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Sarah Abbott MW reviews old vine wines

Last Monday, Swirl attended a party with a purpose – the Old Vine Conference’s 2022 launch, co-hosted by our founder, Sarah Abbott MW. Here, Sarah shares her personal notes on the wines featured on the evening. If you’d like to know more about how you can support this initiative, visit the Old Vine website.

Vecchie Viti, Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore 2020, Ruggeri

80-100 year-old vines

I really loved this wine. I like the surprise value of a Prosecco really highlighting the long viticultural heritage of the the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region. It’s a UNESCO agricultural heritage site thanks to the centuries of viticulture carved out by man in these very steep hills; because of the way these vines are traditionally grown on really unique grass terraces, and with a really deep interaction of farming and land. It’s a side of Prosecco almost ignored – even denied – by the mainstream. That’s why it’s so great that Ruggeri, a great producer, are maintaining these old vines when absolutely everything must be done by hand. They feel so passionately that this is a link to their heritage and the highest quality aspirations of what Prosecco can be. It’s an absolutely delicious sparkling wine – brilliantly fragrant with this lovely stone-fruity quality, and a really delicate texture and fine mousse.

Sparklehorse 2018, Ken Forrester

48 year-old vines

This is a Cap Classique traditional method wine, made working with really old Chenin – and people loved it. There’s almost a kind of prejudice against traditional method sparkling wines which use what are considered to be ‘aromatic’ grapes. It’s like it’s a dumbing down. I absolutely resist that assumption – it’s not true. I loved the interplay between the savoury autolysis on this wine with the gorgeous ripe quince, classic Chenin aromatics. An absolutely stunning wine.

Centenaire 2021, Domaine Lafage

95-100 year-old bush vines

This wine is made from 100 year-old bush vines in the craggy, wild Catalan terrain of far southern France. Winemaker Jean-Marc is from this area, and he’s a very smart switched on business man and winemaker. Having worked globally, he’s now returned to build up his family’s domaine as well as a highly respected negotiant company. This is from the domanie vines. He’s given them a new lease of life by making this absolutely delicious, peachy, sort of sneakily aromatic dry white wine.

Malvasia 2020, Abel Mendoza

35 year-old vines

This is a white Rioja from old Malvasia vines. I loved the understated freshness and intensity of this wine. It’s a great example of the really resurgent and strong old vine movement which is really taking off in Rioja. It’s absolutely cracking value for money and really shows that white Rioja can be one of the fine wines of the world.

Vineyard Collection Carignan Gris 2020, Domaine Jones

Over 100 year-old vines

Cariangn Gris is an unusual variety, relatively rare. This wine is from really old vines, over 100 years old – I find that there’s something very exciting about the old vine quality in white wines. It gives really pure depth. A cracking wine, with only 800 bottles made and, again, it really shows the freshness and tension which old vines bring to wines from this rich, historical area of southern France.

Ossian 2018, Ossian

Up to 200 year-old vines

Spain has so many great old vineyards, but it also has so much pressure to abandon or dig up those vineyards, which is why growers like Ossian are so important in Spain. This is from extraordinary un-grafted, pre-phylloxera 200 year-old vines. The soil here is so sandy that phylloxera can’t get to the root of the vine. A really unusual plot – and what an interesting and delicious wine. So full of tension and this delicious paradox between very exotic pear and this lovely green, grassy, almost oxidative notes. But it’s still so fresh. An absolutely unique style of Verdejo, and it really goes to show how great old vines show a whole other side of grape varieties which are otherwise overlooked or dismissed.

Optenhorst Chenin Blanc 2020, Bosman Family Vineyards

70 year-old vines

From 70 year old vines – some of the oldest Chenin vines in South Africa, planted in 1952. They only make 260 cases. They were acutally planning to dig this up, but the winemaker said to the owners – let me give this vineyard a try, let me bottle is separately. And since then they’ve kept it going. It has this incredible combination of richness and depth and freshness.

Domaine de Cébène, Belle Lurette 2020, Brigitte Chevalier

80-100 year-old vines

Gorgeously aromatic but refined southern French wine from Faugères. It really shows that old vine quality isn’t just about body and concentration – its’s about a certain complexity and a kind of serenity.

