Fashions in wine

Guest writer Aleesha Hansel applies fashion’s ’20 year rule’ to wine as she ruminates on the resurgent popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau.

‘It’s all just a little bit of history repeating’, Dame Shirley Bassey

Fashions come and go. As the dominance of skinny jeans crumbles and high-waisted ‘mom jeans’ take their place, it’s good to remind ourselves that fashions change and nothing lasts forever.

I was made aware of this being just as relevant to the wine industry this week with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau.

As a fan of the easy-going Gamay grape, the day always sounds like quite a lot of fun. But I’d never looked any further into the history of it, other than knowing it was the brain child of Georges Duboeuf.

Imagine my surprise then to hear of yuppies having Beaujolais breakfasts, Porsches laden with cases driving through the night.  Even the Red Devils parachuting into Covent Garden with a few bottles in hand. This Nouveau mania unsurprisingly passed me by, as I was a child more interested in Cartoon Network than carbonic maceration. So too did its eventual decline.

The 20-year rule

There is a well-known concept in fashion, the 20-year-rule, referring to the life cycle of trends, and if we look at what is on sale on the high street, or indeed online, currently it all takes inspiration from the 90s – slip dresses, scrunchies, crop tops, platform trainers, neon – the list goes on.

How interesting then that exactly 20 years after its peak consumption in the UK (1999), exports of red and rose Beaujolais to the UK last year grew by 22% in volume and 17% in value – the highest of any French region.

Today, if you ask anyone what is they believe to be the most expensive and ‘prestigious’ wines they will likely be Bordeaux or Burgundy. A hundred-and-fifty years ago it would have been Hock. This German Riesling is what most people would nowadays relate to sweet, cheap wine – mainly thanks to the arguably too successful Blue Nun.

It’s an all too familiar situation. Lambrusco, Chianti and Sherry are others which have become victims of their own success. Imagine scores of consumers drinking sparkling red wines, fortified wines and off-dry wines in their droves! It’s something wine merchants wouldn’t dare think possible today.

We did it before, we can do it again

But the former popularity of these wines is proof that the public can, and indeed do, enjoy a diversity of wine styles if they are marketed, discussed and sold in an engaging and accessible way. Of course, there is no road map for ensuring the resurgence of a wine’s popularity. But there are clues as to what might help.

Let’s go back to Beaujolais. It seems to do particularly well on Instagram. That’s hardly surprising, given the social media platform’s focus on aesthetics. It’s perfect for these wines with their appealing, colourful, interesting labels would do well.

It’s also a wine which doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing consumers to relinquish the concern of looking silly if they don’t say or do the ‘right’ thing. I think embarrassment and confusion felt by drinkers when it comes to wine is vastly underestimated by the industry.

And of course, it’s managed to find itself on the list of several trendy wine bars, often frequented by younger clientele.

What more impetus is needed to broaden our communication and help the consumer to discover wines from lesser-known countries, grapes and styles?

History has proven we shouldn’t underestimate how adventurous consumers can be when given freedom and encouragement.

Drinkers have taken the plunge and done it before, and they’ll do it again. We just need to make them feel more engaged in the conversation and make wine fun again.

Why do we disdain wines the mainstream like?

If the customer is always right, why is the wine establishment so snobby about mainstream and less complex wines?

Guest writer Aleesha Hansel reflects.

In any field, the more we learn, the further removed we are from our humble beginnings – the things that drew us in in the first place. In wine, this distance means we start to speak of terroir, structure and balance – terminology that seems more suited to architecture than the product of grapes.

When I first started working in wine, I remember really enjoying Beaujolais. When often asked what my favourite wine of the moment was, I very quickly learnt that responding with Gamay did not instil a great reaction, and definitely didn’t help me being taken seriously. Feeling slightly embarrassed, and wanting to be respected as a wine professional, it led to me abandon drinking Beaujolais until only a few months ago.

Nudged and cajoled by wine politics, reverence for tradition and a sense of hierarchy, wine folk are often found espousing the virtues of Pinot noir, Chablis or something else just as predictable. Adhering to well-known dictates allows us to present ourselves as one of the ‘in crowd’: knowledgeable and as authoritative about the subject as our peers. But is it working against us connecting with a wider audience?

One great example of this is acidity.

‘Enamel stripping’ is a tasting note I have read countless times, and makes me wonder why anyone would promote a wine as being a turpentine equivalent. While I understand from years of study that acidity does help the balance and structure of the wine, the love for this characteristic seems to go above and beyond just being a component in what makes a wine objectively ‘well structured’.

