Wine is easier to understand and more affordable than ever. More’s the pity, says TOM CANNAVAN, who fears that by reaching out to a wider audience, producers are ‘dumbing down’. So does that make him elitist?
We would love to think of wine being made on ancient slopes, church bells chiming in the distance as the winemaker lovingly tends each vine. But for the vast majority of inexpensive bottles lining supermarket shelves, the reality is very different. Industrial bulk production is a crucial part of today’s wine scene. Ripe but undistinguished grapes are the base metal that technology transforms into the liquid gold of high street sales: commodity wine. This is processed wine, manufactured to a repeatable formula.
Tastings of recent Bordeaux vintages confirm that this phenomenon is not confined to the bottom end. Many experienced commentators have noted a tendency for over-extracted, low-acid wines. Consultant oenologists have been at work, and some estates have even used machines to extract water content from rain-diluted juice.
The very soul of some of Europe’s finest terroir is being manhandled to mimic the drought conditions of the Coonawarra. This changing style is often attributed to ‘Parkerisation’: the over-influence of the über-critic’s palate. Whatever the reason, there are fewer accepted ‘norms’ of wine styles now.
SEA OF CHARDONNAY
The 21st-century wine consumer is undoubtedly empowered by varietal wines and informative back labels. We buy Chardonnay with confidence, because we know we like Chardonnay. But how many consumers use this knowledge as a springboard to a deeper love of wine? A handful of giant supermarket chains sell 75% of wine in the UK, with a constantly replenished stream of special offers and ‘three for a tenner’ deals. Most consumers flit from promotion to promotion, as most £3.99 Chardonnay tastes much the same.
The wine industry at this level is a juggernaut, with the muscle to compete on just about any terms. When the UK Chancellor raised duty by 4p per bottle in April, rather than ask consumers to breach the holy cow of the .99 price point, the supply chain was often squeezed into absorbing the increase. Somewhere down the line, quality must suffer.
But if anything is more potent than discounting, it is brands. Brands enjoy total supremacy in supermarket sales, pulling all the right consumer strings to suggest consistency, value and familiarity. Brands now have wine retailing in such a powerful grip that the fragile eco-system of diversity and choice is in real danger. However reluctantly, the wine-producing world has been dragged into an orgy of branding, promotion and aggressive discounting by way of a sales strategy, to the extent that some big brands sell 90% of their production ‘on promotion’.
The Other Side
Yet some would argue that this is a new, golden age for wine. Technical innovation, a global marketplace and the positive influence of high-profile critics have put pressure on under-performing regions and moribund cooperatives. Old-fashioned wines have met the fate that they ultimately deserved.
No wine lover could argue against the sympathetic modernisation of wine. Too often, however, anything outside narrow commercial parameters is abandoned. The first casualties are usually indigenous grapes and traditional styles. But also in the firing line are any elements perceived as ‘difficult’. For many wine lovers, these are the very factors that give a wine complexity and structure. And who really benefits from this ‘modernisation’? With a global surplus of wine and 400 lines on supermarket shelves, do we really need more ‘standardised’ wine? After all, how much real choice does that give us?
The dominance of any market by mega-players sees a levelling out of quirks and inconsistencies. The troughs may disappear, but so do the peaks, especially when produce is designed to be average. Some see this as an opportunity for artisan winemakers and independent retailers, who can specialise and consolidate, while leaving the branded sector to slug it out. But how realistic is this? With fixed costs and little clout, the fate of small producers and individual stores is in the balance.
The picture painted here is deliberately black and white. Quality commodity wine is an essential part of the winemaking and retailing mix, and pockets of obsession and passion remain. There are also signs that all is not well in the relationship between mega-suppliers and the high street, with rumblings that such low profit margins cannot be sustained. In future, you may have to pay a few pence more for your wine, but with signs all around of reduced choice and a slide into processed uniformity, the true wine lover should celebrate this possible escape route.
It all comes down to how you choose your future: do you choose a world where every pop band is manufactured, every restaurant serves fast-food, and every apple is identical? We should remain
curious and willing to experiment. We must demand more from wine than reliability and low price. Call me elitist if you will, but if the intellectual and aesthetic is totally removed from wine, what have the centuries of discovery, civilisation and passion all been about?
Written by Tom Cannavan