Writing a book part 37 - writers block and under-planning
 
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Having boasted about how much progress I made last month, the last few weeks have been painfully slow. Some mornings, I have sat with my document open, either staring at the space that needs to be filled or aimlessly scrolling back through the rest of the book or distracting myself with social media and BBC news stories. Just like a real writer.

This seems very much like writer’s block: I have literally no idea what to write. Every sentence I start gets deleted. Nothing seems to fit properly. I have no idea what should happen.

This last point is telling. I’m at a stage of the novel, about two-thirds through, which involves an new scenario for the plot. The setting is a visit to Bordeaux, culminating in a special lunch where a discovery is made that sets up the rest of the story. It also involves the first consummated encounter between the two main characters.

This was a new edition to the story when I realised it needed to follow a more conventional romantic narrative, and needed to be longer too. I thought at the time that it would be easy to insert this into the existing writing.

In reality, the planning hasn’t been anywhere near thorough enough. I have realised that my timelines don’t quite make sense, and that simply deciding that the characters should go to Bordeaux creates loads of questions that need answering as I write. Ideally, I would know exactly what happens, when and where. Because I don’t, I’m getting writer’s block.

Even so, I have managed to make some progress by forcing myself to persevere. The writing may not be very good, but it is definitely better than nothing, and is bound to need rewriting later anyway. Sometimes it can be surprising how much you can create even when it feels painfully abortive. And my determination to finish the book is still very much intact.

This week I’m in France for work, which includes a free day at a hotel next weekend. My intention is to write as much as possible on this day. So tune in next month to find out how badly that went.

 

Richard HemmingnovelComment
Everything I wrote in September
 
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September was a very busy month, including a week in South Africa for Cape Wine 2018, as well as lots of production work on a forthcoming series of A Glass With, the podcast I produce with Olly Smith.

Here’s everything I wrote in September:

Richard HemmingComment
Coffee and wine: a new book with a fresh perspective
 
 

This week, I received a copy of Coffee and Wine, a new book that offers a fascinating perspective on wine, which is especially valuable for professionals - and in particular for MW students.

It was written by Morten Scholer, who was for many years a senior advisor for coffee projects within the UN, and who also has a lifelong interest in wine. His book is the first of its kind to compare and contrast the two drinks - covering everything from history to production to trade structures to packaging to consumption.

While it has the format of a textbook, the writing style is lucid and easy to read, accompanied by around 200 tables, illustrations and boxouts that are crammed with graphs, statistics and maps.

Scholer’s career has evidently provided great expertise in coffee, as well as the fastidious attention to detail needed to achieve the depth of research offered in this book. (Disclosure: In 2017 I was paid to check and edit much of the wine content in the book, but I have no other financial interest in it.)

There are several reasons I think this is such a useful book for wine lovers - quite apart from whether you have any interest in coffee.

  1. It is a great reference for all the basics of wine - from global vineyard hectarage to lists of major pests and diseases to overviews of production, including plenty of useful financial detail

  2. It is crammed full of #mwstudyfacts - especially because it often compares wine with coffee, giving the sort of comparative context which is invaluable for MW studies.

  3. As an outsider, Scholer is able to give a dispassionate analysis of the world of wine, as well as some entertaining opinions on some of the wine world’s more offbeat habits, including scoring, descriptors and concepts of terroir.

Here are some examples of the sort of content included:

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Because it is a project I worked on, I am obviously biased - but I am also very familiar with the level of detail and accuracy that has been involved in the making of Coffee and Wine, headed by Scholer but with the help of many prestigious contributors - and I really believe it is a worthwhile addition to any wine bookshelf.

The cover price is £30 but you can currently buy it for £24 direct from the publisher or even less from some other online retailers.

Richard HemmingComment
Writing a book part 36 - progress of a sort
 
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I've made more progress in the last two weeks than I have in the last two months. Now that I'm back in the habit of writing for 30-40 minutes every weekday morning, my pace seems much improved.

I know that isn't a huge amount of time, but because it is at the same time every day (from about 6:15 to 7:00 am) it follows a routine which evidently helps my productivity.

Another reason I've made good progress is because I've been enjoying writing the most recent chapter - a flashback to when the main character (Penny) visits Jerez as a sixteen year old, and has an encounter with some local kids. It's a coming-of-age moment, which is a genre I really like, and it has been satisfying to create something which deals in those sorts of feelings and experiences.

Writing that chapter came easily - it seemed to flow naturally as I wrote, whereas other sections have felt more forced to write. This is probably because I'm less certain about the plot and/or characterisation in these sections, but I hope it doesn't make the writing too awkward. As I've said before, writing the book over such a long period, including significant overhauls to the original idea, might leave the finished novel rather inconsistent. I hope not, of course, but it sometimes seems that way.

