Rioja and Ribera Trip – September 2012

28 Sep

I embarked on my first Spanish wine trip this month. It seems strange that it has taken me this long to reach Spain on my travels and considering its output of wine, quality and price it seems inexcusably neglected. Over this year my aim is to cover most of this place, to understand better it’s wines, it’s food and it’s culture.

Like most of London it seems, with the explosion of tapas bars and restaurants in the capital over the last few months, I have been falling in love with Spanish cuisine, I even have a Spanish cook book and trying things out for myself while sipping fino sherry and snacking on toasted almonds, not only great for the skin but a food and wine match made in heaven!

The love affair with Rioja in the UK has got to be one of the most successful ‘brands’ in the UK market. You would be hard pushed not to find a Rioja on any restaurant, pub or bars wine list and is probably the biggest regional selling red wine in the country. Despite this it is, perhaps for me, one of the least known regions where I have any real depth of knowledge. Perhaps this is because Rioja (being so well recognised) by the UK consumer as well as being seen as a safe and reliable bet when one is slightly baffled by a wine list, tends to therefore sell itself and one doesn’t really need to know and say much to sell the wine to the consumer. Secondly as a wine snob/ connoisseur (delete as you see appropriate) I have never got too excited by mass produced, cheap Rioja which uniformly has an American wood flavour mixed with some red fruit flavours that uniformly fail to offend or excite. But I know this is not only what Rioja has the ability to produce.

Like all successful ‘branding’ in wine it is always a double-edged sword. As it grows in popularity, demand goes up, production goes up, quality goes down, reputation too if it is not careful. But like many of the world’s great wine producing regions of the world, it is in its regionality that Rioja has managed to overcome this danger. Yes there is a load of uniformly tasting largely well made but still unexciting wine grown here, but so are there a great number of medium to small sized boutique quality producers that continue to make high quality, and in many cases, world class quality wines under the label of Rioja. These wines come at a price but while not cheap some of these incredible wines are a hell of a lot more affordable than other iconic wines in world-class growing regions of the world. It is probably this fact alone that has fueled my interest in visiting Rioja now and namely one wine in particular Valserrano Finca Monteviejo by Bodegas de la Marquesa. A wine that has seduced practically everyone that has ever tasted it. Often I will get people ring me up and tell me how much they love the wine, where can they get it from, how much is it, it has that sort of effect on people. Not only did I want to visit where this wine is made I wanted to see if there was anything else out there that can match it. This is the stage for me where Rioja gets really exciting.

First stop then was to meet with my old friend Pablo Di Simon from Valserrano. He picked us up from Logrono and took us on a day tour of Rioja Alevesa, one of the 3 regions of the Rioja area. The landscape is undulating hills made up of a mixture of untrellised bush vines (the older vines) as well as trellised wines – 90% the Tempranillo grape with rest being Viura (grape variety for white Rioja), Mazuelo, Graciano and further south in Rioja Baja – Garnacha. Intertwined with the vineyards are beautiful fortress towns like the enchanting Leguardia, Briones, and Brinas. All immaculate and seemingly unchanged in centuries. In fact when we stayed inside the walls of the town we were awoken at six in the morning by chanting monks singing as they walked through the tiny narrow streets!

Alevesa of all the three regions of Rioja seems to be the where most of the smaller boutique wineries are based, although strictly borders of Rioja Alto and Alevesa interchange in this area. It is not only where Bodegas de la Marquesa are based but also iconic wines such as Contador Rioja (the first Spanish wine to receive consecutive 100pts from Wine Advocate two years running) but also Artadi, Murrieta, Contino, the list goes on and these wines are some of the worlds best and with a price to follow. One winery that we were really impressed with in the area was Pujanza. They have some of the highest vineyards in Rioja, grown at the very limits of what is possible and it is in the extremes that great wine is made. They also use 100% French oak which after visiting and tasting many different Riojas seems evident to me to have one of the strongest influences on structure and flavour components of the wine.

When I asked the winemakers at Pujanza why some use American oak and some wineries use French oak she replied rather straightforwardly. ‘People use American oak because it is cheap compared with French oak’ in her opinion there is no comparison. French oak is better. And at Pujanza no expense is spared with only 100% French oak used, 25% new oak, 25% 1 year old oak, 25% 2 years, and 25% 3 year old. The results are outstanding and the consistency across the range shows off a winery that is in their element. This style would fit in the ‘modern’ category of Rioja. The use of French oak give the wine a more subtle oak influence, more structure and the ripe fruit is allowed to blossom. This like the finca monteviejo made in similar way using again only French oak offers a seductive quality to the Tempranillo that just sings!

After spending time in the party town of Logrono for a few days, we travel north to the historical centre of Rioja and the small town of Haro. This is where the international brand of Rioja started. In the mid 1860s/ 70s with the catastrophic effect of the phlollexara outbreak in France. Wine makers from Bordeaux arrived in Rioja and built wineries around the train station of Haro, which connected Madrid to Paris. While wine was already being made in this region, the Bordelaise brought with them modern vine growing and modern wine making techniques as well as a developed export market.

