by Tim Atkin

Redefining fine wine

The wine world is often celebrated for its breadth and diversity – all those grape varieties, countries, regions and sub-regions – but there are times when it feels like a very narrow and conservative place.

It’s not just because I’ve spent the last week in Bordeaux, taking part in the annual en primeur circus, that I’m feeling a little jaundiced, although there’s certainly a formulaic, winemaking-by-numbers feel to many top clarets these days. It’s because I genuinely believe that many people don’t appreciate that there is teeming, abundant life beyond a handful of familiar grapes and areas.

Just before it was sold to Berry Brothers recently, an employee of the brilliant and independent shippers, Richards Walford, hinted at part of the reason for the takeover. Consumers, Madeleine Mehalko implied, don’t want to take risks.

“It is a heartbreaking experience to have to tell a talented vigneron with whom you have a long-standing relationship that you can no longer sell their wines because consumers view the Languedoc as a ‘cheap’ region and refuse to pay more,” she wrote.

For the Languedoc, you could substitute the Loire, Austria or South Africa, all three of which Richards Walford has championed in the UK.

For once, I don’t think that penny-pinching is the problem here. The sort of people who buy fine wine (Richards Walford’s main focus) are more than happy to spend money on things that are familiar to them – witness the sales of new releases from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône in 2010 – but are less keen to splurge on something unknown. US consumers are more open to novelty, and prepared to pay for associated excellence, than we are.

Very few players dominate the fine wine world. To the French trio cited above, you could add Champagne, Port, and a handful of wines from Australia, California, Spain, Italy and Germany, but that’s about it. Our perception of what qualifies as fine wine, and merits a high price, is extremely restricted.

As something of an egalitarian, I’ve always believed that fine wine can, and does, come from anywhere, be it Argentina, Switzerland, Israel, Turkey, New Zealand or South Africa. These wines may not be “investment vehicles” (the very words make me want to barf), but that doesn’t mean they are less exciting than a classed-growth claret, top Barolo or Vintage Champagne. They are just different.

Coincidentally, my esteemed colleague, Jancis Robinson MW, gave a tasting at WineFuture Hong Kong at the end of last year of wines “from some corners of the wine world that deserve more attention”.

There were wines from China, Turkey, Brazil, New Zealand, Argentina and Austria (all of which showed well on the day), but we also sampled a Gevrey-Chambertin, a Barbaresco, a California Cabernet, a Mosel Riesling, a Supertuscan and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, all of which are pretty familiar, even to an Asian audience that’s relatively new to fine wine. Overall, it was an uncharacteristically conservative selection.

What would I pick in the same circumstances? It’s a bit like imaging yourself on Desert Islands Discs, talking Kirsty Young through your favourite records. Fat chance, Atkin, I can hear you chorus, but for a bit of fun here are my alternatives. Jancis chose 15 specific wines, but I’m going to nominate 15 wine styles to make things less producer-specific.

I’ve broken my notional selections down into five chunks (sparkling, white, red, sweet and fortified) although they don’t get equal representation. My fizzes are from England and Tasmania (Pinot/Chardonnays), while my whites are from Santorini (an Assyrtiko), Sicily (a Caricante), the Swartland (a Chenin-based blend), the Roussillon (a Grenache Gris/Blanc cuvée) and Spain (an aged Albariño).

My reds hail from Maule (a Carignan-based blend), Dão (dominated by Touriga Nacional), Hawkes Bay (a Syrah), Basilicata (an Aglianico) and Germany (a Pinot Noir). The sweets are from the Loire (a Chenin again), Hungary (a modern Tokaj), Austria (something from Burgenland), leaving two fortified spots for a Sherry (Palo Cortado, please) and an Australian Liqueur Muscat.

There’s no room in my line-up for anything from China, Brazil or Turkey, not because these places don’t have potential, but because I don’t think that they are producing fine wine just yet. The other regions and countries are all doing it now and, in most cases, don’t get the recognition and prices they deserve.

This exercise is supposed to be a but of fun, but it has a serious side, too, which ties in with Richards Walford’s experience of trying to sell high-end Languedoc wines. It is down to all of us – journalists, importers, retailers and sommeliers – to drink, promote and write about the whole world of wine, not just a small part of it.

After four “vintages of the century” in 11 years, many fine wine drinkers won’t be buying en primeur claret in 2012. Maybe now’s the time to introduce them to other things. Before it’s too late.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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