Opinion: Fashion matters in wine

Hamish Anderson

14 March 2016

Fashion is the forgotten driver and destroyer of categories. Producers, sommeliers and importers focus on the qualities of a wine; yet we are responding to what our customers want and this is dictated by many more factors than quality.

The reasoning behind an importer listing 10 Burgundies and only one Alsace is the same as that of a Marlborough producer with a prime spot to plant Chardonnay who instead puts in Sauvignon. Both are the right commercial decisions based on what’s in vogue.

Occasionally these trends are seismic shifts – think of the instant impact Australia had in the 1990s or the rapid decline of Beaujolais Noveau. More often they are slow to effect change.

The demise of port and sherry from ubiquitous to niche was gradual. ‘It’s a bit sweet’ is a criticism about white wine these days, yet 50 years ago customers might have said ‘it’s a bit dry’.

A segment undergoing substantial change is sparkling wine. We have drunk lots of it in the UK for well over 200 years – or rather, we have drunk copious amounts of champagne.

Fizz used to be drunk before a meal. Now consumers drink it when the mood takes them

Both what and how we drink fizz is changing. Bubbles used to be drunk before a meal, often as celebration. It’s now seen by many (notably younger) consumers as wine that happens to have bubbles, and is drunk whenever the mood takes them.

One of the most interesting changes within fizz is the rise of prosecco: the trend’s been driven by the consumer, not the trade.

We would all be much happier to see Riesling or Greek wine sales booming; these in our view are ‘proper’ wines. Instead, a fruity, simple fizz from Veneto has won the public’s palates.

I don’t think we have dealt with that well. I know sommeliers who wear their prosecco-less wine lists like a badge of honour. Far better, in my view, to buy a good one, stick a healthy margin on it and welcome the fact there is a bin on the list that requires absolutely no selling.

This is, after all, an opportunity to grow revenue. My unscientific research (watching customers) finds that those buying budget fizz aren’t trading down from champagne, but, rather, trading up from still wine of a similar quality, thus boosting their average spend.

Our lists, while retaining a personal touch, should respond to trends. I recently saw a list in Australia that put sparkling and still wines together, broken down stylistically. It reflects how many people now view fizz as more than a drink to kick off a meal. Too many lists seem still to be a homage to champagne. Should cava, franciacorta or Tasmanian sparklers be getting better exposure? The answers may be different for every venue, but in arriving at them we should remember to focus not just on quality, but also on the far more fickle whims of fashion.

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