The only way to find out, though, is to keep on writing and get it finished. Whether it's good or bad, a finished product can be refined and improved, whereas an unfinished product is doomed to failure.

 

Richard HemmingnovelComment
Everything I wrote in August
 
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As usual, August was a quiet month as most of the wine industry went on holiday - including me, where I took the above picture of Sangiovese mid-veraison in Tuscany. Back at home, things were still ticking over, so here is everything I wrote last month:

Richard HemmingComment
Three essentials of (modern) wine label design

As someone who a) drinks wine and b) owns a smartphone, like millions of other people, I assumed that certain critical factors in modern wine label design would be self-evident. Yet none of the articles I could find about designing wine labels mentioned them, even in passing. And even more tellingly, many of the wine labels I encounter fail to get it right.

The digital era has imposed three vital aspects on wine-label design. I'm not saying that labels can't be successful if they break these rules (there are plenty of famous examples that clearly are); nor am I saying that these are the only important elements (the articles I read focus on colour, typography, style, graphics, and other important factors).

But if I was going to design a wine label today, these three rules would be absolutely, fundamentally unbreakable.

Rule one: be shareable

For wine labels, that means that all vital information (name, vintage, logo, artwork) should be easily captured in a 1:1 photograph on a smartphone. This will ensure that the wine is clearly identifiable on social media and should also improve its chances of quick recognition by apps such as Vivino.

Here's an example of a wine label that works well (and happens to be delicious):

 
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And here are some which don't work so well:

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As much as I love Domaine de la Côte wines, having the vintage as a separate label means either sacrificing size of the main label within a 1:1 photograph or using a weird angle. (I'm aware that printing a vintage label separately is a cost-saving exercise - and that having a separate vintage label hasn't seemed to hamper Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's sales - but the point stands.)

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The width of this Biondi-Santi label means that the brand name is barely visible; and the placement of the vintage label on the steep shoulder means that a strong angle is needed to get both in the frame.

Rule two: be #searchable

To ensure that your wine has a good chance of being found on the internet, it pays to have a unique name. Terms like 'Reserve' and 'Winemaker's Selection' are so common and generic that they aren't easily searched for. Likewise for producer names such as Moulin-à-Vent (see The Game of the Name for more on this).

For the digital era, the best names are a single, unique word that links only to the wine in question. So: Sassicaia, Suckfizzle and Taittinger are all good; whereas Latour, Taylor's and Hardys are much less effective (try searching for them in Twitter if you don't believe me.)

For the same reasons, it's wise to use words that can be spelled phonetically and are in English, or at least easy to understand in English - since that is the main language of the internet (conveniently ignoring Chinese languages for the moment), and is also the language of at least two of the biggest export markets for wine.

Rule three: be consistent

Some wines are famous for changing their branding and names every year. Sine Qua Non is probably the best-known example, who apparently never make the same wine twice, and therefore release unique cuvées every year (Hedonism in London has a very large selection). But for most producers, this is a bad strategy - and again, it's because of the digital era.

Databases of wines are increasingly important in the wine world - for retailers, reviewers, wholesalers, apps and collectors - and releasing the same wine every year will help build a clean and comprehensive set of data, which builds up to create a bigger online footprint - rather than something more fragmented and inconsistent.

Ideally, wineries should produce cuvées which fit into a clear hierarchy. For new world producers, this could be along the lines of:

  • entry-level blends/varietals from broad appellation (eg HemmingWine, Chardonnay 2017 California)
  • mid-tier blends/varietals from more specific appellations (eg HemmingWine, Bell Toll  Chardonnay 2017 Sonoma Coast)
  • premium blends/varietals from single-vineyard and/or sub-appellations (eg HemmingWine, Sun Rise Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 Sonoma Mountain

For European regions, this system is often implicit in appellation structure, such as:

  • Ourlant, Chardonnay 2017 Bourgogne
  • Ourlant 2017 Puligny-Montrachet
  • Oulrant, Premier Cru 2017 Puligny-Montrachet
  • Ourlant, Grand Cru 2017 Montrachet

There might be several named premier crus in this range too, which still fits into the structure, but things get more complicated when you get micro-cuvées of individual rows or plots within a vineyard, or special bottlings such as hommages or museum releases.

Again, I'm not saying that such wines ought never be created; but that most producers should be conscious of how wine databases work, and design their ranges to be as compatible as possible with the requirements of the database age.