Vagabond Grenache 2020, Thistledown Wines

80-100 year-old vines

An amazing wine from a superb project initiatied by Giles Cook MW and Fergal Tyan MW, working with growers in the McLaren Vale. They go in and identify these great old vine parcels, making single vineyard wines from this old vine fruit which was otherwise disappearing into blends. They’re able to pay the growers more for the fruit, and work with them to help them improve their viticulture. This is a wine which shows the incredible elegance and kind of lift old vine fruit can give to a wine. It’s one of the best Grenaches I’ve had for a while. It’s interesting that Grenache, like Carignan, is one of those varieties which can be overlooked. They’re kind of like delinquents which come good with some maturity.

Vieilles Vignes Cinsault 2019, Domaine des Tourelles

50 year-old vines

Cinsault was one of the original ‘settler’ vines in Lebanon. Lebanon has really long old vine heritage. It was one of the centres of viticulture in Roman Empire. That really indigenous viticulture was severely disrupted when Lebanon became part of the Ottoman Empire. But in the 1800s, Jesuit settlers brought and planted Cinsult from Algeria, so Cinsault is the second generation of native vines of Lebanon, if you like. This is from vines 50-100 years old. Again, it’s a wine which combines a rich perfume with a delicate texture. A real favourite of people on the evening, combining that gorgeous Lebanese exoticism wth freshness and balance.

Les Vignes Préphylloxérique 2013, Plaimont

150 year-old vines

An incredible piece of viticultural history, this is another pre-phylloxera vine wine. It’s from a single vineyard, planted in 1871 – it was so rich and intense and sort of sedimentary, filled with lovely dark dark blackberry fruits. Very compacted but fine grained tannins. A really incredible wine, but still a baby so I’m looking forward to seeing how it ages.

100 Year Old Vine Carignan 2018, Alchemy Wines

100 year-old vines

This wine had a lovely, welcoming, juicy, rich concentration with a lovely peppery finish. It’s incredible value for money.

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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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Introducing: The Blend

The Blend is a series of virtual workshops created in partnership between our founder Sarah Abbott MW and business psychologist Julie Goddard, The Success Architect. These workshops are designed to increase the representation of women in leadership roles within the wine and drinks industry

The big picture

Women under-participate in the global workforce.

What does that mean, practically? According to the OECD, it means that the global economy is missing out on six trillion USD per year. $6,000,000,000,000.

Of course, some countries integrate women into the workforce more effectively than others. These countries uniformly have government polies which support more women in high-paying, productive work. Policies like differentiated, individualised tax systems; affordable, integrated childcare; education and training systems which promote awareness of and mitigate against the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that the UK only ranks 17th out of the 33 OECD assessed countries.

What does this show us? That we need top-down action if we want sustained gender diversity – just general diversity – in the UK wine trade.

The small, personal picture

In wine, certainly in UK wine, there is very little data on the rates of participation for diversity and gender equality. There have been some surveys conducted, for example by Gus Gluck and Jancis Robinson MW, which have been a great first step. Though we lack systematic data, we can look around us to see what’s going on.

Wine industry leadership is not diverse. You only have to look at announcements of recent senior-level roles being filled. We’re just acknowledging a global truth: underrepresentation in gender and ethnicity is costing the world in profitability and productivity. It’s costing our industry.

Why we need to take action

It is a fact that when businesses put diversity, participation and inclusion at the heart of their strategic thinking, their businesses become better. They make more money.

This is about doing not only what’s right – but what’s essential for the health of our industry. And for our souls.

What we’re going to do about it

We’re launching The Blend.

This is a new initiative of virtual workshops created in partnership between Sarah Abbott MW of Swirl Wine Group and business psychologist Julie Goddard, The Success Architect.

Aside from being a qualified business psychologist, Julie is also a leadership coach and mentor. Her speciality has been working with women in the financial services sector which has historically struggled with gender inequality. She’s seen the practical benefits for business, working with both individual women and companies in this sector to increase the number of women in leadership positions.

Essentially, that’s what we want to do in wine.

How will The Blend workshops work?

We aim to make these workshops as accessible as possible. They’ll be available online and will tackle the foundations of developing a leadership mindset, values, confidence and aspiration for women in wine.

One thing our industry does not lack is women with talent and ambition. But that can only take one so far. We must engender systemic change in our industry, to make our industry richer in every sense. To do that we need to ensure that women have clear paths to leadership – we can’t just wait and hope for it to happen organically.

You can encourage talented women as much as you like, but in order for that to be impactful we must engage everyone. From existing senior leaders in the industry down – that means talking to a lot of high-achieving men and women.

These virtual workshops will be delivered by Julie & Sarah – and we welcome support and help from every part of our industry.

