We all stared, fixed on the computer screen displaying the rural Andalusian landscape – in Lucainena de las Torres, to be particular – from an aerial photograph. “This is protected forest,” declared the official from the environment department. The image exhibited in fine detail my farm’s long-treeless slopes pockmarked with occasional bushes, called retama, and lower vegetation, including fragrant native thyme and sage. “No, this is agricultural land, classified as vineyard,” shot back the agriculture official, whose office lay a few doors down the corridor in the squat, 1980s Junta de Andalucia government building. As far as I could tell, the two bureaucrats had never met before.
I had just delivered the paperwork declaring new vine plantings, an integral part of capturing a few approved hectares of Andalusia’s quota of Spain’s quota of the European Union quota for vineyards destined for wine production. Mine was one of two official Protected Designation of Origin sites in the perhaps ironically-named “Desert of Almeria” viticulture region of Spain’s most arid province. I had provoked the inter-departmental consultation and at that moment hoped that my over-cautiousness did not spell disaster for the first-year garnacha bush vines flourishing there.
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A few years ago two Harvard Business School professors penned organic wine’s post-mortem: “the history of organic wine . . . provides a case study of failed category creation,” they said in 2017. When the Harvard Business Review published an online summary of the paper in April 2018, the title expressed a bit more optimism: “How Organic Wine Finally Caught On”. Still, the overall tone remained sour: “If you cannot remember the last time you had a glass of organic wine, you are hardly alone. Overall, less than 5% of the world’s vineyards are organic. In the United States, the world’s largest consumer of wine, only 1% of wine sold by volume was organic.” The esteemed business experts pointed to one ray of light: “we also found that the recent success of a related category — biodynamic wines — shows a possible way forward.”
Oh, how times have changed, especially from the sommelier’s perspective. Eco-friendly wine is a large market, with tremendous on-trade growth potential. Limited production natural wines are now highly-allocated treasures whose price can soar almost exponentially in the “gray market” due to consumer demand. Among Wine Intelligence’s five predictions for 2022 is: “luxury wine will need to burnish sustainability credentials,” while prediction number one is about lighter glass bottles for carbon footprint reduction. IWSR’s report on 2022 trends finds that both producers and consumers increasingly expect to find a clear commitment to sustainable practices when making purchasing decisions. “Consumer research shows that 48% of US alcohol drinkers say their purchase decisions are positively influenced by a company’s sustainability or environmental initiatives; rising to 72% among Brazilian alcohol drinkers, and 70% of urban affluent Chinese alcohol drinkers.”
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Charlie Leary earned his PhD in history at Cornell University. He has served as a wine director for restaurants in New Orleans, southern France, Canada, Costa Rica and Panama since 1995. He is a certified Spanish Wine Specialist, Cava Educator and Expert and has studied wine through Washington State University, the Wine Scholar Guild, California Wine Institute, and the Rioja Academy. Charlie is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers.