Jan 20: A frequent visitor to India and other wine making regions of the world for decades , Robert Joseph, the well-known British critic, speaker, author and a wine judge is really a citizen of the wine world, with a constant eye on the present and the future which he feels has changed tremendously in the last few years without many people still realizing it and thus living dangerously from the marketing point of view
The past, as the UK author LP Hartley memorably wrote, is a ‘foreign country’ where people do things differently. I’m writing this in Cape Town where it is impossible to overlook how ’foreign’ a place it is to the South Africa I first visited in 1988. And I could say the same of other countries such as Russia and China and Vietnam to which I travelled in the 1980s and 1990s-and of course India.
Today, I am doing my best to draw a map of another foreign country that doesn’t currently exist: the future of the international wine world. I’m doing this - for my new book ‘The Future of Wine has Changed’ - using the methods cartographers would have employed 700 years ago when trying to imagine the shape of continents they had not yet explored. They had to rely on what we would now call ‘acquired data’, assumptions and guesswork.
My starting point is that in a world in which everything else is changing, it would be crazy to imagine that wine will be immune. At the presentation I gave yesterday to the annual Vinpro-Nedbank conference for the South African wine industry, I pointed out that telephones, cameras, computers, encyclopedias and maps had all been replaced - by one device: the smartphone. In Cape Town I stayed in an Airbnb and travelled across the city in an Uber and I’ll send these words across the ocean by Wifi - all options that simply did not exist.
So how do I see wine changing?
First, and most obviously, there’s the small matter of climate change. Temperatures are rising and some grape varieties will struggle to survive in their current homes. Bordeaux chateau owners are already hesitating to replant their Merlot vineyards, in the knowledge that long before the vines mature in 20 years, the climate may be too hot for them. Local specialists are already experimenting with recently-created, heat-resistant varieties like Marselan and ‘foreign’ ones like Touriga Nacional.
How will warmer climate Bordeaux made with Touriga Nacional taste? Not like the classic crus classés of the past, certainly.
But a look at the US market suggests that wine styles are changing in any case, and in ways that are not always appreciated outside that country. One of the biggest growing sectors is premium ’red blends’, by which I do not mean Californian Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Cabernet-Franc copies of Pauillac or Margaux. No, these are dramatically-labelled branded wines with names like the Prisoner, the Pessimist, Abstract and 8 Years in the Desert, often selling for $20-50, and making absolutely no reference to the varieties from which they are produced, or the location of the vineyards. I’ve come up with a term to describe these ‘California blends’ which contrive to offer a consistent style and flavour from one harvest to the next: BoLiP - Bought Like Perfume.
People pick up them up just as they might a Chanel No 5 because they recognise the bottle and are confident of what they are going to get, and don’t question the premium price. Wine lovers hate this departure from the traditions of vineyard, grape and vintage, but some of these same people seem surprisingly ready to buy spirits in precisely this way. And the profits these blends bring to companies like Constellation and Gallo suggest that they are here to stay.
Will they work in India? Why not, if they taste good?
The way we buy wine will change too. India has a far less developed retail wine sector than many other countries, and Indian consumers are not often accustomed to choosing wine from large selections in supermarkets. But in countries like the US and UK, and even in France, wine buyers say they find the experience frightening. Mark Norrish, of the local retailer Ultra Liquors described the phenomenon as ‘Fear of Wine’ at yesterday’s conference.
The wine industry solution is simple: education.
The tech world is offering easier options. As Amazon develops its grocery division, it will be increasingly easy to ask Alexa to get you some Margaux, Merlot, or one of those branded blends. But Chinese consumers can already scan the label of a wine they are enjoying, check the price and rating, and hit the ‘Buy’ button. When I tried it, the whole process took 34 seconds, and I knew I was going to get a wine my friends and I liked. Isn’t that better than guesswork, or trusting the palates of critics with whom I might disagree?
But it won’t just be Amazon. Apple, Google, Facebook… all the platforms with whom we interact daily will get in on this act. In China, hundreds of millions of people already buy - almost everything - using the local WeChat platform that also works as a version of Whatsapp.
Returning to the climate, increasingly frequent drought conditions - a major problem here in South Africa - also raise big questions over the viability of cheap wine - the mass of which is traded in bulk at under $0.50 per litre. Most of these wines rely in irrigation, and it takes at least 500 litres of water to produce one litre of wine. How much sense does it make for the wine industry to be operating as an exporter of cheap water?
Could cheap wine be replaced by a synthetic alternative. My traditionalist friends shake their heads in dismay and disbelief at this idea, but a young US startup has already released a commercial synthetic whisky called Glyph. An experimental attempt to replicate Sauvignon Blanc was shown to professionals at a New Zealand wine conference in September last year. The consensus was that it was not on target yet, but was heading in the right direction.
Would consumers buy synthetic wine? Well, they already buy carob chocolate, margarine and non-dairy cream, and the race is on to get stem-cell meat onto the market, alongside the soya versions. So, if it’s possible to come up with an inexpensive alternative to cheap Chenin Blanc and white blends without having to use all that water, why not?
These are just a few of the ideas I’m playing with, and every day new ones come along as I try to draw my map. The only problem is that unlike the lands that were being charted by 15th century cartographers, the coastline of the future of wine will continue to change. And one thing is certain: India’s part of that map – with a lot of help from Subhash, Delhi Wine Club and Indian Wine Academy - will grow with every year.
Robert Joseph is an author with around 25 books to his credit, a journalist who stopped writing for consumers years ago as he felt it did not make any real impact on the consumer. But he has definite and progressive views about wine marketing and its future and is always thinking ahead of the pack, at times seemingly contrarian to the existing trends making me fondly name him ‘The Black Sheep’ of the wine industry. But he is truly a wine thinker, thinking beyond what everyone else is thinking. His new book- Robert Joseph’s ‘The Future of Wine has Changed’ will be published at the end of March 2019 and will make everyone think differently about wine and its future. To learn more, go to https://www.facebook.com
delWine is much obliged that despite his busy schedule and the present visit to South Africa, he took time out to send the present Article since he had committed to write one to share his views on the changing scenario of the wine world which is likely to impact much more radically than we care to learn about. But the change will affect us all-we like it or not! Editor