Earlier this month, one of the most respected women in wine came to Chile – Jancis Robinson. Author of several highly regarded wine books, including The Oxford Companion to Wine, World Atlas of Wine and Wine Grapes, Robinson was the first journalist to become a Master of Wine and is a leading international wine critic and expert. Spending 4 days in Chile, Robinson tasted through wines from all over the country and visited the vineyard region of Leyda. Amanda Barnes interviews her from the vineyard.
How have you seen the world of wine change in terms of woman in the industry?
There was a time quite a long time ago in the 80s, when it almost felt as though men were discriminated against in wine writing. Certainly it looked as though all the top spots were taken by women. Now I think when you look at formal measures of wine expertise like the pass rate of the Master of Wine exams or the people who get the prizes at the WSET exams, women are definitely outperforming men - there’s no doubt about that. So, I don’t think life’s too bad really!
If you look at China which is arguably the fastest growing market, the role of women there is terribly important – certainly in terms of most of the wine writers seem to be women.
Over the last couple of years, what has surprised you about Chile, or what changes have you seen?
I’ve been very struck by how notably the Chilean total vineyard area has grown, it is certainly one of the highest rates of growth. I can’t think of anywhere else that has extended its wine map as dramatically as Chile – from north to south, east and west. And the dramatic widening of range of styles, grape varieties as well as regions, I think it is unparalleled.
You are also visiting Argentina as a panel taster for their awards this year, what marks the differences between Chile and Argentina?
It does seem as though Chile has a much wider range of wine, and a wider range of exciting whites. And different flavours and weights in reds.
I was getting more aware that I really had to come, and rediscover the rest of the Southern Hemisphere.
Is there a variety that you particularly like from Chile? Or find promising?
I have had some good Cabernet Franc actually and some good Cinsault.
As an expert of wine grapes and varieties, is there any grape you would like to see planted in Chile? For any region in particular?
Chile has such a nice wide range of varieties and such a varied terrain, that I think it might be arrogant of me to say what people should plant. Chile probably has a good terroir for most varieties! But it hasn’t got a shortage of varieties.
Do you think a country should change trends quickly to respond to commercial needs, or should they always blaze their own trail?
It suppose it depends on the structure of those that are selling wine. It works in California because they have these huge bulk wine businesses, and everyone can find a market for what they have to sell. Whereas here it is more stratified and stately and they have to plan over a long period.
Is there a region that you particularly like from Chile? Or see a potential in?
I’m intrigued by the coastal and, almost as an intellectual exercise, how high you can go up the mountains and what sort of tastes you can get out of that. Not that you don’t get some fabulous Bordeaux blends made in the absolute classic heartlands. So that isn’t to kick tradition in the teeth, because I’m very excited about tasting the Bordeaux blends [in Chile]. One area that I was very interested in was the Aconcagua Costa area.
During your stay here, you requested to visit Leyda and its vineyards, why?
Because it has grown up since I was last there, and is clearly booming. And when I knew I was coming I only had a very short time for one visit, and it was very accessible.
Is there a style that you see emerging from Chile that you like?
I love the transformation of Maule and Itata. We see particularly in the trendy restaurant scene in London a lot of these southern wines. I would sound a word of caution about being too natural though, I think that it can be a danger – but it is lovely to see the differences of wines emerging.
How do you think the UK market of consumers are changing?
I think it is very good what’s happening in the UK market. For a long time it was dominated by maybe four big supermarkets that just had a stranglehold on prices and they – those big four – are losing ground and reputation so rapidly. The market has deserted them and those big, old giants are struggling…
That’s what’s happening in the mass market, and anyone that is really interested in wine – unless they are desperate to buy a bottle – they wouldn’t actually buy wine from the supermarket anymore. The healthy development has been a consequence of the disappearance of the high street chains… That left a whole load of shop staff who were really interested in wine and didn’t want to give it up, so we’ve seen a mushrooming of small importers.
