URSABLOG: Wine Lessons

Wine is a central part of my life. Even just writing this seems like a guilty admission, but even if it makes me sound like an alcoholic – functioning or otherwise – I don’t care. Of course there are many other things in my life that are important, but I don’t think our identities should be a box-ticking exercise, and therefore I won’t bore you with them; you can probably guess them anyway. Let’s just say that a world without wine for me would be unthinkable, impossible, but mostly just colourless and sad.

Wine fascinates me, and has done since even before I started drinking it. It has special equipment and rituals, but as I get older – or rather, as I mature – I have moved away from the more pretentious elements of wine drinking, and have developed a wider understanding of wine: biologically, scientifically, aesthetically, anthropologically, gastronomically, horticulturally, geographically, economically, even – which I appreciate does sound pretentious – psychologically and philosophically. A lot of ‘ically’s in there, but such is the centrality and ubiquity of wine in the world.

My first love in wine (and in my heart of heart, this still remains the case) was French wine. French red wine to be more specific. This has probably to do with the red bottle on the Sunday dinner table at home as I was growing up, treated with reverence, dispensed only by my father and only to the deserving few, and even then restricted carefully depending on age and whether we were in favour or not. This love of French red wine developed into other wines, and areas as I started to learn more, take classes, travel, and know more. But, like some weird Freudian instinct, French red wine – wherever it is from, whatever grape, price, vintage or label – will always bring greater scrutiny than others. And like most Freudian instincts – especially the weird ones – I can’t help myself.

I was able to develop this love into knowledge and experience. Owning a house in France for ten years allowed me to explore more; it was not in wine growing country but there was so much more variety to be bought in the shops, supermarkets and restaurants – and the ability to eat food that was grown and cooked and served with it deepened my appreciation.

At more or less the same time I started investing in wine for the future. Through membership in The Wine Society I was able to buy wine en primeur, which basically meant I ordered it whilst it was still in the barrel, and then it would remain mine through the bottling, storage, shipping and aging process for it to be released finally – in perfect condition, not having hung around in uncooled warehouses or in the back of warm shops, or just left on the shelves – to my own storage facilities, to be drunk in perfect condition with the right food and company. Quick tip: never drink a good or expensive bottle of wine straight from the shop, give it a little rest to recover from the trauma of the journey.

This became my retail therapy. Instead of shopping online for clothes, or shoes, or gadgets, I bought wine. Needless to say my more expensive – indeed reckless – purchases were made when I was in need of therapy more. This, I suspect, is true of many of us.

This stopped abruptly in 2016 when Brexit happened. My wine was being kept in bonded warehouses in the UK. As most of the wine takes some years before it is ready for drinking, there was no point in investing in wine that would be kept in a country that was exiting both the customs union and the single market in the near future. I would have to buy direct from France, or find substitutes.

In fact it was the latter that led me to explore more the wines that exist on my doorstep in Greece, and I was indeed fortunate to be here at time when wine in Greece is developing into a world class product. Not just the Assyrtiko wines from Santorini – already world class and ever rising in price accordingly – but wines from native varieties from Crete, Drama, the Peloponnese, Limnos, Ikaria and Kefalonia to name but a few. I have my preferences, but I keep being surprised by the quality and variety. I was proud last night to take two friends visiting from New Zealand to a favourite wine bar in the centre of Athens and treat them to excellent food with wine from Greece: Robola from Kefalonia and Kotsifali from Crete. They were suitably impressed – the tartare of mutton was perhaps a bit challenging for them, but I can never resist it – and I felt proud.

At the same time I am debating with myself whether to liberate some of the many bottles of wine incarcerated in the UK on the orders of Boris Johnson and his unmerry men. They are ready, crying out to be drunk. Through some connections of mine in the wine trade here I have located an experienced carrier who can ship them to me, but the expense of not only the shipment but paying the custom duty and clearance is adding around fifteen euros on each bottle. This is a high ransom to pay, but it will be paid. I am waiting for the weather to cool a little first so that they arrive after their long journey only lightly traumatised, not boiled, in the process.

This little story is a basic lesson in the economics of trade. Raising barriers to free trade will cause people to search for substitutes, and as well as providing opportunities that did not exist before to carriers, damages the ability of producers – or in this case retailers – to market their products. This is a small example amongst many of Brexit ‘taking back control’. It will not escape your attention that this is a British busines selling French wines, and losing out.

Wine also turned me from a climate change sceptic to a believer. Vines can only be grown in areas that are suitable for them to survive and thrive, geomorphologically (in the suitable land soils), and in the right climates – macro and micro – to ripen and create that sugar that can then be fermented to create the alcohol that makes wine wine. The world of wine is being affected by climate change, and it is this fact that stopped me trying to ignore it.

Vines grown in areas that sometimes struggled to ripen the berries are now producing better and more consistent wines as the ripening period lengthens year after year. In warmer areas, the amount of sugar produced during ripening is increasing, leading to stronger wines, wines with more alcohol. Some appellations (limited geographical areas that have rules that dictate what grapes can be grown and how they are made to carry it on their labels – Bordeaux, Saint-Estèphe, 4ème Grand Cru Classé for example) are now changing their rules so that grapes more suited to warmer climates can be considered. Not that Saint-Estèphe will change any time soon, it is too exclusive and conservative to allow such change, but Pomerol has now decided to allow growers to irrigate for the first time, another reflection of warmer and dryer conditions. As Master of Wine Jancis Robinson says: “The climate is changing much faster than you can change appellation rules.”

At the other end of the scale, the more southern (or northern in the southern hemisphere) producing wines are struggling through an increase in heat and desertification, and whilst they can probably survive with increased irrigation there becomes a point when scarce resources become too expensive for the product being sold.

For me, I don’t think of this as being apocalyptic, just evidence that climate change exists. Wine is a growth product in England as it gets warmer, German wine is becoming more reliable, and dryer (in taste) as time goes on, and – I did not believe it either – there is such a thing as Danish wine. For my taste however the warmer, stronger wines are not my favourite. I prefer a wine with a lower alcohol content, preferably below 14%. It is less heavy on my head, and my body; I had my gall bladder removed about ten years ago in an emergency operation, probably also due – in part – to my love of wine and food. My diet has changed since then anyway, but whether this is due to being away from the heavy rich foods of the north (which I love) to a more ‘Mediterranean’ diet (which I also love) I cannot say. But certainly Greek wines from cooler parts – further in the north, at higher altitudes – seem to suit me better. Geography matters.

The fact that wine is changing as the climate and the planet does is irrefutable evidence for me. I cannot ignore it. Vines are sensitive and wonderful plants that produce a beautiful product that gives great pleasure. If they are reacting to changes in the world around them then we should pay attention. Changing what grapes are grown, irrigating and planting new heat resistance vines are all expensive and time-consuming activities that would not be taken if not necessary. And the results from this change are risky: it takes five years for a recently planted vine to mature and produce berries suitable for consistent wine production. It is not just a case of planting corn instead of wheat.

Climate change does not just have to show its face in instant, Instagrammable catastrophes – like the recent tragic wildfires in Thrace, which broke my heart knowing the area quite well – but in things that we are in everyday contact with, that we notice. The changing of trade rules result – for whatever shortsighted and self-serving, or even justifiable geopolitical reasons – in changes that affect how people live and behave, and have consequences, unintended and unknowable at the time, in additional to the ones that were been accurately predicted. Both these have been brought home to me more forcefully through my love of wine. Perhaps the saying in vino veritas is more profound than we think.

Simon Ward