16 Mar 2012

The problem with expensive wine

Wine writers would love it if the general public spent just a little bit more on wine. The average retail price of a bottle in the UK at the moment is around £5. As wine writers regularly tell us, more than £2.50 of that fiver goes on tax. So on a £5 bottle of wine, less than £2.50 covers everything else – the packaging, the label, the marketing, the transportation and - last and almost least - some pennies on the wine itself. So it's all about mass-production and churning out a reliable, consistent product (gluggable wine) year in year out, with little variation.

But wine lovers like to think of the stuff as noble fruit of the land. They love the fact that the same variety of grape produces such amazingly different liquid when grown in different places; the fact that a wine's flavours can interweave with your memory and take you to another place. And the bonus is while trading up you're supporting an artisan winemaker who cares about what he or she is making and the land they're making it from.

But I think there's a bit of a problem for your average consumer when it comes to spending more on wine. I bet most people only tend to treat themselves a few times a year; at Christmas and on special occasions. And the problem is that when they do, they might be underwhelmed.

Why? Because I reckon when casual drinkers treat themselves to a fancy wine, what they expect to get is an increasingly smooth and fruity version of what they usually drink. Something that instantly makes them go wow, that's smooth, it's beautiful, like nectar. But really a lot of better wines are an acquired taste. For example the texture might actually be more chewy, it might feel gravelly almost, compared to your £5 bottle. And the flavours might be savoury, or just downright strange, rather than fruity and easy-drinking. Or your fancy wine might seem watery somehow, just lacking in some oomph, a bit like eating a pale Golden Delicious instead of your usual bright Pink Lady.

It's like the first time in your life you tried dark chocolate, or an olive, or your dad gave you a taster of his whisky - just so completely different from what you were used to. Snobs pretend they came out of the womb drinking obscure natural Beaujolais or West Coast IPA or listening to whatever the trendy band of the moment is, but they didn't. Most of us grew up on Phil Collins and Blue Nun; Queen and Hofmeister. Our tastes, and fashions, change over time.

Which makes things tricky for critics and indie wine shops, who want people to enjoy the good stuff. It's better, and it's made with care. But although it's a total passion of mine, I understand people who'd rather stick to their cheaper, reliable bottle. Getting into wine can be a slow-burner and needs time and money.

Understandably, loads of people just want to get a bit pissed on the cheap, and if it's a tasty wine then it's a bonus.

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