Good label design involves lots of different factors, many of which I haven't covered here, and I have no training in design. But surely it's just common sense to ensure that wine labelling and nomenclature has maximum compatibility with the demands of the digital era.

Writing a book part 35 - new name but same problem
 
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Predictably, the summer months have been poor for writing. With various short trips for holiday or to see family throughout late July and August (as well as the small matter of celebrating my 40th birthday), I've barely written anything for my book.

Consequently, the timetable I vowed to stick to is completely out of touch with reality. By now, I wanted my rewrite to have reached chapter 15; I'm only half-way through chapter 11. There's not much point in getting frustrated about this - I'm now rather blasé about when this book will get finished. After all, my original deadline was to have it finished by my 40th, and now that has passed, there is no other arbitrary date before which I want to be finished.

Unless we count my 50th birthday.

At this rate, it will be the second half of 2019 before I finish - but I do intend to, and am still enjoying the process. 

Today, returning to the book after several weeks, I changed the name of the main character. She was called Chloe, which felt too exotic for somebody who thinks herself as rather ordinary. But I didn't just want to use any old common name in its place. Eventually I settled on Penny (weirdly inspired by Pennywise the clown from It, which has got nothing to do with my story whatsoever) and think it fits rather well.

But another year of writing - at least - gives me plenty of time to change my mind again.

Why being passionate about wine means nothing
 
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Why do people want to become doctors? To help people. It's an entirely reasonable motive, but as this 2001 clip from ER shows, it's also a total cliché.

 
 

Much the same goes for being passionate about wine. In virtually every interview, application or biography I read with someone who works in wine (or wants to), they make a point about having a passion for it, as if that's some kind of noble calling.

Having a passion for something doesn't make you good at it, and claiming to be passionate about wine is effectively meaningless. You might have a genuine passion for wine, but so what? Just like prospective doctors wanting to help people, it doesn't tell us anything insightful.

How much more interesting and honest would it be to hear a doctor say they love the control of cutting someone open when they're sedated? Or that they want the glory of rescuing someone that falls ill on a plane? Or that they just get a thrill from seeing blood and guts?

Granted, that might not make them any more suitable for the job, but it tells us more about them than saying something as bland and clichéd as 'I want to help people' - or 'I'm really passionate about wine'.

The next question is: what can we say instead? That has to be a personal response, but everyone should be able to come up with something - and if you can't, then maybe you're not that passionate about wine after all.

Here are some more original ways of expressing passion:

  • Wine is full of lies, and I want to know if that matters
  • Wine reflects society, which can make it ugly and beautiful and everything in between
  • Wine is the only thing that can make me laugh, cry, and throw up
  • Wine should be a force for good
  • Wine offers a blissful escape from the mundanity of daily life

All of which are interesting and telling - perhaps a little too revealing, in some cases - but that's got to be better than hackneyed platitudes about how passionate you are.

 

Richard HemmingComment
Everything I wrote in July
 
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Much of last month was taken up with turning 40, and with the onset of the summer break it was fairly quiet for writing. Here's everything I wrote:

  • On JancisRobinson.com:
  • My Living France column featured Domaine Huet of the Loire
  • My Drinks Retailing News column considered the golden age of wine retail
  • With Olly Smith, we belatedly released the final two episodes of series three of our podcast, A Glass With
  • And finally the blog had two posts.
Richard HemmingComment
Writing a book part 34 - picking up the pace
 
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In an attempt to improve my productivity writing the book, I have been devoting more time to it. In addition to 30 minutes of writing every morning, I set a few whole days to work on it too. Keeping the productivity high for sustained periods is not easy, so I set myself mini-targets to aim for each day - for example, yesterday I wanted to finish chapter seven (the last chapter of part one) so that I could print it out and proof read it. That meant writing around 1,500 words, which is not a bad average rate. 

Unfortunately, when I printed it out and started to read the prologue, I hated it. By now, however, I've become accustomed to this. It seems quite normal to loathe your own work, and if I'm going to finish the book then I near to be thick-skinned enough to get on with rewriting and improving whatever isn't good enough.

It's been said that all writing is terrible, but only terrible writing that actually gets finished can ever be published.

Besides, I'm much happier with how the first section of the book now develops in terms of plot, putting the love story at the centre and de-emphasising the wine content. As that has changed, one of the characters has morphed from a young blogger into an old journalist - which is a much more suitable fit for what the story needs. I also changed his name to make it suit the new characterisation, which really helped to clarify what sort of person he is.

For similar reasons, I'd like to change the name of my main protagonist, Chloe. I like the name, but it's a bit too exotic and glamorous for her personality - but I haven't yet come up with an alternative yet. It needs to be more plain, yet not too common or unmemorable.