These large wineries today have all largely received modern facelifts and are creating well-priced and varied styles of Rioja. Wineries such as Cune and Bilbainas are making a wide range of Riojas and the difference between the more ‘traditional’ and the more ‘modern’ styles is a great lesson in the use of wood, as well as the intricate care taken grading the quality of the vineyards enabling them to create such variance from largely one grape. It is also great to see the price/ quality ratio here being held high. Bilbainas ‘Zaco’ Rioja is a single vineyard wine, using high quality low yielding bush vines, and French oak but ageing the wine for less time creating a fruit driven modern style Rioja that retails £8-£10. Now that is value for money! A trip to Haro wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Lopez Heredia, the one winery whose wines probably have remained ‘traditional’ in the most purest sense. Their white wine currently on sale is their 2003 Crianza and their 1997 Reserva, a white wine that has spent over 3 years in oak. Extraordinary wines still with vibrant acidity yet super developed almost sherry-esque flavours, long, complex and unique.

Finally a Rioja report would not be complete without some notes on the Gran Reservas. The wines that perhaps represents the Rioja region at its most complex and unique. Wines that spend a minimum of 2 years in oak cask with a further 3 years ageing in bottle. These wines acquire premium prices but it seems a tradition that many of even the most modern winemakers like to make. Even if only in tiny quantities it seems a tradition that is thankfully alive and well today. All the Gran Reservas we tried on our trip were incredible. Not bigger wines but subtle and complex- an abundance of flavours with many of the top wines still carrying loads of fruit alongside more developed notes, spices, minerals and animal notes. These wines still have such life to them and will last for many years to come.

Another wild and wonderfully wacky fiesta in Haro pursued in which thousands of people descend on the town, everyone seems to be in a brass band and whom play throughout the town before a steel bull arrives and chases everyone around the main square as fireworks fire continuously from its back. It is hilarious, surreal and completely bonkers which about sums up fondly Rioja in general.

The last few days in Spain we travelled through the mountains and onto the beginnings of the Duero River, home of the Ribera vineyards. A region that is gaining popularity and importance in the winemaking world. Here the climate is very different to Rioja. Vines being between 800-1000 metres above sea level make for very extreme vine growing conditions. The biggest danger being ground frosts during flowering as well as in the autumn. Just a week before we were there, night temperatures were down to 1 degree at night. In the highest regions this amounts to a very short ripening season which means only tiny yields per vine can reach full ripeness. It is a gamble that they play and when they pull it off it is fantastic. We were very lucky to visit Dominico de Atatu who has some of the most extreme vineyards in the area. Out in the vineyard you would be lucky to see 2 bunches per vine. I have never seen such low yielding vines anywhere.

While Ribera only became a classified DO in 1982, peasants have been making wine in this way for centuries hence some of the vines ageing up to 100 years old. Atatu wines were outstanding and excellent value for money compared with the more established Rioja at this high level. I say we were lucky to visit Domingo de Atatu because other visits and tastings were less successful. A lot of the wines we tasted were unripe both in fruit and tannins. While American oak use is the norm here a lot of it felt unsubtle and poorly integrated. We didn’t manage to taste some of the most iconic wines of this region such as Vega Sicilia and Pingus unfortunately, wines that retail between £200-£400 a bottle. But to me it seems when done well it is outstanding and can be excellent value but buy with caution.

Our trip ended in Valladolid, a cool historic city and the best food of the trip. After the excitement of trying some Spanish delicacies the food so far had been mixed from the fabulous to the damn right awful. Huge amounts of salt, and excess fat along with poor quality bread were the most disappointing elements while incredible marinated peppers; chorizo and mushrooms were the more successful. Highlights included a finca Monteviejo food and wine match made in heaven with chocolate ganache with salt and olive oil. It was incredible and something to be repeated often until the day I die! The tapas in Valladolid was exceptional. Super fresh baked cod, mushroom and jamon. All cured meats were sensational, fresh croquettes and surprisingly black pudding and chorizo is a great combination.

With suitcase crammed with cured meats and Sheep’s cheese we head home, a big step closer to understanding the Tempranillo grape and the variety of wines it can produce as well as a wealth of cuisine ideas for home.

‘Plan your year in Spring, your day at dawn’.

18 Apr

It has been a very busy beginning to 2012 for the Bespoke team. Our trip to Northern Italy has sparkled lots of interest across the spectrum of wines we have bought back with us. From the dizzy heights of boutique garagiste wine from Piedmont to classic everyday drinking stalwarts that offer so much value for money. All the wines have been tasting great and wowing customers alike.

We have also taken on some great new consultancy work with a wine merchant in London and a hotel group in East Anglia. Both projects prove to be very exciting and we all share the same ethos of getting people to drink better wine and encouraging everyone to get more engaged with the weird and wonderful variety of wines available out there.

Our trip to Prowein this spring was also very productive and we hope to introduce some new wines to prospective clients over the next few months.

