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How we hosted a global conference digitally

We explore how the virtual format of The Old Vine Conference created an environment in which the conference’s aims could thrive.

The Old Vine Conference was created with a singular aim: galvanising a global movement to nurture and value great old vines, and their wines.

With a global outlook at the heart of their ethos, a digital conference was a great opportunity to give their message a truly international reach and focus with Swirl Wine Group acting as conference and PR partner, executing the events and securing coverage.

An incredible global response

We had an incredible response to the first Old Vine Conference, with over five hundred guests from more than twenty countries. It would have been unlikely to have achieved such a range with an in-person conference. We achieved 29 pieces of coverage for our client, in publications including The Telegraph and the Financial Times. Not to mention extensive features in the trade press.

Even more significantly, The Old Vine Conference also received hundreds of emails from new old vine champions all over the world who had been able to tune in and learn about why this ancient vines are so vital.

Connecting likeminded experts

The really transformative, powerful thing about this conference being held digitally was its ability to foster connections which otherwise would have been challenging. In almost every region and every country there are passionate, visionary individuals with a deep level of knowledge of their own specific old vines who had no idea that there were people like them, doing similar things in another part of the world. There was a parable send of excitement – of gratitude, even – when people were able to learn from each other in this way.

Changing perceived wisdom

Prior to this conference, there had been a palpable sense that the trade was acquiescing to the loss of these heritage vineyards. There was a belief that it was too hard to communicate to consumers why old vines are so special, an attitude which had bred apathy in some quarters.

But by bringing together people like Marco Simonit in Italy, Dylan Grigg in Australia and Jean-Philippe Roby in France – highly respected practitioners with incredible applied knowledge and understanding of how to cultivate these old vineyards – has completely upended accepted wisdom.

The digital format meant that these experts are no longer lone voices in the wilderness. They have been presented to the trade as a united, loud front.

As Sarah Abbott MW says:

“Since our first event in March, we have been contacted by passionate winemakers and old vines experts from around the world who want to engage with our initiative. This shows that there is a real need to harness this passion and turn it into real actions that can help secure the future of old vines around the world.

We have already started to build a network of regional ambassadors and producer sponsors around the world which will allow us to continue to develop future events and connections.”

But in-person meetings are still important

The one failing of this digital conference format is that we couldn’t share the selection of old vine wines we wanted to. While each of these wines may seem disparate, when united in a tasting under the banner of ‘old vines’ you can trace the effect these heritage vines have on their wines.

This future hope was reflected in our recent survey of virtual versus in-person events. 68% people said that the ability to taste and connect with others could not be replicated online, an important lesson as we come to plan future Old Vine Conferences.

View the coverage

You can view the full coverage from the first and second Old Vine Conferences here: Conference 1 and Conference 2.

 

 

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Survey results: virtual vs in-person events

Last month, we conducted a survey to explore attitudes to virtual versus in-person events in the context of the governments’ easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

We surveyed a tight group of people: only those who had attended one of Swirl’s events in the last 12 months.* This decision ensured that the results were highly relevant to Swirl and could help us make decisions in a couple key areas for us: creating events which serve our attendees best, and making eco-sustainable choices.

But while these results are highly specific to Swirl, we still think they’re worth sharing for their general relevance to our industry.

In-person tastings

We asked respondents to rate the following topics, ranked here in order of importance:

  1. Opportunities to meet winemakers and importers face to face
  2. Opportunity to network and discuss wines with peers
  3. Ability to taste at own pace
  4. Tasting from full bottles
  5. Opportunities to sample wines with food

Notably, 68% of respondents highly valued meeting winemakers face-to-face. 54% of people also liked having the ability to taste at their own pace, and enjoyed networking opportunities.

On the other hand, 68% of people didn’t relatively find it important to be able to taste from full bottles in-person. 88% of people also said they didn’t value tasting wines with food. In a later question, 68% of people said food at tastings isn’t relatively important, but it is nice to have (see chart below). This was an interesting finding for us, as clients often ask us to present food specifically paired with the wines at in-person tastings.

Other key findings regarding in-person events included the following charts which show that respondents are generally flexible about how in-person events are structured – they’re mainly just happy to be back!

