Friday, September 5, 2014

New wine retailers and other wine trends

The wine world has been a tough place in the last six years, not least on the UK retail side. The casualty list of high-profile wine merchants and off-licence chains is familiar enough not to name them again. And yet, every month at, we find ourselves reviewing a wine from a retailer we haven’t previously listed, often more than one wine and one retailer. Sometimes they’re businesses that existed before August 2008, but often they’re ones that have been established since. The internet has, of course, facilitated many of the start-ups, but the new wine merchants aren’t all virtual. The number and quality of independent and independently minded shops opening physical doors for the first time is impressive, and good news for anyone with any interest in wine. 
It hardly needs saying that the retail scene is not all that has been transformed in the last six years. The wines we drink in the UK have changed. This doesn’t pass for market analysis, but here are ten trends that strike me:
  • Pinot Grigio’s grip on the market is as tenacious as the wine itself is feeble, but other Italian white grapes are making inroads – Fiano, Falanghina, Grechetto, Greco, Vermentino et al. Bravo.
  • Sauvignon Blanc continues to gain ground, becoming the other variety of choice for the mass market where once it was Chardonnay.
  • Oaked Sauvignon Blanc: niche, but growing. Perhaps it means that white Bordeaux’s day is about to come, especially oaked Bordeaux. I hope so. I’ve had some crackers this year – affordable ones.
  • Godello has given Albariño a run for its money: The Wine Gang reviewed two in 2008, one each in 2009 and 2010, seven in 2011, eight in 2012 and 16 in 2013. But so far, only six this year...
  • Australian Pinot Noir: yes! No question, Australia has belatedly been getting there. Chile, too, and so close to the Pacific that the vines are nearly paddling.
  • Alcohol: some welcome retrenchment from high levels in regions where it’s unnecessary and/or unsuitable. As an aside, Australian producers are now allowed to put the exact alcohol level on labels if they wish (e.g., 12.7%, instead of having to round it up to 13.0% or down to 12.5%).
  • Malbec: on consumers’ lips in the same way as Sauvignon Blanc; consequently producers beyond Argentina and Cahors are getting in on the act – in Chile, Languedoc, California, South Africa, New Zealand.
  • Prosecco continues to push Cava out of the limelight, but it isn’t Italy’s only sparkling wine. Sales of Champagne-like Franciacorta are a pin-prick, but growing.
  • Fortified wines: still declining overall, but carving a niche with food. The capital’s clutch of sherry bars was joined for six months this year by a pop-up port restaurant (Churchill’s Port House). Time for a Madeira bistrô?
  • Orange wines: made by producers of so-called natural wines from white grapes macerated and fermented with skins and pips, like red wines, especially in Georgia, Slovenia and Collio, Italy.
This is a shortened version of my editorial in The Wine Gang's September report.

Wine and food matching: promiscuity rules

With a nod to nostalgia I thought about starting this editorial: Once upon time there was a supermarket chain called Safeway. I decided not to because a) originality can be so unsettling, b) this is not about Safeway, c) it’s not even about supermarkets. You’re welcome to breathe a sigh of relief at c), especially as I’m about to go off at a complete tangent before I’ve even started – that’s the luxury of a blog. Tangent: one of my favourite, as far as I know unrehearsed, supermarket put-downs was by investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman when she was on stage picking up an award for her writing. As it was presented, she was asked: ‘What would you do about supermarkets?’ ‘Ban them,’ she said without pausing for breath. It brought the house down.  
Where was I? Yes, Safeway. Food. Wine and food matching. During the 1990s, Safeway, which was then the third or fourth largest UK supermarket chain (Asda overtook it in the second half of the ‘90s), decided to revamp its wine back-labels to make them more useful. One of the key changes was to the recommended food accompaniments. Instead of the bland catch-alls along the lines of, ‘this wines goes with fish, white meat, red meat, cheese, puddings…’, Safeway introduced more detailed and specific recommendations. So a label might suggest moules marinières or chicken tikka makhani, or lamb kleftiko. Unfortunately, far from finding this helpful, many customers were apparently put off. They didn’t buy a wine if they weren’t having one of the dishes recommended. Boeuf bourguignon or lamb and date tagine not on the weekend menu? Inner voice tells them to put the wine back on the shelf. Safeway backtracked and returned to blander suggestions.
You might have expected, with the increasing interest since then in food, eating out, cookery books, TV cooking programmes, that wine label suggestions would have moved on. A quick look at a few labels suggests nothing much has changed. These are typical: ‘lamb, pasta or casserole’; ‘a great summer aperitif, also good with Mediterranean cuisine’; ‘barbecues, picnics, all types of Asian food’; ‘rich, meaty stews’. You could swap the labels round and it wouldn’t make much difference.
As I’ve said before, matching wine and food is something that many people, even those knowledgeable about wine, aren’t confident about. And, as I've said before, it’s always worth remembering that you’re not seeking the one and only perfect match. Most foods and dishes will go with more than one style of wine. Choose according to budget, occasion, what you feel like. Dishes are promiscuous (or polygamous, or something): they can enjoy several partners, even at the same time.  
This is a shortened version of my editorial in The Wine Gang's April report