Fintan Kerr: Wine region reputation – difficult to build, easy to lose

By , 15 May 2024



The elasticity of our perception of time is an interesting phenomenon, particularly so after the global pandemic of 2020/21. At times, the events of over a decade ago are so clear and well defined that they could have happened weeks ago, whilst the last few years feel like a blur, as though they happened in another life. This might also be part of the human condition: a tendency to live in the past rather than embrace the present, particularly if life is not working in the way you had planned. It could also be a result of living a modern life in the western world – we so rarely have the chance to slow things down that it´s perhaps inevitable that there´s a pile-up of memories that needs to be unjammed from time to time.

Wine works in a remarkably similar way, perhaps unintentionally. This is at least in part because it takes a long time to make good wine. New vines that are planted rarely yield commercially interesting crops until their third year and then often go through a period of a decade or two as young vines that struggle to find the right balance between yield and concentration. Whilst consultants and flying winemakers famously travel the world, often imparting a signature style on the wines they are involved with, the best results inevitably come from winemakers who are given the time to understand their land and process. It´s no accident that the great winemaking families of the world have been doing it for generations. Even the process of seasoning barrels takes years, which is why it tends to be the older wineries with a stock of them.

It´s perhaps no surprise then that the evolution of regions and even individual producers tend to come in fits and starts. Short of a complete 180 in style, the differences tend to come from small changes over a long period of time and even slower than the evolution itself, is the communication of those changes. Like many wine journalists, I often write articles explaining why certain regions are overlooked and are worth exploring, often detailing positive changes that have taken place over the last five to 20 years.

This disconnect between the former and current reality of wine regions has a lot to do with communication and a lot to do with wine education. For better or worse, we are constantly a decade or more behind the actual reality of wine most of the time; major education bodies like the WSET update their material every few years, but seem to mostly regurgitate past truths. Reputations, for better or worse, are long lasting and very difficult to change.

For example, somehow the wine world has convinced itself that Bordeaux is still the Bordeaux of the 1980s. References to fresh fruit characters, green herbaceous notes and pronounced minerality is now only a small part of the picture, with many of the wines as robust and opulent as their New World counterparts, particularly in vintages after 2014. I will never forget tasting chunky, hot right-bank wines in my first En Primeur tasting, for the 2015 vintage, often exceeding 15% alcohol, and being absolutely bemused; the textbooks certainly didn´t mention this! Nor did any of the glowing reviews of the vintage.  The classification of 1855, which still stands as a largely untouched hierarchy of wines in the Medoc, has famously only been altered once, after intense lobbying by the Rothschild family in the 1970s. The region has found itself afoul of more than one scandal in recent years, whilst the 95% of wineries that find themselves outside of a famous appellation or classification shrink and struggle to sell their wine. I adore Bordeaux but the current picture of the region is not accurate; it may take another 10-20 years for the communication to catch up to the reality. It´s far from the only one; Napa Valley, Bolgheri, Chateauneuf du Pape are just a few regions that are all still dining out on their past achievements, something that will sadly become obvious as current wines reach their maturity in time.

Comparatively, other regions are still suffering from hits to their reputations over a similar time frame. Beaujolais has been a source of some of the most delicious, life-affirming wines in France for some time now, yet the campaigns for Beaujolais Noveau from as far back as the 1960s still lie heavy over the international reputation of the region. Even in the 2020s, many of the greatest discoveries at wine tastings are from someone opening a bottle of Foillard, or another top producer, and realizing that they´ve been 30 years adrift of what the region is really about. German wine may never be truly appreciated by most wine drinkers, largely thanks to the huge quantities of Liebfraumilch that has come to define the country´s signature style in the minds of many who´ve tried it. If you want to really hear about the injustice of past reputations, ask someone from the regulatory body of Sherry about their marketing efforts.

Even South Africa, the darling of the New World, has a divide in its portfolio as a result of this. A combination of vine disease, the mysterious “burnt rubber” issue, and occasional incidents of microbial spoilage in earlier wines has led to the more classic bottlings of Stellenbosch being largely overlooked in the modern wine media, whilst the “New Wave” hailing largely from the Swartland continues to redefine what South African wine is in the international market. These latter wines are, fortunately, now what many consider to be the standard bearer for South African wine and the changing-of-the-guard is coming to a close. Pinotage, though, may need another few decades of careful winemaking and exposure before that particular reputation comes anywhere close to changing!

Corpinnat – sparkling wines made in the heart of the Penedès, Spain.

When producers leave appellations and classifications that no longer work for them, such as the Corpinnat producers leaving DO Cava in Catalunya, it may seem like a knee-jerk decision but in fact, it´s the very opposite. It may take years for the wine market to understand what Corpinnat is, but it´s the first step on an important road to shedding a reputation that anchors them far below their reality. I applaud the bravery of producers who are fighting this uphill battle and I hope that they eventually have their deserved moment in the sunshine.

  • Fintan Kerr, DipWSET, lives in Barcelona and is a wine writer, educator and founder of Wine Cuentista (Cuentista is Spanish for “storyteller”.) Follow him on Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista


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