by Peter Pharos

What Is Real Wine?

It is, perhaps, a blessing that nobody has claimed Real Wine as a product category, just yet at least. The intention, however, is certainly there. Natural wine might be the most prominent pretender, that marvellously implicit suggestion that anything else is, well, unnatural, but there is no shortage of similar desires to define what wine is or should be. Authenticity is one term. It sounds a lot like natural, only without the natural bit – a bit like people saying that rock is an aesthetic, not electric guitars. Typicity is a politer one, like calling your village neighbour different. It is not that you don’t like him, of course. It just that, you know, he’s not the type of person we tend to get around here.

It is usually around this point that lazy students and lazier hacks reach for the OED definition, like the proverbial drunk reaches for the lamppost (not for illumination, but for support). Let’s skip it altogether. It is likely to offer all the excitement and insight of a love letter written by an accountant. The law maker’s definition will be similarly titillating. Reading it closely is of use only to the legal teams of German discounters. And yet it is hard to shake the suspicion that not all wine out there is worthy of the name. There are some, many even, that are free-riding on the good name of wine.

Put your hand on your pearls, fondle gently, and get ready for a strong, firm clutch. I put forward that the differentiating factor is price. Starting with the plain and simple fact that baseline wine, that £6 bottle with 35p of wine in it, is not real wine, no matter what the label tells you.

There is a certain type of wine professional that professes the exact opposite. For them, definitions are set by modes and medians, and if most people buy £6 bottles of wine, then that’s the real wine. Those professionals are endlessly fascinated by the business of wine: they will invite you to consider the label and the packaging, the distribution and the profit margin. Their admiration for techniques that deliver mass appeal is so strong that it elevates volume to a virtue. At heart, they seem to be impressed principally by the production capacity of modern capitalism. I guess if you leave them alone in a supermarket, they’ll just bump into things and go wow a lot.

The thing is that what they claim they admire so much about mass-produced wine applies pretty much to any consumer item. I guess one can stand in a majestic Finnish forest, with a roll of Andrex in one’s hand, admire a mighty oak, and ponder the process of going from tree to roll. Much like baseline wine, the ubiquity of this modern item is a triumph of agricultural management, chemical engineering, manufacturing, transportation, logistics, and marketing. And, unlike wine, its importance is unquestionable. If the poet is right that a meal without wine is a day without sunshine, one shudders to think of the weather forecast if a few hours after the meal that other item is lacking. Yet it hasn’t inspired analogies with the stars. It doesn’t have books and magazines meticulously detailing its finer points. Nobody has thought of setting up the Institute of Rollers of Bog, despite the undoubted fascination the blind portion of their exam would elicit.

Definitions cannot be devoid of cultural and historical context. What gives wine its position in our collective understanding comes with some prerequisites. Different grape varieties give different flavour profiles. Different years give different results. Different lands give different grapes. And there needs to be at least some complexity to make these differences apparent. It doesn’t mean that you have to pay thousands for this privilege. Indeed, in wine-producing areas you might be lucky enough to find such wines at a couple of Euros per bottle (directly from the producer, BYOB). But, sadly, they are impossible to find at 35p. The realities of production don’t allow for anything that is not bland and uniform at the base level. (And spare me, please, the crocodile tears about people that cannot afford more than 35p wine, the alcoholic version of the £3 chicken debate. If, and that’s a discussion for another day, real wine is a necessity or human right, then the same rules apply as any necessity or right, from health care to housing. The issue is why there are people in our society that can’t afford it – not how to change the benchmark so we can pretend they do.)

Here is where it gets interesting though. Not only you need to go above a certain price to buy real wine, but I would suggest there is also a point past which you cannot buy it anymore. As with the low boundary, that high boundary is adjustable. It depends on the region and where you are based. But, as a shorthand, let’s say that, a handful of French exceptions aside, it is unlikely that a wine that costs more than £100 is real wine.

This is not reverse snobbery or, no pun intended, sour grapes. The liquid in the glass is almost certainly going to be very carefully made, likely excellent, possibly even outstanding. But it is not the wine you’re buying. There is nothing in production costs, quality, or other discernible characteristic to do with the drink itself that leads to this price. It is a luxury item whose primary function is to confer prestige and separate the buyer from the hoi polloi – you might as well be buying diamonds or peerages.

This argument can seem like sophistry. After all one might be drinking the wine for free or be wealthy enough that the difference between £10 and £1,000 is a rounding error. But, in a strange way, the wine has already achieved its purpose by virtue of its price tag. If you have the market mechanisms to reach these dizzying heights, you have whittled down your customer base to numbers so low that competition on the basis of quality is almost impossible. The drinkers of your wares largely choose by proxy. In an amusing way, the £600 bottle has similar requirements to the £6. Consistency; approachable flavours; force over nuance. The winemaker’s job becomes not to rock the boat. Exceptions and renegades might exist. But faced with this type of profit margin, the incentives become perverse. You can have too much of a good thing.

So, this is all it takes to meet the Pharos definition of real wine. Not so cheap as to be a base commodity, not so expensive as to be a toy medal for the super rich. Within those bounds, anything goes. Let a hundred vines bloom.

Photo by Claire Mueller on Unsplash