The must-attend conference

Felicity Carter reports from the third edition of the MUST – Fermenting Ideas conference in Portugal.

MUST - Fermenting Ideas
MUST - Fermenting Ideas

Paul Mabray has a warning for the wine industry: “Winter is coming.”

The compelling CEO of Emetry, a Californian data company, came bearing a list of threats to wine. An industry too invested in certifications and scores. Gimmicky private label wine. Young wine drinkers who can’t afford wines over $20. And wineries that think their profitability is assured if they build magnificent temples of wine to attract visitors. “Imagine me flying to San Jose to test drive a Tesla and then flying back while they ship the car,” said Mabray. “It’s a terrible model.” 

He added, “The great American engine has slowed down. We’ve got problems and I don’t think they’re getting any better.”

There was more. A lot more. This, after all, was MUST – Fermenting Ideas.

The event

Held in Portugal’s seaside city of Cascais, MUST is a three-day wine conference, founded by journalist Rui Falcão and television presenter Paulo Salvador. It’s backed by Portuguese government entities so, as British journalist Richard Siddle said, it’s not cluttered with irritating sponsor presentations. Speakers are given 45 minutes to deep dive into an eclectic range of topics and, for the most part, the results were lively and thought provoking.

But this three-year-old event was driven by a marked sense of urgency, as speakers including Miguel Torres outlined the grim environmental situation. His words had particular resonance that week: while sea breezes kept Cascais cool, the rest of Europe sweltered under an unprecedented heatwave that buckled train tracks and blasted vines.

Environmental awareness is also affecting consumer behaviour. Isabelle Legeron MW recalled how she was considered an oddball when she founded the RAW Wine Fair for low-intervention wines. Today, “the scene has changed tremendously. Wines are now sold straight away, or are on allocation.” Most of her visitors are between 25 and 44 years old, and Legeron MW said, “they get excited by feeling they are contributing to the world”.

The climate emergency is also driving the development of promising technology. Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz, a technology investor, went through some of what’s coming, from shoebox-sized weather satellites that will allow vineyard owners to predict tiny micro-changes in weather, to solar-powered weeding machines and devices to map minor variations in soil.

Increasing biodiversity

Gaia Gaja gave an inspiring presentation on what can be done to preserve the land. About 15 years ago, the Gaja family realised that not only was climate change affecting the land at their winery in Barbaresco, but biodiversity was also disappearing. Wines were becoming sweeter and more alcoholic and losing acidity. Alarmed, the winery called in specialists from other fields, including a botanist, an entomologist and a geologist. Increasing the life of the soil became a priority; Gaja turned to cow manure and worms to help add organic material to the soil and thereby improve its water-holding capacity.

The scientists pointed out that the Gaja land was surrounded by monoculture in all directions. “There are no more woods, only vineyards,” said Gaia Gaja. That meant the birds and pollinators that had once picked up seeds in one place and deposited them somewhere else could no longer do this crucial work. “If you walk in a vineyard, you don’t see more than five or six types of grass,” she said.  By contrast, “a meadow can have 25 different grasses”.

Birds had also disappeared, so a tree planting project was created to give them somewhere to nest. “Another idea was to introduce bees around the vineyard,” because bees not only bring flower and grass seeds, but yeast as well. Bumblebees and wasps can have stomachs full “of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which can reproduce sexually,” she said, and the wasps transfer these yeasts when they bite grapes, thus raising the biodiversity of the natural yeasts.

The goal is resilience. Unexpected weather events like excessive rain can prevent vineyard workers from spraying plants in time, so the only way forward is to get the vines to take care of themselves. A thriving ecosystem full of antagonist organisms that guard against mould, mildew and pests is one way to do it. Another is to change the way the vines are selected. In the old days, the team would walk the vineyard and choose the healthiest vines, destroying the sick ones. “Ten years ago we reconsidered and selected all the plants presenting sickness,” said Gaja. They watched the vines and noticed that while some vines died, others survived. “Those are the plants we selected, because they are resilient.”

