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Boring wine 

Want to feel depressed? Then you should attend a press tasting put on by a British supermarket (Waitrose and perhaps M&S excepted). It’s a thoroughly soul destroying experience if you actually care about wine. Bottle after bottle of fruity, slightly neutral white, perhaps with just a touch of residual sugar. All tasting exactly the same. A similar story for the reds, with bright, fruity, inoffensive flavours, the odd one rounded out with a trace of residual sugar or some subtle oak ‘influence’.

The supermarkets deserve some credit for the work they have done popularising wine in the UK, but now they’re slowly killing the sector they once helped develop. With their penchant for clean, characterless, taste-alike fruity wines, the result is they’ve filled their shelves with bottles where the only substantive difference lies in the price tag. Thus, the pressure is ever downwards on price points, with no sign of abating. Many branded Australian wines are selling for the same price they were in 1993, when I first started drinking wine. I remember Lindemans Bin 65 used to go for £4.99 around that time, 10 years ago. While Lindemans have raised its retail price to £5.99, you can still buy it for £4.99, or even less, because now deep discounting is the way that these sorts of wines are sold.

The supermarkets are the place to go if you want boring, boring wine. Yes, they window dress with some higher priced wines. As a treat (and a bit of fun) my wife bought me the most expensive bottle in our local Tesco branch. It was a Gevrey Chambertin selling at £18. And it was crap. Mediocre negociant rubbish that I wouldn’t recommend at half the price. In the classic old world regions the best wines are made in relatively small quantities and are highly sought after. You aren’t going to find decent Burgundy in your local supermarket. You’ll be lucky if you find drinkable Burgundy.

The supermarket wine buyers are smart people with good palates. The people in charge of the Beers, Wines and Spirits departments are also smart: they aren’t bad people who treat their children and animals cruelly. No, they are doing, from their shareholders’ perspective, a good job. They are buying low, whacking a decent margin on, and selling commercial wine for a good profit. But in doing this, they are damaging the sector. No one has yet found a clever way to market wine to the masses other than on the grounds of price. The people who suffer, ultimately, from this practice are the producers. They need the access to market that the supermarkets offer more than the supermarkets need them. And of course, the consumers: they are being left with boring wine and an illusion of choice.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the consumers aren’t just being let down by the large retailers. The critics in the UK are also failing their readers by continuing to be besotted by these boring supermarket wines. They are trapped by the commercial edifice; stuck as they are feeding off the crumbs that fall from its table. A collusion. Accidental, no doubt.

But it’s not just cheap wines that taste the same these days. Ambitious producers the world over are being misled to make wines in an international style. These are red wines that through heavy winemaking influence, betray their ‘terroirs’: they lack any regional or local identity of the sort that makes fine wine so interesting. The formula? Lower yields, perhaps excessively. Leave the grapes to achieve super-physiological ripeness. Extend the maceration and extract as much as possible. Use cultured yeasts. Rack off into new oak for malolactic fermentation. Complete elevage in new oak for 18 months. None of these practices in themselves is bad, but applied as the well paid consultant directs without any thought for preserving typicity or terroir results in wines that taste sort of international, and a little bit boring.

But I’m not depressed; I’m actually quite optimistic. For every producer making boring international wines there’s one or more making fascinating, characterful ones. For every dull supermarket range, there are half a dozen enthusiastic independents with cleverly chosen ranges. There is interesting wine out there, and I see my mission to seek it out and tell you about it. But, knowing the sorts of people that tend to visit this site, you probably know already!

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