ICCWS2016: The delightful, shameful state of the English wine industry

Last week’s International Cool Climate Wine Symposium (ICCWS2016) in the classic English sunny seaside town of Brighton occasioned an array of largely worthwhile technical presentations about which I’ll surely be writing for a while. But two general observations about the conference as a whole trumped all of the technical presentations combined,* and they affected me in opposite ways.

The delightful: Of course I was delighted by the English sparkling wines, and a fair number of the still ones; near as I can ascertain, everyone writing in English with an opinion on the matter rightly has that same opinion. Nyetimber (for extraordinary elegance across the range) and Gusborne (for strikingly different, richer, wonderfully intense flavors) were particularly sock-knocking. But the people doing the pouring and speaking for the industry were equally delightful, both on-point and thoughtful about their wines and English wines in general.

The shameful: The whole conference – that it happened in the first place, and the whole attitude of the event – speaks well for the English industry’s forming a strong community. That community should be supporting, and supported by a strong teaching and research institution. Plumpton College, which houses the UK’s only college-level viticulture and enology program, should be that institution, and it’s doing an admirable job of educating English (and international) vineyard and winery workers. But Plumpton isn’t getting the support it needs, definitely not from national funding and – I’ll say at the risk of offending a bunch of people – probably not from the local industry, either.

Jancis Robinson publicly chastised the chief minister of the the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for recently reducing Plumpton’s funding for wine education, in front of him and the audience for her opening keynote at the ICCWS. The many news reports that have followed have encouraged public shock at that move. Those reports fail to take into consideration that normal public/academic funding cycles mean that fixed-term grants aren’t always renewed when their term expires, and that’s not always shocking.

The problem here is that neither education nor research at Plumpton is receiving adequate funding any which way. On the one hand, it’s a circular problem caused by distant administrative process: to win competitive government-funded research grants, the school needs a solid research reputation, but the school needs grants to fund research to create a competitive reputation. On another, the government isn’t making viticulture and enology research a priority and making funds available to the only school doing concerted work in that area. That’s short-sighted and narrow-minded. Look to other successful young or recently rejuvenated wine regions and you’ll find strong research institutions studying local concerns, working with and educating local industry members: UC Davis and CSU Fresno in California, the famed Australian Wine Research Institute, Washington State University in Washington State, Cornell in New York’s Finger Lakes, Lincoln in New Zealand, Provence has even funded a rose research institute. I can’t imagine why England hasn’t rushed to develop a research and teaching program that can proudly stand its own in international company.

The industry should be helping. The English wine community may be young, but why hasn’t it stepped forward to offer a levy on grape and wine sales in support of national research? Why aren’t the largest players in the field taking a more prominent (and consistent) part in supporting research projects that will benefit their companies and the industry as a whole? I’ve interviewed dozens of winemakers and growers about the value of research to winemaking/growing practice. Nearly every one says that its fantastic to have research on their unique, local concerns being done “in their own backyards.”** Again I ask: why aren’t the English learning from their international role models a few steps ahead in the game?

Plumpton’s viticulture and enology staff seem to be badly overworked and underfunded, even while the English wine industry grows. This situation needs to change.

Why, if the English can win and successfully host a major international conference, and if they can speak eloquently and enthusiastically in support of their industry, can they not support and encourage their government to support the kind of research and teaching facility so central to their continuing success?

[And the manifestly absent: Where was Wales? However minor they may be, their total absence was conspicuous. The few times Welsh wines sidled into a conversation, they were discretely shoved back out. Maybe that’s because Welsh wines are embarrassingly bad, but I don’t know because no Welsh folk were at the conference to speak for them. Given the whiff of disparagement that seemed to follow its rapid entry and exit from the room, either Welsh wines are far from presentable, or the English are carrying their longstanding racism toward Wales into the wine scene, or both.] Update: I’ve been informed by someone amongst the conference organizing team that Welsh wine industry members were invited to participate, but none chose to do so. 

*I have to make an exception for Dr. Matt Goddard’s fantastic research into microbial terroir, which he presented on day 2 of the conference and of which I’ll give an account in short order.

**To perpetuate the phrase one of my Washington State interlocutors used.

Indigenous yeast in Sauternes, multi-species family wineries, and Casale’s Trebbiano orange wine

A group of French scientists, mostly based in Bordeaux, have recently published evidence* that the same Saccharomyces cerevisiae populations have lived at their winemaking homes in Sauternes for at least 23 years.** Two decades is a brief moment, whether you’re measuring in human-history-of-Sauternes time or in yeast-evolution time, but their work still supports the idea that yeast populations become associated with wineries and stick to them.