Want to know more? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

North Italy Wine Review January 2012

18 Jan

Looking down a heavily misted valley, the steep Monferatto hills rise out of the clouds, each hill trellised with vines right to their summits. The air is so still, the hills absolutely silent. Through the mist I see two men alone on the hillside tend to their vines, pruning them back in preparation for the oncoming spring. It is deep winter in Piedmont. The hills in the morning carry a thick frost and the rolling landscape is an eerie yet majestic white. The tiny fortress towns that cling impossibly to the tops and folds of these hills look ancient and can’t help but instill a notion in you that nothing has changed here in centuries. During such turbulent economic times, particularly in Italy, there is something comforting being here right now, in a place that feels like nothing could or would ever change.

Behind this romantic facade however, in wine-making terms, there have in fact been huge changes over the last twenty years. The landscape may not have changed but behind the scenes a great modernizing process has taken place that has transformed the consistency and quality not just here in Piedmont but throughout the Italian wine growing regions.

On our North Italian wine trip this month as we sped through the countryside it was this mix of the historical, the traditions, the family businesses, the indigenous grape varieties, along with the immaculate vineyards, modern wineries and commercial knowhow that together paint a picture of one the most exciting wine growing regions in the world today.

Of course throughout Europe many wine growing regions have their own equally long historical roots in wine making. They too have their own indigenous grape varieties. It is this depth and breadth of the wine-making world that makes wine so exciting. However the sheer number of different varieties native to Italy, and to a larger extent relatively unknown or at least under represented in the wine drinking world compared to France, means there is still plenty for the commercial market to discover in Italy. With the reputation for consistency constantly rising in Italy, never has it been a better time to branch out with lesser-known grape varieties in the UK market.

Wine lists that continue to represent only the international grape varieties and well known classics are failing to fulfill the thirst for and exploration of the ever-knowing and more adventurous UK consumer and Italy really has some truly exciting varieties to bring to the table. That’s not to say the Italians can’t compete on the international grape variety front as well. Every Chardonnay I tasted in Northern Italy, whether oaked or un-oaked had a brightness and lift with more acidity than their French counterparts. This does a great service to liven up a wine that can often feel fat and flabby. Another example I tried in Veneto was a Cabernet Sauvignon made in an Amarone style. It offers a huge concentration of lip smacking fruit while still maintaining a wonderful structure and fresh finish at a far more competitive price than its bigger brother.

With high consistency levels we were also impressed with wines at the more competitive end of the scale and with a price to quality ratio that would give any house wine a run for its money.

It also became apparent on our trip that while the classic Italian wines from northern Italy (the Barolos, the Barbarescos and the Amarones) uphold their international reputations as unique, intense and some of the most impressive wines in the world, it is perhaps their little siblings that for us really stole the show. It was the ‘baby Barolos’ the ‘baby Barbarescos’, the Barberas and the Valpolicella ripassos that really shone in their approachability, their own uniqueness and their real, so far un-met, potential for UK wine lists.

We were also much impressed by the number of wineries who either are already or are moving significantly toward organic production. The wines we tasted produced in this way have a lovely purity to them and really distinguished themselves especially so in Soave where the grape has suffered so much from poor commercial production.

But, it is all about the baby Barolos baby! Nebbiolo wines with less than the required 24 months in oak from Piedmont can offer all the beautiful scintillating floral aromas synonymous with the Nebbiolo grape but follow through on the palate with a gorgeous plump fruity silky mouth-feel, balanced with that classic structured dry tannin finish. These are still very serious wines but with approachability and a price tag which, I think, really suits today’s wine enthusiast.

While we see the Barbera available on the occasional wine list, this is one grape that really is very under-rated. In the past I have always been put off by its naturally high levels of acidity but some wineries with modern techniques are producing some truly blockbuster wines from this grape. The depth of aromas this grape has the potential to produce blew me away, the lack of tannin also makes it so god dam accessible it really deserves better recognition.

Another positive experience of the trip was a master class in Prosecco. Never have I thought much about Prosecco other than astonishment at its incredible rise in popularity over the last five years. Largely, I think most would agree, to do with its price tag rather than its flavours. However, we found a Prosecco supplier which makes Prosecco really worth remembering and a real joy to drink, even at the commercial Frizzante and Spumante levels. A lovely surprise.

Pecorino, Teroldego, Grignolino, Arneis, Freisa as well a few more better known native varieties such as Pinot Grigio (some wonderful serious examples from Alto Adige), Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Garganega, Corvina, Rhondinella, Cortese, Montepulciano all outlined the tremendous variety and uniqueness each grape and each region of Northern Italy has to offer and we know we were only scratching the surface. It was a wonderful, insightful, educational trip that has only further cemented our love for Italian wine and our desire to promote wineries we feel produce wine with great passion. Wineries who have one foot in the historical roots of place and a belief in the potential of their native varieties and the other foot in modern techniques that can bring their wine to an international audience have great appeal.

As the largest importer of South African wine, what should the UK wine industry be doing in light of the Human Rights Watch Report ‘Ripe with Abuse’?

6 Dec

As the largest importer of South African wine, what should the UK wine industry be doing in light of the Human Rights Watch Report ‘Ripe with Abuse’?

