It's very difficult to condense the career of a woman who has one of the most exquisite palates on the world and is one of the greatest expert tasters and defenders of Spanish wines. Former President of the Institute of Masters of Wine, 'Dama de Albariño' and 'Dama de Solear', co-president of the Decanter World Wine Awards, President of the Gran Orden de los Caballeros del Vino, winner of the Robert Mondavi Winery Award,... The Londoner, author of books such as 'The wines of Northern Spain' accumulates titles and responsibilities but, above all, wisdom and kindness. This is the interview for the 'March 2021' edition of our magazine.
How are you living this terrible year of pandemic, lockdowns…..?
I am fortunate that it has been remarkably good. In Lockdown 1.0 we had lovely spring weather. Typically between March & June I am travelling, so it was wonderful to enjoy our garden. The government told us to go out for walks, which was a novelty. As I live in my childhood home it was great to rediscover the neighbourhood. Lockdown 2.0 was more difficult because we understood more of the implications for the economy of the persistence of Covid. Lockdown 3.0 is different again. There is a sensation of nervousness in society which is very damaging; so many people have died; here’s unemployment; children are missing school. I am very lucky indeed to be at home with my husband and one daughter. Our other daughter lives close by with her husband and 2 children, so we have been in a ‘bubble’ [permitted contact]. My office is here at home, so many things have stayed the same in terms of work.
Covid has swept way all events, presentations, tastings, travels,.. Do you miss the contact with the winemakers/ wineries?
Yes! I miss the human contact and events very much. I am researching my book on the wines of Central and Southern Spain, and not travelling is a problem. I need to walk the vineyards, breathe the air, eat the local foods. My work is about meeting and writing about the people behind the wine rather than being purely technical, analytical. However I’m encouraged that we have found ways of keeping in touch.
Wine brings people together, and it is not the same to share a wine and a conversation through the internet...
Well, I’m not sure I agree. I have had some really successful one-to-one Zoom sessions with winemakers, where I have had their wines in front of me and we have been able to talk freely. The great thing about this explosion of zoom tastings is that they are so much more democratic. If you were keen to learn, there were so many free Zoom events in 2020 that you could tune into. Fine Wine is a particularly exclusive category – and in this last year it’s been possible for everyone to find the producers online, and hear them talk. Spain is a particularly interesting case – there was an explosion of InstagramLive. Even at midnight I’d find someone from the Spanish wine trade on IGLive.
How are they living this very delicate situation, sommeliers, restaurants, retail shops?
It’s terrible. A news item today says that while we know nurses and doctors are very vulnerable to Covid, and bus and taxi drivers – so too are waiters and sommeliers. It’s the first time that has been recognised. In 2020, 9930 premises licensed to sell alcohol closed. Brexit is an issue, too. Our hospitality trade relies on so many Europeans; and for sommeliers, working in London restaurants was seen as a great training ground. But understandably very many have left. For independent wine shops, having an efficient online facility has been essential.
In Spain, online sales of wines has increased dramatically during 2020. Do you think this is a trend that will continue when all this finished?
Yes. We have all learnt to make home delivery part of our lives. For instance I have started to get a weekly delivery of organic fruit and vegetables. But I am only able to do that while I am at home. Once I start travelling again, or simply going out of doors to tastings, then that will change. What this presupposes is excellent, reliable distribution networks, and really smart, clever web design. To tempt customers back, wine retailers may want to adapt their ways. For instance, selling coffees. I live in London, but I can see I will be looking to shop locally.
You have already talk about Brexit. Do you think it will have an effect in the country?
At this moment the prospect is really depressing. To receive wine (or other items) from Europe we now have to pay import charges + IVA, and shipping charges + IVA. For example, a friend in Europe sent me two bottles of fine wine and a blanket; I had to pay £76.44 to receive them. The costs are the same the other way, if someone in Europe receives a parcel from the UK. The result? Prices will go up. A £12 bottle of wine is likely to retail at £13/ £13.50. No doubt we will adapt, but the beginning is painful. Undoubtedly many businesses will stop exporting to the UK. If you are established and have an importer you can ride the storm. I feel for small vinateros, and people starting up, who would typically have sold through London restaurants. For the next few years that will be hard. And of course, the excellent English and Welsh traditional method sparkling wines will be so much more expensive in Europe now.
You know very well the English and Spanish consumer, are there many differences?
