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Four Decades of Changing Wine World

Posted: Monday, 14 May 2012 18:12

Four Decades of Changing Wine World

Anniversaries and milestones are always worth marking, writes Robert Joseph who has been working with wine for nearly four decades, taking the viewers from French wines to the important UK wine market and giving glimpses of the world including New Zealand, California and the influence of Robert Parker after his arrival, concluding that India has the potential to be an important market though not in the near future.

I realised not so long ago that I have been working with wine for nearly four decades. Okay, so I first began these activities quite early - in my teens – but that does seem to be rather a long time. I have to pinch myself sometimes to think that I can remember when colour televisions, calculators and mobile phones and even fax machines were all expensive novelties that I got to admire in the homes of other, wealthier or simply more adventurous families.

That 70s French Show

Another novelty, I remember from those early days – of the mid 1970s – was ‘real’ French wine. This was the time when Britain became – at least nominally – part of Europe and subject to its vinous legislation. Suddenly, the days of selling Spanish Sauternes, and of bottling the same North African red as Beaujolais, Nuits St Georges and Chateauneuf du Pape were over. The experience in the mid 1970s of discovering the real flavours of these wines, was rather like the switch from silent movies to the talkies. It was also, I now realise, a crucial evolutionary phase in the modern history of wine.

UK Market and its global influence

Britain in those days genuinely was at the heart of the wine world and books like Hugh Johnson’s World Wine Atlas influenced millions of wine drinkers internationally. Early editions of that book and Johnson’s similarly ground-breaking Pocket Book also reflected a second and far more important seismic shift in the wine world. Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 was like the moment when the pebble hit the water: it took a decade or so for the ripples to reach the shore. The ripples most obviously included a new wave of Californian wines produced by ambitious and confident young winemakers who now knew that anything Bordeaux and Burgundy could do, they could do better.

California and Australia have their say

But those ‘varietal’ Californian Cabernets and Chardonnays were only part of the picture. In the mid 1980s, Australia also began to export its own examples of these styles, along with unfamiliar stuff labelled as ‘Shiraz’and ‘Semillon’. In Britain we gave the Aussies a warmer welcome than the Americans, partly because the wines were more affordable (the Californians seemed keen to emulate the Bordelais pricing policy as well as their winemaking) and because the producers took themselves less seriously and were readier to share a pint than to force us to compare their wines with first growths in smart restaurants. Our cheapskate tendencies were even better catered for by a torrent of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon produced by young Californian winemakers as part of a complex political barter deal involving Pepsi.

New Zealand et al

Hard on the heels of these newcomers, there arrived Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, and great value modern reds from other unexpected places ranging from Chile to Corbieres in France and la Mancha in Spain. Within a decade, wine lists that had once been limited to the classic regions of France, plus a few hocks, Chiantis and Rioja included efforts from continents with little or no wine history.

I was at the heart of all this because, with Charles Metcalfe, I had launched Wine Magazine in 2003 and the International Wine Challenge a year later. Among the people who most embraced our new competition were British supermarkets which had only recently begun to treat wine seriously and were looking for ways to establish their credibility. What could be better than shelves full of medal-winning bottles?

Supermarkets and Discounting

The growth in the power of these supermarkets led to another phenomenon: discounting. Selling wine cheaply as a means of attracting customers who would buy other more profitable goods became part of their strategy. Interestingly, however, this was a uniquely UK trend. Nowhere else in the world focused so single-mindedly on low price promotions. Another point of difference is apparent in the wines on the shelves.

British supermarkets rarely offer much of real interest to wine enthusiasts looking for great, memorable bottles. In China and Russia – and at the seasonal Foires a Vins – in France, their counterparts offer first growths as well as the humblest fare. In the US, Costco sells car tyres a few metres away from fairly priced bottles of Haut Brion and Opus One.

Enter Robert Parker

In Britain, what we overlooked or, more accurately, underestimated the impact of the third evolutionary change. Robert Parker’s marking system arrived in the right place - on the US market - at precisely the right time. People with no wine experience or knowledge, but with money to spend and a yen for sophistication leaped on the 100-point scale with glee.

