I’ve been involved in a few social media discussions about whether or not it’s time for wine to modernize. In order to appeal to a wider audience – and recruit new consumers – shouldn’t we welcome a new sub-category of flavoured wines? This would usher in a new golden era of innovation into a category where many producers are struggling to make money, so the argument goes. The restrictive attitudes of gatekeepers and opinion formers who steadfastly refuse to countenance such progressive changes are holding wine back from its bright future.
Look at beer. The craft beer scene is a hotbed of innovation. Tangerine, cucumber, blood orange, peach and pumpkin flavoured beers are all the rage. And in a nod to wine, we even have barrel-flavoured beer. Why are brewers having all the fun? Shouldn’t winemakers also be allowed to be creative?
Wine is different. It isn’t a manufactured beverage. It has a legal definition: it is an alcoholic drink made with fermented grapes, with no flavour additions permitted. There are a range of things you can legally add to wine as processing aids, but these aren’t to add flavour. Wine can legally gain flavour from oak barrels: especially when these are new, they can contribute a range of flavours such as oak lactones, but this is a traditional step – wine has been matured in oak barrels for many hundreds of years (although deliberately using new oak to add flavour is a bit more of a modern step). As such, this traditional flavour addition is allowed, and it would be difficult to disallow it (and the use of oak products such as chips, powder, staves and beans – although I wouldn’t be sad to see these go).
Don’t get me wrong: I love beer. It is an exciting category at the moment. But beer is manufactured, and while the raw ingredients need to be of good quality, it is the recipe and the brewer’s skill that determine the outcome.
Wine is utterly, starkly dependent on the quality of grapes that are used to make it. This is the unfortunate truth. You can’t just give instructions to a clever winemaker or blender and ask them to come up with a certain result, unless all you are trying to make is a simple, or international-style wine.
And wine is doing well. It is the rock star of agricultural produce, and people are prepared to pay a lot of money for good wine. Old whisky may fetch eye-watering prices, but it can’t be made quickly, and it’s quite different. But wine is a celebrity among drinks. Take a trip down to Hedonism wines in London. Rich people have a number of hobbies and ways of spending lots of money, but wine is one of their favourites. This is because wine is special and different.
If we were to relax the definition of wine, this would imperil the whole venture. Wine would be at risk, because it would lose its specialness, and consumers would no longer be able to differentiate between the real thing and the flavoured wines. Rather than the gatekeepers and opinion formers who resist these flavoured products being regressive and a barrier to progress, they actually have the wisdom to consider the unintended consequences of a change in the law.
We do need innovation in wine. But from where I’m standing, it looks like the real innovators have been those who have moved in a more natural and authentic direction, moving back to the future. Go to a natural wine fair or one of London’s naturally oriented wine bars and you’ll see a smart crowd of mainly younger folk who are embracing the authenticity of these wines, and the interesting flavours and textures. They’re not really won over by sweetened up over-packaged reds that have flooded the supermarket aisles: even though these wines do well, they are usually fighting in a very competitive end of the market where few make any money. But even the sweetened up reds are still very much wine.
Flavoured wines exist, but they are labelled wine-based beverages. These have a market, but it’s usually at the very cheap end, where water, acid and fruit flavours are added to wine to make something palatable that hits the 5.5% alcohol level where there’s a duty break, and they can be sold very cheaply.
More expensive flavoured wines? There doesn’t seem to be a market for them, or else people would make them.
I think the wine industry is plotting the right course in ignoring the siren calls of would-be innovators. Keep wine wine. It’s special. Its future is bright.