For decades the naive UK wine enthusiast was sold over priced mediocre Bordeaux wines by greying gentleman in their tweed jackets peering over the top of their spectacles as they waxed lyrical about the wines’ prestige and pedigree. In the 1970s and 80s anyone with an interest in wines was targeted by such retailers who curiously developed reputations for selling fine wines.
Then in the 1990s the investors got involved and fine wine was no longer an enjoyable drink but a massively over priced commodity. Again huge financial success for these “fine wine” importer/retailers. They would travel to France each year and meet with the heads of the individual Chateaux to openly discuss what they believed the UK market would pay for this year’s vintage. It wasn’t about tasting and evaluating the wine for it’s quality, it was purely about market forces and the artificial demand these importer/retailers were able to create and sustain. In fact they referred to the UK customers as “Indian customers”, a rather derogatory term not dissimilar to the recent use of the term “Dorris money” used by a major bank referring to ordinary people paying into the Christmas hamper savings plan which famously went bust.
But fortunately the UK market has changed significantly. Wine lovers have realised that there is far better wine out there than they were being sold by these gentlemen in tweed, from other regions and countries besides Bordeaux, at far more competitive prices. The fixation with Australian single varietal wines in the 1990s passed and discerning importers began looking for more rounded wines with more character. This coincided with the advent of technology and investment in new world countries such as New Zealand, Chile and Argentina who began blending their red grapes – just like in Bordeaux.
These new world countries had one major advantage over France that the French simply could not replicate – the climate. While these new world countries could import French talent and knowledge, French oak barriques and the latest technological equipment, France could not import the 320 days annual sunshine that Argentina receives. Within a decade the wine coming out of such countries has surpassed the quality coming from France. While there are several great Bordeaux wines, they are extremely expensive and generally it wasn’t these wines which were sold to the UK. It was generally lesser wines sold on the reputation of the region rather than on the quality of the individual wine.
There are many wines from Argentina, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and California which have beaten top Bordeaux in blind tastings but which are a fraction of the price. Pound for pound you will get better wines from these new world countries. And let’s not forget Italy either. There are hundreds of superb quality IGT Toscana blends which beat the quality of the Bordeaux which was off loaded to the UK, although the most famous of these are now attracting high prices too.
So how have the French coped with this severe decline in trade?
Well they began by trying to sell “en primeur”. A very clever marketing ploy where the customer was led to believe that the wine was so limited that to secure some he had to pay upfront while the wine was still in the barrel maturing in the cellar. This led to people paying upfront for inferior wines which simply weren’t worth anything like they had paid. Plenty of canny UK retailers jumped on this bandwagon looking to make a substantial gain from their remaining naive UK customers.
Just when this hit the headlines as a marketing ploy rather than a sound investment, and the French Chateaux were becoming severely worried their lucrative but dubious marketing strategy was being exposed, they were saved by the emergence of China on the global market as consumers of premium products. Last year more than half of all Bordeaux wines exported went to China! Given that 50% of all wine in China is counterfeit, that is quite remarkable. And over 20 Chateaux in Bordeaux have changed hands this year and are in Chinese ownership.
Every cloud has a silver lining they say. Just as one market had educated itself to see through the over pricing and dubious marketing strategies of these wine producers, importers and retailers, another market a hundred times the size landed on their doorstep. The French producers must be jumping for joy. But also so will the UK importer/retailers. They’re all busily opening offices in China to cash in on this huge new wave of “Indian customers”.
And it isn’t just China – there’s South Korea, India, Russia and even Brazil. The demand in these emerging markets is phenomenal and all the big players are working hard at getting established out there. You don’t need to own a winery to take advantage of this – if you established a reputation in the UK in the 80s and 90s there’s a good chance you can blag your way into these markets as some form of expert. Even if your expertise is in selling inferior wines at high prices! In fact that is exactly the sort of expertise required!