While I was in South Africa, I noticed that quite a few wine estates now produce icon wines, retailing at Rand 500+. The icon wine now seems to be an integral part of any ambitious winery’s offering.
I can see the logic behind icon wines. The idea is that there are some people out there with lots of money, and they only want the best. These days, the ‘best’ is defined in wine terms by stellar critic scores.
If a winery pulls out all the stops, and makes a no-expense-spared icon wine, puts it in a heavy bottle, and attaches a high price, then there is a chance that this wine will achieve a very high score. This high score will help create demand; the high price is unlikely to be a deterrent to the sort of consumer who might be interested in this wine (and, in fact, may prove an incentive); and the demand will hopefully support this high price, and even push it higher.
Ultimately, the hope is that the icon wine will reflect glory on the rest of the producer’s range. Putting it another way, with so many producers making an icon wine, isn’t there a danger in not playing the game? Won’t consumers rate a winery less highly because they lack a pinnacle in their line-up?
Personally, I loathe these icon wines. I think it was Michael Cox (UK head of Wines of Chile) who came up with the famous line: ‘Icon: is that one word or two?’
My chief problem is that they are usually really uninteresting wines, with dollops of ripe fruit, lots of expensive oak, and bags of ego. When a wealthy winery owner gives their winemaker a brief to make a really expensive wine, the winemaker is placed in a difficult position. How many icon wines aim at elegance and terroir expression? I can’t think of one. They are forced down the route of power, concentration, super-sweet fruit expression and lots of new oak. (Of course, it goes without saying that almost all icon wines are red not white.)
Another problem is that they can take attention away from a winery’s regular output. I quite like the Bordeaux model of producing the Grand Vin in relatively large quantities. Imagine the top Bordeaux properties making a special selection icon wine. They don’t, because they realize this is a stupid idea. If it made sense economically, they’d certainly do it.
Many of these icon wines are made in small enough quantities that the regular wine is not diminished in quality, but the branding of the regular wine certainly is diminished.
And with pricing, I’ve nothing to complain about expensive wines, if this price is set by the marketplace, and not ego. Of course, some wines are truly great and are so highly sought after that they become very expensive indeed. This is not the case with most icon wines.
Look, if you are a wine estate and you have some special terroirs on your property, by all means make a special, limited production wine. And this may end up being expensive and highly rated. But let’s stop all these icon wines, driven by ego, with their heavy bottles and silly price tags and sweet, inky, oaky concentrated flavours. They achieve nothing positive.