Virtual Tastings

We asked respondents to rate the following topics, ranked here in order of importance:

  1. Opportunity to meet a wider range of winemakers live virtually who perhaps wouldn’t be so easily accessible in UK
  2. Convenience and accessibility
  3. Health security in times of COVID pandemic
  4. Pre-recorded multi-media that you can access at your convenience after the tasting
  5. Tasting and discussing online with others

A key contextual takeaway is that for the whole survey it was apparent that people were evenly split in terms of the importance they placed on COVID-19 health safety at the time of taking the survey. Given that by mid-June over 60% of UK adults had been double vaccinated, this reflects the public mood.

For the purpose of thinking about virtual events long-term, 70% of respondents comparatively thought that hybridised events should continue to be offered:

 

This tallies with the 54% of people who said that, relatively, the accessibility and convenience of virtual events was of most appeal to them. We had a number of additional comments which pointed out that, geographically, in-person tastings tend to be London-centric, which means they’re not as accessible for people not living in the capital.

But for us, one of the most interesting findings was that 68% of respondents said that, similarly, the opportunity to meet ‘live’ a wider range of winemakers who perhaps wouldn’t be so easily accessible in UK was the main appeal of virtual events for them. In tandem with the finding that another 68% of people relatively valued in-person tastings for this very same reason – to interact with winemakers, we know that having this connection in any way possible is very important for event attendees.

“I would just like to add that the only thing that is not useful about virtual tastings is allowing winemakers to talk endlessly about how wonderful they are. Swirl is very good at making them keep to the point!”

A key concern for the Swirl team when we created our digital arm, Swirl in the Cloud, was replicating as best as we could the experience of chatting to peers you’d experience at an in-person tasting. While necessity is the mother of invention, it’s still notable that now virtual tastings are no longer the only option, 60% said that, comparatively, discussing wines online with others was not important to them.

All in all, virtual tastings present a very efficient use of time but they’re still not seen as a desired alternative to the ‘real thing’ – in-person events.

Sustainability

Sustainability, in both environmental and business terms, is vitally important to Swirl’s future. We’ve noticed a sharp uptick in awareness of eco-sustainable practices in terms of sample delivery and the execution of events. In this context, there are benefits to both virtual and in-person events.

Virtual events reduce travel, especially air travel. But it’s necessary to send samples out individually, whereas in-person tastings require only a few bottles.

We found that, comparably, 75% of respondents rated recyclable packaging as very important. But, given everyone has different means of processing information, opinions were split on the relevance of printed materials.

Other feedback

We were really happy to see some lovely feedback about Swirl in the Cloud events, and in-person Swirl events.

“I love Sarah’s presenting style – the combination of wine, geo-politics, history and culture is always fascinating. More of that, please!”

We also got some valuable feedback on what key information is vital for event attendees. Of particular importance was the label information breakdown: grape, ABV, RRP, vintage. Tasting notes and further background was considered less important.

These are valuable insights for Team Swirl. If you responded, thank you very much for your input. We hope wine trade colleagues find this information as useful as we do.

*50 respondents from across the UK wine industry who had attended a Swirl Wine Group led event in the past 12 months.
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Pioneering producer connections

At Swirl Wine Group, we specialise in helping emerging wine regions reach their full potential in the UK wine market. For ‘emerging’ or lesser-known wine regions it can be a battle to match the great wines we know are out there with the passionate sales people who we know will get those wines into people’s glasses.

One of the biggest barriers that we encounter is extracting the compelling, saleable story behind great producers – and then presenting clearly to potential stockists. So, for one of our key clients, Wines of Georgia, we devised a pioneering solution: Georgian Wine Connect.

Georgian wine in the UK is booming, but it remains a small, young market. The old markets of Russia and the CIS still consume the majority of Georgian wine. But the new markets of Western Europe and North America are where sales are growing most rapidly.

The Georgian National Wine Agency has pursued this strategy of market diversification for ten years. The health and survival of their wine sector depends on it. It is impossible to overstate the importance of wine to Georgia’s culture, identity, society and economy.

Of course, new markets demand new approaches. Good wine is not enough. Markets such as the UK require consistent access to reliable wine information, and story-led marketing. Georgia has the wines. But not the information. Georgian Wine Connect is a project and online platform to develop and share the details of wine and winery that have proven difficult for trade buyers to find.

