The coming wine war

There’s a clash of cultures in the world of fine wine, and before too long it could become a war.

On the one hand, we have the fine wine establishment, which is dominated by Bordeaux, but also includes the top Champagne houses, as well as a few others such as the super-Tuscans. This is wine as a luxury good or an investment vehicle. It’s where the money is.

On the other hand, we have the emerging terroiriste/natural wine movement. This is somewhat counterculture, and its development as a category threatens the status quo of fine wine.

As the message of authentic wine with a sense of place – made by people driven by passion rather than profit – gains traction, it is causing a degree of discomfort in the fine wine establishment.

While things are currently very rosy-looking for the top Bordeaux properties, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more enlightened proprietors are casting an anxious glance at the success of events such as the three day natural wine fair held in Borough market this May, just as the large (and currently dominant) Champagne houses have been discomfited by the critical acclaim given to grower Champagnes.

Expect to see an increasingly hostile, organized reaction towards the natural wine movement, and those journalists who support it. There are already many people briefing against natural wines. As is so often the case, money is at the heart of this conflict.

Bordeaux enjoys a favoured role in the world of fine wine. It has a high, almost dominant profile.

The prices paid for top Bordeaux have escalated over the last decade, and this has made the top Chateaux quite wealthy. They will find the natural wine movement threatening because it exposes high-end Bordeaux for what it is: on the whole, somewhat less interesting than the newly emerging terroir wines from other regions.

My prediction is that Bordeaux will seek to protect its place – and wealth – by bringing its influence to bear where it can. Already it holds leading journalists close, through quite lavish hospitality and access to rare older vintages for the privileged few. Some journalists have spotted where the money is, and for this reason have chosen to write extensively about Bordeaux. The top Châteaux’ sizeable advertising spend ensures that consumer wine magazines have a strong focus on the region. Perhaps these magazines will be discretely avoid giving coverage to the profoundly interesting (yet cash poor) terroiriste and natural wines, which come with zero advertising spend.

When it comes to wine education, there’s the horrible possibility that major sponsors of the WSET and IMW could seek to influence what is being taught to students of wine. I would hope that the curriculum of these wine education bodies is independent of any commercial pressure, but it may be in the future that generous sponsorship comes with implicit ‘strings’ attached.

It could reach the stage where passion-driven journalists who write at length on wines that they find more interesting (such as natural wines) are ostracised by wine publications anxious to protect their advertising revenue. It would be a terrible shame, but it is not inconceivable that journalists may forced to choose between writing what they would like to write, and following the money.

In the past, there would be nothing that anyone could do about this. Fortunately, in the age of the internet, there are independent voices left – and they will be heard.

58 comments to The coming wine war

  • David Borwick

    Terrific troll, Jamie, congratulations!

    Two points on your distinction between authentic and inauthentic wines:

    i) what about the biodynamic-but-bling wines like Pontet-Canet or the DRC, which have plough-horses in the vineyards but drunk by the super-rich on yachts off Monaco? Whose side are they on?

    ii) fine wines from Bordeaux and elsewhere may circulate in a luxury goods bubble at the moment but they got that status because over decades or centuries those producers on those terroirs have a track record of making wines which have matured in interesting ways. Young natural wines may show great purity and terroir expression but if what you really love about wine is that secondary or tertiary development, do low sulphur regimes have anything to offer you? Or is natural wine only for those who buy every bottle off the shelf and drink it in 24 hours? And can wines that don’t age, whatever their virtues, really claim the moral high ground of authenticity?

  • It’s a definite possibility. Bordeaux has a brand to protect just like any other globally recognized market leader, and they’ll do a lot to stay there.

