The Enduring Fascination Of Wine
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 12 Mar 2021
- 6 MIN
- Level 101
In today’s saturated global marketplace, alcohol consumers are spoilt for choice. Beer, cider, and spirit producers continue to innovate with artisanal products, innovative packaging, trendy cocktails, low alcohol offerings, and the like. Meanwhile, the number of articles on the decline in wine consumption among younger generations is rising.
Wine may be late to the party, but change is afoot. Natural wine, orange wine, clean wine, keg wine, canned wine, reviving of long-forgotten indigenous varieties… there is no shortage of interesting evolutions in the world of wine.
And while drinking trends might be leaning away from wine at present, a quick look at the history, cultural associations, and unique features of wine is enough to convince me that this is more of a passing fashion than cause for long-term concern.
Wine holds a powerful historical fascination. The earliest evidence of cultivated vines dates as far back as Georgia circa 6000 B.C. In many of the great and powerful cultures documented since, wine has served as a symbol of wealth, sophistication, and good health.
In ancient Egypt, beer made from barley loaves was the drink of the masses; only the wealthy elite could afford to drink wine. This trend is seen through history, with the poor drinking cider, mead, and beer in Medieval England, while the nobility drank wine. Wine as a symbol of luxury is still a potent sales driver for the wealthy in many developing markets today.
Part of what drives enthusiasts to value wine so highly is its perceived authenticity and rarity. Schloss Johannisberg was founded in 1100. Louis Latour has been passed down from one generation to the next since 1797. The idea of a product so lovingly crafted throughout the centuries appeals to the romantic in many consumers.
Regions like Burgundy, where many growers have scant vineyard holdings, introduce a notion of scarcity in top wines. In a 2018 Sotheby’s auction, a single bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold for $558,000. While certain spirits can claim luxury retail price points, low production volumes, and a long history of high quality, none have quite the same long and storied past as wine.
Wine is also the beverage that introduced, and is still most closely associated with, bottling by vintage. Variation from one year to the next is not only accepted but is a major part of the fascination fine wine holds for many collectors. En primeur week in Bordeaux is a significant happening in the global wine trade calendar, stirring buyers and media alike into a frenzy. Every winemaker and wine lover will tell you stories of their greatest vintages, the 1977 Dow’s vintage port, the 1961 Château Latour and so on. When the Wine Spectator ran a feature on the excellent quality of 2010 in the Southern Rhône Valley, purchase requests flooded into Domaine de Longue Toque in Gigondas.
And what of the terroir mystique? Sure, many beer, cider and spirits brands claim aspects of weather and soil as being integral to their flavour, such as the peat-rich soils of Islay for Laphroaig. However, none have such intricate and well-defined terroir messages as wine. Wine connoisseurs worldwide are familiar with Rutherford dust, Coonawarra terra rossa, and the slate soils of the Mosel. The vertiginous slopes of Côte Rôtie and the patchwork of individual Burgundian climats are familiar and well understood arguments for the superior quality of certain regions’ wines.
The sheer number of different grape varieties and wine styles available is another powerful point of differentiation. Estimates vary, but there are said to be over 10,000 different wine producing grapes. Styles vary from white, rosé, and red to still, sparkling, late harvest, fortified, Botrytis affected and so on. The wealth of choice, from grape, to style, to vintage, to terroir, makes wine an endlessly appealing, singular beverage.
The rise of the sommelier and chef as gatekeepers to alcohol sales is also a boon for wine. Whereas beer and cider are traditionally dubbed pre-dinner or bar drinks, and many spirits consumed as digestifs, wine is considered the perfect mate for the main event… the meal. This gives wine a strong advantage, making it an everyday, rather than occasional, refreshment. Given the stylistic array of wines available, there are food pairing options for every type of cuisine from fruity, aromatic whites for spicy Asian dishes to big Napa Cabs for steak.
Louis Pasteur once declared wine to be the healthiest, most hygienic of beverages. He advocated wine over water in a time where contaminated water sources led to many disease epidemics. More recently, the concept of the French Paradox, due to the antioxidant effects of the polyphenol Resveratrol, revived the connection between wine and good health.
In a recent Wine Intelligence survey of Chinese wine consumers, the purported health benefits of wine are cited as a major driver for consumers switching from whiskey and beer to wine. While many lower alcohol options exist today, a number (most notably in the beer and cider categories) carry higher calorie counts for the same alcohol by volume.
From the Greek symposiums of antiquity to today’s trendy natural wine bars, wine has always been a captivating social lubricant. The notions of terroir, vintage, stylistic diversity, food pairing, and health are compelling arguments that set wine apart. Yet they also add layers of complexity that can intimidate newcomers. The onus is on us to rethink how we present wine, to draw in new drinkers and set them on a vinous path.