On a Wine Journey
From Masters of wine to market favourites and trends.
As Ernest Hemingway wrote, ‘Wine is one of the most civilised things in the world, and one of the most natural things in the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection’. The Institute of Masters of Wine, founded more than 50 years ago in London, is a non-profit organisation created to qualify excellent wine knowledge through rigorous tests and examinations. The institute comprises more than 300 members who have received the award.
Master of Wine (MW) is the most prestigious title in the world of wine. What started more than 60 years ago as a qualification for the United Kingdom wine trade now is held by a global family of 343 Masters of Wine. The membership encompasses winemakers, buyers, shippers, business owners, retailers, academics, sommeliers, wine educators, writers, journalists and more. In recent years, only a maximum of one-third of MW candidates’ samples made the hurdle, and in some years there has even been a 90% failure rate.
The Institute of Masters of Wine has two simple membership requirements: Applicants must have passed the Master of Wine Examination, and they must sign the institute’s Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct requires that Masters of Wine behave at all times in an ethical manner and that they work to make the wine trade one in which probity and honesty are paramount.
Jan Schwarzenbach, Master of Wine, is Head of Direct Sales, Wine at Coop’s Mondovino. Mondovino is player in the new digital world of wine with its integrated shop, activities, events, information and expertise.
As Schwarzenbach clarified, viticulture and oenology are scientific studies. Biology, biochemistry, chemistry, statistics, engineering and soil science – these are all important subjects. Tasting wine is an important part of the MW studies, and the wine industry is a sociable place. Schwarzenbach likes that mix. The Institute of Masters of Wine off ers fantastic support by staging classes for the theory and practical part of the examinations several times during the year. The biggest part, however, still is self-study which Schwarzenbach did whilst commuting via train to work.
Jancis Robinson, MW, has described 1368 grape varieties in her book Wine Grapes. Not that Schwarzenbach has tasted wines from every one of them, but the diverse range of grapes, planted in diff erent climates and turned into wine by diff erent people and methods, ensures that no two bottles of wine taste the same. When asked what he likes most about the wine business, Schwarzenbach replied, ‘There are a lot of things to like. I enjoyed working in vineyards and wineries. However, working in sales gives you the opportunity to be very close to the consumer. It is that part that intrigues me; to see where the wine business matches with consumer expectations and where it doesn‘t’.
An enthusiastic cook, Schwarzenback sees the relationship between food and wine as very important. He thinks it is great fun to try diff erent combinations of food and wine. ‘Sometimes I have a dish in mind I want to eat and then find the wine that suits best, and sometimes the other way around. This adds an inspiring dimension to cooking a meal’. Clearly, Schwarzenbach’s newly acquired MW title will change the way he works. Mondovino already has planned a few interesting things, and Schwarzenbach suggests visiting Mondovino every once in a while to see what is new, like the recently revamped choice of ports, sherrys and Madeiras or the fine selection of grower champagnes. Although he has a strong background in wine from Bordeaux and Burgundy, Schwarzenbach shares that he cannot go for one single favourite wine. Bordeaux and Burgundy show big variation in style from vintage to vintage, from terroir to terroir and château/domaine to château/domaine, making those regions interesting.
The digital aspect of the industry is growing and becoming more important. The challenge is to synchronise channels and link them more closely. Wine is a complex category that lends itself to explanation, information and tips. All this can be done online. There is, however, no substitute for tasting, which can‘t be done online. ‘So the two channels can work together very well’, affirms Schwarzenbach.
Paul Liversedge qualified as a Master of Wine in 2011. Originally from the UK, but now a resident of Switzerland, Liversedge runs the premium wine company, Real Wines. Liversedge worked for renowned wine merchants in London and Hong Kong before coming to Zurich 11 years ago. Real Wines selects wines through personal visits with the producers, looking for authentic, character-packed wines that strongly reflect their country, history, terroirs (land), grapes and climate.
Liversedge is particularly excited at the moment about the high quality of red table wines from northern Portugal’s Douro Valley, where wonderful old vineyards which used to be used only for port wine production now are producing extremely fine dry red wines. Additionally, he’s keen on the Mediterranean, herb-scented reds from the small but high-quality region of Faugères in southern France.
Liversedge advises us to look out for the rapidly improving sparkling wines from the UK, particularly Gusbourne and Nyetimber, which now give many champagnes a serious run for their money. With regard to whites, Liversedge has fallen back in love with the Chardonnay grape, which is making some of the wine world’s finest and most complex white wines from regions as diverse as Burgundy, Margaret River in Western Australia, and Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Liversedge also is intrigued by the renaissance of Hungary – formerly best known for its delicious sweet Tokaji wines – but now producing dry white wines from its very own Furmint grape which soon will rival the best white Burgundies for their finesse and terroir expression. Liversedge firmly believes that grapes grown biodynamically, where the vineyard is king and producers work hard to maintain a chemical-free, living soil, produce wines which best reflect their individual terroirs. He also is passionate about old vines, which with their deep roots and very small yields are capable of producing some of the world’s most concentrated, personalitypacked wines; ‘real wines’ with soul and memorability. One of Liversedge’s key focuses is on fine wines – the world’s best wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and beyond, and through Real Wines he seeks to create long-term relationships with VIP wine collectors and to act as an advisor or consultant to wine collectors and wine-investors. He runs several fine wine tastings and events which are very popular with his customers.
Making a living in the wine world today is not without its challenges, however! From a grape-growing perspective, Liversedge highlights the importance we must give to water and global warming, two issues with a direct impact on wine production. Many grape-growing communities have been facing increasingly frequent droughts, devastating frost extremities or widely varying rainfall and flooding, all which can destroy or significantly harm the vines. From a wine business perspective, Liversedge highlights his two greatest challenges as being the highly competitive nature of the Swiss wine market, where a large number of wine merchants compete for business in a relatively small country, and the negative impact of the very strong Swiss Franc on his ability to sell fine wines outside of Switzerland.
Swiss wine drinkers show a refreshing willingness, specifically in German-speaking Switzerland, to buy good quality wines and to try new wines from different regions. There is, however, a very definite preference for buying ‘local’, or at least European, as opposed to wines from farther-flung wine countries.