Welcome to the world of lockdown wine webinars

Liz Sagues discovers how despite lockdown the wine world still keeps spinning, bringing producers and writers together via a new format of wine tasting and seminar: the wine webinar. She recaps some of her highlights from last month, including the Circle’s own series ‘Let’s talk about…’

Spring in Sussex was, for me, due to be punctuated by wine trips to Portugal and the Loire Valley. Of course, Covid-19 put paid to all that. But instead I’ve been to California and Chablis, Australia and Austria, South Africa, Bordeaux, the Mosel, Tuscany…. All virtually: welcome to the lockdown world of wine webinars via Zoom.

The experience has been, and will continue to be, fascinating. There’s a lot of learning going on, and not just for those who attend the online meetings. The hosts, too, are mostly very new to this kind of communication, but are getting a lot slicker in their organisation and presentation. One basic bit of housekeeping, learnt by most very early on, is to mute all but the presenter(s), take questions via the typed-in ‘chat’ facility and then bring in the questioners at a non-disruptive moment. What some have been unable to do, though, is to bring the sessions to a neat conclusion – the screen stays live, seemingly relying on attendees themselves to press the ‘leave meeting’ button.

Which have been my top experiences so far? It’s perhaps unfair to single out particular events, given that they’re so varied (a bit like the pre-coronavirus world of everyone-in-the-room-together tastings and seminars). But I did very much enjoy the focus on Viognier, organised by Fells and Limm Communications with Yalumba chief winemaker Louisa Rose and brand manager Jessica Hill-Smith, sixth generation of the Yalumba family.

It was a happy combination of information and informality and – for those of the 20-plus participants fortunate enough to have the three sample bottles sent out by Limm and Fells – an educative tasting experience from Australia’s viognier pioneer and principal producer of the variety.

A trio of the many facts learned: that Viognier, though like Riesling very happy in the Eden Valley, must be treated quite differently – ie picked much riper, even a touch sunburnt. That the freshness of these Yalumba wines is down not to acidity – Viognier is a very low acid variety – but to phenolics. That Louisa’s absolutely favourite food match with Virgilius, Yalumba’s top white wine, is Moroccan tagine: the wine has ‘subtle layers of flavours that build up just like the dish’. Certainly, that’s right for the wine; I didn’t have a plate of tagine in front of me at 10.30 in the morning UK time.

Session two of the Circle’s own ‘Let’s Talk About…’ weekly series was also outstanding. Rosa Kruger’s passion for The Old Vine Project, rescuing some of South Africa’s most venerable vines and bringing them back into production not just to make superb wines but also to bring new opportunities to their growers, was inspirational, even from many thousands of miles away.

Jane Anson’s was just as illuminating, though about a place that could hardly have been more different: Bordeaux. Discussion of terroir is a very significant part of Jane Anson’s about-to-be-published Inside Bordeaux (BBR Press, late May), and those who listened to her and saw just a few of this important book’s immensely detailed maps now have an insight into why. It was a session that prompted some particularly relevant and stimulating questions, and should lead to plenty of book sales.

These webinars, including the first in the series, on 3rd April, when Colin Hampden White led an excellent discussion on the regional differences of Scotch, were popular, with 35-plus attendees, a good number of them from outside the UK. ‘Let’s Talk About…’ is proving to be a very worthwhile Circle activity accessible to members in Europe and beyond.

The biggest attendances (into the 70s) at webinars I’ve watched have been at those from UK web merchant Honest Grapes, introduced as online alternatives to a conventional pre-coronavirus programme of events, directed at wine consumers from enthusiastic beginners to serious collectors.

Honest Grapes’ Bordeaux Summit brought together a panel formed of Gavin Quinney, Bordeaux vintage reporter for Jancis Robinson and Liv-Ex and owner of Château Bauduc, Nick Martin, director of fine wine trading exchangeWine Owners, and Rupert Millar, fine wine editor of The Drinks Business, for a wide-ranging discussion. One point, which Covid-19 prompted, was whether it was now time for changes in the en primeur system, bringing its timing more in line with that for Burgundy releases and therefore showing wines a year nearer maturity, thus easier to assess.

On a much smaller, personal scale (but still drawing an audience of 59) was Honest Grapes’ Meet the Grower session with Clemens Busch, maker of spectacular Mosel rieslings. Here, too, terroir – the three different colour slates of Busch’s vertiginously-sloped vineyards – featured in a webinar where Zoom’s screen-sharing facility appropriately gave photos as much prominence as words.

Latour/Limm have done other good webinars, including a short series with Castello Banfi – the at-home haircut of Europe regional manager Jgor Marini between sessions three and four prompted much happy banter.

Looking ahead, there is such a choice: I’ve got dates with Australian and Northern Spanish winemakers coming up, and I haven’t yet had time to be at any of the three-a-day offerings from 67 Pall Mall, where a number of Circle members have been involved. Do join in: this is one way to turn an immense international crisis to some small personal advantage.

A footnote relating to travel, or rather non-travel, related to Covid-19. Everyone, I know, has stories about airline booking policies, non-appearing refunds and the like. But being a grouping of communicators, Circle members might like to get together to offer their skills to TAP Air Portugal.

I won’t detail the long and sorry story of my involvement with the airline, but suffice it to say that unless you’re fluent in Portuguese, are able to extract facts that even the smallest print shields, have an unlimited free call allowance to Portugal and are able to stay on hold for an infinite time don’t make a mistake in a booking. And my experience was before the country declared its state of emergency.

I did offer – not in jest – to give the company customer service department some professional advice on how best to handle information for passengers with problems, but the helpful media relations person who finally sorted some of mine made no comment on that. Instead, she invited me to join the 2020 TAP Wine Tour, later this month. Of course, it’s been cancelled…