When I started drinking wine as a student, I was bottom feeding. Buying cheap wines from supermarkets. Most tasted bad. Now wine tastes better, even at the bottom end. That’s a good thing. But let’s explore the issue a bit further. I’d argue that generally speaking, we don’t want our wines to taste nicer, but truer.
A quick taste – a mouthful – isn’t a very meaningful way to assess a wine unless you have a lot of wine expertise. Novice or low involvement consumers don’t taste wine the same way as experts do. They focus on what is in the glass, and the sensory clues that this gives. Experts are able to marshall their knowledge, and use their cognitive abilities to help them make sense of their perceptions. Normal people find tasting lots of wine together bewildering because they don’t have any mechanisms like this to help them deal with what they are tasting.
Yet often these consumers are presented with a range of wines and asked to state a preference. Which tastes nicest? It’s unsurprising that in these sorts of tests, strongly flavoured but gentle flavours are chosen. For reds, this means sweetly fruited and deeply coloured wines with low tannin and acid, and even some actual added sugar. They taste ‘nicer’.
But let’s make a comparison with cheese. I don’t want someone to take my cheese and make it taste nicer. I want Comte that really tastes of Comte; I want Cheddar with a strong spicy tang; I want goats cheese that’s even a bit alarming at first for its goatiness.
If you give 20 non-involved cheese consumers something that cheese experts would consider to be a range of great cheeses, and then slipped in a mild, creamy cheddar made from pasteurized milk and with no real flavour, they may well prefer that. But where does this leave us? Does this mean that in order to sell cheese we should strip it of some of its flavour to make it more palatable? No, because we can quite happily live with the idea that there’s mass market cheese sold cheaply in supermarkets, and there’s the real stuff with proper flavour and providence. The latter is what food writers and people who enjoy flavour are interested in. Consumers seem to be able to live with the idea that the cheese market is segmented, and the big bricks of cheddar with no flavour serve a purpose, and that the expensive ‘proper’ cheeses serve another, and if you are interested in flavour, you buy the latter.
With wine, it’s largely the same. Ask a group of novice consumers to taste a range of wines, and as they sip their way through they might well prefer the big brand red with 10 g/l of residual sugar and no nasty tannins. Smooth, sweet and tasty. Does that mean that there should be more of these wines on the market? Should we be making more off-dry reds because that’s what a large segment of the market really wants?
This isn’t a straightforward question to answer, because the answer may be different for different segments of the market.
Generally speaking, though, as with cheese, I don’t want my wines to taste nicer: I want them to taste truer. Where there are wines of terroir – expressing a local flavour – I really want to buy one of these wines that tastes of where its from. That’s what makes wine interesting. Of course, this local flavour is partly derived from the site, which is the conventional understanding of terroir. But terroir as expressed in a wine is an interpretive act. It’s the combination of site, plus the variety (ies), and the choices of the winegrower. Local cultural practices can contribute to the local flavour. Some places have more local flavour than others. That’s just how it is. With wine, if you have a local flavour, no one can copy you. You are potentially able to rise above the mess that’s the price-sensitive bottom end of the market.
Say you are a producer in Fitou. It’s not easy to sell Fitou: there’s a lot of it made, and it’s quite cheap. What do you do? You can resort to winemaking trickery and add some post-ferment sugar, and make a wine that tastes better (according to average consumers being given a range of glasses to sample). You might be able to sell your wine to a supermarket more easily because of this, but will you get any more money? No. You’ll just get to empty your tanks and, if lucky, not make a loss on the wine. The alternative is trickier to achieve but could lead to long term success: make really good Fitou that tastes of the place, and transcend the appellation by supplementing the regional brand (Fitou) with your own brand. If you make excellent wine, and establish a good route to market, you have a chance of making money and escaping the dreadful bottom end of the market where producers merely survive (if they are lucky) but never succeed.
Make your wines taste truer. Not nicer.