My main objective for this month is to keep my momentum going. Now that I've completed 21k words of the rewrite, I should be able to work out how long the rest will take me, and draw up a timetable accordingly.

Based on a rough calculation, I won't finish the book until February 2019 - almost four years after I started. And then will come yet another round of rewrites ...

Everything I wrote in June
 
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June was a very productive month with lots of writing - especially on the blog - and included a visit to the Keswick beer festival (pictured)

 

Are wine adverts on Instagram any good?

Historically, the marketing budgets of wine producers were always too small to permit buying adverts, but social media has made advertising not only affordable but much more effectively targeted. Instagram is reputedly one of the cheapest platforms, starting at around $5 for 1,000 impressions, and allowing detailed targeting to ensure your adverts reach the most receptive audience.

So over the last month, I have been screen-grabbing the adverts that appear in my Instagram feed to consider their effectiveness. (Click on any of these images to expand them.)

Firstly, I collected a few non-wine adverts, which are presumably in my feed because I meet general criteria based on age, gender and location, possibly targeted because I've shared posts about food and music.

These all have a straightforward message, a simple image, a clear call to action and a financial incentive for clicking.

Next, I collected a few non-wine alcohol adverts.

These are already a bit more vague, with no financial incentive to click and messages that seem a bit 'so what'. While the lager image is clear enough, the gin bottle is too small to see the branding, and the saké photograph is too busy. For both those adverts, the call to action is to 'view Instagram profile' - but what's the benefit of that? Why would I want to see more uninteresting photos, and what benefit does the advertiser really get from increased profile views?

So, can the wine industry do any better? Here's what I found.

Wanderlust are clearly trying to steal customers from Naked Wines for their own online retail business which, incidentally, seems to offer a very similar ethos:

We only source directly from winemakers [...] we passionately believe that producers should get a fair price for the hard work and commitment they put in [...] we believe in connecting you to our winemakers so that you can understand their stories [...] we invite them to the UK 4 or 5 times a year so you can meet them in person.
— wanderlustwine.co.uk

While their logo is very visible, the background image is rather generic, and the call to 'sign up' without any explanation of the benefits or a financial incentive seems premature.

Next come three different approaches from individual wine brands.

The Blossom Hill advert, clearly targeted for Wednesdays, gets the social media style right, with a few hashtags, a clear, appealing image and a straightforward message about their new cuvée. Dark Horse Wine is a Gallo brand with an advert timed to coincide with National Barbecue week - hence the hashtag. The message is clear but both this and the Blossom Hill advert are missing an opportunity to offer some kind of tangible engagement, such as a discount voucher.

The third advert is a much smaller scale, more 'homemade' style which represents the reality for many wineries without large marketing budgets. The photo is a backlit, badly composed image without clear label visibility and the text is advertising their appearance at a trade fair in London. The relevance of this is very limited, although at least the 'learn more' link does at least redirect to their website.

Then there were three adverts for wine-related services.

These clearly demonstrate the importance of getting the level of information right. The Wine Butler advert has an image that appears to be promoting a wine delivery service, but there's no text to entice anyone to press the learn more button. Fuse Concierge is much more targeted, with a tempting message for the engaged wine consumer and a slick, professional photograph. Winecdote perhaps suffers from providing too much information - especially with the hashtags, the sheer length of text is not conducive to the fast-scrolling style that most people practice with social media.

It may be that there are restrictions on offering financial incentives on alcoholic products via social media, but it seems to me that the wine adverts I've captured from Instagram could make more of the opportunity. The best adverts combine a single, eye-catching image, a brief and enticing message with a few targeted hashtags and some kind of immediate incentive to click.

But at least these wine companies are already taking advantage of the opportunity that Instagram offers to reach thousands of potential customers for a relatively low price.

 

Richard HemmingComment
Wine in India, part two: winemaking

After a night experiencing wine culture in Mumbai, the following morning we hit the road and headed for Nashik, one of India's main wine-producing regions.

8:30 and time for my first Vada Pav ... and chai. 25 rupees (20 pence approx.)

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Nashik is a three-hour drive north-east of Mumbai, and home to several important brands which we visited over a two-day period. For an industry that is still so relatively young and small, this is sufficient time to get a good overall impression of winemaking in India, and it left me with two principal thoughts. The first concerns the challenges of subtropical viticulture, and the second concerns a particular flavour characteristic - and the two are very possibly related.

