Palate divergence between wine professionals and consumers

By , 13 June 2023



Underdone or just right?

Two recent encounters with contemporary South African Syrah reminded me that there’s less agreement about what constitutes quality among the wine community than we might like to admit. In the first instance, I served Sons of Sugarland 2018 and Harry Hartman Somesay 2021 blind to friends very much expecting them to be impressed by these two highly regarded wines. It must be said, though, that both are new wave in style, which is to say relatively low in alcohol and “stemmy” in texture. With labels out of sight, my audience was not as enthusiastic about the two wines as they might otherwise have been…

In the second instance, I recently tasted Gravel Hill Syrah 2017 from Stellenbosch property Hartenberg fully expecting it to be rather too big and brazen for my liking but instead was impressed that although powerful, it is still remarkably poised and maturing well – its relatively high alcohol of 14.5% and its heavy oaking regime (19 months in barrel of which 60% was new) might be out of fashion but it’s an excellent wine (see here).

It made me think that there’s a dichotomy between the opinions of wine professionals and those of consumers that’s probably always been there but has escalated in recent times. Critics and buyers, armed with extensive knowledge and experience, are committed to making assessments which can significantly influence the perception and commercial success of a wine. Evaluating quality is obviously necessary in a vastly overtraded market but the danger is that the colloquial “circle jerk” arises, a situation in which members of the trade are guilty of reinforcing each other’s views or attitudes, out of touch with what consumers really want. Light, fresh reds might have geek appeal but there’s also place for big reds made without artifice. Similarly, I’m regularly asked by punters to recommend a rich and round Chardonnay but where to find such a thing these days?

The above is only exacerbated by the tendency in some quarters towards verbose tasting notes, this seemingly done to assert expertise but really the more detail provided serving only to result in the taster talking to himself and alienating others – wine appreciation occurs across multiple sensory channels and people simply do not smell and taste the same way. The point should also be made that there are few abstract and vastly more associative words for odours and flavours – the background culture of the individual wine drinker is important and the wine trade should look to be as inclusive as possible. “Garrigue” as a descriptor means something to the French as does “fynbos” to South Africans but is there one word that would work equally well for both?

On the other side of the spectrum, we find the consumers, who comes to wine with their own complicated set of requirements – wine as socially acceptable drug, wine as investable asset but hopefully also wine as a source of pleasure, something that tastes good and goes well with food. While the best wine professionals are trying to be as responsible as possible in their judgments, consumers are influenced by a multitude of factors, from their own sensory sensitivities through to brand affinity. There are plenty of wines out there that are more status symbol than anything else…

While objectivity in wine appreciation is necessarily unobtainable, the trade has constant exposure to a wide range of wines, which allows its members to assess any one example against a backdrop of industry benchmarks. Consumers, however, approach wine in a less systematic way, allowing personal preferences and experiences to shape their judgements. That’s why wine tourism and the visitor experience is so important.

Ultimately, the disparity between wine professionals and consumers is not an ugly clash of absolutes but it is an interplay that we should all constantly be aware of. Critics provide guidance, shape trends and elevate standards. Consumers infuse emotion and personal connection into their wine experience. The implications for producers in all this that they must balance the pursuit of excellence with the need to cater to diverse consumer palates. Get this right and icon status awaits.


9 comment(s)

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    Greg Sherwood | 19 June 2023

    Christiaan, you forgot to mention that as wine professionals, we taste and drink a lot more wine (and normally consume more units than the recommended guidelines) than your average man in the street. So when consumers crack a bottle, they are not drinking / tasting 25 bottles at a paulee or tasting etc … but probably just enjoying a couple of glasses with a braai or dinner. In the first situation, freshness, low alcohol and vibrancy and even sapidity will make a wine more appealing when tasting a lot or wines. For the later category of regular consumers, a couple of big, rich, opulent 14.5-15% red wine glasses will be thoroughly enjoyed like a warming blanket in front of a fire in winter. That’s why big rich reds can sometimes appeal to a lot of consumers. As wine professionals, we definitely need to understand that these ‘bigger’ wines definitely have a very valid place in the market place. No snobbery allowed.

    tom lewis | 14 June 2023

    Good piece Christian – they say that with more wine education you get further away from what ordinary consumers like.

    Have quoted you with credit in this piece:

    Greg Landman | 14 June 2023

    Excellent article and so true. I remember some years ago being at a tasting with some serious industry heavyweights when a top wine maker who will obviously remain nameless said” The consumer is waiting for us to tell him what to drink next. ” My reply was ” Actually it’s the other way around. Listen to him carefully and learn.”

    Boet M | 14 June 2023

    I agree. The Oxidative / Oxidized argument is relevant here. Swarland used to produce amazon, opulent big wines, which could age for 20+ years. Now we get these nerdy, opaque, soft wines, not to my liking. Great article

    Philip Mostert | 13 June 2023

    Very valid article, why not get one or two consumers on tasting panels and see what happens. Make tasting packs of the top 8 and private tasting clubs can sent their results aftertasting the wines blind. Will make good reading, our tasting club have 30+ tasters every months and theyvare diverse wine lovers

    Jack Moolman | 13 June 2023

    Ek stem saam met u mening. Elkeen van ons wyngenieters het sy / haar eie idee watter wyn ons geniet. Natuurlik is die groot name steeds in aanvraag.

    GillesP | 13 June 2023

    Great reading Tim. This reminds me of why Bordeaux wines are so out of fashion in France , perhaps because of pricing but also because Bordeaux bashing by certain wine critics and sommelier is trendy. It makes them relevant in a way. Same in South Africa the other way around where Cinsault is being promoted at the fashionable variety to drink while in essence it is not actually fulfilling most of the consumer taste incline to drink bigger and bolder red wines.

    Martin Smith | 13 June 2023

    thank you Christian, you overwhelmed me with this.
    long live those big, opulent, well balanced wines!

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