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Opinion: the diversity of wine is under threat 

Back on New Year’s Eve, I made five ‘wine resolutions’ for 2002. Number two on the list was to ‘be more creative in wine buying, supporting the merchants who do really good work, even if it is more hassle than popping into the local supermarkets or high street outlets.’ So, with a quarter of the year gone, how am I doing? I’m proud to report that I’ve actually bought very little wine from supermarkets, and virtually none from the ever-more dreadful First Quench chain. 

Interestingly, first Quench are doing rather well: they’ve just reported a healthy operating profits of £33.1 million in the last year. But their stores, which include Thresher, Wine Rack, Victoria Wine and Bottoms Up, are becoming depressing places for wine lovers to shop. Not only is the core range contracting, with a move towards branded wines at all levels, but also their prices are higher than just about anywhere else. Their success testifies to the fact that people don’t like to plan their wine buying: convenience is key. The First Quench stores do well because they’re just about everywhere, and people pop in to pick up a bottle on impulse – they don’t seem to be bothered by the lack of choice and the higher prices.

A staggering statistic is that the supermarkets are now responsible for over 70% of the wine sold in the UK. Again, it’s a matter of convenience. Far easier to pop a few bottles in the trolley than to trek round to a specialist wine shop. But, like First Quench, the supermarket ranges are contracting rapidly, and look set to continue thus over the next few years. A ‘winner-takes-all’ scenario is developing, with great riches for the few producers who can secure listings for their wines with the multiples, while for the others it really is a case of being cast into the outer darkness.

This week, as I have been preparing the Portuguese Tasting Preview for Harpers, I’ve been chatting to many of the agencies that bring Portuguese wines into the UK. One, who won’t be quoted, is extremely frustrated by his attempts to secure listings for his wines in the supermarkets. While Portugal has for the first time produced the sorts of quantities of high quality commercial wines with the abundant 2001 vintage to satisfy the demands of the multiples, most of the supermarkets won’t even taste them, simply because their Portuguese. He claims that ‘the reaction is generally poor. The problem is trying to get them to look at what we’ve got.  na "Increasingly, wine production is being driven by the needs of the supermarket and high street wine buyers, who claim that their requirements are driven by what people will buy"
He adds that, ‘the general trends in the wine market are guiding the buyers, who are not letting the wines speak for themselves. They are made to follow the marketing people. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are the exception: if it’s good quality, they’ll back it.’  

The blame for this loss of diversity doesn’t reside solely at the door of the supermarket buyers, though. They are operating under fairly tight commercial constraints. First, they need serious volume: this automatically rules out a lot of the more interesting wines. Wine is in large part an agricultural product, susceptible to the vagaries of vintage conditions and supply of raw material – grapes. As wine is treated more like a manufactured product and becomes more divorced from agriculture (as is the case with branded wines) it usually becomes less interesting, but it is these wines that appeal to supermarket buyers who want volume, continuous supply and uniformity of quality. Second, they claim that it’s only certain styles of wine that will sell. And you can’t expect them to list wines that people aren’t buying.

It all sounds pretty depressing. Increasingly, wine production is being driven by the needs of the supermarket and high street wine buyers, who claim that their requirements are driven by what people will buy. There is therefore a huge commercial pressure towards bland, ‘commercial’, branded wines produced in large volumes to hit the right price points. The diversity – and the link to geography – that makes wine so interesting are under real threat.

What is the answer? Partly it lies with those who have some interest in wine: we geeks. And this comes back to the wine resolution mentioned earlier. I’d argue that we need to shun the majority of supermarkets and the likes of First Quench, with their line-ups of bland, mass produced wines, and make an effort to shop more creatively. We must reward the merchants who show some imagination and effort in their buying (and not all independents do, by the way). The convenience habit really is a hard one to kick, but it is definitely worth the effort. While we continue to buy large volume, industrial and branded wines, we’re actively threatening the future of the sorts of genuine, agriculturally based, diverse wines that make this hobby such an interesting one. 

Agree? Disagree? Drop a line to jamie@wineanorak.com

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April 2002