Top 10 influential wine consultantsBy Gabriel Stone
Behind many of the world’s most admired wines lies the guiding hand of a winemaking consultant.
Ever since Emile Peynaud created the original template for this profession, their influence has infiltrated the international winemaking scene to the extent that the same handful of names crop up time and again.
In December’s issue of the drinks business we explore the extent to which these winemaking consultants (as distinct from viticulturalists and other specialists) are shaping the global wine scene – and to what extent this influence should be viewed as beneficial or cause for concern.
For the moment, however, we’ve compiled a selection of 10 of the world’s most influential winemaking consultants. Some are high profile, others deliberately fly under the radar, but each of them have arguably done more than any individual brand or company to create the wine world we see today.
10. Sam Harrop MW
Not many consultants can claim to have done so much to change the face of an entire region, but in his work for former client InterLoire – first with Cabernet Franc and now Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealander Sam Harrop has helped to implement a wholesale modernisation of Loire wines.
His ability to combine winemaking expertise with a strong eye for what makes markets tick is also evident in the commercial success of Portuguese brand Tagus Creek. Explaining his strengths, Harrop notes: “Many winemaking teams don’t get to the market enough, they are starved of trends and information from the market. The problem is, many marketeers and sales people don’t speak or understand the technical language of the winemaker, so there is a breakdown in communication between the two disciplines within the organisation.” Positioning himself between these two poles, Harrop explains: “As a winemaker with a good commercial understanding of and presence in the market place I can help the winemakers create wines that not only have a reason for being, but suit the markets they are destined for and with any luck over-deliver as well.”
Harrop is also one of the most informed, authoritative voices in the emotive “natural” wine debate. Two years ago saw the publication of Authentic Wine, co-written with wine writer Jamie Goode, in which the pair explore a number of key issues surrounding this movement.
For those who argue that the modern-day phenomenon of the international winemaking consultant is leading to a standardisation of wine styles, Harrop offers a robust defence of his profession. Indeed, far from narrowing the world’s wine palette, Harrop argues that if anything the impact of winemaking consultants, aided by advances in technology, has helped a broader spectrum of wines to express a more distinct sense of place. “Before technology and consultants there were a lot of wines – both commercial and premium – that were faulty and as such a certain level of homogenisation existed,” he explains. Thanks in no small part to the efforts made by wine consultants, he concludes: “my observation over the last 15 years in the commercial and mid-priced market segment is that wine diversity has never been so impressive.”
Look out for new wines from a recently added client Te Motu in Waiheke Island, not to mention Harrop’s own private project from this region, which is due to debut next year. Not content with wine, Harrop is also well known as a vocal champion of Sake.
9. Demei Li
Clients: He Lan Qing Xue and Lei Ren Shou in Ningxia, as well as the Ningxia wine bureau; three projects in Xin Jiang, in addition to work for the region’s wine industry association; Red Leaves project in Shacheng and two further projects in Beijing.
Of all the winemaking consultants who are busy accelerating quality levels within China’s closely-watched domestic production scene, it is difficult to find an individual with the influence of Demei Li.
Trained in Bordeaux, including a stint at Château Palmer, 43-year-old Demei Li was the first chef winemaker & technical director for the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyards and winery, a joint venture between the Chinese and French governments.
The majority of his own consultancy work is in the northern regions of Ningxia and Xinjiang. However, as a member of the Chinese Wine Technique Committee, vice-general secretary of the China Wine Association and vice-general secretary of Chinese Viticulture Society, Demei Li is very much at the forefront of his country’s winemaking drive.
8. Kym Milne MW
Clients: Rustenburg, Errazuriz, PLB Group and a number of small Australian producers.
The former chief winemaker at Villa Maria expanded his focus to consultancy in the 1990s, becoming one of the original “flying winemakers”. Now based in Australia, Milne’s main role is as chief winemaker for Adelaide producer Bird in Hand; however, the international consultancy work continues through his company Global Wine Solutions.
Outlining his approach, Milne highlights the broad perspective he is able to offer after a career spanning so many countries and sizes of producer. However, he sums up, “In general I would say a lot of my influence for my higher end clients is often about focusing on more elegant styles – often looking at options of reducing alcohol a little, sometimes reducing the amount of new oak in some styles – not what many would imagine of a New World based winemaking consultant.”
A little mentioned but increasingly influential face of consulting is that carried out directly by many of the major retailers.