South African wine is big business in the UK. South Africa exports around 400 million litres of wine per year and the UK imports more South African wine that any other country. The UK market accounts for nearly 30% of all South African wine exports. In light of this should UK importers be concerned by the findings? Do UK importers, considering their purchasing power and central importance to South African wine exports, have a sense of duty to do something about it? Has anyone been motivated to implement any changes in their purchasing behaviour since the release of the report?

As someone who works in the wine trade as a wine buyer, and who has imported wine from South Africa for many years as well as taking a trip out there earlier this year visiting over 60 wineries, I was deeply saddened to hear the news when the Human Rights Watch Report came out. Whilst it is clear there are deep inequalities across South Africa, it was in the wineries where I saw most clearly and from a first-hand point of view positive steps being taken to not only maintain and uphold employment law but to go way beyond this and implement progressive projects aimed at bridging the inequality gaps between the rewards to labour and capital ownership. One example is the Black Employment Empowerment Project (BEE), which promotes a transfer of capital ownership from the winery to the workers. Other examples were wineries who had set up education and care facilities for the workers and their children as well as permanent housing. The range of initiatives vary widely in scope and success but it is clear that some wineries have at least been more pro-active in attempting to tackle inequality in this part of the agricultural sector than the South African government. It is the government that the Human Rights Watch report most strongly calls to account for failing to adequately monitor and enforce the employment rights of agricultural workers.

‘Good labour legislation exists in South Africa, protecting the rights of the farm workers with relation to employment conditions.’ But, according to the findings of the Human Rights Watch Report it is the government’s failure to enforce these employment laws that has led to individual farms throughout the Western Cape fail to uphold adequate working standards. While the report covers wineries and fruit farms, the large majority of workers interviewed were from fruit farms and it is clear from the report that these farm workers are getting a raw deal in South Africa. One of the major failures outlined in the report is the small percentage of farm workers in the Western Cape represented by unions. It is estimated only 3%-11% of the agricultural sector in the Western Cape are represented by unions, compared with 30% among those with employment nationally. Lack of unionification has been a consistent problem in the farms of the Western Cape with similar findings outlined by the South African Human Rights Commission in 2003 and 2008. Rona Peligal from Human Rights Watch states, “we are advocating for South Africa’s government to better enforce relevant regulations and to work in a closer and more coordinated fashion with the wine and fruit industry to remedy the abuses…The farmers in the Western Cape should comply with South African law and international standards.

The response from Wines of South Africa (WOSA), the wine industry body of South Africa, has been one of anger and disappointment at the report’s findings as well as the report itself. They argue it is unrepresentative of a large proportion of the South African wine trade. Despite the attempts to dismiss the report by much of the industry, the Human Rights Watch organization believe that rather than attacking the reports findings, the industry would be better served by working with government to address the violations…uncovered. As a buyer myself I would have to agree. I want assurance from the South African industry body that I am importing from a winery that is free from human rights abuses and that steps are being taken to ensure that this is the case. Many other organisations and individuals, including agricultural union leaders, have come out in support of the reports findings. Human Rights Watch go on to state that they believe the report to be ’balanced, detailed and factual. Our findings have been corroborated by other credible sources, including the South African Human Rights Commission who reported on similar abuses in farms in general in South Africa in 2003 and 2008…our report suggests that the problems the commission found, persist.’ The Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry also released a report earlier in the year that came to similar conclusions about widespread abuse. “That is nothing new. It is more than ten years ago that we first raised the question of the shocking conditions many farm workers have to endure,” says BAWSI President Nosey Pieterse, a long-time union activist who was one of the founder members of the Cosatu-affiliated Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) After initially speaking with representatives from WOSA when researching this article, no representative has since responded to my questions over what, if any developments or changes have been made since the publication of the report.

Other people working in the South African wine industry have been more forthcoming (directors of wineries, farm owners, winemakers, cellar managers, export managers) and have expressed a mixture of responses to the report. I spoke to over 30 wineries since the report was released to assess the overall reaction to the report. It is clear that all I spoke to believe the problem lies not only with the failures of the government to effectively enforce employment laws but also with individual farm’s failures to adequately uphold laws on human rights. Most wineries were very surprised by the examples outlined in the report and believed that these incidents are very rare within the South African wine industry. However there were many who respected the reports findings, stating that whatever the scale of human rights abuses, the fact that they exist at all is a problem and it needs to be addressed.

Regardless of whether this is a small minority of wineries or something on a much larger scale, as long as those wine farms who are guilty of human rights failures are either protected through anonymity or through a failure of the government and stake holders to investigate these abuses, these stories will continue to dog the South African Wine Industry. There is a great danger, at a time when ethical issues are being pushed up the agenda, these abuses if not addressed could have a serious detrimental knock-on effect to South African wine export sales.

The people that should be really angry by the findings of this report, and trust me they are, are the winery proprietors and workers in South Africa who own and work for fully accredited ethically sustainable wineries. Wineries who have made giant leaps in reversing their country’s troubled historic past between farmers and their workers. These proprietors see that despite all their hard work in bringing about fair working conditions, their country’s reputation is being brought down by other wineries who have no intention of applying for accreditation and working within the law. While publicly (through WOSA) the only response from South African wineries was anger at the claims of bias and anecdotal evidence, some wineries thankfully have responded somewhat more progressively to the report. People like Alex Dale, owner of The Winery of Good Hope who states ‘We will always be exposed to greater scrutiny than others, due to our history. ‘We should therefore take the lead, expect it and hold ourselves up to such scrutiny.’

