To be clear, I am referring to reliability of wine style only.
Ever wondered how the big boys of the wine world achieve their consistency of offering?
How the big branded wines never seem to run out in the supermarket?
Regardless of the weather or natural event in the “vineyard”.
Well I’ve been wondering for years.
And a possible answer lies in the desire of members of big supply chains to satisfy a largely unsophisticated market; a market that less and less regards wine (and other agricultural products for that matter) as born from an agricultural product. The turning of wine (apples, beef, milk) into a homogenous, industrial product. One you can “rely” upon to be the same year in year out. Like Coca cola.
These big players only do what “we” ask them to do. They produce that which we will buy. So we get the products we want and deserve. Scruffy onions are left behind by shoppers so it’s wrong to blame supermarkets for not permitting them on the shelf.
So when a drinker states via their buying actions “I want a medium bodied, slightly sweetened (labelled dry) white wine with 13% alcohol and a mid straw colour with the word Sauvignon on the label for £6.99 please – all the time”, the supply chain listens. And it delivers exactly that. Profitably…..
But how? What if it rains in the vineyard at harvest time? What if frost attacks at budding? What if demand for the variety-du-jour outstrips plantings?
Truth is, a skilled winemaker can polish a turd. They can take almost whatever quality fruit delivered to them and, entirely within the laws, create a product that closely resembles the brief.
And I suppose this is where my real problem lies. You see not only are they able to take the inferior fruit from a bad vintage and through various tricks and “adjustments” (chemical and mechanical) in the winery, turn it into a drink, they must necessarily also take fantastic fruit from a perfect, glut vintage and REDUCE its quality through these same techniques to match the brief.
After all, it’s no good these guys producing the best they can in a good year. How would they match it next year? So they must choose a mid-point in the quality scale; one that’s good enough to sell to the punters but poor enough that they can reliably create it from a disastrous crop.
So it’s only in bad years that they make the best wine they can……..
And the “adjustments” made to poor grapes, juice and wine are not without a price. It seems a strange coincidence that our customers report headaches and other unfortunate reactions to mass-produced wines where they don’t suffer so much when they buy better wines. This is of course anecdotal and difficult to demonstrate when so many additives are permitted but not required to be labelled.
Its not all bad news though.
There exist winemakers (and I use the term loosely here as the best of them generally prefer “grape-grower” as a moniker) who don’t single-mindedly pursue reliability of style; ones that regard the product ahead of the consumer; people who free themselves to make the best they can with the fruit they have and who sometime even skip a vintage entirely rather than produce an inferior product under their name (helpfully these are the very years when it is possible for them to flog their inferior grapes to the big boys….). And these are the people with whom we wish to work.
Probably worth mentioning Champagne at this point. The most commercially important product for a Champagne House is it’s non-vintage – literally it’s House Champagne. Blended to be consistent in style (the House style) year on year and all within a set of rules so strict that really very little untoward can be included in the adjustments. They are free to modify sweetness through dosage but this doesn’t affect “quality” as such. What they do have is the freedom to blend different years crops; hence “non vintage”. And it is perhaps little wonder that the individuals who do this are amongst thee highest regarded/paid people in our industry. Bugger up the blend at Moet and Chandon at your peril!
But Vintage Champagnes are very different. There is usually a slight nod towards the House style but it doesn’t constrain them. They are free to make a Vintage only when the crop is excellent – not every year and sometimes only once in a decade. And they are free to make the best wine they can even if that means a slightly different style.
Maison Paul Clouet is our standard Champagne. Nearly all Grand Cru (the rose isn’t), we have just a few bottle of the amazing 2007 left and I am a big fan. Might nick ‘em for myself.
So, what should you do?
It’s not much help but, when buying a bottle, ask yourself just two questions; “did this producer make this wine to match a marketing brief? Or did they do their best?”.