Standing Room Only

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Modern wines are increasingly drunk without food, standing up. Such a scenario calls for a certain type of wine, argues HUGO ROSE MW. And only New World producers are providing it.

Drinking standing up is such a common practice that we no longer consider it notable. Yes, wine is for meals, but in the last two decades it has become much more. Wine as aperitif, as party drink, the point of wine bars, a bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge for when a friend drops by... Wine is all of these things, and as such, is consumed standing up as opposed to sitting at the dining table.

It wasn’t always thus. Some of us have memories of wine stretching back 25 years to before the advent of stainless steel fermentation vessels, when whites were not fresh and perky and did not titillate the taste buds in the way they do today. Wines then were to drink alongside a plate, knife and fork – sitting down.

SOCIAL CHANGES

The arrival in the early 1980s of upfront, clean, highly aromatic and refreshing wines coincided with the beginnings of the wave of popularity of wine as a casual beverage, drunk standing up. These wines had a democratising effect as consumption was increasingly disassociated with the etiquette of formal dining, of wine selection and service. Not only were the food-and-wine matching strictures loosened, but the importance of drinking with any kind of food was diluted to the point where for more and more drinkers, it hardly mattered.

According to industry experts, the ‘standing up’ market amounts to about half of all wine sales in the UK today, and is still growing. So, given that wine consumption doubled in the 20 years to 2002, the last year where audited figures are available (Drinks Pocket Book, AC Nielsen), it is tempting to conclude that most of the growth in consumption has been of the standing up sort. Of course this period has seen another surge, in imports from the New World. Could it be that Australian, Chilean, South African and Californian wines have fuelled the standing up market? Almost certainly.

New World wines are auto-defined as user friendly, whereas classic (Old World) wines are complex and specialised. It would not be surprising if it were to be found that the New World has done more than just contributed to what is a largely new market. It may well have come to dominate it. After all, the palate requirements for drinking standing up differ markedly from those required for drinking sitting down: the former requires a wine with a bright primary fruit entry, an off-dry palate, non-existent tannins and a short finish. Yes, short is preferable here – the wine must not be a conversation stopper.

In contrast, wine drunk sitting down must offer a discreet entry, building complexity and as long a finish as possible. Tannins in reds for the table are a positive, combining with food proteins to cleanse the palate between mouthfuls. You can see where I am going: the standing up profile is an almost perfect cipher for a middle of the road, New World wine style, whereas classic wines almost always match the sitting down model. This is hardly surprising given the long association of food and wine in most European wine regions.

What is surprising is to learn that European producers and marketeers are almost blind to what is in effect half of the UK market, and a key driver in other countries, too.

I became aware of this when with a top Rhône producer in London recently. Walking past a wine bar thronging on a Friday afternoon, the producer stared at the happy groups standing at tall tables drinking wine with no food accompaniment beyond bread sticks. ‘What are they doing?’ he asked incredulously.

On another occasion, a respected young French producer came to the office for a business meeting. At 12.30pm, lunch was announced and a drink was offered – good wine, naturally. This man picked up his glass uncomfortably as though he didn’t know what to do with it. He admitted candidly that he had never previously drunk a glass of wine before the first course was on the table; and this from a go-ahead vigneron lucky enough to be surrounded by a lake of great bottles!

The French just don’t do the standing up thing, and neither do the Italians or the Spanish. I asked an Italian winemaker in Tuscany which Italian wines were normally chosen as aperitif. She thought for a long time before coming up with… Campari. Wine is just not seen as a beverage in these countries (Champagne excepted of course). So entrenched is the sitting down model that wine has little other purpose. Instead of 50% of the market as in the UK, my contacts estimate that standing up represents 5% of consumption at best.

I am told that wine consumption is starting to loosen up in these countries, that in the urban areas wine bars are springing up, and the standing up habit is beginning to emerge. But it is far from widespread and the truth is that, for the vast majority of European producers, what for Britain is a hugely important market segment is largely invisible. What they do see is that their wines – made according to the traditional model of discretion, complexity, tannin and long finish – are failing to maintain their market share in many important export markets. Perhaps not so surprising when these wines do not address the palate requirements of the most energetic market sector by far.