With the expanding shelf space given, in the UK at least, to own label or exclusive label wines, the skillset of many buyers today extends into product development and close collaboration with winemakers to create a wine tailored directly for their specific customer base.
Laithwaites Wine now includes no fewer than three trained winemakers on its buying team, which sources wine across the company’s UK, US and Australian operations. “For me it’s all about flexibility,” explains Laithwaites’ wine director Abi Hirshfeld, who confirms that while the majority of the time her team’s winemaking involvement is restricted to blending the “80-90%” of wines which are exclusive to Laithwaites, there is the option to extend this right back to vineyard parcel selection.
“For me it’s about where we can add value,” she outlines. “If a winemaker’s doing a good job then they don’t need us to do that, but we can maybe help them with bottling.” Even where the intervention required is minimal, Hirshfeld stresses the value of a team that is able to straddle the commercial and production elements of the wine business so effectively. “It really enables us to deliver wines that we know our customers will love,” she sums up.
6. Denis Dubourdieu
Clients: Cheval Blanc, Yquem, Bodegas Chivite in Spain, 4G Wines in South Africa.
If it’s your white wines that are in need of attention, then look no further than Denis Dubourdieu, Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux. His own family has owned Sauternes property Doisy Daëne since 1924 and Dubourdieu’s expertise both as an academic and bona fide vigneron make him hot property for wineries looking to improve quality.
In his quest for age-worthy white wines, Dubourdieu and his research team have dedicated themselves to identifying and tackling the issues that surround premature oxidation. From vineyard health through to pressing, fermentation, lees stirring and bottling, Dubourdieu’s clients can take advantage of his theories about how to create white wines with longevity to match their quality. That said, fans of traditional old white wines such as Rioja’s Lopez de Heredia Viña Gravonia or Marqués de Murrieta might find his stance a shade too purist.
5. Alberto Antonini
Clients: A 30-strong portfolio spread across Italy, the US, Canada, Armenia, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
Although stressing he is “not very interested” in how his peers operate, this Tuscan consultant expresses a certain pride in his efforts to help clients “free their mind from the French recipe which has colonised the world in the last 40 years, when many producers have thought that the only way of making premium wines was using French grapes and the 225 litre barrels.”
It’s an approach that clearly resonates well with his clients. Concha y Toro winemaker Marcelo Papa says: “Without doubt he is one of our most interesting advisors who is not interested in chasing point scores or simply turning up. He is always seeking to create wines with character and a sense of place.”
Adding to Antonini’s influence is undoubtedly his double act of the last seven years with Chilean “terroirist” Pedro Parra, who is now involved in around half his projects around the world. “We complement each other very well,” sums up Antonini, who praises Parra’s ability to “understand the relationships between the terroir and the wine characteristics.”
4. Stephane Derenoncourt
Clients: Mainly in Bordeaux, including Domaine de Chevalier, Beauséjour and Prieuré Lichine. His international reach covers India, Spain, Austria, Italy, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine and the US, where Derenoncourt works with Inglenook in California and Boxwood in Virginia.
“If you’re looking to communicate the differences in site then Derenoncourt will really help with that,” says Mark Andrew, senior buyer at Roberson Wine, of this Bordeaux-based consultant. “He’s really focused on the vineyard and how to get the best from your fruit if it’s on clay, sand or gravel, which is really important somewhere like the Gironde.”
This viticulturally-focused ethos has won fans further afield. According to Rachel Martin, executive vice-president at Boxwood Estate Winery in Virginia, “Stephane has taught us to respect the vineyard and the fruit. Indeed, she confirms: “Stephane has been our most effective method of improving our wines.”
In other aspects of his work however, Derenoncourt has proved rather more controversial. Earlier this year he outlined in some detail his method of vinifying an entirely separate parcel of wine to create “some little dolls” for his clients to show to trade buyers and critics during Bordeaux’s annual primeurs tastings.
3. Paul Hobbs
Clients: Sets himself a “personal limit” of 35 clients. Currently working across seven countries, including Perez-Cruz in Chile, Alto Limay in Argentine Patagonia, Juanicó Wines in Uruguay, Stratus in Ontario, Chalone Vineyards in California and a new project in Armenia.
