Blog post

Earth, wind & fear

Martell star blog prize winner: September/October 2011

I  had a couple of interesting conversations at the Imbibe event. Both of the conversations challenge the very core of my tenets when it comes to wine and my second love which is Scotch Malt whisky. Both conversations were intriguing and worrying at the same time.

 The subject matter of these conversations?  It's the ol' chestnut 'Terroir' and it's importance in the final product.

 The first conversation was with the people at the Malt whisky stand. Whilst tasting something speysidey I made a remark about how I interprete the differences between Speyside and Highland whisky. There followed what I can only describe as a gentle scolding. "We wanna get away from all that" I was told. I then proffered that my teaching is twenty years old, but 'I was told that things like the quality of water and the minerals it ran through had great importance on the end product', had I been lied to?

  Anyway to cut a lot of 'he saids' and 'I saids', I was informed that the still is probably the most important thing these days, as all the raw ingrediants can be bought and shipped to where ever. 'A whisky can be made in Isla that can taste like it was made in the lowlands' I was proudly informed. My argument is why would you want to? What is it about the concept of terroir or regional style that scares marketers so much? So with all I thought I knew now undermined I left.

 Later that afternoon I bumped into Robert Joseph. He is a man I have great respect for and I always enjoy talking with him. I don't know how many of you follow him on his facebook or twitter pages, but he has some pretty radical ideas (for the wine industry) all well argued as you would expect. The one idea in question here though is; A.O.C.s are not needed and not customer friendly. That the customer may have no idea where cote de Thong is, or what relevance it has to the wine. However tell the customer it's a Grenache and you will get a glimmer of recognition...........but I disagree....and agree.

Both arguments are made in the name of customer friendliness. From the Malt Whisky perspective they seem to be saying understanding a Brand is easier than understanding geographical and historical style. However the little taste profile family tree they provided you with seemed far more scatterlogical than pointing at a large coloured area of a map with generic tasting notes. After all even if you look at splitting Scotland into Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Cambeltown, Island and Isla that is six generic styles to try to understand. This against the myriad of brands? I also think this kind of marketing kills the thought of experimenting with something you are not familiar with.

 I do agree with Robert that wine should be made simpler for the consumer. But unlike Robert I don't believe removing information from the label is the answer. I am a firm believer in more information leads to better understanding (for some reason Ikea springs to mind). Where I see the problem is that there is no-one to to broker the information any more.  Customers are left to stare at vast supermarket shelves that have little more information on them than the price, the grape and it's 1-5 rating in dryness/weightiness. Certainly as a sommelier a large part of your reward  for doing the job is recommending a wine that is new to the customer. And part of the tools you use when suggesting to a customer that they should try one Syrah over another is the explanation of terroir. I have not yet come across anyone who hasn't been able to comprehend the simplified explanation that 'different soil types and climates have an effect on how a grape grows and in turn tastes'. I believe that is why A.O.C's and A.C's are important on the bottle. Even if you have no idea where they are geographically they are an indicator of style. Indicators that with time, experimentation, and a little help from a enthusiastic salesperson will simplify wine.

So where is this split personailty I mentioned? Why do producers of cheeses, Pork Pies, sausages and various other food and beverage products seem to be striving for regional recognition where as increasingly those who have been traditionally defined by it seem to be shying away?

It seems to me the only people who benefit from dumbing down in the long run are the supermarkets and big brands. They can continue to sell (and I use the word sell in it's loosest sense) vast amounts of anonymous grog because we have not helped the consumer know any different.

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