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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.