Holding almost a cult status among the ‘wine elite’, high acidity has become a sort of Freemason’s handshake – a social signifier allowing those in the know to recognise each other among the hoi polloi. Because, high acidity isn’t generally something that appeals to mainstream consumers. They tend to want wines that are rounder, sweeter and more approachable. The very same hoi polloi that we rely on for our livelihoods. Despite all of the romanticism attached to wine, which I myself enjoy, ultimately if we don’t sell wine we are all on our uppers.

Winespeak may excite us wine geeks, but can lead consumers feeling like they need a degree in grape science to enjoy a glass. With Hardys being the best-selling off-trade UK wine brand wouldn’t it makes sense for us to accept then that perhaps a healthy and successful wine industry is one that advocates for all. After all, Radio 1 has a place next to Classical FM, as does fish and chips next to haute cuisine.

Like many things that you first enter into, you play by the rules. It’s only when you learn a bit more that you build up the confidence to throw a few of them out the window. Something that I have found great freedom and fun in doing so. It also allows me to happily shout out about my re-ignited enjoyment for juicy, soft, fruity Beaujolais and confess that all those times I said I liked Pinot Noir – I was lying.


Jamaican-Caribbean Food Meets Georgian Wine

Are food and wine matching too European-centric? Guest writer Aleesha Hansel ponders why food and wine paring suggestions are so standardised – and what sorts of wines work best with the Jamaican-Caribbean food of her heritage.

‘Goes with fish and seafood’ – wine 101 when it comes to food pairings on the back of a bottle.

Uninspiring, repetitive, and perhaps when looked at with a closer lens, rather exclusionary. After all, are fish, pasta, pizza and all the other overused suggestions really all that the wine drinking public eat? Or is it another symptom of a white, European-centric gaze?

Googling ‘wines to go with lamb’ brings up an array of articles going into the minutiae of which wine is best, from lamb chops to slow roast shoulder to shepherd’s pie and everything in between. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for cuisines lumbered with the label ‘exotic’. Included in this category you will find Asian (itself covering Uzbek, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Afghan, Kuwaiti and Malay dishes, to name but a few), alongside Caribbean, and the whole continent of Africa. Often these ‘exotic’ dishes have spice, both in terms of flavour and heat. It means that sadly, they’re relegated to ubiquitously match with sweet, white wines.

But what if you don’t like sweet wines or white wine full stop? Or even, heaven forbid, don’t want to temper the chilli – the reasoning given behind most sweet white pairings? Surely, someone cooking with three scotch bonnets isn’t particularly looking for a wine to quell it?!

By the very nature of being born in Britain, and despite a multicultural background, I too fall back on these standardised wine and food pairings. But there is a broader lexicon out there, used to describe wines for the people who have no idea what a gooseberry tastes like. And that lexicon can, in turn, expand our food pairing ideas – whether it’s jollof rice or ramen.

I’ve found that exploring wines from regions that use different wine-making techniques, or grape varieties, can introduce us all to new characteristics and nuances, ones that might match better with bolder food flavours. Georgia is one such region, traditionally using earthenware vessels and indigenous varieties.

With a selection of these, I matched wine to food of my heritage – Jamaican Caribbean.

Qvevri Goruli Mtsvane 2018 – Pheasant’s Tears

Matched with: Pumpkin Stew

Viognier-esque on the nose, this dry white made using the Khikhvi grape tastes of red grapefruit, peach, mango, apricots in honey and sprinkle of sultanas with a savoury note of hay. Other than the usual things to consider when food matching, such as acidity, alcohol and sweetness I also like to pair colours. The aromas in this wine scream out orange, and as such this dish was the most likely candidate for pumpkin stew. The natural sweetness in the pumpkin and carrots, paired with the ‘sweet’ fruits in the wine.

Dvali Winery Saperavi Qvevri 2018

Matched with: BBQ chicken wings

Spending seven months fermenting on must in a Qveri, this dry red made using Saperavi grapes, is laden with rich black cherry, stewed plum and syrupy black fruits. Similar to a Cabernet Sauvignon it bore hints of herbal mint but with a smokey undertone. The fruit and smokiness in this wine matched perfectly with the BBQ glaze on chicken wings, while the tannins were soft enough for the meat.

Marani Wine Kindzmarauli 2018, Medium-Dry

Matched with: Curried mutton

Another red produced from the Saperavi grape, this expression is off-dry. Boasting Durif levels of black fruit intensity, the wine also had savoury flavours of rosemary, and red onion and balsamic reduction. Being ingredients often used with lamb, it wasn’t difficult to see why this wine works with curry mutton. The fruit stood up well to the seasonings, with the residual sugar working to balance the heat of the dish.

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Calling time on ‘fine’ wine

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