May 8, 2024

Style Matters

The wine industry is too focused on quality.

Sure, that may be a controversial statement, but today the average bottle of wine – regardless of the region of origin – has never been better. Customers rightly assume that any winery they walk into will have quality wine they could serve at their dinner table. However, they don’t know whether they’ll like the wine they find. That’s not a contradiction. All too quickly, we forget that wine style is just as much a driver of enjoyment as wine quality. A 2018 study by Sonoma State University found that American wine consumers have clear preferences in terms of how they want their wine to taste, whether it’s semi-sweet (the most popular) or tannic (the least).

Some companies understand this better than others. Take Gallo: the largest wine producer in the world works tirelessly to determine the sensory preferences of their customers and then makes wine to meet that target profile. It sounds unromantic, but it’s not a stretch to make a similar comparison to fine wine. When we talk about house style – whether it’s Champagne or a classified growth – it means there is an archetypical wine profile that is aimed for vintage-to-vintage, and as a result, we have an expectation of what to anticipate in the bottle. A good example is Bollinger Champagne, which is known for an oxidative style resulting from significant use of reserve wines.

Fine wine embraces vintage variation in a way that is untrue for high volume, mass-market brands, which are often made in climates that can dependably produce the desired flavour profile. It doesn’t mean a Champagne house will oscillate from an oxidative style in one year to a reductive style in the next. There may be a stylistic evolution over time, but it is generally done subtly and over several years. Established brands have an established customer base; unless something is catastrophically broken, it doesn’t make sense to ostracize them. But the end goal is still the same: to adapt the house style to meet new challenges, whether it’s climate change or changing consumer preferences.

For this reason, a vintage is expressed through the lens of a winery’s house style and ought to be recognizable regardless of weather conditions, much like a brand’s logo doesn’t change from one year to the next. Chateau Clinet in Pomerol is known for its voluptuous, plush style, and that trademark is always present – within the context of the character of the vintage. Some vintages are more luxurious and riper than others, but Clinet is still Clinet. This is where picking decisions play an important role. Ripeness is not an objective criterion, but rather is relative to the desired wine style.  

A defined house style should also not be at odds with a winery’s terroir. Trying to produce full-throttle red wines in a marginal, cool climate means the target will be missed more often than not. It’s like manufacturing a muscle car, but you don’t know how many pistons the engine will have when it comes off the factory line. House style necessarily comes down to consistency. Of course, reasonable people will disagree on how best to interpret a vineyard’s terroir. It is essential, though, because it forces a winery to take a position and defend it – because terroir-driven, in and of itself, is nota style. It’s marketing jargon.      

Interestingly, house style is not as frequently part of the New World lexicon. The lingering cult of the winemaker means it is winemakers, not wineries, more commonly associated with a particular wine style. Consulting winemakers often come with a corresponding style that you expect – regardless of the winery. One of the most prominent is Michel Rolland, who is infamously known for a fruit-forward, oak-driven style. There are exceptions, to be sure. British Columbia’s Blue Mountain Vineyards continues to refine their winemaking, and have taken their wines to another level in recent vintages, while never wavering from a style that emphasizes restrained ripeness, acidity, and light use of oak.  

The benefit of an articulated house style is that it provides a guiding light both internally and externally, ensuring continuity over time regardless of the winemaker. Any changes to the house style should require serious, meaningful introspection. It makes a winery less pervious to short-lived trends, but also allows its winemaking to evolve as necessary, slowly.

The question, then, is what happens when a winery’s house style falls out of consumer favour? The wine industry can be slow to move, but this is where exciting innovation can occur. Fine wine may be terroir-based, but terroir does not innately tell a winery which wines should be bottled. In many cases, new, market-driven products are the key to reaching new consumers, while still respecting a winery’s entrenched house style. For example, Sauternes is increasingly bottling excellent dry table wines, as the market for sweet wines has, well, dried up. It’s no surprise that Alsace, too, is bottling more dry wines – and communicating this through a new guide that provides clear expectations as to the sweetness of its wine to customers.

No one is hoping to go back to the days when grabbing a bottle of wine off the shelf was a game of roulette. Let’s continue to push quality. However, let’s not forget the importance of wine style. Wineries need to understand what their customers drink, and they need to tell us what we can expect in the bottle – not just now, but for the foreseeable future, because wine style is just as much a part of a wine brand as its logo or packaging.