I’m Co-Chairman of the Decanter World Wine Awards, the biggest wine competition in the world, with some 17,000 wines. It’s no surprise that it’s based in the UK. The UK has historically been a wonderful market for world wines. Consumers can and do choose between Chile/South Africa/California/Spain/France and many others, though they are driven by (low) prices. The Spanish consumer, as with any globally significant wine producing country, is more familiar with the fabulous variety of their own domestic wine and can afford to buy it. Spain’s taxes on wine are so much lower than ours! What fascinates me is gin. My trips to Spain used to be an occasion to enjoy a vast repertoire of gin. Now I think, the UK has even more diverse choices than Spain.
UK is a very important market for Spanish Wine Exports, they go for quality or price?
Sadly, we are driven by price. Spain is too often seen as the country where you can buy really enjoyable cheap wine. It’s extremely damaging. This is unsustainable for the Spanish wine industry.
So, what is the real position of Spanish wine in the world?
Spain produces astounding wines and continues to excite us as it recovers different varieties and finds the best terroirs. It’s still too much of a hidden secret. It’s a constant complaint of mine. On the best wine lists in the world, you will find Italy and France, and Napa Valley, but Spain is far behind. On the other hand, if you go to the new generation of restaurants with sommeliers who really care about wine, then there will be some of the excitement that is Spain today.
Is it easy for the consumer to differentiate, ageing classifications, new categories?
No. But it’s so rewarding to do the research! It’s not just Spain’s problem, though. During Covid the nature of wine marketing has changed. One of the keys for producers – as for independent wine retailers – is to be build a direct relationship with the consumer through social media and direct marketing.
You have said, that Spain needs top Brands like Vega Sicilia and La Rioja Alta S.A, to increase production. Are they the ones that has to promote Spanish wine around the world?
By this I mean that (at least some) great wines need to be made in sufficient quantity to be available. There needs to be enough production that a vintage can be stored as an investment. Spain has practically no presence on the prestige auction market. Of course there are great wines that are produced from 0.5 hectares. They will be very rare. But it’s extremely hard for consumers to understand Spain’s quality if they can never get to taste it. Strangely, one of the advantages of Covid has been that people have learnt how to bottle and ship 50ml samples for Zoom sessions. This means that it’s possible to taste some really rare wines.
Are you surprise that there are not that many Spanish MW?
Not at all! I’m very pleased with the results, and with the future prospects in Spain. Consider that Italy currently has no Italian born MWs. France has very few French-born MWs. At the Institute of Masters of Wine we have greatly benefited from the support of the Fundación para la Cultura del Vino (members: La Rioja Alta, Marques de Riscal, Muga, Pago de Carraovejas, Terras Gauda, Vega-Sicilia and the Ministerio de Agricultura & Alimentacion). They were quick to understand the need for Masterclasses and scholarships, which have made a real difference.
What is your personal opinion about the historical path of La Rioja Alta S.A?
It’s wonderful to be able to look back at the early photographs. It’s exceptional to be able to celebrate the fact that the founding families are still represented. But history can be a burden, and can prevent one from developing. By contrast the range and quality of the wines keeps on improving. It makes me very positive for the future despite all the challenges: Covid, Brexit, climate change…
Are there any of our wines, that you keep a very special memory?
Todos! Ardanza Seleccion Especial 2010, which is simply a glorious pleasure. Viña Arana, which we drank at my daughter’s wedding. 904 with its Graciano elegance. Above all, 890. In 2015 at the Decanter World Wine Awards I was judging Rioja Gran Reserva with my colleague Pedro Ballesteros MW. We judge ‘blind’. We came across a truly outstanding wine, so good that at the end of a very long day, even after tasting 80+ samples, we poured ourselves another glass for sheer enjoyment. It went on to win the Best Rioja Gran Reserva trophy. The wine? 890 Seleccion Especial 2001. Magical. I can taste it still!
The last question. In 2018 you were ´La Maquinista del Año' of 'La Cata del Barrio de la Estación', which memories you have from this very special event?
What a privilege, to be an outsider welcomed to the heart of Rioja. The Barrio is such a special place with such remarkable history. I was very excited to be able to record interviews with experts who could explain that history. It was terrific to enable each of the winemakers or family members to introduce their wine, their philosophies. The Barrio has a very special spirit, and terroir, and I was so touched to be invited in to share it. It’s particularly frustrating for you now, that having got it established La Cata has had to come shuddering to a halt. I so look forward to coming back. And of course, I have always loved trains! I’ll never get to drive a steam train, so being