2020 – striking terroir into the wine industry?

2020 – Striking terroir into the wine industry?

At first glance, it would seem that the wine industry has much to be concerned about as we head into 2020. It seems that challenges come at the industry from all sides – the environment, the global market and associated regulations, and pressure from various movements to either give up or drastically curtail consumption of the beverage that, if you’re reading this, I assume you love as much as I do. So, is the picture really as bad as all this, and what can be realistically done, both by consumers and also Governments and the wine industry in general? Allow me to unpick the issues and humbly suggest some ways forward.

First, the situation in Australia. Bush fires, hotter temperatures year on year and continued environmental uncertainty can only mean bad news for the wine from the region, even as the PM Scott Morrison continues to plan to dig more and more coal from the ground. And it isn’t just Australia that is causing alarm bells to ring; think back a couple of years to the unprecedented drought in South Africa which caused such damage to the wine-rich Western Cape region. The world is heating up and it won’t stop any time soon – think of turning an oil tanker round, and you get some idea of the scale of the challenge, except magnified by about a hundred thousand times. Perhaps changing the flow of a glacier is a better metaphor. It is worth noting, however, that not all grape varieties find the increased heat and reduced availability of water to be a hindrance – at least, not yet. In Bordeaux they do not lack water, and an extra degree of heat does not seem to cause issues at present, although some have reported a thicker grape skin with reduced juice volume.

Meanwhile, the concept of dry January continues as an annual event, and whilst a responsible and useful measure for some, can lead to knee jerk and disproportionate responses from some consumers who have been harassed all year by Governments telling them to drink less. This awareness has spawned another related movement known as ‘sober curious’, though it seems to have failed to gain much traction just yet.

There are of course a multitude of many-faceted challenges for each grape variety and each wine producing region. For example, if we look at perhaps the greatest wine region on earth, Bordeaux and the Burgundy wines that originate from there, the issue is one of declining market share. And why? Largely because of an upsurge in the popularity of Champagne, certain Italian wines and of course the new kids on the block, natural wines (organic, minimal intervention varieties). This last type of wine resonates particularly with environmentalist who point to the fact that France is the second largest user of pesticides in Europe – beaten only by Spain. Granted, the largest region to use these phytosanitary chemicals Champagne, but it does seem that the era of using so many chemicals is over, at least in the Bordeaux region. The excellent Entre-Deux-Mers region, for example, have changed their spraying techniques and cut down pesticide use already, hugely benefiting their chances of being awarded a prestigious label of ‘high environmental value’.

Finally, rumblings of proposed tariffs that may be imposed by the USA on European wines are cause for concern – both here in Europe as well as across the pond. Its not only wines that would suffer, but a range of other products which just can’t be produced to the same standards elsewhere, and if they can, lose some of their magic, heritage and authenticity when produced thousands of miles away.

What of the solutions to these thorny issues, or at least signposts to ways forward?

  • To address the health campaigns, the industry must act to provide more choice to consumers, however painful this may be to supply chains and bottling facilities. A greater variety of bottle size must be part of this mix – there are more styles of drinking now and for a much more aware population, and that isn’t going to go away.
  • Consumers must tell those who lead their countries that they won’t stand for taxes and bullying tactics between large, rich nations. This tit-for-tat response to the tech tax may do wonders for the image of certain politicians but millions will lose out ultimately in many sectors of the economy.
  • More emphasis on education about wine, and a diversity of initiatives from producers of all sizes to make it less of an elitist hobby for the super-rich and give opportunities for ‘ordinary’ consumers to invest in wine both financially and emotionally. I’m no economist, but if more was done to allow people to buy shares in wine that they knew would quite literally come to fruition in a certain year then a lot more fun and buy-in could be had by a lot more people.
  • A stepping up of action to limit chemicals and improve spraying techniques is a must, but so to is a drive to make vineyards more sustainable – it creates excellent publicity to know that a vintner uses vine shoots to power his boiler, for example .
  • And finally, though this is not meant to be an environmental blog post, we cannot ignore the fact any longer that the way we treat our planet and our lack of action on climate change to date affects every part of our lives – and our wine is no exception. So quite simply, we need to avoid voting for those who want to dig up fossil fuels – and raise a glass to those who have both optimism for the year ahead, but also take the issue of climate change seriously.


Moon musings

The moon had never been so close to so many. This morning, it hovered above heads, silent yet screaming out, I’m here! I’m the moon in the room!

Sometimes, you need to see the extraordinary to be able to appreciate the ordinary.

The Church of St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate is one of the largest parish churches in the country; it needs to be, to accommodate the Museum of the Moon – artist Luke Jerram’s famous work. It is also the only grade 1 listed building in Harrogate. But whilst the church is big on space and reputation, like so many it is short of money. However, sometimes help comes in strange forms.

