A bit of a rant about icon wines

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.

20 comments to A bit of a rant about icon wines

  • Interesting. I agree with you on this, especially since I’m not a huge fan of the over loaded reds that chase Parker points. The icon wine diminishes the value of the rest of the range, which is often more interesting. Let the consumers decide what ends up being an icon wine instead of creating them!

  • Dr. Bernard Dias

    Well said!

  • Rod Smith

    Sitting on the fence again Jamie…

    I agree with you wholeheartedly though. Whether something (or someone) is or isn’t an icon is not up to its creator/perpetrator/self to decide, nor can it really be an immediate thing.

    It used to be that a producer made the best wine possible and then gradually introduced lesser wines partly in an effort to allow them to bolster the quality and style of their top stuff. Quality and style rather than points and price. This system produced the finest wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja, Tuscany and pretty much everywhere else highly regarded. More recently it has produced, for example, Mas de Daumas Gassac and many of the finest wines of California.
    The topsy turvy icon system, on the other hand, produces liquid jam that could be from anywhere. Sometimes you can taste the quality and style trying to escape its straight-jacket of new oak and residual sugar, but usually you can’t. Shame.

  • Daniel

    100% agree with that Jamie. Very well said.

    I would add that Icons do little to demonstrate the skills of the winemaker. A truly great winemaker will make a great wine from their *whole* vineyard (or a substantial proportion of it).

  • Scott Malyon

    This is a very interesting topic and one in which I have varying views, perhaps one where I cannot make up my mind. Having an icon wine within a range should showcase the talent of the winemaker/s and then encompass the qualities and characters of each of the range. What it shouldnt be, in my opinion, is a ‘show off’ or a ‘look at me’ style of wine that, as you say, is loaded with concentrated sweetness, gigantic bottle and fancy dancy packaging. For me, its all about a lack of consistency with the whole icon ideology; there are too many producers that are making an icon wine for the sake of it, sometimes feeling the need to do it rather than actually wanting to make it. I will always stick to the norm I think, and if it costs the same as an icon wine but doesnt have that stamp, thats fine by me.

  • Dear Jamie, I agree largely with you. It is a shame you weren’t at Mike Ratcliffe’s Seminar at Cape Wine Europe, called ‘Chasing Icon Status’. The kind of wines you are referring to here, are Cult Wines according to Mike. His interpretation of an Icon wine is different, for exemple, it has to be produced in large enough quantities (as you also mention) and it has to have a certain history. He gave five characteristics that an Icon Wine has to have: consistency, focus, pedigree, estate and confidence. And there were five contenders to the title, whether that is important or not: De Toren Fusion V, Kanonkop Paul Sauer, Meerlust Rubicon, Rustenberg Peter Barlow, Warwick Wine Estate Trilogy (of course…) and Vilafonté Series C. The seminar was very interesting at least. BTW, here in the Netherlands, Udo Göebel is organizing a Fusion V vs Paul Sauer Tasting, to continue on this theme. What is your opinion on the five candidates?
    Best regards, Lars.

  • I wonder if there’s a direct corrollation between the weight of the bottle (or the oakiness, or the concentration of MegaPurple)and the winemakers ego? If the hard data were available, someone could plot all the points on a graph, and great fun could be had by all :)

  • Learn from the world of fashion, where the catwalk clothes (“icons”) are the unaffordable, extreme but ultimate creative expression of a label’s vision – and which then drives sales of the more commercial, mass-produced items found in the stores.

    The Sediment Blog

  • I think the right approach in wine making today will be trying to represent the area and the grape varieties used, rather than following a model. I believe that this will also prove to be commercially successful. There is no need to make the “best wine of the world”.

  • Almost without fail my heart sinks when I’ve visited a winery and the icon is wheeled out. What do you say? It is always the same, so much so that I am tempted to think that that they all source from just one single enormous heavy toast new oak barrel sitting somewhere in the world right next to the super heavy bottle plant . A particularly memorable one was in Spain where said heavily extracted newly bottled purple monster was served with steamed fish. I wasn’t sure if the knife and fork was for the wine or the food. Suffice to say their regular wines were excellent.

  • Chris Losh

    I agree with you on this, Jamie. The irony is that an icon wine is made to be the pinnacle of an estate’s ambition, yet could invariably come from anywhere and be made from anything. In Chile, the best wines are always the top end wines, not the botoxed icons.

