — a medieval product made using industrial revolution technology — but this viewpoint misses a lot as we learned when we visited Amorim’s second factory near Porto.

Here we saw many of the same processes as in the south, but the focus was different because Carlos and Antonio wanted us to see the progress that has been made at improving cork closures and addressing the issues that allowed synthetic stoppers and screw cap technology to make dramatic inroads in this market.

Innovative new production processes and seriously obsessive attention to detail have now all but eliminated the incidence of detectable TCA contamination in Amorim corks throughout the product line, which is a big deal and came only after intense and expensive research and process innovation. But that was not good enough and so earlier this year Amorim unveiled its latest innovation, NDtech corks.

Amorim scientists guided us into the controlled environment that you see in the video above and we saw the NDtech (think non-detectible TCA levels) process at work. ndTech really does individually-inspect each and every cork that goes through the process and guarantees then all to be TCA-free at human sensory threshold levels.

Amorim is convinced that the process works and we saw persuasive data about these and other Amorim cork closures. Now the challenge is to scale up to meet the demand for these, the very best corks that can be made.

Three Ages in One Product

I find  it interesting that cork is so many things at once. It is a natural product, of course, but one that is necessarily harvested and then processed by hand and manufactured using machines and processes from a variety of periods. It is also increasingly a technological product.

Making excellent cork closures is complicated as we saw at the Amorim factories and doing so profitably is even more complicated. We were impressed with the way that every scrap and bit of cork is put to use in closures and other cork products and every ounce of value realized. Environmental and economic sustainability go hand-in-hand.

Meeting the challenge of synthetic and screw-cap closures has not been easy for cork producers, who saw a some of their market share disappear. Hard work, expensive research and technical innovation has turned this around, however, and now many consumers and wineries who moved away from cork in the past are taking a new look.

Someone once accused the economist John Maynard Keynes of expressing a view that was inconsistent with his previous statements.” When the facts change,” Keynes replied, “I change my opinion. What do you do?” The facts about cork — especially the TCA situation — have changed in the past few years. No wonder many people in the industry have revised their views on cork.

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Many thanks to Antonio Amorim and Carlos de Jesus for he opportunity to see the three ages of cork with our own eyes and learn about the scientific progress from the experts. This concludes the short series of past-present-future stories from the Alentejo. Come back next week for a look at some unexpected wine tourism opportunities we found in Portugal.