We are inspired, of course, by the excellent platforms run by the generic bodies of major wine exporters. Australia is a fine example, (we promise that we didn’t mean to copy the name!).

But our work with Georgian Wine Connect has required that we didn’t only provide a platform for producers and buyers to connect. We have worked with over 50 export-ready producers, surveying them (in Georgian where necessary) to identify their most promising wines for the UK, and to present their story and offer in the most accessible way with producers filterable by winery size, wine style and positioning.

The Georgian Wine Connect platform combines a producer directory and events hub. Our program of in-person and virtual tastings are hosted on the platform, as well as a series of monthly Doing Business webinars that will start at the end of June. UK buyers, journalists and educators are invited to log into the hub, join events, and request information, live chats or a zoom call with the representatives from wineries.

Together with the Indie Trade Alliance initiative, the winners of whom we interviewed this month, we’re providing a progressive, user-friendly way of grabbing one of key clients even more market share.

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Interview: the winners of Wines of Georgia’s Indie Trade Alliance Fund

Each month we speak to a someone doing things a little differently in our industry. Usually, this takes the form of an interview with an interesting woman in our trade, but this month we decided to do something a little different. Our newsletter highlighted the novel approach we’ve taken to connecting export-ready producers with UK retailers via the Georgian Wine Connect hub. Wines of Georgia are one of our key clients, and we’re proud to showcase how their trust in us has enable us to come up with a pioneering solution for a common issue faced by producers in emerging wine regions: how to get their wines in front of consumers in key markets.

In tandem with Georgian Wine Connect, we also worked with Wines of Georgia to develop an Indie Trade Alliance fund giving small and medium independent UK retailers the opportunity to apply for a grant to use to increase their exposure of Georgian wine to their customers. We had some fantastic entries, but, together with our client, we whittled it down to the strongest proposals.

This month, we talked to those winners about how initiatives like Georgian Wine Connect and the Indie Trade Alliance can have a positive impact on their business, showing why they’re such an important part of what we do at Swirl.

The typical way to get people interested in wines from new places is to get them to taste taste taste! But the pandemic has put restraints on these sorts of marketing activities – so we asked the winners how they’re adapting their marketing of Georgian wine to mitigate these barriers.

Danilo di Salvo of Georgian Wine specialist Gvino UK admits that they’ve pivoted to be fully online. “We have invested in a part-time Marketing Director who looks after our digital marketing activities [and have] re-vamped our website for a better use experience. For example, we have included filters to choose a specific bottle of wine based on the questions that we get asked most face-to-face. We have also had to turn to online wine tasting, which we were nervous about at first. However, our online wine tastings have been very successful (with fantastic support from Swirl). We will do more of these in the future.”

But Danilo isn’t the only one who’s innovating. Duncan Findlater of Smith & Gertrude says that “we are going to be taking the wines to people in their own homes through our wine club and through the weekly cheese and wine packs that we send out.” While Chris Coombes of Turton Wines says they’ve initiated “Home Tasting Kits, Online Tastings [for] private and Corporate clients, Mystery Cases with online Youtube Channel presentation, and targeted staff tasting sessions.”

The latter investment is repeated by Emily Silva of The Oxford Wine Company who says part of their grant-winning strategy is to focus “heavily on staff training, which will provide our lovely, enthusiastic staff with all the information they need to spread the word about delicious Georgian wine”.

But there’s also a clear desire to offer ‘normal’ in-store tastings where possible. Tom Boronat of The Salusbury Wine Store & Bar admits “[they’ve] channelled [their] efforts into a higher social media presence and began writing more frequent newsletters […but they’ll] host the event in store as easing of restrictions means we can get away with an indoor tasting’.

One of the most powerful things about an initiative like the Indie Trade Alliance fund for an emerging region like Georgia, is that it gives indies the opportunity to do what they do best: hand sell compelling stories. Wine is enmeshed in Georgian culture in a way that’s quite unique, so the winning plans all explore this significance.

Danilo of Givno UK is putting a strong focus on the cultural importance of wine: “The cuisine from Georgia is absolutely incredible and so we are going to use our generous funding from the GITA to commission a short series of YouTube videos celebrating the relationship between Georgian wine and food from a famous Georgian chef.” Les Hall of The Wright Wine Company agrees: “[I’ve said before] that in order to promote Georgian wine I felt that Georgia as a whole should be promoted and that there should be an exploration of the absolute bond linking family, hospitality, food and wine. Doing all that in a shop is certainly going to be a challenge. But we’re up for it!”.

