Hubert Burda Media

Neil Hadley: What’s in the Glass?

The Master of Wine tackles the wine questions you usually wouldn’t ask for the fear of looking impolite.

The youngest in the world when he passed his MW exams in 1993, Neil Hadley is one of only 340 Masters of Wine today. Yet instead of plying the speaking and writing circuit (like many of his contemporaries), Hadley has combined his passion for wine education with three decades of experience in wine retailing and brand building. As general manager of family-owned Taylors Wines in South Australia’s Clare Valley, he leads the company’s sales development overseas, in the process showcasing that great wines capture the essence of its vineyard. Encyclopaedic in knowledge yet approachable and with a good sense of humour, he tackles some of our burning queries.

Are there still wineries that press grapes by feet? Aside from the hygiene factor, does it actually impact a wine’s taste?

There are a few wineries, I’m sure, but it is not common practice. Hygiene is surprisingly less a factor than you might think, because fermentation is by nature a cleansing process — the alcohol generated would kill most germs, as does the unfriendly carbon dioxide-filled environment. Clarification and filtration practices in most wineries will also remove non-wine matter from the drink prior to final bottling. Historically, the foot (preferably pre-cleaned, despite what I said) was the softest known device for crushing grapes without breaking up the pips and thus releasing bitter tannins into the wine. Winery equipment today provides equally gentle processing options that are far more inanimate! So overall, no, there is no evidence-based argument to say crushing by foot is advantageous these days. By the way, it’s incredibly hard work. Just think of a workout on the Stepper at the gym and multiply it by four.

Taylors wines have won a staggering number of awards and you do put medal stickers on the bottles. Do medal stickers really help sell more wine?

Without a shadow of a doubt, medals on bottles sell wine. But they do have to be authentic. The consumer is not stupid and will soon work it out if what’s in the bottle does not reflect what’s promised on the package. We stick to wine shows of credibility around the world, where we can be confident that the judges’ awards are worthy of broadcast.

Why the terms "new world" and "old world"? One could say the actual terroir in Australia (a new world region), for instance, has been in the making since the continents split 200 million years ago.

That is absolutely true and in fact, the limestone soils of South Australia were laid down about 600 million years ago in a shallow inland sea before Australia and Antarctica even split apart! But the terms "new world" and "old world", alas, refer to the colonial European past, when somewhat misinformed and certainly insensitive individuals in the empires of Europe some 500 to 200 years ago prosecuted the view (in spite of the amazing and significantly older cultural histories of places like China) that Europe was the centre of the world and thus, anything not European was somehow “new”. It’s a bit like scientists today saying they have discovered a “new” planet. Really?

You were the youngest MW at the time you qualified in 1993. Exactly how arduous is the process?

Hair pulling! I tipped about four years of my spare time into studying for the eventual pass qualification. The exam demands a great deal of not just knowledge of facts, which are essential, but also an understanding of the reasons behind the facts — be it geographical, historical or political. I often say to would-be candidates that the exams which precede MW, such as the WSET Diploma course, focus greatly upon the “what”, whereas MW is concerned mostly with the “why” — which, as any parent knows, is a much harder question to answer!

In your experience, when blind-tasting a wine, what are the odds of getting the region, winemaker and vintage right?

I was once handed a glass of something white at a party and asked to identify it. To the delight of my friends, I immediately answered (correctly) that it was homemade and horrible. But more often than not, I am only partly correct, if at all, when it comes to being given a single wine to identify. Try looking at a picture of a single star and identifying it: You would have almost no chance. Look at the same star in the context of its constellation and you’d have a pretty good shot at knowing it…if you know your stars.

What are your tips for drinking on the job and not getting drunk?

Drink a glass of water for every glass of wine you consume and you will more than likely still be making conversational sense by the end of the evening. Sipping when others are gulping is also an acquired art. Not allowing yourself to get dragged to karaoke bars is also helpful!