International Cool Climate Wine Symposium 2016: closing remarks
Jamie Goode's final talk at the 2016 ICCWS in Brighton, UK

My job is to close this International Cool Climate Wine Symposium. It’s a difficult job, because it means I haven’t been able to prepare in advance; rather, I’ve been taking notes all through the sessions and then I’ve had to rapidly bring all my thoughts together in this speech. As I was hastily preparing, I asked a friend: what shall I say?

“You'll be fine,” was the response. “You're good at communicating. Either take it the easy way, compliment everyone and make people laugh. Or the hard and more interesting way and provoke everyone.” So I’ve chosen the latter option. These are some of my thoughts, prompted by the sessions.

First of all, “Cool climate” is a bit like “natural wine”. There’s no definition for natural wine, but that doesn’t stop it being a useful term. Cool climate is similar. One of the problems is that the way cool climates have been typically defined, by using rather crude climate indices such as growing degree days, isn’t really good enough. There are other factors in play than simply heat summation, so we probably need better indices. John Gladstones, in his book Wine, Terroir and Climate Change, makes some interesting points. He notes that phenological development in vines peaks at 19 ˚C. So if you ignore extra degrees above this, and also make some subtractions for large diurnal range fluctuations, and also adjust for daylength, you get a better picture of climate from a vine’s point of view.

So what is cool climate? It’s an appropriate climate for growing grapes for fine wine, with the latter stages of ripening occurring during autumn. Cool climate is a state of mind: it involves innovation, facing challenges. Cool climate is where sparkling wine can be made with fewest compromises on harvest dates.

There’s a pattern to the typical development of a cool climate wine region. They usually kick off when someone is crazy enough to plant some vines, against better advice. Initially, lots of varieties are trialled, and there’s a process of accidental discovery. The initial goal is to make drinkable wine, and the first successes pave the way for the second wave. There’s increasing professionalization, and the industry begins to mature and find a voice. International recognition follows, as success breeds success. 

Climate change has been important in the ongoing development of cool climate wine regions, but it’s a ‘frenemy’. The development of cool climate regions has tracked rises in temperature over recent decades. But climate change has been coupled with increased climate variability, which will bring increased costs to viticulture. Growers will have to budget more carefully for yield losses or failed harvests, and some vintages will see significant loss of quality through climate variation.

I’m not a marketing expert, but it seems clear to me that a really smart strategy in the global wine world is to do one thing well. ‘We are quite good at lots of things,’ is all to common a message, and while diversity sounds interesting, it’s a terrible marketing message.

Champagne is a great example of doing one thing well. It’s a large region that makes one style of wine. It’s possible to make still wines in Champagne, and these can be pretty good, but why would you? Make them, by all means, but don’t – as a region – talk about them, and confuse your message.

For the UK, I think it’s clear that we should stick with sparkling wine. It should be our message, and what we show the world. Let’s use a sporting metaphor. Messi as acknowledged to be the world’s leading soccer player. Now imagine you took him down the nets and he turned out to be a useful cricketer – good enough to get a game at a local club. Should he focus a bit on that? Of course not. The UK can make good still wines, but it can make world class sparkling.

Provence Rosé is one of the wine world’s great success stories. Here’s a region that is able to make very good red and white wines, but it is now focusing on rosé. Its pink wines are selling for high prices, and are getting better all the time. This is a region that has also been successful in innovating with bottle shapes and sizes. There’s a coherence between the image of Provence as a region, and the message the wines convey. It all works.

New Zealand is a great example for cool climate wine countries to follow: Central Otago and Marlborough are two regions that have always had a clear brand proposition. For Marlborough, it is Sauvignon Blanc – and a style of Sauvignon that has redefined this variety. Exuberant, expressive and immediately recognizable, it’s also really consistent, which helps explains New Zealand’s high average bottle price. Central Otago has been a great success as a monovarietal region: it’s all about Pinot Noir, and consistently good Pinot that seems to reflect the place well. Both these regions do other things well, but their incredible recent success is due to presenting themselves to the world with a concise, plausible marketing message.

So, what are the keys to marketing for cool climate wines?

You need a simple message. Coupled with consistent quality. An export focus keeps you honest, because you are testing and benchmarking all the time. And collaboration is important (for the UK, it’s important that everyone works together, and that there isn’t any hurry to establish PDOs).

This conference has had a lot of scientific content, and I think it is important that while we value science, we also recognize its limits. We science types can’t afford to be scientific fundamentalists: we must be humble in the face of wine. We have to respect the empirical approach, and the knowledge accumulated by a winegrower who knows their land well, batch ferments and then follows the wine in the cellar. Wine scientists sometimes lack an understanding of wine, and could benefit from being more interested in interesting wine. They would benefit from travelling the world visiting producers and spending time in vineyards. 

Doing wine science well is difficult. Often experiments are being done on quite limited terroirs, on relatively short timescales. Also, doing small batch ferments/microvinifications well is really difficult. Sensory work is even more difficult. Add into the mix that it is very hard to transplant results from one site to another, and then the application of science to winegrowing becomes quite difficult. A further issue to bear in mind is that the rules for commercial wine are different from fine wine.

The biggest challenge for any wine producer starting out is finding a route to market. The precise route will depend very much on where in the market you are playing. There is not just one wine market, but rather several, which all overlap to a degree. Market segmentation is vital in any discussion of wine, but often it is forgotten. In many ways, distribution as important as winemaking: if you get distribution right, then people will find your wine and you will sell some. Currently, much of the wine world suffers from a mismatch between the scale of production and the demands of the marketplace. It’s also worth remembering that wine is a unique product, and has to be treated differently.

One of the big threats facing wine producers is the race to the bottom, with retailers selling wine ever more cheaply. The commodization of wine is a disaster, because it ends up in profitability being stripped out. This commoditization occurs when you separate wine from place. In this conference we’ve had some talk about technology, and how it can help with the problems cool climate winemakers face. But ‘technological solutions’ often lead to uniform wines with no sense of place. As a wine producer, your only competitive advantage is place. I would also add that we need to be cautious of the unintended consequences of changing wine laws, even if these changes are well intentioned.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the neglected stars of the wine world: microbes. The role of yeasts and bacteria in wine production is underappreciated. Grape juice contains few of the qualities of wine. It’s only after the action of microbes that we have all these characters that make wine such a compelling beverage.

I was particularly struck by Mat Goddard’s research on microbial ecology. His studies on yeasts in vineyards and wineries has proved that there is definitely a biological component to terroir. Bacteria are especially neglected in the wine world, and there’s increasing evidence that they can have a significant flavor impact on wine.

It’s also important to think about the microbial life in vineyards. What is the role of soil microlife in influencing vine growth? There is evidence of important interactions between microbes and vine roots that affect how the vine grows. It would be interesting to compare the effects on the soil of using herbicide/no-till/working the soil. This will prove to be a really important are for future research, if we want to understand the effect of vineyard site on wine quality.

Published June 2016  


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