Richard Hemming MW: nagging doubts about wine

Surely it’s not just me who every so often looks round at the world of wine and wonders what on earth we are all going on about? It’s a feeling as blasphemous as a vicar questioning the whole resurrection thing, or Riedel suddenly wondering whether glassware actually makes the slightest difference to how wine is perceived.

But even the most fervent believer faces existential questions, whether relating to wine, faith or glasses. Over the years, I’ve frequently had to remind myself what I truly believe about those nagging doubts. 

Here’s what I’ve decided about some of wine’s most fundamental questions.

Is terroir real?

Yes, but you can’t prove it. On the one hand, the concept of terroir is the best – and sometimes only – way to explain why some wines are more engaging than others, and I mean that on an emotional level as well as a purely sensorial one. What makes wine really appeal to us isn’t just flavour, it’s the romance, mystery and mythology of its origin – factors which are all a part of terroir. On the other hand, more nonsense has been spouted about terroir than anything else wine-related, and any conclusive proof of how terroir impacts on wine remains elusive – and, I suspect, always will. Yet if you doubt terroir, you doubt the very thing that makes wine worthwhile.

Is it worth paying more for wine?

Yes, but only up to a point. Anyone who has sold £1,000 bottles to a customer should have felt the guilt of knowing that there are much better wines at much lower prices. At the other end of the scale, we feel certain that £10 wines are superior to £5 wines in the vast majority of instances – although millions of consumers remain convinced that they won’t appreciate the difference, and we have to accept that might be true.

There are dozens of experiments claiming to debunk the myth that expensive wine tastes better, and it makes for perfect tabloid headlines. Furthermore, I’ve witnessed plenty of MW study tastings where apparent experts (myself included) have chronically misidentified the quality level of wines.

However, after 17 years in the wine trade, experience tells me that more expensive wine is better than cheaper wine most of the time – although that rule becomes unreliable when prices go north of £50 per bottle.

Does biodynamics work?

Yes, but often not in the way it claims to. While I’m prepared to believe in the mystery of terroir, some biodynamic practices rely on techniques which are much more dubious – yet the way that it promotes care for and understanding of a vineyard environment can only be a good thing. Does it always make better wines? Absolutely not, but it’s a philosophy that more often than not makes a positive difference.

Are we all drinking too much?

Only if you believe the government’s farcical maximum consumption guidelines – which, if true, probably mean that most of the wine trade are already dead. Surely it’s not just me?

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