This cultural focus also rides on the coattails of sweeping wine trends – something Carrie Carruthers of Carruthers & Kent will definitely exploit. “We can’t quite believe it ourselves how through the roof [the rising demand for natural and Amphora wine has] gone, in particular with young people.”

Speaking to the winners of the Indie Trade Alliance has also highlighted how powerful a tool this will be to enable Georgia, a still ‘emerging’ region to gain even more market share in the valuable UK wine market.

Isa Bal of Trivet restaurant says “we have plans to work with a number of producers directly at this point in time it gives us a good idea what we can do.” Emily of The Oxford Wine Company agrees, saying the tool is “very efficient and a great way to connect without needing to travel either abroad or to London” – highlighting the success of portals like Georgian Wine Connect which engender personal connection in tandem with the ease and accessibility of online tools.

Danilo of Givno UK says it all with his comment: “This is a fantastic innovation – well done to all of those involved. We have plans to increase our wine variety significantly over the coming 12-18 months and so this tool will be invaluable. We currently source our wines through our relationships in Georgia, which has both pros and cons. One of the cons is that we may miss out on bringing some fantastic wine to the UK because we simply don’t know about it. This tool will help us mitigate this issue.”

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Interview: Collette O’Leary

Swirl meets Collette O’Leary, head winemaker at Henners Vineyards.

Colette is an English winemaker on the rise. She’s in charge of the small team at Henners, a stone’s throw from the coast in Sussex, where they make delicious English wine. We talk about her career switch from PR to winemaking and what English wineries could do to improve their communication.

Career changes to work in the wine trade are not at all uncommon – maybe it’s the romance of grape and glass! – but pivoting to become a winemaker is far more unusual. What inspired the change? 

In 2010 I went on holiday to visit my sister in Nepal when I was stranded there by the Icelandic ash cloud which shut down air travel for a few weeks. Nepal doesn’t have great internet or beaches to lie on, so for that fortnight I was really alone with my thoughts – which were increasingly centring around my work in government PR. I really felt at a crossroads. I’d been doing PR for a long time, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn’t want to be doing it in my 50s or 60s. Plus, with the financial crisis and changing government the cash for the sorts of campaigns I liked doing was drying up.

I’d done a sort of gap year in 2006 when I’d worked at a cellar door in New Zealand. It had quick started a real passion for wine – so when a friend pointed out that vineyards had become my ‘happy place’, the penny dropped. I know I could’ve moved into wine PR, but it can be really high octane, working deadline to deadline so sometimes you feel like you are chasing your tail.  I decided I wanted to work on something longer term, where you take your time, plan for the future and works towards its fruition and the wine industry is perfect for that because nothing happens overnight, you have no choice but to be patient and go with the trials and tribulations of each season. I came back to the UK and never looked back.

What’s been your experience of training to be a winemaker at a later stage in life? 

I’m a city girl and don’t have a scientific background, so winemaking was a considerable change for me. But what I do have is a strong work ethic. I’m tenacious, I don’t let things get to me and if I want something then I’ll work until I get it. I was in some ways an advantage coming to this change a bit later in life. Coming to a new profession later in life gives you a new perspective, you know what it can be like to do something you don’t truly love, so you don’t take it for granted. I’d also spent my career to that point working out what my strengths and weakness were so I’m very aware of what I can bring to the table – and where I need to ask for help. When you’re younger, there can be a bit of a reluctance to show weakness. When you’re older, you really have the confidence to admit when you don’t know something which is really valuable in a winery.

How do you use your PR/ marketing expertise in your new role as winemaker? When you’re making a wine, are you also thinking about the story which will appeal to your customers? 

Making wine can be such a challenging journey and you really are led by the fruit, rather than the customer when you are making wine.  It’s a natural product so it will do what it’s going to do, as winemakers we just try to guide it along. You can’t make wine with just your customer in mind because wine is a living natural product. The seasons will give you what they give you. To a certain extent, if you think you’re making wine to a recipe because you have a certain style in mind then it doesn’t work. It has to be quality and vineyard driven.

