MW Symposium in Rioja: Microbiomes, Fraud and Fiesta!

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If you felt the earth shift on its axis in mid-June, it’s because there was a lot of wine heavy-weights in one place for four days. Every four years, the Institute of Masters of Wine gathers its members to take a broad look at the world of wine. La Rioja, Spain was chosen to host the 9th International Symposium in June, with the theme “Living Wine.” Over 450 MWs, MW candidates and other wine professionals attended seminars and tastings that addressed topics such as vineyard microbiomes, discovering new terroirs throughout the world, battling wine fraud, climate change, or how to curate an adaptive wine business.

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One might feel a little intimidated. Though seeing red wine stains on clothing was a great equalizer. A few F-bombs sprinkled into the sessions also served to deflate the balloon of pretentiousness.

Common threads emerged throughout all the sessions, indicating what is on the mind of these influencers. For instance, authenticity is a buzzword that everyone hates, but the underlying concept is top of mind for everyone. Knowing the producer and the terroir that the wine comes from is important to avoid homogeneity, and to increase the value of the wines from people who are fighting to maintain diversity and character in this global market. For technical experts, diversity is the way viticulture and winemaking will continue to be viable in the face of climate change. And for the upcoming generations of consumers across the world (Ok, Millenials), experimenting with varieties and origins will keep them engaged with wine − in spite of stiff competition from craft beer and spirits.

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Another hot topic across the different sessions was natural wines and how to define them. Wine experts from all sectors have yet to come up with common criteria to classify natural wine. While many producers are applying sustainable - if not organic - practices in the vineyards, definitions of what constitutes natural or organic vinification are still hotly debated. Orthodox practitioners insist that no sulphur dioxide should be used during winemaking, while realists maintain that small doses are necessary protect the integrity of the wine and do not contradict natural principals. Panelists in the “Somms Like it Hot” seminar confirmed that consumers are interested in natural wines, but have no clue what it really means. The sommeliers main concern is that the wine bottle they open doesn’t smell like a stable and have things floating in it…something that is not currently guaranteed in their eyes. Legendary Burgundy winemaker Dominque Lafon summed up the debate to thunderous applause during the “Let it breathe: ox and redox” session when he said, “Natural wine is great…when it tastes good.”

But in spite of the serious nature of many of the sessions, the giddy pleasure of being around so much good wine and passionate people won out in the end. There was plenty of socializing, and yes, awkward moments on the dance floor during the evening. No one seemed to take themselves too seriously for too long. Four years seems like an awfully long time to wait to do this all over again.