A main point the scientists aim to make is that these longstanding, tradition-following Sauternes estates haven’t been badly polluted by modern, commercial winemaking yeasts. Only seven percent of the S. cerevisiae strains they collected could be clearly connected to specific commercially produced strains. This news is excellent for those in the natural wine camp who want to call spontaneous ferments “natural” or “wild.” In this little corner of Sauternes, at least, it seems that wines allowed to ferment spontaneously aren’t just being fermented by commercial yeasts persistent in the environment. Most of the work of fermentation is indeed being done by yeasts which very likely existed in the area prior to Lallemand and the rest introducing their tidy little foil packets of active dried specimens.

A good case can be made, I’d argue, for calling those non-commercial yeast something like “domesticated indigenous” rather than “wild:” human winemakers have selected and bred them up for desirable winemaking characteristics over many generations, just as human dog-keepers have bred up select canine features or orchid aficionados have carefully developed new plants. Domestication can happen even if living things are never bought and sold.

Regardless of what we choose to call these yeast species, though, this sort of research says that those species are part of the traditional winemaking environment, part of the terroir. Terroir is apt because that complex term incorporates human traditions and activities, the way winemakers and the rest of the community have shaped the land and its various characteristics: soil, plant life, microbial life, architecture, machinery, maybe some canines. Terroir doesn’t force us to make a choice between those winery-associated yeasts being wild or cultivated. They’re both, and winemakers and winemaking have evolved with them.

The Casale orange trebbiano*** I opened last night is made by a winery with whose winemaking history in their neck of Chianti can be traced back to 1770. The wine itself is a 2012 vintage and the current release, kept on the skins for 30 days and in stainless steel for two years. The property is biodynamic, the wine spontaneously fermented.

Even if the mid-palate is fairly empty, the nose and the finish are more than enough to rescue that deficiency: savory, nutty, sweetly orange blossomy and honeyed up front all at once, and acidity with great energy and tension (minerality, if you wish) on the tail, with a pleasant light astrigency across the breadth of the middle. This isn’t just a wine for thinking with, and I’d readily pour it for anyone who thinks that all biodynamic orange wines must smell like hair salons and taste like dirt, because it doesn’t. But it’s a beautiful example of a wine good both for drinking and for thinking, that tastes pleasant and nourishing and that provokes pleasant and nourishing trains of thought.

When we care about family wineries – for the purely aesthetic value of tradition as well as the economic value of maintaining local businesses and the winemaking value of passing down knowledge and physical infrastructure – we should care about the extended family, not just the humans but the yeast (and maybe even other species) who have also lived on a winemaking property for generations, who make the wine with their human coworkers. Taking care of the family can’t be just about loving your brothers, or even about supporting the other families who might work with you, but about caring for your non-human brothers and coworkers. Now, that’s a pleasant and nourishing train of thought.

*Full text of the article behind an academic journal’s paywall, unfortunately.

**A bit more detail on that point: the team collected samples from three Sauternes estates over 2012, 2013, and 2014, isolating 653 individual yeast strains, and compared them to commercial strains and to 102 “library” isolates collected from one of the three estates between 4 and 23 years ago. The comparisons to determine which strains are related to which other strains rely on 15 “microsatellites,” or specific, small sections of DNA the sequence of which is highly and characteristically variable amongst strains. Much could be said about how we define what constitutes an individual “strain” on the basis of the tools we have available to do so – appearance (phenotype, in biology jargon) in the past, genetic today – but I’ll forgo that conversation for today.

***Purchased for £15.50 from Wood Winters in Edinburgh.

Endings and beginnings

Endings: of my PhD, of my research project on wine-industry science communication, of my time in New Zealand.

Beginnings: of a research fellow position at the University of Edinburgh, of new work on human-yeast interactions in synthetic biology, of my time in Scotland.

I’m no longer a few hours away from the fine wine-growing regions of Central Otago, Canterbury, and Marlborough. On the other hand, I’m a few hours (by air, at least) from the fine wine-growing regions across Europe and the southern UK, and a few steps away from wine purveyors with selections the likes of which I haven’t seen in years. I consider this a fair trade. The difference might even make up for not having a superb beach just outside my front door, though maybe I’ll withhold judgment on that one.

If you’re interested in synthetic biology, human-yeast collaboration and co-evolution, or if you’re in the UK and would like to strike up a conversation about other vinous or yeasty topics, feel free to contact me at erika(dot)szymanski(at)ed.ac.uk.