Most prominent amongst ethical organisations in the South African wine industry is the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA). This is a not for profit, voluntary association of many different stakeholders who are committed to the promotion of ethical trade at first in the wine sector and now in agriculture as a whole. Stakeholders include producers, retailers, trade unions, non-governmental organisations and government. There is the fair-trade initiative, the Farm Equity Schemes and the Black Empowerment Project (BEE), programs launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving previously disadvantaged groups who are SA citizens economic opportunities previously not available to them. It includes measures such as employment equity, skills development, ownership, management, socioeconomic development and preferential procurement.

It must be said that within the wine industry in South Africa, none of these ethical developments are without their problems. Human Rights Watch states that they ‘investigated the efforts of the WIETA and fair trade initiatives, and found that neither had a profound impact on the lives of the workers interviewed.’ It becomes clear that WIETA is clearly under-funded and since its inception in 2002 still has only a minority of wineries in the Western Cape fully accredited. WIETA also does not require audits down the supply chain, which means while the winery itself is accredited where they buy some of their grapes from may not uphold the same employment standards. Fair-trade initiatives are becoming a growing success in South Africa, however a fair-trade farm was included in the HRW report outlining an incident where workers had been intimidated by their boss from joining a union. Fair-trade responded to the report stating that while it is true that there is a ‘low unionization of agricultural workers throughout South Africa and particularly in the Western Cape…South Africa, unlike other Southern African countries, does not have one agricultural sector union…but rather a vast array of independent and affliated unions who change regularly. Most Fairtrade certified farms in the Western Cape have at some stage been affliated with a union but workers have withdrawn voluntarily’. Despite these difficulties accreditation is clearly the way forward, it just needs better implementation and better investment from the government and the industry to iron out these current failings. Speaking with individual South African wineries about the HRW report there is also a clear desire amongst many wineries who have fought for ethical accreditation to weed out the farms failing to comply with the law.

It is not only within South Africa where we can look for improvements.
As South Africa’s largest importer of wine the UK needs to stand accountable also. Lets not forget that many of the largest wine importers in the UK are the supermarkets, colossal multi-national corporations that make billions of pounds of profits. While much of South Africa’s problems lie in under-funded ethical initiatives, a nation-wide housing crisis and an inefficient government, many of these large UK importers do at least have the means to ‘put something back’ into the economies they export from. One could argue that ‘they put back’ into the economy by purchasing the goods in the first place, but are they putting back enough or is their consumer power detrimental to the industry itself? The report does highlight that a majority of the multiples have developed ethical trade programs. Tesco (the biggest importer of South African fruit) sources from about 600 farms and requires independent third party audits based on the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) base code. Marks and Spencers, Morrisons and Sainsbury have all made steps to comply with the base code of the Ethical Trade Initiative. However the report states that the impact of the ETI is unclear since workers often don’t know which retailer purchases their products and so cannot identify whose ETI program is failing. Here we need more transparency between workers and purchasers.

Like other wine regions around the world (particularly in the New World) trying to compete with well established export ties with Europe, a large proportion of the South African wine industry went into producing large volume cheap ‘bulk’ wine. Their intended clients for bulk wine being the supermarkets and large importers in the UK. So successful has this model been in terms of the volume of wine being exported from South Africa, much of the industry has become heavily dependent on business with supermarkets and bulk wine importers. Here we see a familiar pattern emerge. All supply chains who become over dependent on a few large customers become vulnerable to the customers purchasing powers. Often we see suppliers’ margins get squeezed by these large importers to, what many have described as, unsustainable levels.

About half the wineries I spoke to in response to the report stated that they had felt huge pressure from the supermarkets and large importers to lower their prices to unsustainable levels. Many believe that in order for the supermarkets to maintain their own margins they do so at the expense of the wineries and thus bring many to the brink of bankruptcy. It is not hard to see that anyone who succumbs to price pressures like this may feel forced to cut corners within their wineries and thus working conditions deteriorate.

Similarly, to the report’s findings, where there are good and bad wineries so there are, it seems, good and bad importers. So far, none of the supermarkets’ contacted, despite acknowledging my requests have responded to my questions regarding what, if any, efforts are being made to better enforce ethical trading standards.

While South Africa has its problems to solve, the UK as South Africa’s main importer of wine has some responsibility too. The fact is many UK importers are concerned by the report and since its publication many importers (such as The Wine Society) have put disclaimers on their websites assuring that the wineries they import from are fully audited. Also some large importers have taken steps and do send their own auditors out to wineries. However this does not account for all UK importers. We often see the major grocers consistently in the news for allegedly sourcing products at unsustainable prices and from suppliers found guilty of failing to comply with that country’s employment laws. Is this happening in the wine trade too? Some campaign groups are currently lobbying the UK government to establish its own watchdog to prevent supermarkets benefitting from working abuses overseas.

