In many ways, words are all we have in wine world. Unlike clothes there isn’t an option to try before you buy and even with the proliferation of reviewers and rating apps one man’s meat can be another man’s poison. It’s extremely important then that we speak to consumers with meaning, truth and integrity and not just rely on marketing bumpf.
by Aleesha Hansel
Like many a wine professional, I have a tendency to turn time off into a busman’s holiday, managing to shoehorn in not one, but three, vineyard visits to a recent week’s holiday in Dorset.
There was a time not so long ago when English wine was seen a joke, but English fizz is now mentioned in the same breath as Champagne, with some houses setting up shop on our side of the Channel.
Observing how English wine has been elevated to respectability makes me question just how exactly a wine manages to gain a reputation for being ‘fine’?
The thing that struck me the most on these tours – seeing the fruit set and listening to how the growers tend to them, is that it’s often forgotten, (especially, I find, by those of a red trouser-wearing persuasion), that wine is a product of that most humble of trades – farming.
You’d almost be forgiven for not knowing that grapes are grown alongside the maize and turnips – after all they aren’t prized for their terroir, used as investment vehicles or discussed using the prefix ‘fine’.
While I agree that there should be distinctions made to allow consumers to understand the differences between how wines are made, and to celebrate the artistry of the winemakers, I’ve always found it difficult to understand the exclusionary, old-school attitude of the few. The old boys are so set in their ways that only wines from select regions are deemed good enough, and where a bottle’s status takes precedence over its content. Let’s face it: it’s the ‘gentleman’s’ equivalent of a pissing contest.
The concept of fine wine is outdated, literally. Take the Bordeaux Grand Cru classifications – barely changed since 1855. The term is also technically useless, having no legal definition. During my time working in retail, fine wine was categorised as anything over £20. But this arbitrary number can’t be all that defines it, otherwise the Bordeaux-and-Burgundy brigade wouldn’t hold such a tight grip on the phrase.
Rarity is another factor often cited, but if this was the case then why don’t we mention Usakhelauri, a Georgian semi-sweet wine with just 1000 bottles a vintage, in the same sentence as Burgundy? Evidently ‘fine wine’ has just become a synonym for Western European wine. And it’s a dogma that’s become an existential threat to the wine industry.
The history of the wine trade has obviously played a part in why we drink certain wines, but to the modern consumer, the dominance of a handful of regions can seem old-fashioned and intimidating.
During my tour of English Oak, I spotted a young couple. She wore Balenciaga trainers and he was dressed like a cast member of TOWIE. They did not look like the customers I used to serve, the students I used to teach, or my peers at WSET. Our prejudices might tell us they were not ‘fine wine’ drinkers, but one fact remains paramount: they were there. They had enough interest, not only book a tour, but buy a bottle. These are exactly the people that we should be welcoming into our arms.
Young drinkers aren’t afraid to spend money on quality products and brands that speak to them – just look at the rise of craft beer and artisanal spirits.
The spectrum of wines produced globally is far too great, and grape varieties far too varied, for us to be blinkered into just lauding the same few styles, over and over.
This isn’t about dumbing down, after all I spent far too much time studying to pretend that wine isn’t a difficult subject. It’s about making it more inclusive. Redefining what a fine wine can be, and where it comes from, will not only engage new consumers and make the wine world more inviting, but also increase sales across the board. Something that surely makes sense, no matter what colour trousers you wear.
Aleesha Hansel – @_SpillingIt