Our first visit to Grover Zampa illustrated the viticultural challenges. The land here is dry and hot for much of the year, and vines rely on irrigation to grow. That's not so unusual, and needn't be deleterious to quality, but the nature of the seasons means that the vines produce a crop twice a year. One harvest is vinified while the second, lower-quality crop is discarded - but the impact of this strenuous growing pattern may be manifesting itself in the wines themselves.

Across many different producers, grape varieties and styles, a feature common to the Indian wines we tasted was a strong smoky, rubbery scent. Until quite recently, this was something often found in South African reds, although nowadays it seems to have diminished. While preference for this flavour might be a matter of personal opinion, if this rubberiness dominates the flavour profile and obscures varietal character then it must be classed as a fault. 

 Hillside vineyards at Grover Zampa, Nashik.

Hillside vineyards at Grover Zampa, Nashik.

 Vineyards at Grover Zampa, Nashik.

Vineyards at Grover Zampa, Nashik.

The problem is worsened by the fact that nobody agrees on what causes this problem (and some seem to deny it exists at all). At Grover Zampa, they blamed red pigmentation on Shiraz leaves as the cause, while at York Winery it was attributed to the lack of dormancy experienced by all grapevines in Nashik. Elsewhere, people suggested viral infections, underripeness in grape bunches, insufficient nutrients within fermentations, or even smoke from roadside fires as the cause - all of which just goes to show how much there is still to be learned.

And learn they must, if Indian producers want to be taken seriously on international markets. Far too many of the reds exhibited this rubbery smoke flavour and in that condition, the wines would undoubtedly be rejected by the UK market.

Thankfully, we also tasted examples of well made, modern and tasty Indian wines. York Winery make a fragrant peppery Shiraz/Viognier, Vallonné's Anokhee Syrah is a richer, jammier style reminiscent of South Australia, while Grover Zampa's Vijay Amritaj Viognier is a faithful depiction of the variety with generous peach aromas.

All of them share a fruit-driven, New World style which could easily fit into the vinous mainstream. Of course, the next question is how to distinguish such wines from the myriad similar styles made around the world. The answer to that question is almost certainly 'marketing' although this is a costly and time-consuming exercise!

Which brings us to one of Nashik's newest additions, from those masters of marketing, LVMH: Chandon India.

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The Chandon winery was built in 2016, although the first wines were made in 2014. They produce three sparkling wines: Rosé, Brut and Délice (a sweeter style, with 50 grams per litre of sugar) from Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz.

As you might expect from such an experienced and cash-rich company, the technical standards here are very high, without any smoke taint flavours. Lees age is limited to 12-15 months, resulting in a simple, clean, fruity style with well-integrated fizz. Again, distinguishing such a generic style from other champagne-method sparkling wines made around the world would be tricky - but interestingly, LVMH have absolutely no intention of doing so.

The Chandon brand is now produced in five countries: Argentina, Brazil, Australia, California and now India. Despite the vastly different origins and grape varieties used, the idea is that they effectively deliver the same experience wherever they come from - in a similar philosophy to the non-vintage model of champagne.

The labels are therefore virtually identical. Compare the bottle shot I took in India with those used in Argentina and Australia, for instance:

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Investment from big, successful wine operations such as Chandon is a great endorsement of the Indian wine industry, but in many ways it is still suffering from serious teething problems. To develop winemaking standards to an internationally comparable level, the first challenge is to eradicate the smoke taint character and understand how to maximise quality in a climate that is not natural for grapevines. Once that happens, producers can then think about what makes their wines unique in a world where styles are so often identical.

The best wines from the likes of Sula, Fratelli (see part one), York, Vallonné and Grover Zampa show that the potential for quality already exists in India. But just as wine culture within Indian society is only just starting to develop, a full realisation of India's winemaking potential needs time.

Richard HemmingComment
Writing a book part 33 - grinding to a start

Over the last month, I have managed to start rewriting my book in earnest. Most of this year so far has been spent coming to terms with just how much work is needed to make the book as good as it can be, which involves the painful process of deleting thousands of words, restructuring the plot and completely changing some of the characterisation. It has taken a long while to get accustomed to this, and I've only stopped resenting it since I've got back into the flow of writing.

I've now written about 6,000 new words for this latest draft - a prologue, chapter one and chapter two  - and it has started to feel gratifying to get the revised plan on paper. The most satisfying part of the change is emphasising the real core of the story - the romance between Chloe and Freddie. Previously, this didn't get started until the second half of the book; now the seeds are sown (no, that's not a euphemism) in the second chapter.

My other preoccupation is getting the bloody thing finished. In fact, that's been a preoccupation since I started. I have drafted various timetables which give me enough time - in theory - to finish the book by the autumn. But realistically, I'm pretty sure this won't go according to plan, and I'm now intent on giving myself an uninterrupted week of writing after the summer break to ensure that I get it absolutely, finally, totally finished.

