The Big Issue

POSTED ON 01/09/2014

There are a number of major issues in today’s wine world whose significance can too often be taken for granted or swept under the multi-layered carpet of articles, new stories, interviews and tasting notes that form the common currency of wine. We forget these issues at our peril however because they touch all aspects of wine whether we’re aware of them or not. I think anyone interested in the broader issues of wine wants to have a grasp of the world beyond the liquid in their glass,. Besides which, they all make for cracking dinner party conversation.

Climate change

Sorry to the guys in denial, but climate change is a reality. Even if its gradual effects are as imperceptible as the hour hand of a clock, it is having an inexorable effect on every single region in the world today. In some cases, and England is a prime example, it has a positive effect by bringing increased stability to a country of unpredictable weather patterns. However, in countries closer to the Equator in both northern and southern hemispheres, the broad effect of global warming is to increase alcohol and reduce acidity and thereby change the nature of the wines that we know. Precise techniques aimed at combating the worst effects of climate change are being developed but for hot regions around the world, the writing is on the wall.

Alcohol levels

Climate change is only in part responsible for the rise in alcohol levels to roughly two per cent higher than the levels experienced only two decades ago. These big increases in a relatively short time have been caused by other factors, most notably the tendency for winemakers to harvest later for increased ripeness texture and flavour. The downside of this trend has been a huge increase in the number of wines that now routinely weigh in at 14% alcohol and, in many instances, even 15% alcohol and more. Where the grape variety demands this higher level and the wines are in balance, it is not necessarily a disaster and can even be a positive. Too many wines however, aided and abetted by overoaking, suffer from jammy, cooked or dead fruit, losing all drinkability.

Fraud, forgery and counterfeit

The growing problem of fraud in wine has taken a number of twists and turns in recent times. The conviction and 10-year sentence in August of the notorious American-Malaysian crook, Rudy Kurniawan, is the tip of the iceberg in a series of frauds and forgeries that have bedevilled the world of fine wine ever since the now notorious 1787 Château Lafitte (sic) supposed to have been owned by the third President of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, came onto the market in 1985. The cases of Kurniawan, and more recently the dodgy dealings surrounding The White Club and The Antique Wine Company, are the high profile ones that we read about. Under the radar however, and perhaps even more of a problem for the lack of publicity, is the many instances of frauds, forgeries and trademark theft of middle market wines, not to mention wine companies and wine investment funds going bust through fraud or mismanagement. More than ever, we need to be alert to what’s going on and to find merchants and auction houses we can trust.

Cork –v- Screwcap

This is no new discussion. I recall writing my first piece on the problems of cork taint and the potential solution of screwcaps 20 years ago. The debate has moved on but it’s as much an issue today as it was two decades ago. In the face of a collective failure by the Portuguese cork industry, which controls most cork manufacture, to deal with the problem of cork taint problem, not to mention random oxidation, countries such as Australia and New Zealand have been quick off the mark in embracing the screwcap and alternative closures. Meanwhile, those such as France and Italy have used the consumer as a scapegoat for the reluctance to grasp the nettle. Unless the Portuguese cork industry can guarantee the total effectives of cork, and it has failed to do so to date, the move towards alternative closures can only continue to gather pace.

The end of En Primeur?

Let’s also remember that the en primeur market, once the best source of wine investment for consumers, now appears to have run its course over a generation, and no longer provides the same sort of exciting returns promised after the 1982 vintage. According to Max Lalondrelle of Berry Bros. & Rudd: ‘We could be coming to a time when the en primeur game will come to an end’. The beginning of a possible end to Bordeaux en primeur, which claims the lion’s share of the en primeur market, is linked to an extent to the increase in vintage consistency , e.g. in the 2000s, the vintages 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010, alongside the good vintages 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2008. The upshot is that cellars are overflowing and there’s little or no appetite for less than good to great vintages like 2011 – 2013 . Despite the fact that 2010 is widely perceived as a great vintage, its high pricing by some of the leading châteaux has had a disastrous knock-on effect on en primeur sales and there’s hasn’t to date been much en primeur activity since the Spring of 2011.


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