The fine wine scene needs to chill out

By , 3 October 2023



A toast over dinner.

As has been pointed out often enough, wine means different things to different people. Those of us extremely enthusiastic about and interested in wine tended to view it as a significant cultural artifact that in its highest form is both sacred and site-specific. This ignores wine as consumable status symbol, wine as virtue signalling beverage to the extent that it might be “Free Trade” or “Organic” or wine as a lifestyle accessory that signifies sophistication, let alone wine as socially acceptable drug.

In the world of fine wine, the beverage typically gets treated as “serious” and “profound” and, in turn, “investable” – that last element is handy for a relatively small coterie of producers, trade and critics because they get to make a lot of money as a result.

It seems to me, however, that a not always delightful dichotomy persists between the most ultra-premium wines and their more modest and charming counterparts.

No doubt there are wines that inspire reverence and contemplation. These are the bottles that grace the tables of collectors, the treasures hidden in cellars, waiting for the perfect moment to reveal their splendour. Inevitably, they don’t come cheap.

Then, there are those wines that are made to catch the eye of a few high-profile critics (it used to be essentially just Parker although now there are more but not that many despite the so-called “democritisation” the Internet has supposedly facilitated) and they are normally from cult producers and low volume – you are either on the allocation list or are going to die waiting.

What I’m building up to say is that charming, modest wines that offer accessibility and immediate appeal without tipping over into being trivial or frivolous aren’t celebrated enough. These wines are an invitation to savour life’s simple pleasures. They rarely demand years of cellaring or a special occasion to enjoy; instead, they are versatile companions for everyday moments. Spag Bol on a Tuesday night? You have to be earning big bucks to open even Village Burgundy…

I’ve always been inclined to refer to good everyday drinking wines as “smashable” but many in the wine establishment seem to find this descriptor distasteful. Is this because opening “cheap” wine is infradig, demeaning and beneath one? I really don’t know but I think those in the inner sanctum of fine wine could afford to lighten up a bit.

The virtues of more modest wines, beyond just being more affordable, aren’t difficult to articulate. Sundowners on a warm summer’s evening? Lightly wooded Chenin Blanc. Lunch-time braai? Fragrant, fruity Cinsault can easily play the lead role. These wines speak of the moment, enticing with their accessibility without necessarily being as bland or cynical as other big-brand alcoholic beverages.

It’s not lost on me that I make my living writing about wine, and I don’t want to be accused of inverted snobbery. However, I am going to argue that more modest wines can often provide a more immediate connection to the land (in the sense of providing a snapshot of the place they were born) than more ambitious wines precisely because they are less highly crafted.

Too close an association with the very best wine leads to a loss of respect for it. A sort of trophy hunting by proxy has crept into wine – buying and drinking for sport, the bottles prominently displayed, loud exultation at their consumption, something only exacerbated by social media. I’m as guilty as the next person but it’s not always the best look…

Of course, ratings are also heavily implicated. As a retail colleague says, “95 is the new 90,” his point being that 95 points on the 100-point quality scale has become the minimum threshold before consumers will even consider making a purchase and if he’s right, then the wine world has gone mad.

I love that the very greatest expressions of vitis vinifera elevate wine to the realm of art, the aromas and flavours of a consumable liquid capable of stimulating our thoughts, emotions, beliefs and ideas. But I also think it would be very sad if we lost our appreciation for wine as a source of simple refreshment and a means of facilitating conviviality.


13 comment(s)

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    Jolize | 11 October 2023

    great perspective, thanks Christian!

    Trevor Gray | 5 October 2023

    White wines from S.A. are great value for money and encapsulate the African sunshine.Could one speculate that scores are biased toward reds or complex and carefully curated whites thus creating a disconnect / misconception? A balanced Chenin or cool climate Sav blanc or a Rose’ offers poetry in a glass.