Watch this space ...

Wine in India, part one: culture

When I landed in India, the first thing I noticed was a monkey roaming around the airport. That was eleven years ago in Delhi when I was going to volunteer in Dharamsala. Did I ever tell you that I'm SUCH a good guy? No? Well, here's a video I made to prove it, made when I was 28. Good grief.

Anyway, two months ago I landed in India for the second time ever and this time, the first thing I noticed was wine in the duty-free shop. Which was exactly why I was here: visiting Mumbai to get a taste of wine culture and winemaking in India, hosted by Sonal Holland - India's first and only Master of Wine, author of India Wine Insider, and a friend since we met on the James Busby tour of Australia in 2011.

This first article is all about wine culture in India; the second will be about the winemaking.

Indian wine journey begins.

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Having seen a very rural, disadvantaged side of India eleven years earlier, I was curious to see the opposite end of the scale, which is exactly where we started. At Vetro, an Italian restaurant in the five-star Oberoi hotel, we tasted a range of Indian wines before a high-end dinner featuring the wines of Ornellaia.

This was luxury India, executed to the same high standards you find in every major global city. The Indian wines we tasted were similarly ambitious, made by Fratelli, a winery with 240 acres of vineyard near Akluj, about six hours drive south-east of Mumbai.

All these wines are made in conjunction with international wine professionals and they would turn out to be the most impressive Indian wines I tasted during my visit. Sette 2009 is the first vintage of a project blended by Piero Masi from Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chewy, meaty and substantial, with firm tannins, it is more reminiscent of Bordeaux than anything Italian, and shows just how impressive wine from India can be. The current 2013 release is still full of primary fruit intensity and it would be interesting to see if it ages as well.

A collaboration with Jean-Claude Boisset has produced the J'Noon range, the first vintage of which was 2016. Both the Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Marselan/Sangiovese blends showed purity, sophistication and complexity that goes far beyond the expectation that most people might have of Indian wine. Also of interest is the M/S blend made in partnership with Steven Spurrier (pictured above), and composed of 60% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Franc and 20% Syrah. It was similarly polished and ripe - although there was a distinct smoky note on the nose, reminiscent of the 'Cape rubber' aroma which was once common to South African reds, and which soon became a recurring theme of the trip.

Following the tasting was a wine dinner designed to showcase some of the finest drinking and dining available in India.

The wine dinner menu - click to expand

Much to my surprise, a group of high-flying Mumbai socialites had been gathered for the occasion, which featured three reds from the Ornellaia stable, plus Noble One Semillon from De Bortoli, as well as Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013, which I had brought with me on the plane. 

As an introduction to Mumbai wine culture, it proved a worldly and sophisticated experience that owed much more to western fashions than local ones. The level of wine appreciation was the equal of any comparable dinner in London, as were the standards of cooking and service. Yet there was also the sense that such an occasion was still a distinct novelty - as confirmed by the coverage in the Mumbai Mirror gossip column a few days later.

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The following morning we would drive to Nashik to see the other side of the wine world in India - the vineyards and wineries, including the biggest producer by volume, Sula. Most of the wines they produce are aimed squarely at the newcomer to wine - a very different proposition from the fine wine culture of the wine dinner. Their best-selling white is a Chenin Blanc with 15 grams of residual sugar, which is deliberately drinkable in a basic, easygoing way, but they also produce some impressive Shiraz under the Dindori and Rasa labels, which prove how accomplished their winemaking can be.

Sula provided an opportunity to see how wine is handled at a more everyday level: for many visitors to the Sula complex, this is their first-ever encounter with wine. Alcohol is generally much less mainstream in India. In the upmarket parts of Mumbai, wine is available in shops, supermarkets and restaurants in much the same way as it is in Europe - although the range, quality and condition of bottles can be something of a gamble, and the vast majority of staff know nothing about wine. 

But the concept of having a casual glass of wine with dinner at home, or popping out to a wine bar on a Friday night is anathema to the vast majority of the 1.3 billion Indians - and unaffordable to most of them too. In fact, cost is hugely prohibitive, thanks to national taxation of 150%, plus additional state taxation. By comparing average wages and average bottle prices, I reckon that wine is roughly four or five times more expensive than it is in the UK - so a cheap bottle of wine costs the equivalent of around £30 retail.

At Sula, however, it becomes much more affordable - hence the hundreds of people that visit every week. It reminded me very much of the kind of winery experience you'd get in Australia - with restaurants, shops and the all-important wine bar on a high terrace overlooking the vineyards. I was standing there when I saw the group below gathering for a photo - they saw me looking and struck a pose.