On the eastern seaboard of the Atlantic, we looked down on its simplicity and the fact that it was associated with one set of tastebuds. What we missed was the fact that Parker – and then Wine Spectator and Enthusiast – points fitted perfectly into a culture where – unlike the UK – showing-off is culturally acceptable.

Britons tend to apologize for their success; arriving at a dinner party with a £100 bottle of wine is not seen as generous, it’s potentially embarrassing the host.  So British dinner parties are full of middle class people boasting of how cheaply they bought a red ‘that’s from a vineyard just over the road from Chateau Latour, and made by a distant cousin of a Rothschild, and remarkable at only £6.99 from Tesco’. In America, the challenge lies in how close to the 100-point score each of the guests’ and the host’s bottles can get.

In many ways, the Parker scale and its essentially egalitarian nature has probably provoked the greatest and most enduring changes in the wine world. In the Old Days, if you weren’t lucky or rich enough to have vines in a bit of Bordeaux that was ennobled in 1855, or a Burgundy Grand Cru you were doomed to a life as part of a lower caste.

Today, just as a billionaire in a corner of the former Soviet Union can realistically set out to buy himself a world-class soccer team, a vineyardowner in Uruguay or India can employ Michel Roland or one of his successors in the sincere hope of making a wine that can score as much as a top Bordeaux.

BRIC and other countries

To the arrival of new wine producing countries, new ways of rating and retailing them, has now been added a huge new factor: a huge expansion of the number of markets that now drink serious wines. Most coverage of this aspect focuses, perhaps inevitably, on the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – but producers are increasingly aware of the value of previously overlooked markets ranging from Azerbaijan to Vietnam. All of these countries now have well-heeled wine drinkers who may end up competing to buy the same bottle of desirable red or white.

This has contributed to the last of my set of changes: the extraordinary polarisation of the wine market. A decade or so ago, people who regularly enjoyed modest Bordeaux could at least imagine drinking a wine from a big name chateau perhaps once or twice in their lives. Now, with twelve bottles of Lafite2009 costing more than a brand new Renault Clio Sport Tourer car, that prospect no longer has a place in any normal mortal’s dreams. At over $1000 a bottle, first growth Bordeaux is no longer a drink; it’s a luxury good, subject to the same rules as the $10,000 handbag. Or it’s an investment.

Are these prices sustainable? Or are they part of a bubble that’s bound to burst? My guess is that they’re both. At some stage there will almost certainly be some kind of correction in the market, but over the long term, they will bounce back.

Industrialisation of wines

At the other end of the scale, something else is happening. To the dismay of many wine traditionalists, wine is becoming increasingly industrialised and internationalised. Major retailing groups like to deal with small numbers of big suppliers, and they react to the fact that consumers now often buy wine in the same way they buy coffee: by style. If an Italian producer can’t offer a Pinot Grigio in the volume and at the price the retailer is looking for, he’ll simply source it elsewhere – quite possibly in nearby countries like Hungary or Romania. Just take a look at some of the Pinot Noirs on offer in the US. Bottles bearing familiar Californian winery brand names now often contain wine from France. Next year, if French prices rise or the harvest is too small, the Pinot will be Chilean.

India Story yet to unfold

And where does all of this leave India? I firmly believe that India will become a major market for wine. But not yet. There seem to me to be far too many cultural and religious barriers that are still in place, especially when one compares it to China where the government has taken a pro-active attitude towards wine as a preferable alternative to other forms of alcohol.

The arrival of better retailing networks, a drop in the taxes and a return to India of a generation of young people who have developed a taste for wine overseas will all contribute to the evolution of the Indian wine market – as will a more businesslike attitude by domestic producers and a greater readiness to explore new wine regions.

I truly look forward to following the Indian story – in the pages of this publication.

Robert Joseph

Robert Joseph founded Wine International Magazine and the International Wine Challenges in London and countries including Japan, Russia China and India. He is the award-winning author of over 25 books including the Complete Encyclopedia of Wine and frequently appears on radio and television. Today, he publishes thejosephreport.com, co-produces the Le Grand Noir and Greener Planet wines in Languedoc, and is a partner of the innovative DoILikeIt? research consultancy.

       

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