It’s fundamentally practical training. But behind it is our hope that we can make this equal representation one of the most fervently held intents of our industry at large.

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Sarah Abbott MW introduces The Old Vine Conference

This month, we talked to our founder, Sarah Abbott MW, about another passion project: The Old Vine Conference. Together with Leo Austin and Alun Griffiths MW, she has founded this non-profit with the aim of creating a definitive category for Old Vine Wine, in the knowledge that commercialisation of a category is the best way to ensure the safeguarding of Old Vine vineyards for centuries to come. We talked to her about her motivations for collaborating on the project and why she thinks Old Vines are so important.

Wine is a connection to an ancient past – and old vines are tangible evidence of that.

I studied classical, ancient history. When you read those Greek and Latin texts – people’s concerns, their humours, their squabbles, their passions really are eternal, a fact I find incredibly soothing. I think this is why I am so inspired by the origins of wine. It’s an infinitely old culture which connects with this sweeping desire humans have not only to relate to each other, but to relate to their environment and create something beautiful from it.

I think it’s for that reason that the humanity of wine has always inspired me. You can open a bottle and drink and take into yourself a wine from another lifetime. I think this is the greatest power of wine – the connection to things bigger than ourselves, a cycle of people enjoying themselves and wanting to bless their important moments.

Credit human input. It gives the same specificity as terroir.

Being less sentimental, perhaps, as I learn more about regenerative capitalism and regenerative agriculture, I see how heritage vineyards can take us beyond mere organics and sustainability. One of the greatest environmental problems is the way that humans are not thought of as part of the system. Regenerative principles recognise that humans are not external to nature. We are part of it.

In Italy, for example, there is a movement to create a system of agriculture and viticulture which moves beyond mere sustainability into bio diversity. That system includes humans and recognises the importance of creating farming systems that benefit people working the land too so they can have good, prosperous, rewarding lives. When I’ve spoken to the viticulturalists and campaigners working towards this system, it’s recurrently important for them to acknowledge that the people working the land often possess great knowledge and rare skills which are passed down the generations. These may be knowledge of very specific local conditions or a particular training method. This specificity is at the heart of any premiumisation and we want to make clear the specificity involved in tending and making wine from old heritage vines.

Old vines are a gift to diversity.

Old vine culture has connections with biodiversity and resilience. I know there are many growers, for example, Torres in Spain, who are keenly aware of this. They find pockets of old vines – and old varieties. While the pockets themselves many be miniscule and not necessarily viable, what they’ve found is that the genetic material from these old vines has been absolutely essential as they develop new plantings of new varieties. It’s evidence of old vines informing the future of viticulture.

They find that these varieties bring resilience in the face of climate change, and of increasingly unpredictable environments. It’s a gift of diversity. It’s not just that the vine is old. It’s that they contain value, genetically, as well as embodying generational agricultural skill.

Let’s celebrate wine as an agricultural product.

I think another very important part of these heritage vineyards is that actually we can crack open the agricultural side of wine. If you look to premium food and other drinks, producers are unafraid to get into the detail of growing and production methods. But in wine, we seem to feel this is too boring or complex. Of course, not everybody wants to know this sort of detail, but it’s important enough to enough people that it can elevate the value and the enduring commercial integrity of these products. That’s what we need to do with these great old vineyards.

The inaugural Old Vine Conference is being shown live virtually on Tuesday 23rd and Wednesday 24th March. For more information visit the website, or sign up to attend the conference.

You can read more of our interviews with women in wine doing interesting things here. 

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End of term report

Sarah Abbott shares her end of term report reflecting on our work and our clients’ successes in a turbulent 2020.

2020 began in disarray. We had the best laid plans – but my fantastic team and clients kept calm and carried on. Together, we found ways to be adaptable, creative and resilient in order to deliver what was needed, sensitively.

At the time we didn’t grasp what a crucible of adjustment it was. Fortunately, towards the end of 2019, we’d become interested in the growing trend in other industries – especially events and conferences – for blending in-person events with virtual augmentation. We had begun to research it to see how it could translate for wine – which gave us a great basis for the wholesale pivot to digital everything.

Our job is to communicate and engage on behalf of our clients, as well as assisting commercially. And I’m proud that we achieved this, in a time when promoting a product, wine, which is all about togetherness, contravened the essence of our daily lives.

So, we came up with Swirl in the Cloud – proof that every cloud has a silver lining.

