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Elin McCoy: ‘What is fine wine, anyway, and what will it be in the future?’

Elin McCoy explores some of the 'wine world’s unglamorous realities'...

On a hot morning in early July, I was deep in discussion at the Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines (FM4FW) annual think tank on ways small family wineries can access the capital they need to survive in the 21st century. The event was hosted by AR Lenoble Champagne house and drew together 60 participants – wine trade figures, journalists and the kind of trendy experts who give TED talks on finance, tech and geopolitics – to try and map fine wine’s future in a fast-changing world.

‘Can fine wine become more inclusive?’

The weekend’s conversations raised a host of questions, starting with: ‘What is fine wine anyway, and what will it be in the future?’ Based on the geographical spread of wines that participants brought to represent their ideas of fine wine, the definition already includes more diversity than it used to.

But the dive into topics beyond what’s in the glass reminded me how important it is to step back and contemplate the relationship of wine to the zeitgeist. Freewheeling morning roundtables offered brainstorming sessions on everything from a new definition of luxury (identified as ‘what money can’t buy’) to the power of Instagram to capture wine memories, to crowd-funding as a way for wineries not just to get cash, but also capture their customers’ loyalty.

I moderated an afternoon panel with tech investors and entrepreneurs on ways that new technologies could change every aspect of how wine is made, sold, discussed and drunk. Robots in the vineyard, block chain technology to prevent fraud, the use of sensory software to target individual palates, virtual reality tastings: there’s an awful lot arriving soon that non-techie wine lovers are barely aware of.

Think tanks on wine’s future have proliferated in the past 10 years. The first one I attended was Wine Future 2009 in Rioja. I’ve since spoken at and attended many such events, which often seem to be about getting more people in more countries to buy wine, and how to make your brand stand out in a crowded market. Happily, FM4FW, founded by the savvy owners of Chêne Bleu wine estate in the southern Rhône, Nicole and Xavier Rolet (former head of the London Stock Exchange) went wider and deeper.

The issue of climate change was discussed in the context of a panel comparing challenges in the energy industry with those in wine. Miguel Torres (who also spoke at Wine Future 2009) is still urgently pointing out that every winery could – and absolutely must – do much more to protect the environment in the face of global warming. He’s long been showing the way through his winery’s admirable example.

Surely there is no more important issue for the future of wine right now than tackling climate change, something brought home to us all this summer by soaring temperatures and massive wildfires in wine regions around the planet. Alas, FM4FW didn’t delve into how to encourage drinkers to consider a winery’s stance on the environment in what they expect from a fine wine.

But the panel that most intrigued me was about fine wine and a more inclusive society. The term regularly evokes elitism based on class, gender, wealth and sophistication. Can it become more inclusive?

Panel member Dr Beverley Skeggs, a professor at the London School of Economics, studies how inequality functions in everyday experiences in different parts of the world. She explained that in the US, fine wine is defined by price; in France the distinction is one of culture and taste. But when she queried fellow scholars on what fine wine meant to them, their answer was ‘fine wine is whiteness’ and they talked about it as part of colonialism. How to counter that? One way is to encourage more producers who aren’t white.

Over two packed days, it seemed FM4FW delved into just about every important wine issue. Only later did I realise how little we’d tackled one of the wine world’s unglamorous realities, that the people who tend the vineyards in those special landscapes and those who drag hoses around in cellars are largely ignored as part of the fine wine picture. But fine wine couldn’t exist without them.

What I’ve been drinking this month

After savouring the conversations at FM4FW, I visited Champagne visionary Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave of Champagne Louis Roederer. Over lunch we sampled the brilliant 1995, 2002 and 2008 vintages of Cristal Brut, and the gorgeous Cristal Rosé 2002. All wowed me with their precision and balance, but the just-released, truly breathtaking Cristal 2008 seems to reflect everything that Lécaillon has been doing in the vineyards.

Elin McCoy is an award-winning journalist and author who writes for Bloomberg News


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