Jamie Goode: Appellations as brands
By Jamie Goode, 4 July 2023
We tend to think of wine brands in quite a narrow sense. Usually, it’s the winery name as a brand: think Penfolds, KWV, Chapoutier, YellowTail or Moët et Chandon. But then we have individual wines that are effectively brands, and often more recognizable than the winery name. There’s Grange, Chocolate Block, Opus One, Tiganello, Periquita – the list could go on and on.
But then we have the subject of this column: the collective brand, and this is very powerful in wine. These brands are shared among many producers, and the most of them are place names, or, to use the French term, appellations. This is when regional names end up accumulating brand equity. Especially for low involvement consumers, these are a powerful buying cue. There are lots of them, in particular in old world countries. Think Chablis, Rioja, Sancerre, Barolo, Pomerol, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Etna, Priorat and Champagne. These are all powerful brands with equity shared equally among many, even though not everyone has contributed equally to building this equity. This is, of course, a truncated list, but many wines are chosen simply because they have these names on the bottle.
As an aside, grape varieties can also act as brands. Here we have a very dispersed but actually quite useful shared brand equity. In the absence of any other information, the grape variety is quite useful as a buying cue. The advantage to a consumer is that they just have to learn the names of maybe a dozen grape varieties in order to navigate a wine list – not perfectly, but often adequately. And sometimes a wine’s brand is region plus grape variety: people might be looking for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (or more broadly, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), or Central Otago Pinot Noir, or Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon.
Back to appellations as brands. This is an interesting area because of its collective nature. All who bottle wine with the appellation on the label stand to gain equally from this name, but obviously not all are making wines of equivalent quality or style. Those who make the wines most cheaply have the most to gain from sharing the appellation. Of course, there are rules that must be followed in order to use the appellation name. The first, and most obvious, is one of honesty. The grapes must come from the place named on the bottle. Then there are often other regulations designed to ensure quality, but rarely guaranteeing it, such as maximum yield, vine spacing, trellising type, potential alcohol and cellar practices. The fact that production guidelines don’t guarantee quality means that many appellations also institute a tasting stage, to make sure the wines are good and typical. This sounds great in theory, but in practice it often causes problems. Some of the most celebrated and famous wines from an appellation fail the typicity test, yet they might still fetch high prices. So, often, appellation can become a poor tool as a brand for those seeking very interesting wines.
There’s a parallel here with stinging insects. They often have a distinct colouration, such as yellow and black stripes, warning off potential predators. But evolution is clever and some insects adopt the same colouration without the costly option of developing a sting. How well this cheating works depends on the ratio of genuine stingers to fakers. Too many of the latter, and the value of the deterrent colouring fades. With appellations as brands you can only carry so many bad examples before the brand begins to lose its allure. In some regions, the appellation’s name becomes weakened to the point that all suffer.
I remember reading Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide in the early 1990s and he recognized this: his advice, which is sound, was that if you can, learn the names of the good producers in a region. The producer brand will always be stronger than the appellation brand. The problem here is that with so many entrants into the fine wine space, all taking this advice, the spoils go very much to the victors: the champions in any one region. They become famous, talked about, and everyone wants their wines, so prices rise.
Even then, it is not easy to dissect all the levels and branding. Region and variety still do some of the lifting, and no matter how good the producer, there’s a limit to what people will pay for Melon de Bourgogne from Muscadet.
One feature of the wine world has been that the smaller, the more localized the appellation, then people think they can charge more for the wine: it has greater perceived value, they think, because it comes from a more geographically limited source. While I applaud the identification of talented terroirs and their legal recognition, sometimes this parcellation is more marketing driven than being based on real quality or style differences in the wine. In the latter cases, it should be avoided because it has lots of potential for alienating and confusing most consumers.
Where does this leave South Africa, and its WO designations? I’d say that if the place alters the taste of the wine in a way that is meaningful, then the WO is useful being merely being a sort of postcode of where the vineyards are located. There’s an important difference between the classic old world regions and more recent entrants (although South Africa has a long history of winegrowing, I’d count it for these purposes as a more recent entrant). If, for example you are in the Champagne region, you can only label your wine Champagne if the grapes come from a vineyard with a tightly delineated growing zone. If you are in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley or Stellenbosch or Elgin, it’s the whole area that counts. There’s no distinction between sites that have special talent for wine grapes and those that don’t. This is a weakness of new world appellations as brands. This limits the utility of these appellations unless there is a collective will to tighten them up, parsing them out with geology, soil, altitude, aspect and climate. But if there’s a collaborative effort to make these appellations meaningful and to ensure that quality is consistent across producers, then I think they can be very useful to consumers indeed.
- Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.
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