Wake up and smell the petrol?

A number of recent articles touting future trends or next big things that I have read in recent weeks have highlighted factors that I believe warrant some serious questioning indeed.  I am convinced that a great many wine professionals are influenced heavily by personal tastes sometimes to the detriment of judgement, and moreover that this influence causes many professionals to have blinkers on when it comes to what it is that actually motivates the choices of the buyers of most wine (other than, of course, price).

How much or how little do we know about the mass public that buys by far the large part of our industry’s product?  How much do we rely on consumer research – and therefore on its process of selecting the subjects and on the questions that are asked?

The following discussion touches on a few such canards that I believe we should sometimes step back and question.

Why not Riesling?

Could it be that two of the riesling grape’s strengths are also its weaknesses – handicaps against ever truly competing against the likes of sauvignon blanc or pinot gris?

Versatility.  Yes riesling is one of those few grapes that can produce excellent wines in every style from very dry to unctuously sweet.  Most often it is made in styles ranging between just off-dry to medium sweetness.  The problem is that most potential drinkers only have a limited preference range and find riesling’s range of styles confusing and unsettling. Notwithstanding attempts to introduce standardised guides to sweetness, unfortunately still too complex for most drinkers however well intentioned, most drinkers are scared to try a new riesling fearing it may be something they will not enjoy, unlike the “reliability” of pinot gris or sauvignon blanc.

In fact one of riesling’s problems has always been that it has been an “introduction to wine” sort of a drink.  An awful lot of wine drinkers, completely unaware of the pinnacles of riesling, think of riesling as being relatively sweet and view it as a past phase that they are unlikely to ever want to return to.

Flavours.  To put it quite simply, I think a lot of people (perhaps that should be most people) don’t actually like the taste of riesling: not when it is super tart and austere as some young rieslings are, and especially not when it is aged and starts developing the famous kerosene characters.  I believe that flavour characteristic turns off a great many riesling drinkers who simply don’t care that it is a classic varietal trait.

So why has riesling been enjoying something of a revival in the US?  And why has German Riesling been enjoying something of a revival in a number of markets?

The use of the word “something” is particularly indicative, and in both cases the nature of the revival is stoked by both the strong press given to the variety, and by past memories.  However, the reasons for each are very different.

The wine that has experienced strong recent growth in the US is very much “commercial riesling”, a wine made in a fruit forward style that riesling is perfectly capable of handling, but not too structured or demanding of the taster.  The lift in popularity of riesling in the US probably says more about the continuing growth in the number of wine drinkers in that country than about its participation in a riesling renaissance.

German riesling, by contrast, is now largely drunk relatively young when its spectacular acid freshness highlights its youthful fruit characters.  Most drinkers of German Riesling today wouldn’t recognise an Auslese from the 1990s as having anything in common with the style they enjoy, let alone a beautifully aged classic from 1971 or 1976.  One possible supposition that might be interesting to consider is that the last heyday of German riesling in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the beginning of the love affair of the baby boomers with wine.  It was the “introduction to wine” beverage of a whole generation.  That may in fact have been its problem ever since.

Disclosure of interest: The writer is a fan of good riesling.  Unfortunately, however, I can’t make my mind up whether I would prefer riesling to be the eternal beloved niche wine or a true mass success.  I do fear that the latter, some form of popular reflection of approval for my personal taste, would inevitably lead to yet another period of decline that riesling seems destined to.

Minerality & Texture/Structure

I have recently read articles discussing future candidates for revived popularity (a subject that usually revolves around former favourites and rarely new ones) the idea being expressed that minerality and either structure or texture would be among the reasons for popular success.

The more I have thought on this, the more convinced I am that strongly mineral-influenced wines will only ever be a particular favourite of wine-educated niche markets.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the wider public do not and would not recognise minerality, almost certainly might find the idea somewhat distasteful, and might actually be inclined only to think of minerality as a sort of off flavour distracting from fruitiness.  In short, I don’t think that the wider wine-drinking public particularly likes minerality at all.  Indeed, why are we (those of us who do enjoy mineral influences) deluding ourselves into thinking that many people do like these characters?

Structure and texture.  Structure has many aspects – body, roundness, acid, sweetness, etc. All influence the structure and texture of a wine on the palate.  The mass market consumer does not think about structure and never will.  Individual aspects of a wine’s structure do matter, but certainly not in an analytical way: only for how much they are perceived to make a wine taste pleasant, drinkable, or not.  The additional problem is, of course, that even in the mass market different consumers have different degrees of tolerance for different structural characteristics of wine.

In general, however, I believe that the characteristics that wine aficionados relish as texture are anathema to the wider market.

