Richard Hemming MW's irrefutable wine truths
Two unbelievable truths: every wine shop should sell top-end Bordeaux, and the wine trade is excellent at innovation. And I can prove one via the other.
Classic claret might well be overpriced and conformist, but boycotting Bordeaux is cutting off your nose to spite your face, like a record shop boycotting The Beatles. As for innovation, which the world of wine is routinely accused of entirely lacking, almost everything that can be changed about wine has been, somewhere along the line.
Consider the basics. Wine can be still, semi-sparkling or fully sparkling, and ranges from bone dry to intensely sweet. It comes in not just three but six colours, if you include skin-contact orange wines as well as the pigmented blue and green wines recently pioneered in Spain. Alcohol can be added to produce fortified wines, creating entirely new categories that have their own myriad variations in style.
Then there’s innovation in the winery. Automated sorting machines remove inferior fruit, temperature-controlled stainless steel ensures preservation of the most delicate aromatic compounds, and protective handling avoids the oxidative spoilage that was once commonplace. Perhaps even more innovatively, some of these modern techniques are now being eschewed in favour of historical ones, such as fermentation in amphorae.
In the vineyard, innovations in technology have also allowed great improvements. Drones offer an affordable and convenient way of assessing grape ripeness and canopy coverage across large areas. Pheromone traps allow vineyards to control pest damage without resorting to chemical sprays. And, just as with technology in the winery, there’s a retro innovation movement rediscovering the likes of horse-drawn ploughing to control weeds, thereby minimising soil compaction and reducing fuel usage.
As if all that wasn’t enough, there is great innovation in wine packaging too. Anyone who bemoans the inflexibility and inefficiency of the 75cl glass bottle forgets that wine is increasingly available in cans, single-serve plastic glasses, and even letterbox-sized rectangular bottles from Garçon Wines. Meanwhile, the 1.5-litre “bagnum” is being championed by Le Grappin, and there’s a new fine wine bag-in-box range from The Bib Wine Co. And of course, ongoing innovations in bottle closures have brought us the screwcap and TCA-free composite cork among others.
It’s hardly fair to call the wine industry staid when such innovations abound – and it is the very fact of this immense diversity that proves my other proposition. Among the millions of variations that the world of wine offers, consumers can easily get overwhelmed. And no matter how exciting some of these new developments might be, especially for us in the trade, what many wine enthusiasts want is a tried and tested classic that offers familiarity, reliability and quality.
Which is why every wine shop should sell top-end Bordeaux. This might sound unbelievable to those of us on the cutting edge of wine, but it’s not about our own likes and dislikes. It’s about giving customers the choice – and understanding the truths behind it.