Like many in the trade, I believe UK importers need to play their own role in improving the working conditions of wineries in South Africa by insisting that all products grown, harvested, packaged and bottled in South Africa are subject to ethical audits. The UK wine trade could introduce this relatively quickly and work with their wineries to ensure audits are proposed. If the UK wine industry endorsed this, all wine farms in South Africa would be strongly encouraged to call in the auditors.

The next obstacle would be who is going to pay for the auditing of wineries? In my line of work I cannot see small independent importers directly financing audits for a product they may only import on a one-off basis or only for a few years. If the importer were expected to fund the audit themselves directly it would encourage importers to look elsewhere, either to already accredited wineries or to countries where employment law is more effectively monitored. For these sorts of importers I feel the best solution would be for the winery to fund the audit themselves and for the cost of the audit to be included in their overheads and integrated into their export price. This could at least stop non-audited wine coming into the UK in the short term, but the long-term goal supported by many within the South African wine trade is for the South African government to introduce a small levy tax on all exports the money raised would go towards funding an effective auditing service.

It has become clear on investigating this report and its response that there are many people in the trade in South Africa who have been fighting for years to promote fair working conditions within the wine industry. And there are many individual wineries who have succeeded well beyond this in terms of providing housing, education services for the workers and their children and a successful distribution of ownership through black empowerment initiatives. The problems highlighted in the report however are still very real and are problems that spread much further than the wine industry.

I can understand the anger by the wine industry that perhaps because wine is something often associated with luxury, romanticism and of course tourism, the wine industry has been used to highlight a problem that is bigger than just the industry. For example throughout South Africa there is a huge lack of affordable housing. Many wineries can not afford to continue to house workers once they retire and this is one of the reasons why there are so many evictions (lawful and unlawful). There is also clearly a lack of effectiveness from government bodies to enforce employment laws and until the government put more efforts into addressing this and enforcing the law effectively there will always be farms that will not feel the pressure to modernize their standards. Finally there is clearly a lack of funding for independent ethical organisations such as WIETA, which holds back its ability to operate at its full potential and enforcing the entire South African wine industry to be fully accredited. But real potential solutions have been put forward by many people in the South African wine trade and these solutions should be encouraged by importers in the UK.

Pressure from importers to demand reliable audits from wineries they import from could be the catalyst needed to get the South African government to endorse and fund a reliable and effective auditing system in South Africa. WIETA was born because of this pressure from importers, but we now need to press harder to encourage auditing across the industry. Most importantly this could also create new energy and interest in South African wines in the export market. It could use this development in its industry to publicly rebrand the South African wine industry away from its reputation as purely a bulk wine supplier. The fact is, South Africa has some truly world-class wine and we all should be buying more of it. I believe the release of the report had no desire to scupper the South African wine trade but simply to make public areas that demand improvement. As the South African Director of the Human Rights Watch states, ‘the answer is not to boycott South African products…that could be disastrous for farm workers…we are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers.’ As South Africa’s largest importer of wine, the UK wine trade could easily obligate this request. This would make a real difference and bring about real positive change for the farm workers of South Africa. This report could also be used as a catalyst aimed at the South African government to once and for all properly invest in effective measures necessary to upholding its own employment laws.

How bravely Autumn paints upon the sky.

8 Nov

So it has been a busy couple of months at Bespoke. All the autumn orders are now in the UK ready for the build up to Christmas. I have been up and down the UK visiting potential new clients and new suppliers, as well as trying to make it to as many trade tastings as I could.

For anyone who cares to know let me tell you, heaven is a glass of Chambertin Grand Cru by Jean-Louis Trapet. I had the pleasure of meeting him yesterday at the Biodyvin Tasting which was certainly the highlight of my week. The show was excellent, showing a selection of really awesome wines. Their techniques might be a bit bonkers but you cant argue with the results! Other highlights include the Croatian tasting in October. I am always impressed with the intensity and unique flavours Croatian wines have to offer.

So where next? Well all indications earlier in the year were pointing towards a trip to the Languedoc but at the last minute we decided to change tack, postpone the trip for a month and head to Northern Italy in December. This last minute change of events has left me frantically trying to organise and research the trip to get the most out of it, but it is all done with great excitement and trepidation and we cant wait to set foot on Italian soil.

Other news is that I have spent the last month, where time permits, researching the Human Rights Watch report on the South African wine industry and the fall-out caused by the publication. I was deeply saddened by the news on its release and considering I was there throughout January and February this year when the report was done and left with a very different viewpoint, I wanted to try and combine both the positive and negative aspects of the industry and look towards progressive steps given in response by much of the trade in both the UK and South Africa in moving forward. While it is not something that can be sorted over-night it seems that there are real practical steps that can be taken both by importers, the South African trade and government to improve things quickly. While my article only touches on this I hope it can help go towards encouraging people in the trade to do their bit. In a small way we are all responsible and we must ensure that we are all importing from sustainable and ethical sources. The article will be put up on the website within the next couple of weeks.

Until then enjoy the long dark nights and the deep rich wines and if you are on the look out for some Italian wines, please let us know and we will do our best to help.


