Originally a computer engineer, Rui Falcão became interested in wine while living in Vienna, Austria. When he returned to Portugal, he created the country’s first wine site, os5as8.com, in 1999. As a result, he and his colleagues, Pedro Gomes and Tiago Teles, landed a contract for a yearly wine guide. Before long, Falcão was writing for magazines as well, until he eventually had to choose between computing and wine. In 2001, he became a full time wine writer, speaker and ambassador for Portuguese wines, most notably presenting Madeira wines. In 2017 he launched the first annual MUST - Fermenting Ideas conference in Cascais, Portugal, to which he was able to attract speakers such as the New York Times’ Eric Asimov, and notable experts from a range of fields.
How were things different in the late 1990s, when you first started writing about wine?
First of all, at that time I was just focused on writing about Portuguese wines. There was not a big market in Portugal for tasting or criticizing foreign wines; at that time there was only one magazine [Revista de Vinhos], and there were almost no wine columns in regular newspapers. Most of the wine critics and journalists – and there were only a few of them – came out of one magazine. We – myself, Pedro Gomes and Tiago Teles – were the first ones to come out of nowhere, without a godfather or someone bringing us into the wine circuit, and that was a shock. The language that we used was different from in the past.
There were no blogs, so the only way you could come into the internet was if you had programming skills. Wine writing was very closed at that time, and I think we helped a new generation who were not in the wine business to come and give their opinion. We changed the way we were talking about wine.
Then we started to talk about non-Portuguese wines. We were very criticized because of that. In those days – not even 20 years ago – that was unknown and not well received, but it opened the door to a new generation.
How has Portuguese wine scene changed?
There’s been a major revolution. What we see today is nothing like what was available ten years ago. Then it was a very closed country and people were not drinking wines from other countries. Most producers had no idea of what was going around in the world. They would study here, and they wouldn’t drink wines from other countries or wine regions.
Then there was this sudden change. One of these changes started in the Douro Valley – and part of it became the Douro Boys – but there was this new generation, that’s now in its 40s. Instead of living in Oporto and going into the Douro during harvest time, they went to live there. One of the people who changed things was Dirk Niepoort, who took this generation under his wing and started introducing wines from all over the world to them. Suddenly there was this new generation living there and for the first time they were living at the vineyards. They started knowing the terroir, they started travelling – to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Germany, to Italy – and they started to understand other ways of making wine. For the first time, there was this generation that went to wine fairs – let’s say ProWein – who would actually leave the stand and go and taste wines from other countries. In the past, they might go to ProWein, but they would stay within the Portuguese stands. That created a lot of changes.
The winemakers that are now in their 30s, when they finished their winemaking in the university, they went outside. They would do one or two years of working in Australia, the USA or Argentina, and then come back and work for another year in a European country, and get a lot of new skills. They came back to Portugal and, thank God, instead of copying what other people were doing, they embraced some of the changes, but they started working with Portuguese materials and traditions. Some of them even started planting the vineyards in the old way, with mixed plantings and they managed to combine Portuguese tradition with new ways of looking into the world. One of the changes was labelling. Portuguese labels in the past were awful and suddenly they became a bit more international.
How did you come up with the idea for the MUST conference?
It started over two bottles of Madeira. I have a partner, Paulo Salvador, and we got this invitation from Cascais City Hall. The president challenged us to create a food event, but we said it doesn’t make any sense, it’s not our staple. Of course, we’re foodies, but it’s not something we know about. Paulo is a TV anchor, but he does a lot of shows on food, so that’s the connection, but from the beginning we said we wanted to do something on wine.
We truly believe there are a lot of excellent events on wine, but most are focused on one specific side of the wine industry – wine tourism, or winemaking, or marketing. There are not a lot of events that talk about wine under the whole umbrella and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to do something that would discuss the future. What are our major concerns, what are the major problems? That’s the reason for the name being “MUST - Fermenting Ideas”, because we want to discuss what’s concerning us.
What do you see as the biggest issues in wine?
There are so many: climate change, the water supply, how the trade works. From my own perspective, how the role of the wine critic and wine journalist is changing. But I also want to make a sort of bridge or connection with other industries, like the fashion industry, to get another perspective on the problems that we face.
We also want to give a different perspective on these problems. For example,
last year, instead of talking about how climate change can be a problem – and of course we know it is – we had Matthew Jukes talking about English sparkling wine. Most of the time we talk about problems, but for some countries, global warming is a blessing. We have this motto of “expect the unexpected”.
After hearing all the talks last year, what surprised you the most?
We had some amazing presentations, but there were three things that were interesting. One was wine tourism being such an important sector for our industry. For a lot of countries and regions, the wine tourism industry is more rewarding financially than the wine business itself.
I also thought there were some amazing presentations on natural wines both at the cellar and in the vineyard, and that was another point of MUST – giving different perspectives. We had Jamie Goode and Alice Feiring, with science from Jamie and philosophy from Alice. Another one was Victor de la Serna and Eric Asimov both presenting on how can we combine tradition with new ways of thinking.
This year there are a few changes. One of them in the survey last year we realized that one of the highlights were the discussions afterwards. The presentations were very good, but 15 minutes of discussions were really good and people praised it. So after the last presentation of the day it’s going to be a panel discussion about some issues that we consider key for the wine industry.
It’s not just about the best speakers coming to the stage and talking. They’re only allowed 40 minutes of presentation, and then there is a minimum of 15 minutes of discussion, because we want to instigate the exchange of ideas.
Interview by Felicity Carter
The second MUST – Fermenting Ideas conference will take place from 20 to 22 June 2018 in Cascais, Portugal.