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Hopes for the New Year

2 Jan 2010 by Jancis Robinson

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Here’s what I hope for in 2010 in the happy little puddle of life that is the world of wine.

I’d like to see a tax on the use of the word ‘passion’ when applied to wine producers. I seem to find it plastered all over sales pitches, describing the most lugubrious and/or inexperienced winemaker as inflamed by passion for their craft. Anyone who describes themselves as passionate, intellectual or witty isn’t.

It would be very healthy for the fine-wine market if there were more top-quality places to store wine, with reliably constant cool temperatures and reasonable humidity. Of course, in our energy-conscious age, underground storage makes hugely more sense than expensively controlled above-ground warehouses. Octavian at Corsham, deep underneath the turf of western England in an ex munitions factory, is an important depot for many of the world’s fine-wine traders and fine-wine collectors. Crown Wine Cellars, in another old military installation deep in the hills behind Hong Kong (its library, where many a fine-wine dinner has been held, is shown here), was founded with great foresight by local businessman Jim Thompson in 2001 and has become increasingly important in the last couple of years since the old colony abolished duty on wine and took its place as the fine-wine hub of Asia’s burgeoning wine markets (overtaking London as a wine auction centre in the process). But it would be good for consumers if both these market leaders had more competition.

Crown themselves have been expanding in Hong Kong and a few more competitors seem to be emerging there, even if a significant proportion of the fine wine traded in Hong Kong is shipped out to Macau and thence, it is assumed, to mainland China. And there is encouraging news of at least two new developments in subterranean southern England. Locke-King Vaults in Weybridge, Surrey, a mile of tunnels that were effectively a second world war air-raid shelter for those building Lancaster bombers and Hurricane aircraft on the site of the old Brooklands racetrack, is currently being prepared for fine-wine storage by bonded warehouse keepers EHD. And another professional storage company, Oxford Exhibition Services, is renting vaults deep inside a chalk hill near Salisbury that were until recently used by the Ministry of Defence for extremely secure storage, with a view to offering the space as a top-quality wine warehouse.

Then, thanks to a change in the French tax laws, wine bought in Bordeaux can now be stored in bond by individuals in the French city itself, either in a warehouse owned by merchants Joanne, or in the new Bordeaux City Bond owned by a group of Bordeaux merchants. Both these facilities are above ground, but they certainly offer proximity to the wine châteaux, and minimise the chance of the greatest danger posed to fine wine in transit apart from theft: dangerous temperature variation.

Also on my wishlist is that all those responsible for shipping and storing wine worth more than a few pounds a bottle would take their responsibilities seriously in view of the fact that wine can be fatally damaged if kept too hot or too cold. Berry Bros are aiming to be the first London wine merchant with a verified global Fine Wine Cold Chain, working with the firm eProvenance that has measured the temperatures in their cellars and in all their shipments from Bordeaux and Burgundy to the UK and thence to Hong Kong and Japan. Other fine-wine merchants are also trialling the technology involved but it is not the given that I feel it should be. As eProvenance’s founder Eric Vogt observes, ‘I am increasingly intrigued that we are gradually measuring and curing a quality problem that has been around for 200 years. However, now that viticulture and winemaking have reached current levels of expertise, storage and shipping now represent the largest challenge to the quality of wine the consumer drinks, and it is largely out of control.’

vinlinerMeanwhile specialist UK wine shipper Chris Porter of J F Hillebrand is actively marketing its Vinliner, pictured here, a sort of silver-foil wrapping for pallets specially designed to protect wine from dramatic extremes of temperature on long voyages, and would dearly love to see more wine importers taking this aspect of their work more seriously. Temperature-controlled containers, or reefers, are the Rolls Royce counterpart and, with the spiralling prices of fine wine, one would think that all merchants and importers would see them as an essential business investment.

And while we’re on the subject of transporting wine, I dearly wish the wine trade, and particularly those shipping small quantities, would abandon their love affair with horribly non recyclable polystyrene. There are many very strong, safe cardboard alternatives which would be much more socially responsible.

Which brings me, yet again, on to the subject of ridiculously heavy bottles. In the last year alone there has been the most admirable progress in glassmaking technology so that it is now possible to find a durable bottle that is easy on the eye and weighs not much more than 300 grams yet, particularly in Latin countries, there still lurk unreconstructed individual marketeers who think it is clever to ship around the world bottles weighing close to a kilogram – sometimes even importing them empty, and then shipping them again full. This is not clever, and I fervently hope that more and more consumers and producers come to see this in 2010.

Another realisation that I would like to see from my idealistic ivory tower concerns the more militant vignerons of the south of France. Members of the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, faced with plummeting prices and vanishing markets, resort to explosives and intimidation of those they see as enemies, perhaps because they manage a store selling some imported wine. I can see the logic of supporting, for example, some of the hill farmers of Europe where no other use could be found for the land. But in the case of thousands of the flatter hectares of Languedoc vineyard, they have been planted with vines for only a relatively short period of their history. Their produce was fine for quenching the thirst of workers in the north before there was a reliable water supply, but today much of what is produced is very obviously surplus to 21st-century requirements. Get real, CRAV.

Meanwhile, my personal wish for 2010 is to drink more and more Riesling. It is relatively low in alcohol, high in flavour, develops beaiutifully in bottle, expresses terroir and goes very happily with so many of the foods we eat now. It doesn’t have to be sweet either.

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