From the get-go we were strict about the structure. The most important thing was fostering a sense of togetherness so, at the most basic level, either everyone got the wine, or no one did. So, we really jumped on the informational webinar format. Packing these presentations chock-full of great data and information has helped us learn so much about what really engages our clients’ audiences.

A May report from McKinsey showed that in March to May of 2020, “we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks”. I can definitely believe it. Digital events are a great democratiser. They ensure equal access for everyone – whether you’re shielding, less mobile or just can’t get child care. That’s incredibly valuable – as we recognised in the opportunity it gave us to connect with people from across the globe. For example, for Wines of Georgia, we did a webinar about Qvevri and were joined by people from 20 different countries. Among them were some winemakers who had just started making qvevri wines in South Africa, and another using the method in Lebanon. Without that connectivity, we would never have been able to introduce them to some Georgian qvevri specialists who are now helping and advising them. That feels incredibly rewarding.

Looking forward, there are several things that this year has extracted from us which I don’t think we’ll ever put back. Clients have really risen to the occasion, making exquisite videos showcasing terroir. Combining this kind of content with in-person events is here to stay. It’s hugely valuable, especially given the high per-attendee cost of in-person events. Of course, in many ways in-person events are irreplaceable. There’s nothing like showcasing wine in the context in which it’s to be enjoyed – and we want to get back to hospitality venues as soon as possible. But there’s a high level of wastage and no-shows with the current model. I predict that this will change with a swing to smaller, more flexible in-person events blended with a digital element.

Wines of Georgia 

It came as no surprise that the team in Georgia were some of the first to embrace digital innovation – they know the importance of being creative and adaptable in difficult times.

In collaboration with their team, we’ve run 13  different virtual tastings and presentations. Year on year sales of Georgian wine to the UK have increased by 240%. We now have over 60 merchants and retailers stocking Georgian wines – a fantastic result for the producers and for our wine market. We’re also so pleased to report that importers have shared what an invaluable resource the in-depth online courses and training have made to their sales.


This year we’ve been running two different projects for JFOODO – one on their wines and one on sake.

Just before lockdown 1, at the beginning of February, I was in Japan. I am a complete sake novice, but though the style and tone of sake is so different from wine, I find that the depth of the culture, heritage, craft and intersection of place, personality and technique is very familiar to me. It’s just as rich as wine, so I’m really thrilled to be running two events on sake later this year.

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG

Conegliano Valdobbiadene is the premium end of Prosecco. And latest figures show that they have maintained their 2020 exports at the same level as 2019, in which exports to the UK from this specific zone doubled in volume and increased by 80% in value.

This year, we hosted six virtual tastings and supported the Consorzio with two virtual press trips. It was revelatory that a virtual event allowed us a deeper insight than what would be achievable in person. For example, we worked with Professor Digeo Tomasi, a leading authority on soil science and its effect on wine style. Using recorded video and live Zoom we were able to take attendees all over the region, sharing technical analysis of the aromatic compounds which resulted from each different soil type. While tasting the wines from each zone. It was an enormous piece of work to bring that together but it was really worth it to feel like we broke through those last vestiges of Prosecco prejudice.

Wine GB

We’ve just completed a really interesting project with Wine GB, focussing on classic method sparkling wine. The UK is emerging as a wine making nation and it was tremendously exciting to be able to work with Wine GB to explore how to express our identity and place in the world of wine.

We devised a communications hierarchy for how to talk about and differentiate classic method sparkling wine from England and Wales. We wanted to articulate the uniqueness of our wines made in our terroir, informed by our culture. I was really keen to move away from that trite way of talking about UK sparkling wine – in comparison to Champagne. Of course, Champagne is the benchmark for great classic method sparkling – but we’re not wannabes. We have an even more extreme climate and a much younger wine culture. We revel in the audacity, the boldness and experimentation which typifies our wine culture.

We were able to show a range of wines to predominantly trade journalists, and it was brilliant to hear them saying ‘I’ve never heard of this producer before, but this wine is fantastic’.

Respected by Gaggenau

This is a consultancy project, and one I’m really proud to be a part of. I love working on projects where wine is part of the story but not the only character. It puts wine in the broader context of humanity – a world which is broader than the ‘fellowship of wine geeks’ (among whom I’m happy to live).

Gaggenau makes really high-end, craft-focussed kitchen appliances. Their ‘Respected by…’ project celebrates culinary culture, of which wine is a part, by asking three curators from the worlds of wine, food and design to judge nominations from regional experts in each field. I’m so delighted that wine is being considered in the same breath as design and culinary excellence and look forward to sharing more when the winners are announced next year.