    …and popcorn-fun to see the comemnt thread take on a life of its own :)

  • Jeremy Seysses

    Jamie,
    An interesting piece which is to be credited with prompting plenty of thought and constructive responses. Thank you for your clarifications which build on the initial piece,making it clearer. On first reading, I really resented the lumping of natural wine with terroirist. Both are broad and ill defined categories. However, natural wine, it is frequently commented on, is very losely defined, and its most common denominator is an absence of additives in the winery. However, when it comes to the vineyards, many natural wines come from vineyards using herbicides. The only excuse I can find to herbicides is cost efficiency. Nothing remotely natural or even terroirist about them. Let us not confuse the approach in the winery with the approach in the vineyard. Ideally, the two go hand in hand, but this is far from always the case. I am certain that you have tasted enough natural wines gone funky to realize that bacterial spoilage, oxidation, etc. are winemaking influences that create convergence in wine rather than highlighting terroir differences.

    Also, as someone who works in a region (Burgundy) with a firmly established hierarchy of vineyards and a firmly terroirist approach (in contrast to branded wines e.g. Grange), I think you are backing the wrong bet with Bordeaux (and I am really assuming you are talking about the classed growths, upper echelons of Bordeaux, those with the money and firepower). The top end of Bordeaux is getting increasingly terroirist and vineyard driven, realizing that the backing of technology available to all is not where their future lies. The one thing they are most discreet and vulnerable to is their vineyard purchases that somehow become classed growth. Indeed if Mouton were to absorb d’Armailhac, I believe it could technically become 1st Growth (this is purely theoretical).

    No, my bet on the war ahead is between the big Champagne houses and the growers who used to sell them grapes. I suspect this provided no small incentive in the extension of the AOC. That is a region where there is the beginnings of a real brand vs. terroir fight of the first order.

  • Good afternoon, I would like to say thank you for this post. regards ff

  • Mark Jones

    I think Bordeaux is more concerned about an economic downturn in China than they are about a threat from the natural wine movement. At the moment the two biggest buyers of the better Bordeaux wines are the Chinese who drink and give it away for status and wine investors who see it as a good investment because the Chinese are driving the price up.

  • I can assure you that the Masters of Wine are just as interested in what’s new in the world of wine and “natural” wines will get as much of a look-in as top Bordeaux wines.

    In fact, the price of the top-end wines means that they are far less likely to get tasted and used than more reasonably priced wines that reflect the broader market. Bordeaux however, is still one of the biggest wine growing regions in the world, and therefore deserves attention.

  • is strange to see how confused are your personal idea about a jamies’s piece wrote about the new wine’s producers feelings.

    Bordeaux as the Italian wine areas living a sort of rebirth of wine culture and the quality wine’s training.
    The emerging terroiriste/natural wine producers discovered that the true quality of the wine lies in the vineyard and soil health through methods aimed at balancing the soil, the BIODINAMIC.

    It often happens that to drink a wine of excellent quality, to the canons of fine wine establishment, as well as spend a lot of money happens to be unable to swallow even a glass and if we can drink the whole bottle is not uncommon to have a headache the morning.
    Is certainly less likely to happen while drinking a biodynamic wine. Which does not mean drinking defective wines, but definitely more healthy.

    The wine has always represented the land it comes from and its roots plunge deep into the earth with those of man.
    The wine is the rebirth of the fruit and the man is the interpreter of this resurgence.
    The chemical fertilizers and adjuvants to wine fermentation remove the vital element, flattening the aromatic expression of the fruit in the wine.
    Instead biodynamic practices in addition to working on the natural balance of the soil, helping the natural phenolic structure of the cluster,thus limiting the use of synthetic tannins and flavoring as well as structuring a very limited use of sulfur.

    I think before expressing any opinion need to verify and know well what we are talking about and understand the message of change.

    Because if something changes there is always wonder why ….. ;)

    waiting …
    CG

  • Giorgos Hadjistylianou

    How sad this is check link below

    http://www.alicefeiring.com/blog/2011/08/change-in-demeter-us-biodynamic-standards.html

    Not all natural/ organic/ biodynamic wines are good, since they are the producers that are “practicing” it since is in our days “in”.

    But the majority of these men and women who love what they do they do it for the love of wine. The whole idea is to connect with mamma gaia (earth) and those who do get the nresults.

    Drinking CLEAN, CHEMICAL FREE AND UNMANIPULATED WINES ain’t bad, or is it?

    Oenotaragmenos CY

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