Winemaking in the age of Covid: some lessons from the pandemic
As I’m about to absent myself for a month, it seems a good time to reflect on what vintners have learnt from living through the Covid-19 pandemic and how the world of wine is changing as a result.
The most obvious change has been in how we buy wine, with a far greater proportion of us ordering it online. This may have resulted, briefly, in a shortage of cardboard packaging but it has certainly benefited the more digitally adept wine companies.
Master of Wine Fiona Morrison is best known for the Pomerol estate Le Pin owned by her husband’s family, the Thienponts, but she spends much of her time running their Belgian wine merchant, Thienpont Wine. She reports that, although Thienpont has had an online operation since 2017, its ecommerce sales doubled during lockdown and are still increasing. Across the Channel and in a very different corner of the wine world, longstanding English wine producer Ridgeview sold almost three times as much wine online in 2020 as in its previous record year, 2019. And last year’s sales grew by 81 per cent even though pandemic-related restrictions in the UK had loosened considerably.
This is reflected throughout the global wine business. It would seem that we are all pretty happy to have our wine delivered to us, substituting a chat with a merchant for a written sales pitch on a website. Gaia Gaja of Barbaresco’s most famous family points out that the internet does not discriminate by size of production, so these increased online sales have given small and medium-sized wine producers more of a look-in. A well-designed website can make even the smallest outfit look important. The US retail landscape in particular has become less dominated by a handful of large distributors now that wine producers can communicate directly with consumers.
Wine is a complex commodity. You’d think it would be hard to substitute for the experience of actually tasting it before buying. But the digital world has taken over to a surprising extent, with laptops and cameras increasingly substituting for physical sensation. As Janet Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards in the Napa Valley tells me: “We are putting together more videos to bring the family, our wines and the vineyard to the consumer.”
And, of course, there are the Zoom tastings (and Microsoft Teams, Google Meet…). For a while, they looked set to transform the wine industry. Now, they seem to be fizzling out. I am not sad about this. Bottles, atmosphere and humour are much more difficult to share online, and time differences are particularly apparent when tasting wine. An Australian presenting wine after their dinner is in a disconcertingly different mood from a stone-cold sober professional taster early on a London morning.
For quite a number of vintners, pandemic travel restrictions meant that they rediscovered the pleasures of hands-on work. For some, this has led to lasting changes. “We have always loved to be in the vineyards, but in Covid times you appreciate even more having them,” reports Klaus Peter Keller of Rheinhessen in Germany. “We have enlarged our winery garden a lot, growing vegetables and fruit that we use for lunch with our team.”
But for some thoughtful vintners, there has been a more serious reckoning. Nigel Greening owns the much-admired New Zealand winery Felton Road and has been taking the long view from his base in Devon, south-west England. “Covid is nature telling us to go to our room and think about what we have done,” he tells me. “After a year [of lockdown] I couldn’t wait to go travelling again. My life had been significantly driven by meeting our distributors and customers all over the world. By year two, I had accepted that I would never do it again. The price we pay to fly is just too much for the world to bear.”
Germany’s best-travelled vintner is Erni Loosen of Dr Loosen in the Mosel. He makes wine in Washington state too and has projects in Australia and Spain, as well as being likely to turn up at any Riesling conference held anywhere. But even he has changed his ways. “We have come to realise that most of the meetings work just fine through Zoom, and even virtual wine tastings were a success. So it made business life easier because you do not have to travel at all.”
Ken Forrester of South Africa spent his enforced captivity undertaking serious winemaking research projects. “My life of 120 to 140 days [a year] of international travel stopped abruptly. I spent a lot more time in the cellar, alone. I did a lot more research specifically on yeasts and sulphur bonds, on using oxygen to ‘stabilise’ wines.” One material result has been his decision to bottle his wines earlier to retain their freshness and fruit — a trend that seems to be increasing generally. The Ken Forrester winery and office have also been converted to solar power, and he is lobbying to have South Africa officially recognised as the cradle of regenerative viticulture, the approach that currently seems most likely to provide wine-growing with a truly sustainable future.
As Gaja pointed out: “Covid has raised awareness of environmental sustainability, as we have all seen how vulnerable and interconnected the entire world is.” She is critical of widespread greenwashing, whereby companies flaunt a few environmental credentials without being seriously committed to sustainability: “My applause goes to the numerous producers who have sustainable practices without advertising them.”
The pandemic has brought all aspects of sustainability to the fore, including employment practices. The labour shortages that affected many industries post-pandemic are particularly acute for those working in food and drink. Mardi Roberts of Ridgeview drew my attention to its new focus on staff wellbeing to help with retention. (Her winemaker husband Simon was more eager to report the unusual lack of distractions while blending and bottling his 2020s thanks to lockdown.) Because of hospitality staff shortages, the viability of winemaker dinners, once the mainstay of any US sales campaign, has shrivelled.
Gaja, again, makes an interesting point. The shake-up that Covid inflicted has made wine producers reassess the wine fairs and exhibitions that used to be such an integral part of the commercial landscape. According to her, “participation costs have become too high and [events] too frequent for medium to small wineries, and the benefit of participating is diminishing. They need to be rethought.”
For many, wine became a source of continuity during difficult times. As Michael Hill Smith of Shaw + Smith in South Australia says: “Life in the vineyard goes on regardless of any virus: vineyards still need to be pruned, grapes harvested and wine made.” Both Trefethen and Hill Smith stressed what a comfort wine was to many people — not just winemakers — as they sealed themselves away from human contact for so long. The lesson for Hill Smith was “what an amazing, uplifting, cerebral, creative and above all life-affirming drink wine can be”. Wise words, and ones I intend to take to heart, and not just over the next four weeks. Pass me the corkscrew.
Eight to rate
A current outstanding wine by each of the vintners cited here
Felton Road, Bannockburn Chardonnay 2020 Central Otago 14%
£41 James Nicholson
Ken Forrester, The Misfits Cinsault 2021 Western Cape 12.5%
Keller, von der Fels Riesling Trocken 2020 Rheinhessen
£49.99 Marlo Wine, £500 a dozen Vinified Wine
Dr Loosen, Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2020 Mosel 8.5%
£16.99 Rannoch Scott, £20 Roberson
Ridgeview, Bloomsbury Brut NV England 12.5%
Shaw + Smith, Shiraz 2019 Adelaide Hills 13.5%
£31.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants, £29.90 Shelved Wine
Thienpont, La Raison d’Hêtre 2016 Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 14.5%
£90 a dozen in bond Grand Vin Wine Merchants, also Justerini’s and Seckford
Trefethen Family Vineyards, Chardonnay 2020 Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley 13.2%
£32.50 Secret Cellar
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. More stockists from Wine-searcher.com
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