A gathering of the greats

David Longfield went to southern Spain to witness a gathering

of winemakers like never seen before
27 August, 2008
Page 18 
It was an ambitious project : gather some of the world's top winemakers to discuss "the latest and future trends in the winemaking industry", and then try to reach a consensus on whether increasing quality control in wine production is the enemy of wine diversity.

The simple answer is yes . As winemakers trot the globe to

learn techniques and share technological improvements with each other, a trend to homogeneity in wine styles is a real likelihood. But that's not to say two days of discussion on the topic wasn't a good idea.

The WineCreators debate took place in April, high up in the mountain town of Ronda in southern Spain. The event was conceived by Spain's foremost wine writer, José Peñin, and funded by the nearby commercial vineyard and property development La Melonera (see lamelonera.com) - itself backed by local government, financial institutions and other parties.

La Melonera's establishment was led by José Luis Pérez Verdú - pioneer of the Priorat DO in Spain's north east. The plan is for each vintage to be overseen and crafted by one of three different renowned oenologists, as selected by a panel of 20 eminent wine critics from around the world. The process of selection of the chosen three involved whittling down a long list of the top "wine creators" to 12, and then to three. This meeting of minds led to the idea of a WineCreators debate.

The April discussions were divided into six sessions across two days, each addressing a different but related topic, including "Is a sense of place a decisive feature in a good wine?" ; "Should an importer influence wine's design?"; and "Can vineyard management contribute to greater personality in wine?"

In each case, two or three of the critics sat on one side of the stage with two or three of the 12 shortlisted "wine creators", separated by a moderator in the urbane form of Victor de la Serna, wine critic and El Mundo journalist.

The goal was to exchange opinions and form a conclusion at the end of each session. Many topics were addressed: "For great wine, the winemaker becomes far less important," said Portugal's Dirk van Niepoort in the first session. "His function is to do less rather than more ."

Van Niepoort had alighted on a point that became very clear very quickly - this was a fine wine debate. This raises a question:

what is the point, for the average consumer - and there were paying members of the public present - in hearing a lot of high-level chat about a few high-level wines?

But it is relevant. These people set the pace for winemaking standards. Technology and innovation will eventually trickle down to the mass production end of the business - just look at the widespread use of temperature-controlled stainless steel vats, which was unknown to many 30 or 40 years ago.

In general, the discussions were a philosophical assessment of the role of the winemaker in producing wines that reflect where they are grown. But there was a problem in the way everyone on stage was determined to air their opinions, often regardless of the official agenda. At the same time, those present were very interested in hearing what everyone else had to say . So it was all too easy for the conversation, though absorbing, to veer away from the main point.

That said, the conversation was broad and lively: irrigation and biodynamics; the influence of wine critics; the global market for fine wine and emerging markets; the branding of wine, and of winemakers; the greater choice available to modern consumers ;

and the role of tradition and how

it differs for each generation.

On that last topic, the event's honorary president - renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson MW - said that anything modern is now being viewed as a bad thing, given global warming and the general trend towards environmentally friendly farming. "Fifty years ago," she said, "it was good to be modern. Quantity was important and the agrochemical industry came to everyone's aid. What we're doing now is rejecting that post-war modernism. You don't hear people saying, 'I'm doing what father did'; rather it's what grandfather did."

In her closing address on the second day, Robinson said: "I have been impressed with how meaty it has been. Real issues have been discussed. I hope the great value of it has been to stop, listen, think and exchange ideas." There was plenty of scope, she said, for a second event.

At the next such event, added Robinson, there should be more representation from the "middle segment" - agents, importers, distributors, merchants - and a harder examination of the wine critics themselves - "parasites on the wine business and the business of making wine".

In the meantime, La Melonera will see whether three of the world's greatest winemakers can coax a Mediterranean "sense of place" from the wines produced in its vineyards. The rest of us will ponder whether winemakers should be exerting their individual influence at all...
----=== The 12 Wine Creators ===Jean-Claude Berrouet winemaker at Château Petrus between 1963 and 2007 (absent)

Riccardo Cotarella consultant and pioneer in the development of the wines of central and western Italy (absent)

Stéphane Derenoncourt

self-taught, Bordeaux-based consultant oenologist

Paul Draper self-taught winemaker and chief executive of Ridge Vineyards, California

Denis Dubourdieu professor

of oenology at the University

of Bordeaux

Carlo Ferrini consultant oenologist, former technical director of the Chianti Classico Consortium

Olivier Humbrecht owner/winemaker of Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Alsace (absent)

Ales Kristancic head of family winery Movia in Slovenia, and fierce advocate of biodynamics

Dirk van Niepoort integral in developing the dry red wines of

the Douro Valley at his family

estate in Portugal

Álvaro Palacios owner/winemaker in Priorat, Spain

Michel Rolland Merlot specialist and international consultant (replaced here by his oenologist wife Dany)

Peter Sisseck Danish-born owner/winemaker at Dominio de Pingus in Ribera del Duero, Spain