On The World’s Bulk Wine Ascendancy
Something interesting has happened in the last few years in the wine world – something both good and worrying. Wine regions that were once written off as ‘bulk’ wine areas have shown that a changing attitude to grape growing and wine making can achieve recognition and respect, catapulting new varietal names and regions onto the world scene.
This is good news, as we need new regions and new wines to emerge. Different approaches to yields, respect for vineyards and modern wine making has lifted some practically deserted vineyards to superstar status. The classics are getting so out of control in terms of pricing that it is essential for other areas to take their place in producing affordable wine. The bad news is that some of these regions think they can become 1st growth Bordeaux overnight.
Diversity in wine is great. It avoids the international wine list reading Merlot, Merlot, and Merlot or some other dull outcome. Wine students may well disagree as they burn another textbook on Spain, Italy or Chile because the country has changed so rapidly that the information has become quickly outdated. The question is this: how long does a region have to establish itself before it can charge the big bucks?
A scan through the BC LDB website lists some interesting stories. Varieties such as Nero d’Avola (mostly from Sicily in Italy) went from unknown, disrespected and unwanted to having listings here in BC for over $50 a bottle, all in the matter of 2 to 3 years. Wine regions like Jumilla (Spain) a few years ago represented remarkable value. Now the top Jumilla in BC will leave a $180 hole in your pocket. Yikes! I remember selling Jumilla as something new and exciting in the early 2000′s and the quality at $15-20 was outstanding. Yet to go from there to $180 in a mere 5 to 6 years seems a little far-fetched. At least there is still very good $15-20 versions as well.
Priorat (with the love of Robert Parker), Toro, and Bierzo in Spain have all shown recent fame and a rapidly inclining pricing curve. The Douro in Portugal is becoming known for producing some stunning table wines but the prices are exceeding rapidly to match any improvements in quality. Even the good old bulk wine south of Portugal, Alentejo, is squeezing in a Syrah at over $60 in the BC market.
For the most part, Italy, France and Germany see only the classics in the top price points. The same goes for established new world regions with cult wines such as the United States and Australia. It is generally the same wines that are long established at the top of the pricing tree, with the exception of a few of Parker’s recent mistress wines.
Other upstarts could include Chile, which tested the world scene with $130 Carmenere, and Argentina with $150+ Malbec. BC could also have the finger pointed with wines approaching $100. On the other hand, New Zealand – for all its quality – has its most expensive wine in BC at a very reasonable $70. It just doesn’t make sense.
It is certainly not that these wine regions can’t produce great wine, but rather that they are entering the realm where drinkers can no longer afford to consume the stuff. Furthermore, only the collectors and very wealthy ever get to see where these regions are heading and how their wine styles are developing. They should slow down, build a market, build a reputation and grow slowly into those super-premium price points. Not all great wines have to be over-the-top, extracted red beasts. Wine prices have increased ridiculously beyond the rate of inflation for the better wines meaning that fewer and fewer of us will have a chance to cellar these wines (that really do deserve to be matured) so as to open and drink them in the future.
What impact will this have on future wine consumers? In past decades, wine lovers have been able to actually afford to drink, buy and cellar very good and classic wines. Now, the best bottles are less and less accessible. The bloody laws of supply and demand ensure that limited supply is seeing these wines spiral out of control, price-wise, leaving many of us further and further away from being able to afford them.
Eventually, I worry that the classic wine regions will become simply something to be bought and sold, traded like precious metals. In fact, it is already happening. I worry that consumers will give up caring about great Bordeaux and Burgundy because they will never have a chance to taste it. I worry that the waning interest amongst consumers will mean that the market for interesting wines will deteriorate and wines will become more and more boring.
There is something to be said for both opportunism and, if the market will bare it, selling a small quantity at high prices. Yet it is a slippery slope. With future ‘classic’ regions (and I strongly believe new regions will develop into these roles) rushing too rapidly to the triple figure price points, the chance for wine lovers to discover, invest and later enjoy these wines is lost, as is the chance for a region to develop its own style. Losing diversity and dividing the wine world too distinctly between the rich and poor would be a true tragedy that would be very difficult to recover from. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.
Rhys Pender is a wine educator, freelance wine writer, wine judge and consultant to the industry. Visit his company Wine Plus+ online at www.wineplus.ca.