Visitors at Sula India.JPG

India is often described as a country of contrasts, and it's much the same with wine. Vetro and Sula proved that India is perfectly capable of doing wine well at both the elite and everyday level - what you have to remember is just how rare and foreign wine still is for the vast majority of the population.

Getting wine into the Indian mainstream is a formidable challenge - but with places like Vetro, Fratelli and Sula already thriving, plus an MW such as Sonal at the helm, it seems only a matter of time.

Richard HemmingComment
Bad wine: a matter of opinion

Following on from the hubbub about producers objecting to criticism of their wines, it's worth considering if there can be consensus about what makes a wine bad. There are ostensible quality factors which are allow us to agree, to a certain extent, on objectively good quality - so if those same factors are not present in a wine, can we agree that it is bad?

Let's take BLIC as the starting point: balance, length, intensity and complexity.

Balance is undoubtedly an important factor in wine, and received wisdom suggests that all the main structural elements of wine (acid, alcohol, body, sugar and/or tannin if present) should be well integrated. This sounds like a technical matter, but it almost immediately involves subjective opinion. Many wine professionals think English sparkling wine is too acidic, or that 15% Napa Valley Cabernet is too alcoholic - but others find them perfectly well balanced. In such cases, personal taste will therefore dictate quality assessment. But while the astringent tannins of young Barolo or Pauillac cannot be described as balanced, the best examples will achieve harmony with bottle age - so in this case, experience is vital to make the correct judgement.

Length is more straightforward: a wine without persistence is surely lacking one of the defining features of good quality wine. But it's not unusual for two experts to disagree on how lengthy a wine's finish might be - especially if you then consider the impact of bottle variation on older wines.

Intensity seems to suggest that the more intense a wine is, the better its quality. However, there can easily be too much of a good thing. Wines that are heavily over-extracted might be highly intense, but if the flavour is too powerful it becomes overwhelming and lacks nuance. Even so, while we might agree that dilute wines are poor quality, and that certain styles of wine (eg Chablis or Muscadet) have merit in their relative restraint, the best fine wines (eg Chablis Grand Cru or Muscadet Cru Communaux) do have intense flavour concentration.

Complexity, like length, seems a no-brainer: simple wines are not as good as complex ones. Yet personal preference inevitably plays a part here too. Are the animal aromas of wines with high levels of 4-EP from Brettanomyces a good thing or a bad thing? Again, it's entirely normal for experts to disagree as to whether the complex flavours of a wine contribute or detract to its quality level.

Added to these four factors, we might also consider typicality. Since wine is so varied according to its grape variety and origin, a sense of authenticity is part of what makes it great quality. This is immediately complicated by blind tasting, where atypical wines might be assessed favourably in their own right, but less favourably if they don't comply with their expected style - most people wouldn't want obviously oaked Riesling, for example (but it certainly exists, and could easily fit  the quality criteria stated above).

This debate has been triggered by wine producers objecting to the ability of critics, which inevitably includes their assessment of wine quality. But quality is not an objective, measurable component that everyone can or should agree on. Certain factors might seem unarguably 'bad' - a very short finish, dilute flavours or a total lack of complexity, for instance - but beyond that, it ultimately comes down to a matter of opinion.

Wine producers v critics - an uneasy relationship

Over the last week there have a couple of stories about wine producers fighting back against wine writers, both of which I read on wine-searcher. The first describes a producer's withering review of the ability of writers who judge en primeur in Bordeaux - read the piece here, with further detail on who's being called out here. The second concerns Domaine Huet of Vouvray, and how the owners apparently reacted badly against criticism from certain writers.

It is perfectly understandable why producers would resent negative reviews of their wines, of course; and there's no reason they shouldn't have the right to reply, even if that rarely seems to resolve the situation. 

What is unusual is how the uneasy relationship between wine producers and wine writers has been laid bare. At the heart of this relationship is a conflict: there's a large degree of co-dependence which requires mutual friendliness and collaboration, reinforced by the convivial and social nature of wine; but there's also a need for independence and integrity to eliminate (or at least, minimise) any bias.

For both parties, there is a lot to potentially gain or lose. Writers rely on the good will of producers in order to get access to wines for review (especially for the most expensive and famous examples). They also have their own reputation to consider, and how a positive or negative review might impact upon that: a low score for a first growth is a big risk, both for credibility (since the consensus is that these are great wines) and for their relationship with the producer themselves; on the other hand, excessively high scores might seem to betray a lack of critical faculty, but they are bound to curry greater favour with producers.