Make no mistake: wine is a product. And selling this product is integral to the survival of most wineries. As a starting principle, a winery’s portfolio has to be market driven. The typical mistake is to be too focused on quality. Yes, there’s always some market for a good product. However, even a cursory look at wine sales by grape variety demonstrates that market size is not intrinsically driven by quality. Building a winery’s portfolio requires looking backwards and determining how much revenue is necessary to keep the lights on.

In Canada, all sales are funneled, in some way or another, through the government. One of the few benefits of stringent regulation is that wineries consequently have access to robust sales data for both domestic and international wines. We know what the sales potential is for certain blends or grape varieties. This necessarily informs production volumes because wine is both a perishable good and expensive to warehouse over the long-term. So, before a winery produces thousands of cases of a niche wine, it has to be confident that it can sell it – regardless of its price.

Determining whether a wine should be a blend or single varietal is a key decision. By recategorizing a relatively unpopular grape variety like zinfandel or petite sirah as a proprietary blend, it is possible to drastically increase its sales potential. Just ask The Prisoner or Orin Swift. Or maybe you change the wine style entirely. The white zinfandel craze notably saved old Zinfandel vines from being ripped out. Alternatively, wineries may prefer to bottle popular varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon, as single varietals. This is true even if the wine is, in fact, a blend. A wine labelled as cabernet sauvignon may contain other varieties, up to a maximum of 15% of the overall blend (25% in California). Adaptation may be required even if you have the right variety planted in the right terroir.

There is also the question of whether one wants to be a generalist or specialist. Do you grow all of the international grape varieties, plus a few more obscure varieties thrown in for good measure? Or do you focus on complementary varieties, such as Bordeaux red and white varieties? The former approach may be preferable if you have crowds of tourists in your tasting room throughout the year, at which point you may want to be something for everyone. Export markets and media, in comparison, are more demanding and favour perceived specialization. Hence, article after article discussing which grape variety should be the Okanagan’s signature.

The New World may have fewer constraints in this regard, but there’s still innovation both within and outside of the confines of wine classification systems like France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée. In Bordeaux, we’ve come to expect a chateau to have a grand vin, a second wine, and maybe a third wine. However, wineries like Château Surain are using proprietary names like “Popcorn” and sleek, modern packaging on AOC Bordeaux wines to reach new consumers – and survive as a business. For others, the rigidity of AOC regulations means they have to bottle non-conforming wines as Vin de France, potentially losing the value conferred by the region. Château Palmer has periodically produced a “hermitaged” Bordeaux blend, based on the historical practice of Bordeaux chateaus bolstering their wines with a small amount of syrah from the Northern Rhone. New products allow a winery to continue to adapt, while being true to their terroir or history.

Pricing is also a problem with a quality-driven approach. A blind ambition to make a great bottle of wine tends to remove the consumer from the equation. Instead, the bottle inevitably is lined up against neighbouring wineries in a competitive analysis and, to no one’s surprise, it outperforms the others. Of course, this means it has to be priced accordingly. In contrast, a market-driven approach looks at the sales potential of a wine across different pricepoints. The aim is not only to avoid excess inventory, but also ensure the wine is profitable. The cost to produce a wine is somewhat tied to the desired quality level. This is not a linear relationship, as the cost per bottle will rarely exceed $20; still, factors like yield and oak usage have financial implications. If a wine can only be viably sold at $20 per bottle, this has to be reflected in the winemaking approach.      

A few high point scores and shrewd marketing decisions can help support premium pricing. Nevertheless, there can be a cap to what the market can support. Even with a couple 100-point scores from Wine Advocate, Bryant Family Vineyard is still alleged to have lagging sales. To this end, wineries may create an artificial sense of scarcity to drive demand by quickly publicizing a sell-out, whether it is truthful or not.

A winery’s portfolio may also be hierarchical, with different tiers covering different price points. The archetypal example is Wolf Blass, which assigns a unique colour to each tier. However, the risk of covering a broad range of prices is dilution to the brand, as happened with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi. Another challenge is that there is a certain arbitrariness to different wine tiers. Telling a customer that a “Reserve” wine is double the price because the winemaker selected certain barrels isn’t exactly compelling. You also don’t want your customer dropping a good chunk of change and feeling like they are settling. In contrast, elevated pricing on single vineyard or single block wines is more intuitive, as long as they tell a meaningful story that will resonate with consumers. A vineyard name, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything – unless you’re among the To Kalons of the world.  

There are endless considerations that go into building, and then refining, a product mix. Terroir is certainly part of it, but that’s only the beginning of the process. Because all wine, no matter how great, has to be sold. Time to think differently.

Written by
Geoffrey Moss, MW