There are much more opportunities for smaller producers to make contact with smaller importers. There’s no longer this stranglehold of great big channels, and we’ve also got another new wave of smaller, younger importers who are specialising in supplying restaurants and bars only. We are seeing some of the new wave Chileans in that channel, which is doing good for the reputation of Chile.
The wine market in the UK has also shrunk. It looks as though the market size volume is shrinking but the average spend per bottle is at long last respectable, above £5! Less is better is the message.
Do you think the increased spending is about consumers paying for higher quality, or is it an effect of the economic crunch?
There are many factors: there are less binge drinkers; the less but better trend; and the general malaise that Brits don’t feel well off and wine is a luxury still, even if it is the most important alcoholic drink in Britain.
Do you think that the UK market will continue to be one of the most important markets in the world? Or is it past its heyday?
I think we will continue to be with our curiosity and open mindedness, and willingness to try something new; without being quite as faddy as the East Coast American market, which seems to have a new trend with every season and then things fall out of fashion.
I hope perhaps the weakening of the power of big supermarkets may do something to fight the prevailing message from the world’s biggest wine producers: ‘it’s not worth dealing with the British market anymore because we can’t make any money’. What they meant was ‘it’s not worth dealing with British supermarkets anymore’ and that’s absolutely right. But I hope they are keeping their eyes open and seeing that the British public is much more than just those big supermarkets.
I think that the world’s wine market is going to continue to remain very very competitive, so Chile can only stay in the game by making better and better wine. But I think there’s the will to make better and better wine. Clearly Chile has carved out a reputation for making very reliable wine and it would be a shame to abandon that, but it is clear that it is continuing to make a reputation for wine that is more interesting as well.
I don’t think Chile will win friends though by going crazy on the prices. I know among marketing people there’s a great temptation to price your top wine at ridiculous prices and say ‘therefore we are making great wine’ but I am always a bit suspicious of that ploy. I think what you really want to do is sell it at a decent high price but then hope that the market demand for it forces the price up rather than imposing a speculative first-growth price on the market.
I think pricing is going to be – well it always is – very, very sensitive. I think South Africa is an obvious competitor at the bottom end of the market and I think South Africa has been underpriced, even more than Chile, and I would hope for the South African’s sake that their prices rise, so perhaps in parallel Chile’s prices can rise.
In terms of communication, what do you think is the best way to communicate with people? How much weight or credence do you give to twitter, facebook, apps etc?
There’s so much consumer to consumer communication now. The days where it’s all about scores from a handful of gurus are well over I think, and even nice articles in illustrated magazines are definitely waning. I think making wine that people want to drink and then ooze over, and then see it light up over instagram and twitter and all the rest… It must be one successful route. I wouldn’t like to be a wine marketer today – it must be very challenging.
From the perch of a wine writer, I suppose something like a guide on an ipad is very useful.
How do you think Chilean wineries should approach the UK market? Is it through the gatekeepers as such, or more through social marketing, tastings and communications?
I think targeted tastings are good, and especially if there’s a point to them. Chile’s probably way past just having a great big trade fair. It would be great to give the Brits more of an idea of just how wild and wacky the fringes of the Chilean wine scene can be.
And how about the Asian market?
I take my hat off to the Chileans for the clever treaty with the Chinese – I think that was very, very good! And I hope that the Chilean wine industry can make it work so that it is not just offloading a bulk of ordinary stuff to the Chinese but that there will be some image building as well.
With the Chinese wine consumer, there has been a terrible tendency – particularly with the Europeans – to think that the Chinese wine consumer is just an ignorant hick that you can pull the wool over the eyes of, but that is absolutely not the case. The number of knowledgeable wine consumers in China is just growing so fast. That could be a valuable market for the future.
If and when the Indians will bring down their import tariffs, that must be a huge potential – because the Indians love to drink. That must be one of the greatest future markets. People are saying that even Indonesia has a great potential.
Photos by Alvaro Arriagada