Exciting times ahead for wine
New Head of Buying Pierre Mansour talks to Societynews about the current status of the wine world and his own personal passions inside and outside of work
This is a fantastic time to be a wine drinker. The quality of wine today has never been better and the choice is vast, from every corner of the globe. For The Society's buyers, the focus is on seeking out wines that offer that bit extra: wines that show individuality, flair and character, as well as value for money.
Over the past 20 years, I've witnessed a sea-change in winemaking and vineyard husbandry. Understanding of vine management has improved enormously. So much more is now known about matching the right grapes to the best sites, for example. There's also an increased appreciation of the importance of sustainability throughout the whole process, transforming the way people work and improving quality standards too.
I think this is partly down to the new generation coming through. More often than not, they've received a formal education in wine but, perhaps more importantly, they're often more widely travelled than their parents' generation and have gained experience of working vintages around the world. You can plainly see the positive effects this has had as they don't just bring back new ideas and ways of working to try back home, but they often have a greater appreciation for what they have at home too. You can see this in particular in more traditional areas like Spain or Italy where the new generation is breathing life into the authentic palette of flavours at their disposal. They understand what a precious inheritance they have in their indigenous grapes and that they are working with raw materials with real heritage. It's really very exciting for wine lovers.
Improvements in vineyard and cellar mean that there really isn't any excuse for making poor wine now. When was the last time you heard people talk about a bad vintage? Even in more challenging years, the good growers manage to make good wine. So much more is known now about caring for your crop and getting the harvest timing right.
Of course there are still years, like this one, where frosts have devastated parts of northern Europe, including here in the UK. Some Bordeaux vineyards have lost 100% of their crop, there'll be little, if any, Climens this year, for example, and even Rioja reported frost damage for the first time for years. My colleague Marcel Orford-Williams was in Germany in the midst of it,and happened to speak to German winemaker Cecilia Jost of Weingut Toni Jost in Bacharach in the middle Rhine. She told him how she'd not had a proper night's sleep for three weeks, keeping vigil over her precious vines. It's a reminder of the human effort required to keep crops protected. Mother Nature's wake-up calls highlight that we shouldn't forget that grapes are, after all, an agricultural product. But even under such difficult conditions, although there will be an effect on quantity, it's still very possible that good wines will be made.
Other parts of the world have the challenge of natural disasters which threaten not just the crop but human life too: forest fires in Chile and Australia and earthquakes which have rocked New Zealand, Chile and California. It puts what we do into perspective!
I have been very lucky in my career to be in the right place at the right time. For example, I feel so privileged to have been buying Spanish wine for the last eight years. It is my passion, and happily for me, Spain seems to resonate with members too. Its popularity has gone through the roof and it's now third in terms of sales volume by country at The Society.
What is it that appeals to me about Spain? Well, I adore the Spanish way of life, the informality of their cuisine and the modesty of the locals. The Mediterranean style of living probably appeals to the Lebanese side of my heritage!
Is there anything that gets me hot under the collar? Well, I do struggle with the concept of 'natural wines'. I think it's great that it's got people talking about wine and opened up wine to a new, younger market. But there isn't really any clear definition of what constitutes a 'natural wine' and I hate to see people hoodwinked by those taking advantage of a trend to sell their wines. More controversially, I hate to see it used as an excuse for poor winemaking. There is little doubt in my mind that the best wines are those made as naturally as possible, with minimum intervention. But this is nothing new. Good winemakers have always aimed to do this and it is these artisanal producers that we have traditionally followed at The Wine Society. We have also always bought wine on the basis of whether it tastes good too, rather than because of the way in which it was made.
What do I like to do when I'm not at work? I have to confess to an obsession with vinyl and have an embarrassingly large collection of records at home. I adore playing old records, the sound quality is just so superior to CDs and downloads. My music tastes are a bit like my wine ones – as long as something is good, I tend to like it!
Much to my surprise, I have also recently got into gardening. We have an allotment and I am really enjoying it. My spare time is precious so I tend to stick to plants that are easy to grow – onions, garlic, that sort of thing. We just experienced our first frost scare-it really brought home the anxiety that this must cause winemakers.
I relish my time with the family and try not to take life too seriously. I'm sure there's a perception that The Wine Society's Head of Buying drinks nothing but posh bottles, but actually, at home, we tend to drink more day-to-day wines with just the occasional treat to celebrate something special.
At the moment I'm really enjoying 2015 Beaujolais. It's a great summer wine served on the cool side and in this vintage it just has that extra bit of concentration and power. Our current favourite is a Juliénas from Domaine du Carjot.
Finally, I just wanted to reiterate what I said in this year's Annual Review. I'm both proud and privileged to be leading a great team with a vast breadth of knowledge, experience and talent. The buyers all appreciate how lucky we are in being able to source wines purely on taste and quality, and not because it's a fancy marketing brand. Our business model is our single-most distinguishing feature as an organisation; crowd-funding has become cool in today's digital age but this is what the original members of The Wine Society did back in 1874. So it isn't just wine that fires me up; I'm equally passionate about The Wine Society ethos, built on our cooperative status. Here's to the next 143 years!
Pierre Mansour – Head of Buying
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