has its time come?
An article based on my talk at the Nelson Aromatics Symposium,
I suppose there is something irrational
about supporting a football team. In days gone by, teams would be
local, and cheering on the town’s finest would bring a sense of
social cohesion. These days, premiership sides rarely have many
local players, so why should we feel a connection with a particular
side, especially if we don’t live in the community?
But at the same time, the loyal support
of a team brings an extra element into your life. Every week (during
the football season at least) you are placed in a situation where
you care deeply about the outcome of a game. You share that emotion
with many thousands of others – especially so if you are actually
attending the game. But attendance isn’t necessary for those
emotions to be felt.
I am a Manchester City supporter, and
until very recently this meant that more often than not I had to
deal with the pain and despair of defeat, and even, on occasion,
relegation. In contrast to this, the occasional victory and
promotion was the source of great joy.
City were widely liked by supporters of
other clubs because they were plucky losers. The blue half of
Manchester, living in the shadow of the reds. A team with loyal,
long-suffering fans who didn’t take themselves too seriously. [It
has changed a bit, of late, of course, with the injection of large
amounts of cash, and the rare feeling of success.]
Riesling is the Manchester City of grape
Riesling is the plucky loser. The
Riesling has a moral premium among those
in the wine trade. There’s no choice: you have to like it. If you
asked an audience of wine trade people to raise their hands if they
didn’t like Riesling, they’d stay down. It would take real
courage to admit to not liking Riesling within the trade. I have no
idea why this is.
For those of us who are Riesling
supporters, we see it struggle, lose, and even get relegated, but
we’re loyal. And the odd victory – the odd bit of mainstream
recognition; when we find it featured on a mid-market restaurant
wine list; or when we see a supermarket shopper slip a bottle in
their trolley – gives us great joy.
Riesling is pretty terminally uncool in
the UK, though. Its image was irreparably damaged by bland (bad?)
German wine of the 1970s and early 80s. The irony is that most of
these popular German wines weren’t even Riesling: the best-selling
Liebfraumilch brands such as Blue Nun and Black Tower were largely
sweet, insipid Muller Thurgau. They were very successful. But
Riesling is associated with German wine, which is associated with
the flute bottle, which is associated with uncool semi-sweet, bland
Sweet is uncool. Most wine drinkers are
scared stiff of sweet wine. It’s another legacy thing. Drinking
sweet wine is seen as unsophisticated. Serious people like dry wine.
Even if they like the taste of sweet wine, they don’t admit it,
and summarily reject anything sweet. Riesling isn’t always sweet,
but it sometimes is, and the shape of the bottle screams, in a
subliminal way, ‘I am sweet’ to the average punter.
Liking wine is a complex matter. The
Pepsi challenge shows us this quite clearly. Asked whether they
prefer Pepsi or Coca Cola, and the majority of people opt for coke.
Get them to taste blind, and they prefer Pepsi. This phenomenon has
been studied using brain scanning, and shows that if someone who
states a preference for Coke, but who prefers Pepsi blind, will have
their enjoyment of Coke enhanced at a subconscious level by being
told they are drinking coke. That is, information can change our
actual preference. Liking is not just about the taste of a liquid.
This is where we need to segment the
market, if we are to make further progress in understanding
Riesling, and whether its time has come. A simple segmentation will
suffice, to help us make sense of Riesling. On the one hand, we have
the average person – the low involvement consumer who buys wine
but doesn’t want to learn about it, and will buy from the
selection in their local supermarket. They don’t want to spend too
much. They just want something tasty. They are afraid of making a
mistake. They find the large array of wines stocked by the
supermarket to be daunting. They want good value, because wine is
one of the most expensive things they put in their supermarket
trolley, so special offers are very popular with them. There is the
phenomenon of infinite substitution at this level of the market:
when one wine is off promotion, they’ll switch to another. These
people won’t be reached by wine publications or even newspaper
columns because reading about wine is an abstract activity. There
are many people like this. The commodity end of the market that they
play in is therefore a very big one. Sell wine to these people and
you can sell a lot of it. But it is low margin, cheap wine we are
talking about here.
On the other hand we have the person with
an interest in wine – the high involvement consumer. They are keen
to learn; keen to experiment. They are prepared to spend a bit more.
They read about wine and will go to tastings. They will use
specialist wine shops or mail order. There aren’t that many of
these people, but the fine wine dimension they play in is the
attractive end of the market to be part of.
OK, this is a slightly simplified
picture, but even this crude segmentation will help us think more
clearly about the place of Riesling in the market.
I polled my twitter followers who were in
the business of selling wine to see how they found it in the
marketplace. The answers were interesting. A consistent theme was
that the wine trade loves Riesling, but most normal people don’t.
Signs of hope were that under-30s didn’t seem to have a negative
reaction to it. A common question asked about Riesling was, ‘how
sweet is it?’ Some commented that once they got people to try it,
they frequently enjoyed it – and that it worked with certain
styles of food particularly well. The general feeling was that it
was still a difficult sell.
The future is looking brighter though,
and I am cautiously optimistic. There are enough people in the trade
keen on Riesling, and who are pushing it, that when the negative
associations of the past go away, it could really take off. For New
Zealand, the best prospects seem to be with slightly off-dry wines,
because without a bit of sugar the naturally high acidity levels can
be a bit brutal.
Riesling is likely to take off sooner for
the involved consumers than the non-involved. The interface of the
non-involved consumer with wine is largely at point of sale, on a
shop shelf or a wine list. For Riesling to take off with these
punters, there’s a real need for attractively packaged, well
priced, tasty examples. The development of a big, popular Riesling
brand could be important here, but it’s difficult to see a company
big enough to do this make the effort with a variety that has been
unpopular in this market segment.
Ultimately, though, quality will win out.
As Riesling wines get better, and are more imaginatively packaged
and sold, they will do better in the market place. It is a grape
variety with a point of difference, and has amazing potential in
restaurants as a partner for modern-style cooking. It is a flexible
interpreter of terroir, able to convey a sense of place but also
able to be shaped by the hand of the winemaker as she or he attempts
to interpret their vineyard. I buy and drink Riesling, although
I’m not a fan of every example of this variety. Its future is
bright, but further patience may be needed.
Central Otago, New Zealand (series)
Martinborough, New Zealand (series)