The Good, the Bad and the downright Ugly
In any industry today; and the wine business is no different, there are many people and/or companies only too willing to take advantage of their customer base by supplying overblown, overpriced, substandard and all too often poorly made produce, often thinly guised as a bargain. It never ceases to amaze me how we are all attracted to a bargain, "buy one, get one free" or "50% off", as are the often seen "Bargains" in Supermarkets and High Street Chains all around the UK today. Unfortunately the truth is somewhat different. As the law stands in the UK currently, it is not illegal to offer a product at an inflated price in a single store for a period of a few days, following which the particular company can then offer the same product with 50% off nationally for the remainder of the year or at least until the stocks run out. Some companies don't even bother listing wines at a higher price for even 2 days, they simply create a fictitious price from the start which can be discounted by 40 or 50%.
Some national high street chains have taken this heavy discounting to a different level, by offering "buy two, get one free" right across their range. Amazing offer, right? Wrong! These retailers approach the producers with their discount idea, some say OK yes we can do that, others say it's not possible and are subsequently dropped from the range, all new products added to the range are calculated with a higher profit margin. Who then is paying for this fantastic offer? Certainly not the UK merchants, they continue to make the same profit levels with their new offers, in fact both sales and profits are up since the offers were launched. Certainly not the producer, it is so easy to increase yields which ultimately reduces quality, so who pays… if the merchant is making the same profits as is the producer, there is only one answer; ultimately the buyer is paying.
A huge proportion of very ordinary industrially made wine is bought through supermarkets and national chains most of which carry a range of some 250 different wines. However, the fact remains that normally less than 20 of their selection, and more often as few as 5, carry a Parker rating of even above 80 points. It can be said in their defence that the larger retailers selections will always be constrained by the need to deal with the big brand (industrial farmed) suppliers who can offer wines in the vast quantities required to stock their national chains for relatively long periods. Again many of these often offer big brand or bland wines. However this often excludes a vast number of producers of excellent wines at very good value prices. The question that begs to be asked is here; what is really important? Quality and customer care, or bottom line profits? Rightly, consumers are now demanding to know the intrinsic value of a fine wine and what a fair market price should be. Ultimately no one knows the answer better than the consumer who decides what to buy and what not to buy based on their own personal taste and discretionary income. However those that do buy and consume "fine wines" regardless of price, find it impossible to go back to drinking the majority of industrial swill that is widely available for sale throughout the UK.
The wine industry remains plagued by numerous problems. These are absurdly high prices, false discounting of thin and diluted wines, excessive use of oak, out-of-balance wines due to too much acidity and alcohol, exacerbated by an absence of fruit and depth, and the worst sin of all, wines that are appallingly boring. Surely nobody wants a wine to be out of balance with excessive alcohol, acidity, tannin or wood, but 75% of what is sold today on the market today is precisely that, more often than not, the results of industrial farming.
It must also be stated that no viticultural region has a claim to a higher percentage of under-achievers than any other region. Unfortunately, as previously stated, there are still today many more mediocre and poor wines being produced, very often from very recognisable names, and mostly sold to unsuspecting consumers. These are wines where the marketing "myth or hype" of the label or Château count for far more than the contents of the bottle. However, more great wines are now thankfully being produced, using modern techniques throughout the world, overall the quality is rising and rising rapidly. The decade of the nineties will be remembered as the "golden age of winemaking". This is when the most passionate producers began reducing yields (low yields do translate into physiologically ripe fruit, concentrated, and exquisite quality wines) and fashioning wines of more significant aromatic complexity, broader flavours, more nuances as well as products with a truer expression of the varietal, vineyard and vintage.
Over the past 100 years a few names have risen to the very top of the tree and others have achieved this exalted position in a much shorter period of time, sometimes as short as a decade or less. Petrus and Latour from Bordeaux, Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Lalou Bize-Leroy from Burgundy, Grange and Amon-Ra from Australia, Dominus and Screaming Eagle from California, Gaja and Giacosa from Italy or Vega Sicilia from Spain to name but a few. These are examples of wines and wineries, people and producers passionate about raising qualitative levels. Unfortunately these are also now some of the most sought after and sometimes most expensive wines of the world. But a few people, generally 'those in the know', were able to purchase these wines for very small amounts in the early days, before the hype became virtually all pervading. Then, more often than not, there would follow a series of mediocre vintages from some newer "Icon" wineries and the unsuspecting consumer 'without the knowledge' would purchase a poorer vintage wine at exorbitantly inflated prices and on eventually tasting them, would wonder what all the fuss was about. It's no wonder there is such misunderstanding about what constitutes fine wine today.
Throughout Europe; because of weather conditions it is rare to have more than three vintages in a decade where perfect fruit ripeness is achieved. The port producers have known this for more than a century and as a consequence, no more than three vintage ports per decade are allowed. Much of the New World is different and it would be unusual to have more than two vintages per decade where they could not achieve ideal grape maturity. In most cases, when optimal ripeness is not attained in these regions, it is because the grower/producer did not wait longer to harvest the grapes. The terms 'elegant', 'complex' and 'terroir' can now be applied to many New World wines yet it is dangerous for consumers to be seduced by such terms. The New World's true calling remains four-square and flamboyant wines of exuberance, flavour, ripeness and power, yet it must all be presented in a balanced manner.
The Wider Market Space