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Part 5
Can brands be good?

So are there circumstances where branded wines are a good thing? To answer this question we need to return to one of the points made in the opening article of this series regarding genres of wine.

It’s not useful here to consider wine as a unified whole: instead, we must split it into two genres, which we can label as ‘commodity’ wines and ‘terroir’ wines. Where branded wines can be a good thing is in this first category: arguably, the rise of the brands has improved the quality of inexpensive every day wines dramatically over the last two decades.

Two decades ago, buying cheap wine was a hugely hit or miss process. A random selection of a dozen inexpensive everyday wines from the supermarket shelves would likely yield several bottles that were genuinely unpalatable. This has changed, and the Australians can take much of the credit for this: branded wines from the likes of Lindemans, Penfolds, Rosemount, Orlando (Jacobs Creek) and Hardys were cheap, tasty and reliable. Chile, Argentina and California joined the fray, and South Africa began to compete along with a spattering of brands from traditional European countries. Now it’s difficult to find badly made or unpalatable wines on the supermarket shelves, so in this sense the consumer has genuinely benefited from the rise of the brands, albeit at the cost of diversity. This is where good brand work: they offer the consumer a familiar name that acts as a guarantee of consistency and quality. People know what they are getting; they have confidence in the brand name.

But the brands have set their sights higher than the £3-5 price band where they have enjoyed such success. While most people rarely venture out of this price bracket in their wine purchasing, the branders are determined that if they should choose to splash out – spending, say, £7-15 – then their purchase should be one of the upwardly mobile higher-priced brands. I am less at ease with branded wines in this category than I am with the commodity brands. Each sale of a heavily marketed branded wine at £10 from a supermarket is one less sale of a genuine terroir wine from an independent wine merchant. In many cases, the more interesting, more authentic wine is losing out in this sort of scenario to a product of far less merit, which is a shame.

Of course, it has to be said here that some brilliant high-priced brands exist, just as there are some horrible estate wines. One such super-brand wine is Penfolds Grange, the flagship wine of the entire Australian wine industry. Grange is a true icon, and fully deserves its place among the wine world’s elite. But it is still a branded wine, not tied down to a geographic locale and made to some sort of consistent style and quality each year. Another example: Champagne is a region where branding is paramount: most of the famous wines in Champagne are brands by the definition that I am using here, and not terroir wines. A third example of upmarket brands concerns the rise of ‘label only’ premium wineries, such as Sean Thackrey with his Orion in California. Over recent years Orion has been sourced from several different high quality vineyards, and there are many other such wines like this, selling for high prices but relying on contract fruit, whose source may change. There is certainly room in the market for these sorts of wines. In a sense, this is branding at its most benign: the name of the producer is the ‘brand’ that signals something to the consumer about the quality of the product.

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November 2002