But on the other hand, there are quite a lot of small wineries who have the attitude that ‘this is how we make our wine; people will like it because they should’. I think craft spirits and beer companies have got the right balance. They don’t lose their integrity of quality because they’re also minded of a story or category which their consumer can engage with. It’s partly why we’ve rebranded in the past three months. We’re celebrating our approach as, for want of a better description, a craft winery.

What’s the one thing UK winemakers could do to improve their communications?

I’ve spent a lot of time at tasting rooms while working overseas so I really understand how powerful that experience can be. The thing about English wineries is that we are still smaller – so the experience you get is often more personal and exciting than you get at big, established overseas Tasting Rooms. Here, you’ll meet the owner, the winemaker. They’re not reading from a script. You are introduced to the wine by a person talking with authentic passion. When I worked at that cellar door in New Zealand, I delivered a lot of the tours and my experience is that visitors are sponges. They want to understand as much as possible. There’s so much technical lang used in the wine industry which, to extent, is used to keep people at bay. It’s part of a general aloofness around wine. It was typical that as we move through the winery people who always be saying ‘I don’t know’, “I can’t taste’, ‘my opinions aren’t valid’ – the job of a cellar door is to give people confidence. It’s also a great opportunity for us to change price perception. There’s been a move in the UK towards valuing provenance. There is a cost to quality which people are really understanding in relation to food, and cellar doors can share that information too. After listening to a winemaker talk about how hard it is to make wine in the UK, people go away thinking ‘how can I buy a £4 bottle in Aldi’, not ‘this English wine is expensive’.

I genuinely think that the more we reach out to people, the more they’ll buy into it and take pride in the fact that these wines are made on their doorstep. They just been to try it and be given confidence to stand firm in their choices.

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Interview: Clara Latham

Swirl meets Clara Latham, General Manager of Della Vite.

Working with Seedlip, Clara created a whole new category of drink. It was called ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ – but today Seedlip is the king of the ever-growing distilled non-alcoholic spirit category. Now with recently launched Della Vita, can Clara change how we view Prosecco too?

What’s it like to create a category?

Establishing a normal brand – you know who your competitors are, the category and concept are established and the trade understands what you’re doing. They know what to expect from your product. But when you are creating a whole new category you can’t look at the world as it currently is – because otherwise you don’t exist. You have to look at the world as you think it could be.

Before Seedlip, if you weren’t drinking for whatever reason, your options were really limited. People expected to feel disappointed. Taking that as our starting point, Seedlip created something that made people feel good, irregardless of whether they were drinking alcohol or not, they felt considered. We have an opportunity to change the way things are today and to do that for the better. That’s endlessly inspiring.

How are you seeing the that the world could be different with Della Vite?

Though Della Vite is a very different proposition from Seedlip, I felt that they had lots of parallels. I felt a bit nervous to lead with the word ‘Prosecco’ when people asked me what my new venture was. Their faces would drop. ‘Really?’ they’d say, ‘not English sparkling? Not a category that’s on the rise?’.

But when I look at the Prosecco category as it stands in Great Britain, I see a massive opportunity to reposition it and change how it’s perceived. At the moment it’s seen as an entry-level cheap commodity, I think mainly because the large proportion of Prosecco which reaches us here is mass market and mass produced. But we have an opportunity to get people understanding that there is such a thing as really high-quality Prosecco – that they could be feel proud not just to say that they drink it, but that they even prefer it. That it’s their chosen drink.

Compared with other celebrity wines, there’s an unexpected focus on technical detail with Della Vite. What’s the motivation for that? And what challenges did you experience working with both Prosecco and celebrities – two things the established trade aren’t overly fond of?

It’s not just a beautifully designed bottle with the name of some celebrity sisters slapped on the bottle. Della Vite aspires to be a category pioneer – and we can only do that with a really well-crafted product. The most important factor for me taking this role was connecting with the sisters and understanding that they didn’t just want to launch another celebrity wine.

Della Vite is quite a different thing. It’s not just another premium rosé with a celebrity endorsement that does well in a category which people already understand and appreciate. The premiumisation of prosecco hasn’t happened yet – but Della Vite is more than up to the challenge. And it’s backed by these sisters who really understand that Prosecco can be a premium product and who know what they’re talking about – and who are prepared to surround themselves with people who give their ambition the best chance of succeeding.