Surely we all know that success in the mass market does often rely on sugar, which has a very particular taste and mouthfeel.  That is what the phenomenal success of Yellow Tail and its copycats are built upon.  Indeed why not use sugar dosing: sweetness hides a multitude of off flavours that might damage consumers’ enjoyment.  How many inexpensive Australian shiraz (and not always inexpensive, for that matter), and increasingly some New Zealand red wines as well, does one have to taste to be able to say that they just taste sweet.  Not “fruit sweetness” but residual or added sugar sweetness. And yet they still pick up medals and awards, as attested to by the stickers on the supermarket shelves.

If ever there was a component of wine that needed the epithet “not too little and not too much” it is acid.  Too much and a wine can taste sharp, sour, austere, angular and even abrasive on the palate.  Too little and wines will taste flabby and loose, and will rarely cellar well.

Yet we need to remind ourselves that the right level of natural acidity conveys the sense of freshness to a wine.  This is the ingredient that carries New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc – without its steak of refreshing acidity the fruit flavours would completely lack the vibrancy that tells you where they came from.  It is the singular reason hotter countries struggle to replicate the Marlborough formula.

Most wine drinkers don’t think about acid in wine – it might even be a turn-off for many.  They just know that the most popular white wines the world over right now have refreshing qualities that highlight the fruit and the drinkability of the wines.  Structure?  Who cares – more of the same please.

What Faults?

One of the ironies of promoting medal winning wines in supermarkets is that identification of faults is such a significant part of the wine scoring system, and yet consumers for the most part don’t care at all about technical faults and are far more concerned about flavour and easy drinkability.  It is highly questionable whether the objectives of the two are at all aligned other than that the sticker on a bottle may make it easier to sell against other bottles on the same shelf at the same price point.

Indeed many faults that cause winemakers sabres to rattle have far less effect on consumers.

Take trichloroanisole or TCA (the cause of corked wines).  We readily lose sight of the fact that most drinkers have no idea what a corked wine really is, and a great many have quite low sensitivity to TCA.  Most of those who are sensitive to TCA would be most likely inclined just to think something’s wrong with the wine and never buy it again.

Reduction.  Very similar – who actually knows how many screw-capped wines suffer from reductive characters?  There is probably something to the theory that we have become accustomed to some of these characters instead.

High Alcohol’s High Wire Act

Why do high alcohol wines still sell?  Supposedly the world wants lower alcohol wines.  Indeed hot wines are supposed to be defective, are they not?  Yet the evidence from some wine competitions suggests that some judges are either not especially sensitive (or could it be that they are de-sensitised after tasting a lot of wines?) to alcoholic heat, and that this is a reason why it does not get marked down as often as it should – or how else can one explain regular encounters with high medal-winning wines with searing back palate heat.

Maybe it’s just that many current or former spirits drinkers also enjoy heat or are de-sensitised to the much lower apparent heat of wine?  That certainly might explain the tolerance of high wine alcohol levels in some countries, for example.

So we have the dichotomy of a world that, we are told, is wanting lower alcohol wines (but still with flavour, personality, balance etc), and at the same time defending our high alcohol wines.  How many times does one read reviews stating that although a particular wine has an alcohol level of 14 or 15% “it’s no problem because it is balanced”.

To be frank, I have tasted a number of wines that have received such reviews and I am perplexed. Why can it be that palates who I unhesitatingly believe to be far superior to mine can’t spot the elephant trumpeting in the back of their throats?  These wines had unmistakeably hot finishes. Sometimes you could even smell spirity characters.  Quite honestly I really believe that the number of truly “balanced” 14.5% alcohol wines is actually very small indeed, far rarer than the reviews.  I also suspect that many reviewers write about the wine being balanced for no other reason than that they like it, are seduced by its flavours and concentration, and want to give it a good score even though it really isn’t balanced.

The statement has become little more than a defence mechanism against the risk of criticism for reviewing or scoring such wines despite their glaring faults.

The Language We Use

If the wine industry, and indeed the wine press as well, is keen to distance wine as a beverage from its potential abuse as an intoxicating agent for immoderate drinkers, then why is there the continued use of language that equates squarely with the use of wine as such a beverage?  Examples?  Much of the press seems incapable of using the word “wine” in a headline when words such as “drop” or “tipple” could be used instead.  So, what is wrong with using such words?  Maybe to wine professionals they might seem innocent enough, but from a wider public perspective, words such as these have origins or messages with quite clear implicit meanings. “Drop”, for example, has implications of “down the hatch” and of language equated with heavy drinking.  “Tipple”, by contrast, has connotations of slightly illicit “guilty secret” drinking behaviour, and is the likely origin of the word “tipsy”.

Neither has any relationship to drinking with food, one of the strongest potential defences wine has (and rarely seems to try and use) against the onslaught of the neo-temperance movement. There are indeed other widely used expressions that almost certainly have similar, detrimental connotations.

Even if one disagrees with my interpretation, the fact is that if even a small part of the wider public recognises these words in a similar context (and I believe it is actually more than that), then the words have done a disservice at best, and damage at worst.  At the risk of seeming a killjoy, they are words we should be able to do happily without and should actively seek to stamp out.

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