There may be questions on some lips as to why the moon is in a church – is the house of God the right place to view an art installation? Is it lunacy? (Consider the origin of this word – as well as affecting our tides and enriching our culture and art, the moon also influences our language). Is it the thin end of some great unseen wedge, which, left unchecked, could lead to the church being turned into some northern Tate gallery, or worse still, a coffee shop? Possible, but not likely. A house of prayer is for contemplation, for celebration of all things created in the universe, and of an appreciation of something bigger than ourselves. When one looks at the installation in these terms, suddenly it  begins to seem perfectly fitting and appropriate.

Not many choristers get the chance, as I have, to sing by the moon, to pray by it and be able to measure its proximity to oneself in tens of feet rather than thousands of miles. Of course, there has long been an association between classical music and the moon. One thinks immediately of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; the sense of suspended awe and contemplation as the C sharp minor chords wash over you. (Those who stick around to hear the more frantic final movement are richly rewarded by a somewhat darker, stormier side to the moon). Then there is Debussy’s Clair de Lune with its impressionistic quality, a sort of mottled and ambiguous reflection of the heavenly body. For Schoenberg, his Pierrot Lunaire explored the madness supposedly induced by the moon (and by his work, some might argue).  In the world of popular music, too, old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra sang about a Blue Moon – that ‘You knew just what I was there for, You heard me saying a prayer for someone I really could care for’.

In its other-worldliness, quite literally, the moon seems to stir in us some reflection of Self, and of Other.

In July, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landings by humans. On the television we saw the black and white footage which came to define the zenith of scientific achievement in the twentieth century, and perhaps in all human existence. We glimpsed a landscape alien to our very human minds, born of mother earth. Our radios played back the words of the three remarkable astronauts who piloted the spaceship and the lunar module, and we entered a totally different soundscape, of crackly feedback, of trajectories and orbits. But we might reflect on another aspect of this most famous of journeys, one which transcends the scientific and human endeavour, and instead marks out the start of a different sort of consciousness, a subtle but epoch-defining sense that our place in the universe has shifted. Christians believe that God created the world, and indeed the universe and everything in it. For so many thousands of years we have clung to mother earth as a child to its mother; it has nurtured us and has become our only horizon. But as we lifted our eyes further and summoned the courage to look up through increasingly powerful telescopes, we saw that in the sky of our earthly horizon, another horizon beckoned us; that of the moon. Now, our place in the universe need not be tethered to earth – (indeed, perhaps by necessity in our increasingly unstable world it may have to be untethered) because now we might travel and colonise – and who knows who we may encounter?

The unifying aspect of this breaking of our planetary bonds cannot be overstated – Americans stepped on to the moon, but they were representing the human race, now an inter-planetary species. When we go to Mars, and we will, soon, who knows what nationalities the astronauts will be, and in some ways, who cares? They will be representing humanity. Space travel and religion seem not so dissimilar in that regard.

We do not have all of the answers yet, and indeed, we may never have them. Science and religion have not always been the easiest of bedfellows, so that sometimes the will has not been there to consider and debate issues of cosmology and time. It has been fifty years since Armstrong and Aldrin took humanity’s first steps on any ground other than that of planet Earth. Progress has been slow since then, and there will be challenges and difficult questions of ethics, funding and the environment to consider.  But we have not lost the power to be rendered speechless, and thank goodness we have not. There are still moments which stop us dead in our tracks; when Michael Collins took his picture from Apollo 11 of our distant world partially illuminated above the surface of the moon, and captured in one shot every single human being who was alive on Earth (apart from one, himself). His one thumb could obscure all of human life. Moments like these cause us to consider a quickly-mushrooming array of questions – who we are, who created us, why we are here.

But what of our earthly wonders? A church has to remain relevant, a vibrant and living part of the fabric of our societies. Viewing art in one not only brings much needed footfall and (hopefully) donations to a church, it also allows the public to see splendid art in a new and contemplative setting. More importantly, perhaps, it allows them to appreciate a splendid space – the wonder and awe inspired by viewing the inside of St Wilfrid’s or hearing a service sung there is, I feel sure, equal to that felt when viewing the moon installation itself. When the thousands of visitors who came to St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate walked into the church and saw the moon, gigantic and silent and Other, I like to think that it allowed space in busy lives for reflection on how far our understanding has evolved, how far it has yet to develop, and what our place and God’s place is in the world, the universe and beyond. That’s why when the moon came to my church, I was glad. How often do we make time to think about the fundamental questions it raises, I wonder?

Once in a blue moon, perhaps.