A specialist focus on oak ageing from his UC Davis days helped Hobbs rise to fame for his work under Robert Mondavi, in particular as winemaker for Mondavi-Rothschild collaboration Opus One. Despite this cellar expertise, Hobbs highlights his childhood on the family farm in New York State as he insists: “I have always preferred to be in the vineyard.”
The two element combine neatly in a current “crusade against SO2.” As he explains, “doing things well in the vineyard is number one so that you’re bringing sanitary fruit into the winery. A well managed winery means that you don’t need to add much SO2.”
Today, Hobbs balances his own Sonoma winery with consultancy work, which has seen him play a pioneering role in the evolution of Argentina’s wine industry ever since his first visit to Catena in the late ‘80s. Despite admitting that he would “absolutely not” have predicted the international success of the country’s Malbec, Hobbs’ early recommendations on canopy management, irrigation and use of US oak had a transformative effect on the variety’s quality.
As for his level of involvement in a client’s business, Hobbs’ services can reach well beyond the cellar. “It really does vary,” he explains. “Sometimes it’s strictly production, sometimes it roams into commercialisation. Some of my clients are very, very small so they might need some marketing help.”
Although he is yet to lend his expertise to the potentially major producers of the future such as India or China, Hobbs confirms: “If I get a serious invitation then I’d certainly take a look at it.” For the moment, the same desire for a fresh challenge that took him to South America 25 years ago is currently being channeled into an Armenia joint venture, which is due to begin planting in spring 2014. Indeed, he describes it as “the most difficult project I’ll ever do in my life.”
Closer to home, Hobbs is due to plant a 65-acre estate in his native New York State, where he has partnered with “a top producer in the Mosel” with the aim of producing an off-dry Riesling from the slate-rich site.
2. Michel Rolland
Clients: Over 150 worldwide, but especially in Bordeaux, including Figeac, Pontet-Canet and St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé “A” châteaux Ausone, Angelus and Pavie. This year his services were secured by Vignobles André Lurton, which manages an extensive Bordeaux estate portfolio. Among a number of joint ventures are Clos de los Siete in Argentina, Bonne Nouvelle in South Africa and R&G in Spain. China’s state-owned conglomerate COFCO uses him as a consultant across its domestic and imported wine portfolio and he is also involved with Armavir in Armenia.
If you’ve heard of only one name on this list, the chances are it’s Rolland. “Amazing for the blending,” according to Daniel Cathiard of Smith Haut Lafitte, Rolland sometimes attracts controversy for promoting style over site – although he is as quick as any other consultant to deny that he uses a recipe. Nevertheless, if Parker points are important to your winery then the US critic’s palate often seems particularly attuned to Rolland wines.
What’s more Rolland’s influence is helping to drive debate within the wine trade on the merits – or otherwise – of an emerging trend towards “hyperselection” through the use of optical sorting machines.
“Michel Rolland is a big proponent,” notes Mark Andrew, senior buyer at Roberson Wine. Summing up the arguments for and against this modern addition to a winemaker’s toolkit, Andrew acknowledges: “initially it’s a good thing.” However, he argues that such pursuit of perfection in terms of fruit quality can prove counterproductive.
“I think you can take these things too far,” comments Andrew. “If you eradicate anything not 100% ripe then your alcohol levels will go up and you’ll have less acidity. By over-selecting you go after a style of wine that eliminates a lot of terroir signature.”
1. Jacques & Eric Boissenot
Clients: Around 200, mostly in the Medoc, including four first growths. Also producers in Greece (in the form of Alpha Estate), Provence, Spain, Tuscany and Chile, including Concha y Toro Don Melchor and Santa Rita Casa Real.
The most influential wine consultant you’ve never heard of, Eric Boissenot has largely taken on the prestigious client base and determinedly low profile established by his father Jacques, who in turn studied under the late Emile Peynaud. Together this father and son duo operate from their discreet laboratory in the Médoc village of Lamarque. While their direct client portfolio makes the Boissenot team influential enough, add in the number of producers worldwide who aspire to emulate the first growth style and the halo effect is considerable
“He’s very shy but he’s on the back label of every serious wine in Bordeaux,” sums up Felipe Tosso, chief winemaker at Viña Ventisquero in Chile, who has worked with Eric in the past. What’s more, adds Tosso: “he tastes faster than anybody”, recalling his own struggle to keep up with the focused pace with which Boissenot assessed his wines.
Don’t hire these guys if your marketing team wants a big name, but clients prize an ability to help create a blend that translates their terroir into something truly special.