This article was first published on 29 June 2010. On this first day of the next, eighth MW Symposium, in Florence, we're re-publishing this reminder of how things were on the first day in Bordeaux four years ago.
Masters of Wine Symposia come along every four years or so. I have attended every one held, successively, at Oxford (1984), Cambridge and Bristol universities, Vienna and the Napa Valley. The only one I missed was the least well attended, in Perth, Western Australia, in the 1990s. It was the Napa Valley MW Symposium in 2006 that inspired Fiona Morrison MW and Jacques Lurton (pictured) to stage this year's symposium in Bordeaux at the end of last week.
French public servants, striking in protest at the proposal to raise their retirement age from 60 to 62, did their best to diminish our numbers. It took Institute Vice Chairman Lynne Sherriff MW 24 hours to get from Gatwick to Bordeaux so that she and her beaded vuvuzela were too late to open the formalities on the Friday morning and Chairman Pepi Schuller had to stand in for her. Wine writer and session moderator Tim Atkin MW and keynote speaker Sir John Hegarty had been booked on the same early Thursday morning flight and did not manage to arrive until 2 am on Saturday, via Toulouse.
On Thursday morning after Wednesday's relaxed wine tasting and dinner (with fireworks over the Gironde) in Hangar 14, one of many reclaimed quayside buildings, the formal proceedings began with an overview of the Bordeaux trade by Georges Haushalter of Compagnie Médocaine, head of the merchants' association and deputy head of the CIVB, whose statistics included the fact that China is already Bordeaux's fourth most important importer (by volume, I assume), that there are 300 négociants in Bordeaux and 93 brokers, and roughly 10,000 growers.
The first session was called Wine on the Web, a rather predictable subject nowadays, but my fellow panellists brought very different and complementary experiences to the party. Eric LeVine of CellarTracker was visiting Bordeaux for the first time in years and had a couple of days of intensive tasting and dining at various châteaux organised by fellow American Bordeauxphile Jeff Leve after the symposium. He was able to bring the 300 participants at the symposium up to speed on many recent developments, including the much-vaunted Augmented Reality (which I don't think I need technology for, personally). Rowan Gormley told us all the story of his adventures in online retailing of wine, including the novel set-up of his Naked Wines, which I now, finally, understand and admire. (Basically customers choose which wines will be offered and then finance the production and shipping operation, dispensing with the inventory issues that can plague the accuracy of search engines such as wine-searcher.com.) Mike Linton, past chief marketing officer for eBay and Best Buy, brought a vast wealth of expertise – but they all managed to inform the relatively untutored wino audience without overwhelming them.
As usual, some of the most interesting exchanges were as a result of the Q and A session, when, oddly, both of the first two questions were from India. Magandeep Singh, a vivacious TV wine personality in India (sort of Bollywood meets corkscrew) was concerned about the niceties of search-engine optimisation. LeVine had something to say about Snooth.com, who manage to have themselves listed above the relevant wine producer sites in any Google ranking. The second question from David Banford of The Wine Society of India was basically, 'Will these online transaction thingies catch on?' As Rowan Gormley observed, 'If not, I'm done for'. We all tried to give as much practical advice as possible such as ensuring that wine names were sufficiently distinctive to be easily searchable online and, you may not be surprised to learn, I dispensed a few tips on tweeting.
Then to coffee and canelés.
The second of the first morning's sessions had another decidedly missable title, Old World v New World Inspirations, but presented us with some good wine, and was moderated by Kym Milne MW. The idea was to listen to famous producers with experience of both old and new winemaking regions.
Eleventh generation Sancerre grower Arnaud Bourgeois, grandson of Henri, presented the next pair of wines, and was keen to stress that it was their knowledge of how different vineyards perform in Sancerre that has helped them maximise the potential of the land they control in Marlborough, New Zealand. See tasting notes on what we tasted.
Next up was Egon Müller from the Saar, who avoided treating us to his superlative Scharzhofberger, the wine he is most famous for, by bringing along his two ventures outside Germany, one from Slovakia and the other from South Australia. 'My idea of winemaking is to do as little as possible. I used to think Australia was all about winemaking and Europe all about vineyards but I realise now I was wrong', he told us, acknowledging the increasing understanding of vineyards in Australia. 'Most of the winemakers I work with want to intervene more than I do.
'The harvest in Bela, Slovakia, is normally in late October while Kanta fruit is picked in March, so the vegetation cycle for Kanta is shorter but when we pick in Australia the days are hotter anid longer. So I treat the grapes differently from Slovakia, where we always have 20-30% botrytis in the grapes. We press them immediately and ferment in stainless steel, but in Australia we think most of the flavour is in the skins so we have skin contact – about eight hours – before fermentation. We don't get botrytis in Australia but we do get some sunburn so we have to eliminate those berries so as not to add a raisined caramel flavour. Both wines are made in stainless steel. The differences in the wines are more down to differences in dates than in the grapes themselves.'
Next up, French Canadian Pascal Marchand, who once made the Comte Armand wines in Pommard and now consults around the world.
He believes in long macerations, 'more an infusion than an extraction'. He uses more new oak in Chile by necessity but will probably reduce the proportion as they break in barrels. The main difference between Burgundy and Bío Bío is the soil, apparently, with Bío Bío soils volcanic. The climate there is relatively wet, but although the total rainfall is very similar to that in Burgundy, the rain falls almost exclusively in winter. 'I have had to train the locals to work in vineyards because it's all completely new this far south. It's been interesting to transmit the passion for wine to them. You have to work with them yourself to get them involved. And it's so isolated, it's essential to have good mechanics – because it can take a long time to get spare parts.' I love practical details like this. We were to hear an echo of this from China the following day.
Zelma Long brought a South African and a Washington state red, both based predominantly on Merlot and Malbec. She appointed South Africa the Old World producer of her pair and pointed out that the Cape, where she and husband Phil Freese produce Vilafonté with Mike Ratcliffe of Warwick Estate, feels more humid with warmer nights in summer than Sonoma, where they are based. See the tasting notes for more detail on the differences.
Could you have an international wine conference or symposium in Bordeaux without global consultant oenologist Michel Rolland? Unlikely. He reminded us that it had been Zelma, at Simi in Napa Valley, who had kicked off his roster of international consultancies, and brought along a 2005 from Casa Lapostolle in Chile and Pontet-Canet 2005 to remind us what is made on the home patch. Unfortunately I had to dash off to an official lunch at the Hôtel de Ville so I didn't hear much of what Michel had to say, except that he explained that he was especially keen on Argentina and its Malbecs but didn't choose one of them because it was difficult to match it exactly with any of his Old World wines.
What I did learn at lunch, however, is that Bordeaux's plans for a wine cultural and tourism centre, a little along the lines of Vinopolis, are now well advanced and have the full backing of mayor Alain Juppé, who has done such an effective clean-up job on Bordeaux's city centre. (I am a new convert to those wireless trams.) It is scheduled for 2012, at the northern end of the quayside near the old submarine base, and will present – not just Bordeaux wines, but the wines of the world! Sylvie Cazes-Régimbeau of Ch Lynch Bages and the Union des Grands Crus is one of the dominant forces behind this development.