The morrow was a bright September morn.

16 Sep

As we move into September, the Bespoke team are back in the office after a very successful trip to the States. While we were away we were very pleased to receive some big juicy orders to kick off the autumn run, so we are excited by that.

We will be doing a buying trip in October, we think probably to the Languedoc. However, depending on feedback from our clients, we will go where ever their needs take us!

Coming soon on the website will be a couple of articles. One explores whether ‘fair-trade’ in the wine industry is working. Another will look at the development of taste and whether consumers of wines from supermarkets should be treated differently to consumers of boutique wines or is it a developmental process? Interesting stuff, be sure to check them out when they are up. If you want to contribute to the debate please get in touch.

Climbing up a hill, coming down a mountain

29 Jul

“Climbing up a hill, coming down a mountain” – Exciting new movements in the Chilean Maule Valley

So I find myself clambering up on an unmarked mountain track, following Cesar my new Chilean friend, through shrub land full of bushes that he tells me are full of natural remedies. He tells me all this in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish but I remember being surprised at the time that all scientific sounding words seem to be quite similar in Spanish to my native English tongue. In fact when put in a position where one doesn’t really speak the local language and your companion really does not know any English it is amazing how one’s ability to really listen fires up. How, just understanding or recognizing a single word or a couple of similar sounding words in a sentence could, in light of the surroundings, be enough to understand what the hell is going on! How, with a lot of facial movement and pointing, one can communicate on a level making both of us feel comfortable considering the predicament we find ourselves in. Two of us, alone, in the middle of Chile, bar his dog and a flock of giant condors that soar on the thermal currents, rising up from the Maule River and up through the foothills of the Andes.

“Depression” Cesar says pointing at a bush; “Si” I say nodding my head in understanding.  It’s another natural remedy. He then grabs a stem of a bush blocking our way: “no touch señor”.  I move away from it forcing myself instead into a rather unpleasant spiky number. Cesar mimics itching his body, “not nice” he says, “but good for sleeping” he adds. Now I’m guessing it is not administered in the same way for sleep or have I just perhaps misunderstood something? Who knows, and I was doing so well!

Finally we reach the summit and the view is spectacular. It is now I understand why he wanted to bring me up here; it wasn’t for a lesson in pharmaceuticals but a lesson in the climate and typography of one of the most exciting regions in Chilean wine country.

Looking down into the Maule Valley we see the Erasmo vineyards that Cesar spends most of his life tending to. The vineyards lie alongside the meandering Maule River, which protects the vines from potential frost damage as the warm body of water counteracts the cold autumn nights. A sudden frost he warns me when just approaching harvest could wipe out the entire vintage! The great drop in temperature at night is just another wonderful natural phenomenon that makes this place an ideal setting for grape growing. The change in temperature from night and day helps maintain the acidity in the grapes and allows for a longer slower ripening process which allows the grapes to pick up rich and complex flavors.

As we stand on the summit I can also feel the cool wind, which as Cesar points towards the ocean is rushing off the South Pacific and funneling down into the valley. This cool air also helps slow the ripening process but more importantly so does it keep the air dry and without humidity and the addition of regular sun one has a disease free vineyard and no need for pesticides. I look up and in the far distance are the majestic snow capped Andes, another vital component that makes up this rather special climatic region. Cesar points out to me the different volcanoes and which belong to Chile and which to Argentina although from what I can gather there is still some dispute.

As both Cesar and I plant ourselves down on a large rock at our conquered summit, Cesar reaches into his bag and pulls out two bottles of beer. It is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning and with only the sound of the local Church choir singing far in the distance down in the valley it almost feels somewhat sacrilegious, but Cesar was right, our walk to the summit deserved to be celebrated and the beer went down well.

The Maule Valley is huge and historically a place for the production of largely unremarkable bulk wine. However, after being in the region for just a short time visiting the boutique vineyards in the area, I have found the wine to be anything but unremarkable. The wineries (like Cesar’s) in this certain region of Maule argue that when the large corporate bulk wine growers bought land in the valley they actually planted their vineyards in the wrong place!

While Chile is famous for its ideal grape growing climate (regular sun and low rainfall) its reliance on irrigation from the Andes snow melt has often been detrimental to the quality of Chilean wine. Over-irrigated vines mean the vines don’t have to work hard in digging deep into the ground for its necessary nutrients and water sources. The grapes therefore fail to pick up any interesting flavor components and one is left with largely unremarkable wine. Back in the UK I always remembered being largely unimpressed after visiting Chilean wine fairs. I also remember never really having much of an opinion on Chilean wine, even the wine we sold at the merchants I worked for. Looking back I think it was a bit of an unwritten rule that Chilean wine on our list didn’t have to be remarkable it just had to be a certain price (i.e. cheap) and not taste bad and I think this view is not uncommon among a lot of merchants in the UK.