Of course, people are always resistant to change. It’s natural to meet resistance when you’re doing something that’s not been done before. That’s why we really own the importance of education.

When you were marketing Seedlip what did you learn about the alcohol sector? And now you’re marketing alcohol, what can you apply from your experience with Seedlip?

Seedlip was a steep learning curve. Being in and around the alcoholic trade you suddenly realise in order to win in the on-trade the trade play a gate-keeper role in that. They’re the people who display your product to the consumer. Gaining their respect and investing time in getting them onside was really important.

But I also think the naivety can be an asset. Not being blinkered by what’s expected means you can approach things in a fresh way in a very ‘challenger’ way. Part of behaving like that gets people very interested and excited by what you’re doing.

I have also learnt the difference between the ‘wine trade’ and the ‘alcoholic brand world’ and their two schools of thought, for example when speaking to the wine trade, a heavy focus is on the product and liquid credentials. I describe Della Vite as being the perfect brand sitting between the two ways of thinking. We can lean into our wine credentials, and have a technical, intellectual conversation about the wine, and then we can also lean into the fact that we’re bubbles, we’re contemporary and that we have incredible lifestyle credentials. There’s a common ground for everyone.

What are you ambitions for Della Vite?

For me, success wouldn’t only be measured by how many bottles we sold, but alongside this, whether we’d become the brand which opened the door to a new space for Prosecco which was more celebrated, higher quality, and better understood.

Really, I’d love people to recognise that our brand was part of that step change.

Think of Fevertree – they did something fantastic for tonic. Before Sipsmiths and Hendricks gin was just Gordons. They managed to change people’s perception of what the norm was for that particular category. I hope that Della Vite will do the same.

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Almost there: virtual trade and press trips to Georgia

The National Wine Agency of Georgia had hoped to host their usual (and hugely popular) trade and press trips to Georgia this Autumn, but given the ongoing disruption to international travel, regrettably, this is not possible.

However, conscious that interest and curiosity for Georgian wine among the UK wine trade remains high, the Georgian wine agency and producers have worked together with Sarah Abbott MW and team at Swirl to create engaging virtual trips for the wine trade and press.

Held over two consecutive mornings, each trips will include virtual tastings with producers talking live from marani and vineyard, as well as presentations and video footage on Georgian terroir and wine styles. A key theme of the trips is to show the contemporary diversity of Georgia, and the richness of her wine culture, and indigenous grapes. Georgian exports to the UK have boomed in the last two years, but there are still myths to be busted and prejudices to be broken. The quality, creativity and relevance of Georgian wine has never been higher, and the teams have worked to express this through thoughtful itineraries and accompanying materials.

Group size is limited to 12 on each trip, so as to foster engagement and ensure a positive, useful experience for all.

Each attendee will receive a pack containing wines (for virtual tasting), and some Georgian specialities. Sarah Abbott MW says , “While we can’t capture Georgia’s spirit and vitality in a box, we have thought carefully about how to convey some of the sights, sounds and tastes that make Georgia such a delight to experience in person.”

The dates and times of the virtual trips are:

  • Tuesday 13th and Wednesday 14th October 2020 – Press
  • Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th October 2020 – Trade
  • 10:00 to 12:00 GMT (13:00 to 15:00 Georgian time)

To express interest in attending the Virtual Trips, or for more information, please contact Sarah Abbott MW on sarah@swirlwinegroup.com, or Madeleine Waters on Madeleine@swirlwinegroup.com.

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Video: Koshu and beyond. A tipping point for Japanese Wine.

On the 23rd October 2019 we presented two fully-subscribed Masterclasses on New Wave Japanese Wines. The first session was held at 67 Pall Mall, London’s renowned private members’ club for wine lovers, and was followed by a walk-around tasting. The second Masterclass was held at Trade Soho member’s club for the hospitality community.

The masterclass showcased a selection of wines, with a focus on Koshu, with diverse wines chosen to highlight Japan as an emerging and thrilling cool-climate wine producer. Koshu is Japan’s calling card – an indigenous variety of increasingly diverse and always elegant character with amazing food-matching power.

For a quick briefing on how the UK trade is responding to contemporary Koshu, and other Japanese Wines, watch our video here.

And for details of the event, wines and menus, see our Event Report.