Why stating the obvious is a consumer win for wine

In his latest Just Drinks missive on wine, category commentator Chris Losh argues for telling consumers what is - and isn't - in their wine, even if it goes without saying.

Over the last month, three episodes have brought home to me just how much wine has changed – and how much it might yet change in the future.

The first occurred in a local wine shop/deli, where I was introduced to a pleasant young man in his mid-20s with eccentric dress sense, a battered hat and shoes but no socks. The shop had just taken on his (small volume) Austrian rosé. It was made in a savoury, sappy style with a gentle funkiness to it (all of which I might have guessed, given his age and appearance).

But, significantly, it was also made out of PiWi grape varieties.

A cross between vitis vinifera and non-noble American vine varieties, they are significantly hardier than their aristocratic cousins, which makes them far better for organic, biodynamic (or natural) winemaking. For him, this was absolutely crucial. More so than the supposedly superior flavour or pedigree of vitis vinifera.

Shortly afterwards, I was talking with a young (late-20s) bartender about natural, organic and biodynamic wines. I was lukewarm about them, cautioning that bottle variation and unusual flavours made them a gamble for bars. My colleague resolutely didn’t care. Those elements came with the territory, was his viewpoint, and rather than being ‘faults’, he felt they constituted ‘character’. For him, sustainable cues plus character beat reliability.

Finally, an Instagram exchange with an influencer - who I like - about some attractive-looking canned wine he was eulogising came back with the following exchange: “It’s got that brilliant excitement you get from drinking well put together natural wines,” he said. “But, it’s a bit funky.”

‘Funkiness’ or bottle variation are not seen as a negative anymore.

I’ve mentioned before on Just Drinks how positive I am about canned wines, but they are not necessarily a straightforward sell - so selling versions in a ‘funky’ style would, you might think, be a bridge too far. Well, apparently not.

The interesting element in all three of these exchanges was that ‘funkiness’ or bottle variation were not seen as a negative any more than, say, high tannin might be in a Barolo. They were just the way the wines were - a price worth paying for low-intervention winemaking.

Equally, PiWi varieties were not seen as inferior to vitis vinifera, but rather a means to an end: namely, making biodynamic wines in a difficult climate. I’m sure the winemaker would also have argued that the ‘naturalness’ concept was more of a ‘sell’ for his wine than being able to put, say, ‘Blaufrankisch’ on the label.

All of which marks a significant step-change in how wine is being perceived by consumers, retailers and producers alike.

There’s a desire for authenticity, but not at the expense of ‘correctness’ in the wine.

When I talk to fellow Gen X-ers or sommeliers - who I work with a lot - consistency is generally prized and terroir venerated. There’s a desire for authenticity, of course, but not, usually, at the expense of ‘correctness’ in the wine. For younger generations, however, ‘authenticity’ trumps everything else - and in their eyes, you can’t be fully authentic if you’re not also sustainable, organic/biodynamic and possibly natural to boot.

This might, perhaps, be due to the differing attitudes among the various generations towards health. For many aged 40 and above, all wine is inherently perceived as healthy; a sophisticated drink to complement a certain lifestyle. One, moreover, that comes with its own health benefits built in, if the ‘Mediterranean Paradox’ is to be believed.

Wine’s natural. Right?

One of the most shocking elements of the ‘natural wine’ movement for consumers is its implicit suggestion that all wine might not be natural in the first place. Yet, for a growing number of people in their 20s and 30s, this ‘healthy lifestyle’ shtick isn’t enough. 

Significantly more health-conscious than generations that came before them, Generation Y (and particularly Z) are vehemently opposed to the idea of putting anything chemical or ‘unnatural’ into their bodies.

So, grapes that have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides, for instance – even at low levels – don’t make the cut. They expect natural yeasts, rather than lab-made ones to begin fermentation, and sulphites are to be either minimised or avoided altogether.

Wine, they would argue, needs to be as pure and natural as possible.

Over the last ten years, some of these factors have become reasonably widespread. An increasing number of growers, for instance, have converted - or are in the process of converting - to organic viticulture. Wild yeast is commonplace, and wineries generally use far fewer chemicals than they did even ten years ago.

Visit a vineyard in the 1990s and it was tidy, manicured - and probably bereft of life beyond the plants. Now, the careful cultivation of bugs and the wider ecosystems is very much part of the plan.

Moving to organic or biodynamic production made the wines harder to sell.

The point is, however, that wineries are making these changes for the sake of the land. Yes, they’re ethical decisions, but they’re not generally made with the end-consumer in mind. 

In fact, most wineries I’ve spoken to down the years have said that moving to organic or biodynamic production made the wines harder to sell because they were more expensive and it was difficult to get consumers to pay a premium for them.

It was, in other words, far from being a business decision. Which is where things start to get complicated.

Live healthy & well - and transparently

As you might expect, if there’s a gap between what the industry is doing (and why) and what consumers are now looking for (and why), a business will rise up to fill it. There’s been growing chatter about the concept of ‘clean’ wine. Cameron Diaz famously launched Avaline last year, lauding that her brand is free of ‘synthetic chemicals’ or added sugar and also vegan.

There was much eye-rolling in the trade about it, and with a certain amount of justification, it must be said. Describing a wine as ‘free from concentrates, additional flavours and added sugar’ on the label is true of most wines out there, I’d imagine.

The point, however, is that Avaline - and the growing number of brands peddling this particular holistic ‘clean shakes and feel-good lifestyle’ - might sound inane to the likes of me. But, there’s a big demand for wellness, and, crucially, transparency. It’s just that wine has been slow to react to the former and reluctant to engage with the latter.

It is, perhaps, not insignificant that it’s taken celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and La Diaz to push this angle. They come, conveniently, with enviable lifestyles baked in, and no wine-world baggage to hold them back. Add in large social media followings who lap up the flowing white kaftan lifestyle that’s being presented, and it’s little wonder that the wines have done well.

It must be galling if you’re a ‘proper’ wine grower to see celebs peddling wholly unremarkable wines as a glamorous ‘clean’ lifestyle enhancer while yours languishes unsold. But, perhaps it will sharpen minds a little, and get the trade to consider whether proper transparency on the label regarding what actually goes into wines might not be a bad idea.

If it stops unsavoury practices and gets rid of brands making toe-curling health claims at the same time, that would be a double-win.

The green/eco wave isn’t going to go away. In fact, it’s going to keep on growing. The wine industry is going to have to engage with more of what it stands for in the eyes of the consumers, whether it likes it or not.