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Part 1
introduction: two genres, two cultures

The world of wine as we know it has changed radically over the last couple of decades, and while many of the changes have been for the better, some are giving cause for concern. Jamie Goode introduces a new multipart series tracing the rise of the wine brands, and asks whether this could spell the beginning of the end for interesting, affordable wine. 

two genres
There are two genres of wine. On the one hand we have wine as a commodity: grapes are grown, crushed and made into wine, which is then sold cheaply and consumed uncritically. In this case, the consumer views wine in much the same way as they would treat flour, milk, fruit juice or instant coffee. As long as the quality is adequate and the price is right, they aren’t too worried about the source. This first category accounts for the majority of wine across the globe.

On the other hand we have wine that is purchased and consumed not because of low price, but because of interest. This interest stems from the fact that there exists a diversity of wine types that are each able to express elements of their cultural and geographical origins in the finished product. Crucial here is the importance of the starting material -- the grapes. Unlike lager or whisky, where the agricultural input (wheat or barley) is minimal and the human input is dominant, winemaking is best viewed as a process of sterwardship rather than one of manufacturing.

The diversity of wine is bewildering. Not only are hundreds of different grape varieties in relatively common use, but there are also the complex influences of soil types, climate, viticulture and winemaking practices. There’s also a rich traditional heritage in the more established wine-producing countries, whereby cultural and viticultural influences collude to produce a variety of wine classifications (appellations in France) that have their basis in geography. This diversity is what makes wine so interesting. Divorced from its geographical origins, wine is only marginally more interesting than fruit juice, lager or gin. And you don't get people naming either of these three beverage types as one of their interests or hobbies.

These two genres of wine – I’ll call them here commodity and terroir wines (see my definitions box) – have coexisted quite happily, and there’s no reason that they can’t continue to do so, sitting side-by-side on the shelf. They serve different functions, and are consumed in different situations, and often by different groups of consumers. However, the two cultures to which the title of this series involves are not in fact terroir and commodity wines – instead, I’m looking at the distinctions between ‘branded’ and ‘estate bottled’ wines (again, see the definitions box). It’s unlikely that we’ll get very far in this debate without first understanding that wine is not a unified whole, but consists of these different genres.  

definition of terms used

Appellation The unit of a classification system based on geography. I’m less concerned here with the rules that each appellation may have for viticulture and winemaking than I am with the geographical definition that sets regional boundaries to the appellation. 
Terroir wine Terroir is a useful, but hard-to-define term, coined by the French. It refers to the site-specific differences in wines that are caused by factors such as soil types, drainage, local microclimate and sun exposure. I’m using the term terroir wine as an umbrella term for any wine that has some sort of link to geography – where the grapes were grown and also local cultural influences.
Commodity wine An inexpensive wine purchased in most cases not for its intrinsic qualities but because it serves a purpose, like milk, flour, sugar or instant coffee. 
Branded wine Again, it’s hard to pin down a watertight definition for this. Loosely, I’m referring to a wine that doesn’t come from a strictly defined patch of ground, but is instead marketed by a brand name or ‘make’. Branded wines are typically made from either brought-in grapes, or grapes from several disparate sources which may include many vineyards owned by the same company.
Estate wine A wine that is made from grapes from a fairly narrowly defined patch of ground, such as a single vineyard, or sometimes several neighbouring vineyards. These are usually owned by the producer, but for my purposes here exceptions may exist where a winemaker may have growers from whom he or she buys grapes and them makes single-vineyard (or similarly geographically defined) bottlings. 

two cultures
Having established that wine is not a unified whole, but is split into two genres of terroir and commodity wines, now let’s begin to address the main focus of this series: the rise of the wine brands. I don’t think it is overstating the case to suggest that this is now the key issue facing wine globally. Of course, wine brands have been around for a while – famous examples include Portugal’s Mateus Rosé and Periquita, the infamous Black Tower and Blue Nun from Germany, and even Australia’s upmarket example Penfolds Grange. But it is only in recent years that they have surged forward in a seemingly unstoppable fashion. The result is the emergence of two cultures of wine, superficially similar but of fundamentally different natures, and one of which now threatens the existence of the other. Brands cannot sit happily alongside non-branded wines; instead, they threaten the very soul of wine itself.

In this important series of articles my goal is to explore the impact that the rise of the brands is having on the wine world. On the way, we’ll take a look at what branded wines are like, why branding doesn’t really suit wine and why there has been such a strong commercial pressure for producers to move towards branded wines, away from the more traditional estate model. My hope is that this will be a provocative but well reasoned piece, and that it will persuade readers to join the cause of interesting wine.  

the two cultures of wine: examining their characteristics
branded wines  estate wines
  • production is scaleable

  • typically made from bought-in grapes

  • often ‘international’ in style, lacking a sense of place

  • usually defined by winemaking style

  • made to a style and to fit a price point

  • because production limited only by the supply of suitable purchased grapes, these wines are often widely available

  • heavily marketed

  • lack diversity


  • made from grapes grown in one vineyard, or several neighbouring vineyards

  • vineyards supplying the grapes are usually owned by the company making the wine, or are supplied by growers on long-term contracts

  • limited production, subject to vintage variation

  • typically display regional influences or a ‘sense of place’

  • availability is sometimes a problem, because of the limited production

  • marketing is often minimal

  • hugely diverse

To follow in this series:

October/November 2002

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