Tim James: On the significance of fashion in wine

December 5, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 2 Comments

Fashion in wine is a slippery concept. I realised this as I tried to grasp it, or at least some strands of it, prompted by reading Michael Fridjhon’s recent Winemag discussion about wine-consumption differences between Gauteng and the Cape (see here).

The first tricky element is the difference between fashionability and long-term trends – perhaps there is none except for the degree of endurance. When you’re in the middle of what is later revealed as having been a mere passing fad, it’s quite difficult to see it as such, because it seems so reasonable that it should endure! This is much more of a problem for wine-growers than wine-marketers, of course, because planting a vineyard is a costly business, and it takes some three years for a vineyard to become productive. Should a grower now, for example, rip out the pinotage and plant fashionable grenache or cinsaut? Who’s to say that the fashion won’t have swung around by the time the first crop is ripening on the vine – or at least before the vineyard has had its full life? Are sauvignon blanc and merlot really going to be successful brand-varieties for more or less ever?

Things move fast and not always explicably these days. Sometimes an area or country becomes more or less briefly fashionable. Two decades back (while the Swartland in South Africa was negligible in quality terms) Priorat in Spain was a really hot thing – but it seems to attract comparatively little attention these days. And Australia was convinced than international enthusiasm for its sunshine in a bottle would last forever, till it learnt that history hadn’t, in fact, come to an end. A lot of vineyards have been pulled out there in recent years.

But Australia could also adapt to new demands. It’s obviously easier to respond to stylistic fashions than varietal ones. There seems now, for example, an international move (though by no means comprehensive or definitive) away from very ripe, oaky reds towards a lighter style. We see that in South Africa both through any number of new avant-garde productions but also in a slow shift in the industry as a whole – revealed, for example, in the offerings at the Cape Winemakers Guild auction this year.

Again with Australia, it’s fascinating to see what’s happened with chardonnay styles there. From a tendency to make very rich, ripely sweet, oaky chards, there was a lurch to almost the opposite extreme, where elegance and refinement were often stressed at the expense of substance. Now (judging from what I read more than have the opportunity to taste) – things are settling at a more harmonious balance. Chardonnay moves in South Africa have been much more gradual, always closer to that centre.

Another slippery aspect of fashion is – fashionable for whom? (A question that Michael Fridjhon alluded to.) No doubt rosé, for one example, has become internationally fashionable. But not really in South Africa as far as I can see, at least at the “fashionable” level that gets wines written about and seen in smart places. Yet (probably connectedly) sweet rosé is really, really big in volume terms, as those four cousins know. Does that count as fashion or merely a trend at the unfashionable end of wine production that doesn’t rate column inches or critical enthusiasm?

Out of fashion?

Out of fashion?

Cabernet sauvignon (and internationally its greatest expression, Bordeaux) is now unfashionable everywhere – in terms of chicness, pinot noir (and Burgundy) is winning that race easily, for now. Ask the hipsters at the winebars in Cape Town, or the winemakers that cater to them, what they think of cab…. Yet, doubtless, internationally and locally there’s still a massive, enduring market for cab and cab-based blends. But also remember that a century or so back German riesling commanded the auction heights that First Growth Bordeaux now dominates.

What of “natural” wines? Fashion blip or a long-term trend? There’s only one way to find out: wait and see.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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2 Comments

  1. Tim JamesDecember 8, 2016 at 9:51 pmReply

    I agree totally Richard. Really valuable observation. Our times seem to drive towards triviality, however fine the original inspiration. It takes strength and rare integrity for winemakers to negotiate the rocks of fashion.

  2. Richard WarlandDecember 8, 2016 at 2:57 amReply

    I joined the Australian industry in 1968 and subsequently I have witnessed the rise, fall & rise of many “fashions”. Some have even fallen again in my 5 decades!

    My observation is that the industry itself has often killed these “fashions” by virtue of what I call “cowboy” wine making and marketing.

    Fashions – such as the revival of rosé, most often start on the back of great wines made by smart winemakers… but once the cowboys spot a trend, out they come with crappy wines, clichéd packaging and deep discounts. Consumers rapidly turn off and it soon becomes “unfashionable” to be seen drinking that category.

    The other issue is “me toos” from unsuitable viticultural regions. Pinot Noir is probably the best example, with gorgeous Pinots coming out of New Zealand, Tasmania and parts of Victoria and South Australia – but total consumer confusion from the warm/hot climate regions.

    Winemakers have to chase fashion to survive but I doubt that we will ever be able to declare that we have a mature industry until they only make wines which shine in their region!

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