Whereas winemakers could lose sales if they get low scores, or be able to increase their prices and profitability based on high ones. They also have a reputation at stake, so might consider either changing their style to suit a certain critic - or simply refusing to allow them to taste in future.

From the perspective of someone that reviews wines, the primary commitment ought to be to the audience, therefore requiring complete freedom to comment as you wish about any wines - with the proviso that it is a personal opinion being expressed, and that unduly harsh comments are unnecessary.

But in reality, there's a reluctance to be explicitly negative. Sometimes that's because writers prefer to focus on the wines they enjoy, therefore keeping quiet about any wines they strongly dislike, but mostly it's because we are all aware of how fragile the tacit agreement is between those that make wine and those that write about it.

A winemaker must toil for twelve months to create a product on which their livelihood depends, while a wine writer might spend only one or two minutes to determine its fate. That might sound unfair, but it's the best system we've got. Good writers should have the skill and experience to taste wines and make their best, fair assessment in just a few moments. In an ideal world, they should also have the indemnity to pass judgement as they see fit. 

Yet as with all things wine, it's more complicated than that. This close-knit world is built on a foundation that usually allows just enough independence for writers and just enough benefit for producers. When that balance is upset, it reminds everyone involved uneasy the relationship between producers and writers can be.

 

Everything I wrote in May

Plenty going on in May, including the London Wine Fair, which kept me busy with three different masterclasses over two days, as well as more episodes of the podcast I produce with Olly Smith. In addition, I wrote the following:

Essential online wine stats and resources - 2018 edition

My 2017 collection of useful wine resources has become one of the most read blogs on this site, so here's an updated version containing all the latest wine stats and updated links.

Viti and vini reports - international

The OIV remains a vital repository of global stats relating to wine. The latest (2017) report on viticulture and viniculture can be found here. Their statistical analysis section include loads of other data, including for previous years and in multiple languages. See also the California Wine Institute's useful world statistics pdfs.

Which Winegrapes Are Grown Where? is now five years old, but there's no better free resource giving such detailed records of varieties and their hectarage.

Viti and vini reports - national

To get a more detailed breakdown of production data for specific countries isn't always straightforward. Some countries freely release official data (eg Germany), some require membership (eg Australia), while some don't seem to release any figures (eg Italy).

Here is a selection:

Market data

Much official research data remains understandably expensive. But there are still good ways to get similar information for free.

Most of these links concern the UK market, but in many cases you can search within the website to find data for other markets.

  • The WSTA facts & figures section comes from the UK wine trade's official body, providing a useful overview of the market.
  • GAIN is the US governments Global Agricultural Information Network, which publishes detailed analyses of wine markets around the world. See all their reports here, and search for wine to find the relevant reports. For example, the UK Wine Market Report 2016 report contains a wealth of really detailed information about wine consumption and production trends.
  • Sonal Holland MW has produced the first-ever report profiling Indian wine consumers - download the pdf.

Other resources

Here are a few other resources I have found useful:

  • Ablegrape, the wine search engine, now seems to be defunct.
  • Complete list of wine appellations around the world (click 'European GIs) in sidebar
  • The INAO search engine (French) allows you to find the technical sheets for every French wine appellation
  • Regional wine websites on JancisRobinson.com - a list of all official webpages for wine regions around the world
  • Wine duty rates for every country in the EU
  • I numeri del vino (Italian) has a big archive of statistical analysis on lots of wine-related matters
  • My article on JancisRobinson.com about useful figures and calculations relating to wine, including loads of examples

Let me know if you have any additional suggestions to add to these!

 

Writing a book part 32

Being as I decided last month that I needed to rewrite 90% of what I've done so far, I should probably have been working twice as hard on my novel over the last few months - but the reverse has been true. While workload has accounted for part of that slackness, the real reason is a decided lapse in motivation.

My original intention to finish the book by my 40th birthday in late July is now entirely unrealistic, and that lack of a deadline (albeit an arbitrary one) means there's nothing to aim at. The re-write that I'm about to embark on could take months or years, even, judging by my average rate of progress so far.

However, the revised synopsis which I have been tinkering with will make a much stronger book - and I'm determined not to give up. Next week, I plan to force myself to start writing again, even though the revised synopsis is still a little rough around the edges. Once I've got back into the swing of things, I should be able to estimate how much longer this project will drag on for.

With only 30-40 minutes available to work on the book each weekday morning, progress is necessarily slow. So I may well try and devote some full days to writing the book across the summer, in order to blitz the work and get a final draft finished and ready for the autumn.

So, tune in next month to hear exactly how much that plan has changed!