  • Heartily agree with your point of view. In the restaurant world, where I see a large part of my job in compiling a wine list is to provide customers with the best expression & quality of wine at the best price, the ‘Icon’ wine has little place. Once the price/quality ratio has been skewed, then it’s time to de-list and find the next rising star- we no longer list Grange, Masseto, Harlan Estate, Ornellaia, Runrig, all DRC wines, etc., etc for this reason, preferring to work a little harder with importers to find the next generation- although I wish they would have the confidence to concentrate on making good wines without the need for this indulgent and often misplaced part ofd their portfolios.

  • keith prothero

    I mainly agree—–tasted an iconic Chenin the other day,that was so full of oak,I would have sworn in blind tasting,that it was an Aussie chardonnay—–yet the wine sells really well. So from a marketing and financial point of view ,it is hard to argue with the winery making such a wine.
    Not all Iconic wines,are of course full bodied block busters,and wines such as Paul Sauer and Peter Barlow too me represent the best of such wines made here.
    Presume Jamie you would not put Eben Sadie,s Columella in this category,although it is surely an iconic wine.

  • Lee Newby

    I see a bigger difference than you, comparing a large Bordeaux property with 2 wines a Grand Vin and a Second Wine and a multi varietal producer like Montes in Chile. Of course the Bordeaux property would never produce an Icon wine, their Grand Vin may have been an Icon for 156 years.

    Yes the Chileans jumped all over the term Icon as Mr. Cox has pointed out and continue to do so at their own peril, but Montes Alpha M is a very good wine and their top wine. I do agree that a vineyard has to produce a great line of wines before and along with their Icon label. As an example of an Icon gone wrong I would point to Cono Sur’s Ocio I believe their 20 barrel Pinot Noir is a better wine.

  • Steve

    I laughed when Andre van Rensberg [sp?] admitted to Decanter that his normal ‘Vergelegen’ cuvee was his real top wine, and that the ‘V’ version, at twice the price was ‘just for Americans’.

  • Roland

    I have different views but this is a good article.Many Chateaux in Bordeaux and Burgundy have their top of the range wine and then their second wine from lesser vineyard sites.Even Rominee Conti has a range of second and third wines.They may be called a different name to Icon but means the same.

    The difference lies in the quality of the wine and the elegance of it.If it is made for a wine critic then it does not work but if it just expresses the vineyard site of quality then it can mean a lot of more.We must remember that Australia got it’s marketing right back in the 80′s with the wines of Penfolds bin numbers.South Africa has struggled to get it’s marketing right for a long time and many winemakers in south africa only think of the short term and not the long term.I can give you so many reasons why south african wines which are good but don’t achieve their true potential.One of those reasons is that the vines from most producers are replanted after 25 to 30 years and that is just when the vines are starting to produce it’s best fruit.Bordeaux and other parts of europe have vines of 60 plus years old which is another of the many reasons their wines produce such quality.I can go on for a long time giving you many reasons.

    south African wines have been struggling the last few years and I think they need to go back to the roots and just make wines which express the terrior and start top focus on the matching it with the food of that region.This is what european wines have done for so long and when you make the food famous the wines follow.France and Itlay are famous for it’s food and the wines followed as a match.We have great food in south africa but we need to market our food culture along with the wines.

  • David Bennett

    A well written rant Jamie. A sentiment with which I heartily agree. You have to hand it to Andre van ravensberg- outspoken but so correct. Bravo.
    Opened a dubost 2008 Moulin a Vent last night after yesterday’s post- delicious stuff at room temperature, disgusting when cool ! proper wine methinks…

  • Andrew Halliwell

    Where do people think that Bodegas Roda’s “Cirsion” sits in this discussion?

    Their website claims that the wine is made only from certain vines displaying a high level of tannin polimerisation within the grapes, that these grapes are somehow different and so a special wine is made to highlight this, matured in 100% new French oak, of course.

    Whenever I’ve had it, I think I’ve always preferred the “Roda I”, but perhaps given enough age the Cirsion would outshine its cheaper sibling.

    Are they guilty of icon-wining too, or has their incredible eye for detail put them on to something genuine and special??

  • Richard

    Can I extend the rant to people who misuse ‘icon’? Used to be poor quality journalists and over-excited PR people. Now it seems some winemakers (and some of their followers) can be added to the list.

  • Laurence

    Echo many others in enjoying the rant. But, do the same principles apply with ‘icon’ champagnes?

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