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Rethinking Fine Wine - by Tim Atkin

It was a noble, if ultimately inconclusive exercise. Maybe that’s true of anything that involves an indigestible dose of subjectivity. But you can’t fault Areni Global for attempting to define and “rethink” the fine wine market, no less. In a recent white paper, accompanied by an entertaining panel debate and tasting at Sotheby’s in London, the impressive think tank set out to analyse what its chair, Nicole Rolet, calls the “Fine Wine ecosystem”. Ambitious, as I said.

Based on interviews with 200 industry experts, the report came up with five key fine wine attributes. Such an elixir has to be “balanced, harmonious and complex”, able to “provoke emotion”, have “a relationship with its maker”, “be defined by its attitude towards sustainability” and be recognised as fine by the “broad community of taste”. That’s distributors, buyers, importers, traders, sommeliers, retailers and wine critics. They weren’t mentioned in that part of the report, but I’d add collectors and top-end consumers to that group. After all, they can afford to pay fine wine prices.

It’s hard to fault any of that, although apart from the last characteristic – anointment by those arbiters of taste – all these things could be applied to wines that aren’t considered fine, at least by most people. Is a Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet innately superior to a Kumeu River Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay? Not necessarily. And what about, say, a 2009 Château Pavie from St Emilion? Would you rather drink that or a bottle of 2006 Muga Prado Enea from Rioja? No contest for me.

That’s the problem with the fine wine world as it stands. It’s profoundly conservative: slow to adapt, timid in its judgments, afraid to back emerging superstars or new regions until the “market” has confirmed its opinions. Liv-ex’s Power 100, based on the prices at which fine wines are traded, encapsulates this conservatism. The most recent ranking is made up of producers from the following narrow band of countries and regions: Burgundy (39), Bordeaux (25), Italy (12), Champagne (9), the United States (8), the Rhône (5) and one each from Spain and Australia. Without looking up the list, guess the wineries from Spain and Australia? Yup, spot on: Penfolds and Vega Sicilia.

Now I’ll grant you that there are three brands on that list that I’d never heard of – Scarecrow (number 76), Hundred Acre (81) and Realm Cellars (100) – but I wasn’t surprised to discover that they’re all from the Napa Valley, up there with Burgundy as one of the most over-priced wine regions on the planet. The fact that people are prepared to pay top dollar (and it’s nearly always dollars) for them doesn’t necessarily make them fine. So-called cult wine buyers have a lot to answer for.

There are two other thing that strike me about this list. One is that the wines on it mostly represent poor value for money. They are expensive because the demand is there to sustain such prices, often from wealthy consumers who are risk-averse. Who wants to run the risk of pouring, or ordering, say, a Le Riche Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch when Château Latour is a much safer option, at least in terms of prestige and return on ego?

The second thing is that the list is boring, as well as overly French-focused. Only 22 of the Top 100 are from outside France and nine of those are from the New World. The inherent conservatism of the fine wine world means that it is 20 years or more out of date. Philip Larkin once said that “nothing, like something, happens anywhere” and I think that’s true of fine wine these days. It’s made all over the world. We just have to recognise its qualities. I love Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône as much as anyone, but my tastes are extremely catholic. I drink as much stuff from Greece, South Africa and Spain as I do France. All of these countries, and many others for that matter, make world-class wines.

The prevailing definition of fine wine is governed by tradition, received opinion and, for investors, merchants and traders, liquidity and profit. Many of these wines are what Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting, who advises people on how to build collections among other things, calls “asset-class bottles”, but do they end up being poured and enjoyed? Some do, I’m sure, but an awful lot of them are commodities, blue chip bottles that pass from one hand to the next. It’s time we enlarged the frontiers of the fine wine world. If we did so, we’d drink more interesting bottles, and save a lot money in the process.

First published in Harpers; photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

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