    Donald Griffiths | 4 October 2023

    “I really don’t know but I think those in the inner sanctum of fine wine could afford to lighten up a bit”.
    Never were truer words spoken. Although a brave statement taking into account from where it comes. Kudos Christian.
    One of the best bottles of wine I have ever drunk (A Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes du Rhone early 90’s vintage) cost less than EUR10 and was consumed on a ferry crossing from the UK to France at the start of a 2 week holiday. Comparatively unremarkable and bourgeois all round but yet, at the time and in the place so good, so tasty and dare I say it so bloody “smashable”.

    Hendrik Louw | 3 October 2023

    Stunning. So agree with this. I have seen too many wines warmed in the sun for exhibition and for display of the ‘collection’. Stuff I can never afford, yet my knowledge and appreciation is much more. And yes, there are many high quality wines at good prices. Especially the SA whites.
    Cheers! To love and life!!

    Dieter Gugelmann | 3 October 2023

    I don’t drink or buy wine based on the label or price. For me, Platter’s, Tim Atkin, Vitis Vinifera, Michelangelo, etc. are just information about the wine, nothing more. At the end of the day, my palate is what counts.
    I’ve already found many surprises for R 100 to 200 like the Oak Valley Chardonnay Benath the Clouds for R 145 today. Simply a pleasure for the price!

      Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 4 October 2023

      Dieter, Oak Valley is one of the top-rated Chardonnay producers in South Africa. It should be no surprise that their “Discovery” version is as pleasurable. Have you tried their Groenlandberg? Sure, Vitis Vinifera, Michelangelo, the Gold Wine Awards and certain other ratings might not count for much, but there other guides and pointers well worth taking note of…

    Daryl | 3 October 2023

    I probably get more pleasure in finding a wine that I and my dinner guests love at a price point R2k and feel “well I hope I love this because at the price I had better do…”

    Fortunately we in SA are blessed with some truly beautiful wines in the R100-300 range!

    Kwispedoor | 3 October 2023

    People need to taste wine blind more often – drinking wine for its status is just sad.

    I’m not saying I coined the phrase (“smashable”), but I certainly haven’t heard it before I used it the first time. It came about entirely organically – probably around 2008 or 2009. We were camping in the bush when I opened a TMV Mourvèdre-Cinsault 2006 late in the afternoon (made by the Mullineuxs, if I’m not mistaken). Slightly chilled, it was just bursting with fruity goodness. In fact, it was utterly irresistible and we drank it like cooldrink. I got so excited (my spirits no doubt also lifted by being in nature and facing an impending braai), but words failed me when I tried to express its drinkability, so I blurted out “I just want to smash it into my face!” Everyone laughed at me, but the rest of the weekend, we were already discussing the smashability of wines.

    It’s an expressive word, and in this context, it’s full of positive energy and meaning. Otherwise, it’s just a harmless word. How people can get upset by that is a bit beyond my grasp.

    Gareth | 3 October 2023

    Well said – good article!

    Greg Sherwood | 3 October 2023

    Wine can’t always be a high art. Sometimes strumming a guitar on the beach around a fire is musically just as enriching as a black tie classical music concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The Mediterranean approach to wine as “alimentaria” or just part of everyday food and wine enjoyment goes a long way to explaining their appreciation of wine’s simple pleasures. Any one who finds the word “smashable” offensive is part of the problem right there!

    Jos | 3 October 2023

    I would argue 95%+ recognize that there are fine wines for fancy/special occasions and drink wines that you can enjoy with a weeknight dinner or by the pool. Plenty of options on both side of the spectrum.

    Also, most people in the real world buy mostly on price and familiarity, not based on a Tim Atkin report score.

    Jeremy | 3 October 2023

    Socially acceptable drug!!? Are you seriously saying the consumers of expensive wines do not get inebriated. Even in the company of high flying angels.

    Mike Carter | 3 October 2023

    Well said, Christian.
    Unfortunately, the wine industry has unintentionally made wine enjoyment more complicated than it should be.

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