Samui Wining & Dining
Quality V Quantity

23The world of wine, as we know it, has changed radically over the last couple of decades. And whilst most of the changes have obviously been for the better, others are beginning to give cause for concern. Some wine commentators would argue that we’re rapidly moving in the direction splitting into two different categories of wine. And it’s a trend that wine enthusiasts without deep pockets (like me) don’t want to see go too far, or become too defined. Because there’s a real danger it could spell the beginning of the end for the more interesting and affordable wines that we cherish and take great pride and pleasure in seeking out so much (sad, I know).


The nightmare scenario would, indeed, be the formation of two distinct genres of wine.

On the one hand, we will have wine as a commodity. Grapes are grown, crushed and made into wine, which is then sold cheaply and consumed uncritically. In this case, the consumer views wine in much the same way as they would flour, milk, fruit juice or instant coffee. As long as the quality is adequate, and the price is right, they aren’t too worried about the source. And lamentably, this first category would undoubtedly account for the majority of wine sold across the globe.


On the other hand, we have wine that’s purchased and consumed not because of low price, but because of genuine interest and enthusiasm. This appeal stems from the fact that there exists a diversity of wine types that are each able to express elements of their cultural and geographical origins in the finished product. And crucial here is the importance of the starting material; the grapes. It’s unlike lager or whisky, where the agricultural input (wheat or barley) is minimal and the human and technological input is dominant. Winemaking is surely best viewed as a process of skillful nurturing from start to finish, rather than one of over-simplified, soul-destroying mass manufacturing.


The main objection I have, with this ever-widening split, is that the first category will dominate the market (by price). And the, so often excellent, small wineries will gradually be taken over by the bigger companies. Nearly all wine will start to become standardized and boring. And, even worse, the second category of wine will become progressively rare, and consequently, prohibitively expensive for most of us!


At present, the diversity of wine is glorious. Not only are hundreds of different grape varieties in relatively common use, but there are also the complex influences of soil types, climate, and viticulture and winemaking practices. In addition, there’s a rich traditional heritage in the more established wine-producing countries, which has its basis in geography. And this is what makes wine so interesting. Divorced from its geographical and cultural origins, wine is only marginally more engaging than fruit juice, lager or gin. And you never get someone naming these with the same loving care and attention as you do with wine.


Of course, it could be argued that these two genres of wine, let’s call them here ‘commodity’ and ‘fine wines’, have, so far, coexisted quite happily. And there’s no reason why they can’t continue to do so, sitting side-by-side on the wine store shelf and restaurant wine list. They serve different functions and are consumed in different situations, and often by very different groups of consumers. However, the two cultures are not, in fact, commodity and fine wines. Instead, what we are looking at is the distinctions between ‘branded’ and ‘estate winery bottled’ wines. It’s unlikely that we’ll get very far in this debate without first understanding that wine is not a unified whole, but consists of these different genres.


Having established this, we can begin to address the main symptom of this phenomenon – the rise of the wine brands. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to suggest that this is now the key issue facing wine globally. I know wine brands have been around for a while; famous examples include Portugal’s Mateus Rosé, the infamous Black Tower and Blue Nun from Germany, and the more contemporary archetypal Aussie brands of Jacob’s Creek, Wolf Blass and, the up-market, Penfolds range. But it’s only in recent years that they have surged forward, in a seemingly unstoppable fashion. The result is this worryingly rapid emergence of two cultures of wine, superficially similar but of fundamentally different natures. And one of which now threatens the existence of the other.


Reminiscent of the ‘Campaign for Real Ale’ in the UK during the 1970s, I recently read of a new wine business there called ‘The Real Wine Company’. Operating out of a portakabin, disillusioned ex-supermarket chain wine-buyer, Mark Hughes, has started his own small wine supply company. He believes the dominant big brands threaten the very soul of wine itself. And his handpicked selections of wines all come from small trusted wineries that consistently produce great wines. But they have been ruthlessly knocked off the (highly competitive and over price-sensitive) big-chain supermarket shelves by the branded wines, with their economies of scale and low pricing power.


I have an anxious feeling that we may soon need a lot more heroic people like Mark in today’s wine world. And I wish him very good luck.


Peter James

Wine Guru


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