Her talk was proof of something Eric Asimov, wine critic of the New York Times, said in his own speech later that day – that good vignerons work with nature while also taking science seriously.

What is terroir?

Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW said terroir is not fixed, but can be created and destroyed. He agreed that while soil and climate are important, “those unique things only appear in a particular context. Fine wine regions are created by people.” 

Ballesteros MW gave the example of Bierzo, a region already known to the Romans, who mined it for gold. Because the miners craved alcohol, the locals planted vines and made wines, eventually creating a hierarchy of price and quality. Yet after the Romans exhausted the gold, Bierzo’s wines declined in prestige and importance. “In 3,000 years there was no change in the composition of the soil,” said Ballesteros MW. “There was some change in terms of climate, but not very relevant.” The biggest change was the historical one.

“Wine quality is realised by the throat of the consumer,” he went on. “If there is no-one drinking your wine and paying for it, there is no fine wine.” For a region to thrive – to have terroir – it must have communication, trade and infrastructure. Ballesteros MW went further, saying there can be no fine wine without foreigners. “Locals are used to the land and the wines and they won’t pay more for it,” he said.

In the past, the people who created that value were the British. Today, that role is increasingly played by people in the US and Hong Kong. Value can also be created when outsiders enter a region and shake up the status quo. The fortunes of Bierzo, for example, changed when Álvaro Palacios bought vineyards in 1998, arriving just as the EU had come into being, connecting Spain with European markets. “The land was there, but the people weren’t.” Wine, said Ballesteros MW, never does well with poverty, which will destroy terroir as surely as wealth will build it.

And although it’s now common to revere tradition, it is often the transfer of outside knowledge that allows a region to flourish. Ballesteros MW noted that when British wine writer Cyrus Redding explored Spain in the 1850s, he never mentioned Rioja. The region didn’t flourish until later; in 1858, the Marquis de Riscal brought a Bordelais winemaker to the region, who applied modern winemaking ideas to Tempranillo. “Very soon, Rioja was considered top quality.” An even bigger leap forward happened when the region gained a train in the 1870s. “Rioja owes everything to this train,” said Ballesteros MW, because it gave the wine a route to market.

Terroir can also be destroyed by the human element. “Navarra has a very efficient government,” he said, which encouraged growers to pull out their old vine Garnacha in favour of heavily irrigated Cabernet Sauvignon. “This doesn’t work. Who wants Cabernet Sauvignon from Navarra? Navarra is about to disappear.”

The need for new voices

One of the most popular presentations was given by Ntsiki Beyala, South Africa’s first black female winemaker, who won a winemaking scholarship to Stellenbosch University, despite having never tasted wine. Beyala added that she thought wine disgusting when she finally did taste it.

Not only that, but all her courses were in Afrikaans, a language she didn’t speak, so she had to learn winemaking through a combination of self-study and help from a tutor. Then there were the cultural barriers. “People would say, ‘My wine smells like truffle’,” she said. “I had to go to a chef and say, ‘Help me out’.” When she finally smelled truffle oil for the first time, she said it reminded her of a calabash of fermenting milk. Today, Beyala has her own brand, Aslina Wines – but still doesn’t talk about truffles. “There has been a growth of the middle class, and the work has started to market to middle class black people.” Which means the language of wine has to change.

It was a reminder of how much the wine world talks to itself, the point that Paul Mabray hammered home: it’s time to start listening and using digital tools to create strong connections with wine drinkers. “The internet has flattened and reduced the space of geography, time and culture at the same time. The customer is in control,” he said.

To ensure the industry’s future is a healthy one, every inch of the customer journey should be mapped, he said. “When a customer calls the phone, what happens? When they walk into the tasting room, what happens?” His strongest advice for keeping the trade healthy: “Customers. Invest in these people.”

Winter may be coming, but for three days in Cascais at least, it was sunshine and stimulating ideas.

Felicity Carter was a keynote speaker at this year’s conference.

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