This permeates down to the consumer who buys Chilean wine, not because it is interesting but because it is cheap and doesn’t taste bad. But this was my main reason for visiting Chile and other southern hemisphere wine regions. I was sure these regions had more to offer than what we find on the UK shelves and I was right. Things are changing, there is movement in Chile by independent boutique wine growers who feel that their terroir is as interesting as say Europe and that they too should have a greater share of the wine market at price points where wine does in fact become interesting. And they do in fact have a point. Just because in the grand scale of things, the “new world” of wine regions in places like Chile were initially targeted by large corporations focusing on bulk wine production in countries where labor and land were cheap, does not mean  that this is all these places have to offer. Arguably this may be the necessary early foundations of a wine producing country proving its mettle, proving its ability to consistently offer a well-made product. Perhaps now that Chile is firmly established as such a place, it is time for its true identity to reveal itself.

My wonderful Chilean host Cesar, overlooking the Maule Valley.

So what makes Cesar’s vineyards and others like him different to the bulk wine growers in Chile? Well, unlike the bulk wine growers in the Maule Valley Cesar and his neighboring wineries are in the right place! They have set up their vineyards in a part of the Maule Valley where the vines can survive without irrigation. Parts of the Maule Valley have higher annual rainfall and alluvial soils that can lock bodies of water away for when the vines are desperate and dig deep to the water source at the same time absorbing nutrients and minerals that add interesting flavor components to the wine.

One thing I have definitely learnt on my travels around the vineyards of the southern hemisphere is the importance of micro climate.  The climate conditions of particular vineyard sites rather than general wine growing areas, play an absolutely vital role in the difference between those fabulous, interesting, exciting wines we sometimes have the good fortune to taste and the rather dull lifeless unremarkable wines that flood our supermarkets in the UK.

While price is always an issue for the UK consumer it is worth pointing out that these interesting wines coming out of Chile are not expensive. And what small price difference that does exist is justified by how good these wines make you feel. Be assured that your money spent has gone to artisanal pioneering wine makers in Chile that are reinventing a wine industry that has historically supported large corporations making unexciting and unsustainably cheap plonk.

As Cesar, myself and the dog descended down from the summit and back into the valley buoyed by the thought of lunch back at the winery and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cesar turned to me and said smiling “la Vida” and motioned his hands outlining the shapes of mountains. I couldn’t have agreed with him more; life was like walking up and down mountains! Anyone who thinks you can’t communicate with only a basic grasp of another’s language, must be surprised by the depth and profundity Cesar and I reached that day on our mountain walk in the Maule Valley!

The Bespoke Wine Company hits Hollywood, …well almost!

28 Jul

Last week I was slightly surprised to be informed that I made it on to Argentinian television! I was sent the clip through and you can watch it here: .http://buy canadian generic viagra online

I was filmed during a tasting at one of our favourite wineries out there. You could call it more of a cameo appearance, but that’s how we like to operate, oiling the cogs in the engine rooms of the wine trade!

I accept it is probably not as impressive as making it on to the Iron Maiden DVD presenting bottles of Chateau Palmer ’82 aboard their private jet but that experience is a hard one to beat!.

We have had a busy month concentrating on building up our portfolio of European wines, with some absolutely cracking buys. Next month we head to Lake Michigan, USA to search out some more boutique wineries, more for pleasure than business, before heading to the Languedoc in September.

The Bespoke Wine Company would like to wish you a happy holidays and hopefully we will catch up with you in September.


The Bespoke Wine Company appoints new Director.

14 Jun

It is a great pleasure to announce the appointment of Shelagh Smith as a new Director to The Bespoke Wine Company. Her experience and knowledge in business, law and the arts are all great attributes to this business and its ambitions. For more background on the team at Bespoke go to our ‘Meet the Team’ page.

Day 121 – Bespoke Wine arrives back in the UK

4 May

So initially we planned the trip to be 80 days around the wine world of the southern hemisphere. It has taken us slightly longer than expected but has been worth every additional second. It really has been a crazy, wonderful and insightful trip and perhaps most importantly we knew within the first few days, a totally justified journey. Tasting wines, visiting wineries and meeting people in the local industries we would have never met waiting for them to arrive in London. These people are the real people behind the wines of these regions, these people are the real people to tell us what is going on right now in their regions, where their industry is, where they want it to go and where hopefully we can help them. The quality has been outstanding with highlights in every region we explored.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people I met on the trip, for their hospitality and time. Your wisdom, passion and utter dedication is a total inspiration for anyone who enjoys wine and is interested in seeking out the huge variety and quality this world has to offer. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson I learnt on my trip, the true variety of quality wine out there, wine with real regional quality. For too long the ‘new world’ wines have been seen as a cheaper alternative to European wine, that offers consistency at a more affordable price at the expense of its regional attributes, qualities and identity. For too long unremarkable wine shipped in bulk to the UK has been detrimental to the bigger picture and a much more interesting industry of each region. While consistency and price is a great benefit to regions whose weather is much more predictable than some European regions, I feel it has overshadowed the variety on offer and the potential reached in certain specific areas of these regions where, like Europe, micro-climates offer wines of a world class standard.

On arriving back into the UK the rest of the bespoke team are very excited by the wealth of potential we have at our fingertips and now is the time to sift through what we have found, what looks feasible for certain markets and to approach the UK wine trade and find out their ‘bespoke’ needs!