Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why is Nyetimber's decision so unusual?


The decision by Nyetimber, one of England's top wine producers, not to release a 2012 vintage because of the poor weather this year does the winery great credit.


As the winemaker Cherie Spriggs explained,  "My first obligation... is to ensure the quality of Nyetimber's wines, and we have collectively come to the decision that the grapes from 2012 cannot deliver the standards we have achieved in the past and will again in the future." (my italics)

 The UK's rainy summer
Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley (The Telegraph)


I really love that comment. It's the kind of thing I'd expect a chef to say when explaining why he's decided not to offer a particular kind of fish or vegetable, for example, after judging the quality on offer at the market.

But how often do we encounter it in the wine world? No, what we customarily get is the opportunity to experience the impact of a cold and rainy vintage on a region like Bordeaux or Burgundy, usually for a price that's only a little lower than that asked for the fruit of perfectly ripe grapes. Releasing wines that don't deliver the standards [producers] have achieved in the past and will again in the future is what the wine industry regularly does, on the dubious basis that a) "it's the best we could do", and b) it helps to put the good vintages into some kind of context.

There are occasional exceptions to this rule. I recall Le Pin deciding not to release a 2003 and Brian Croser selling off a complete vintage of his eponymous sparkling wine (only to see it win prizes under the label of the competitor who bought it. Occasionally, in tricky vintages, Burgundy domaines combine wines from several vineyards to sell a single "Premier Cru". 

"But we have to release wine every year", comes the retort, "otherwise we'd go bust". But there is no god who has decreed that wineries actually have to release a vintage every year. When the weather has been inclement, one could blend that year's wine with earlier (and possibly subsequent) vintages and offer an attractive non-vintage. 


One wine producer manages
to sell a non-vintage red wine

It's a simple expedient that has been successfully exploited by Champagne and port producers, but for classic regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy (where vintage conditions can be very variable), it's virtually unthinkable. But who would honestly claim that the 2011 reds from many humble Bordeaux estates would not have tasted a lot better if they had been blended with some 2010 and 2009? How many people have really enjoyed 2002 wines from many of those same chateaux - when they were first released, or since?

Burgundy used to produce non-vintage wines - labeled as I recall as VSR - but they no longer exist and, apart from a few supermarket basic own-label efforts, non-vintage Bordeaux is an oxymoron. I know, because a few years ago, I tried to launch a commercially appealing affordable Bordeaux by blending wines from different vintages and different parts of the region such as Lussac St Emilion and the Medoc. The wine tasted fine, but the gatekeepers decreed that there was no market for it. 



Other braver retailers have thought differently. Laithwaites, the UK on-line firm offers an award-winning non-vintage Rioja, and an even more enterprising and more premium white.



Laithwaites has the advantage of effectively hand-selling its non vintage wine - through its website. Just putting them on a shelf is more challenging. But, in terms of giving the consumer a decent - and a consistent - glass of humble Bordeaux (we're not talking Grand Cru here), Non Vintage makes sense.


Proof that blending does make sense has always been found behind the scenes in France's and other country's major regions where illegal blending has been commonplace. (Even beyond the 15% allowed by many countries' legislation).

Stated bluntly, producing wines like most basic 2011 red Bordeaux, which retails at an average of €3 in France is not sustainable. And, we may see more years like thanks to  climate-change-induced tricky weatherWe still have time to introduce the developing wine markets to the notion of Non Vintage wines, but it will soon be too late. In other words, we are deliberately forcing new Chinese consumers to wines which fall woefully short of standards we have achieved in the past and will again in the future. 



Postscript

I've also just been told about "Little James" from Ch St Cosme (above). I quote the producer: 
“At Saint Cosme, Little James is the wine of freedom. Our Solera is getting more and more complexity year after year. When we add the current vintage, the solera gains a new element without changing the style… This wine recalls the ancient times when the wine merchants would make wines having only one target: the pleasure. Blending several vintages is considered being a great quality tradition in Champagne. I think it works exactly the same for a great Grenache. The 2011 bottling will be composed with 50% of 2010 along with 50% from all the vintages back to 1999.”





2 comments:

  1. Dear Robert,
    This is a very interesting post and topic on which I'd like to express my opinion from 3 perspectives:

    1. A consumer may use cues such as the year of vintage, for some more or less important (involvement, occasion, etc.), as a trade-off for perceived quality. The declared vintage could be an indication, e.g. freshness, that could contribute to risk reduction and finally buying a product. For sure there is some relevance of millesimes for the consumer in contrast to vertical blends. A consumer is learning and may find pleasure in learning especially in wine. The variety of different vintages may be wanted. This is rather related to your producing-NV's-proposition.
    2. A producer of wine is also in the game of juggling capacities. There may be some producers who are dependent on immediate and regular sales season after season. Some may not have the capacities or financial background to successively increase the bulk stock for NV's. Also, NV's do not really offer the impulse of communicating and promoting a new vintage to the market on a regular basis (for smaller producers). Brands with bigger volumes may be able to handle the capacity issue and more importantly also accommodate channels where consistency of intrinsic product cues are needed to match benchmark characteristics of the brand over years. Of course, it is brave and commendable to skip a vintage release for quality standard's sake but at the end the threshold is set by every individual marketer. If some consumers are still willing to buy 'difficult' vintages, then...
    3. Nyetimber seems to be very unfortunate with the conditions this year. On the other hand, this news seems to be great publicity, might create awareness for positioning purposes. I'd love to know what their ROI will be in the following.

    Bye for now and regards,
    Martin

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    Replies
    1. Martin, thank you for the thoughtful response. To tackle it in order: 1) yes, vintages indicate freshness and/or maturity, but this really applies a) to premium wines and b) to aware consumers. Most of the people buying Oyster Bay or Barefoot Chardonnay are not remotely interested in vintage and they expect the brand owner and retailer to have sorted out the drinkability issue.
      1a) Most consumers are not really interested in learning (at least not at the level of having to think about a vintage having been better for Bordeaux than Barbera.
      1c) They want vintages - if they do - because we've told them they should. The same was/is true of natural corks. (Which is germaine to my point about how we approach the developing markets).
      2) Yes, the business model has to change, but I'm talking about Bordeaux, for example, where the average retail price in France is now €3. This is not a sustainable figure. These are the people who can't afford to make good wine in difficult vintages - and can't afford to continue at all, once the subsidy taps are turned off.
      3) Yes, I'm sure the publicity is valuable to Nyetimber. My point was that in a properly ordered world, the story wouldn't be newsworthy

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