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The wine industry is in constant evolution in France and beyond

Jonathan Hesford reflects on ever-changing trends from both makers and drinkers

Like all food and drink, wine goes through trends Pic: Will Howe / Shutterstock

Like all food and drink, wine goes through trends. Although it may seem like a traditional, slowly changing, somewhat fusty industry, it is actually constantly evolving to meet customer demands or find new customers. 

Also wine writers are constantly trying to find new things to write about or a niche to make their own. 

When I was growing up in England, there were a handful of popular brands that almost everyone seemed to drink. 

Mateus Rosé, Blue Nun and Le Piat d’Or. 

People didn’t know much about grape varieties or wine regions and there was a preference for sweeter wines. 

Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch were hugely popular. 

At parties there would always be a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream or Crofts Original, a style of sweet Sherry made purely for the UK market. 

Dry wines were for Sunday lunch and even then the choice was generally limited to Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Rioja or Chianti. 

When Australian and Californian wines entered the UK market, customers had to learn about grape varieties. 

Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay became types of wine. 

Yuppie generation

The Yuppie generation turned away from sweet wines and towards ‘more sophisticated’ dry wines. 

The height of sophistication was Chardonnay. Parents even named their children after it. 

New World wine producers wanted to recreate the oaky aromas of expensive white Burgundy. 

To save money, they turned to oak chips instead of barrels. 

Wine writers started criticising “sawdust flavoured” wines, leading to a brief trend in ‘Unoaked Chardonnay’ but its demise was on the cards. 

ABC - Anything But Chardonnay

Prime Minister John Major said his favourite wine was ABC – Anything But Chardonnay. 

The final nail in the coffin was Bridget Jones, sobbing into her enormous glass of Chardonnay. 

However, varietal wines were the new trend. 

After the excesses of Chardonnay, came a trend for the bland-tasting but nice-sounding Pinot Grigio. 

Everyone had their favourite grape and would drink nothing else. British consumers turned away from French wines because they didn’t state the grape varieties on the label. 

Read more: Which French white wine has been newly crowned as the world’s best?

Wines made from grapes with unpronounceable names like Mourvèdre, Viognier and Gewürtzrtaminer were doomed. 

Trends in grape varieties are often based on false premises. Very few people can identify the grape variety when they taste a wine blind. Nor do they appreciate the difference that climate and winemaking style can have on wines made from the same grape. 

Most wrongly assume that it is the grape variety that makes a wine dry or sweet. 

Rosé’s return

The popularity of rosé has returned, after years of it being seen as just a fun, summer drink. 

The resurgence was driven by Provence producers whose wines, made primarily from Cinsault, have a pretty, pale salmon-pink hue. 

In a desire to achieve that colour, producers in other regions, using other grapes, employ quite aggressive winemaking techniques such as picking very early, adding decolorizing agents and high levels of sulphites. 

This can result in a chemical-tasting wine and I wonder when consumers will realise that colour is not as important as flavour. 

Sugar is back again. 

Semi-sweet red wines were historically popular in northern Italy and Eastern Europe but were never taken seriously by wine connoisseurs. 

In the USA, there has been a wave of sweet red wines such as Barefoot and Apothic, which has taken over the best-seller sector of the market. 

Even popular brands of “dry” wines like Oyster Bay, Yellow Tail and Blossom Hill have between six and 12 grams of sugar per litre added to them. 

The overlying trend is that people are drinking less wine, especially young adults. 

In a desire to reduce alcohol intake, people are also turning away from big, powerful wines and seeking out lighter, lower alcohol ones.

Read more French winemakers in the dark over ‘ingredients’ labels 

Natural wine

In general, wine consumers are buying better, or more expensive wines, often choosing to spend more to drink Organic and Natural wines. 

Originally aiming to swing the pendulum away from the over-worked blockbuster wines favoured by American wine critic Robert Parker.Natural wine not only has to be made from organically grown grapes, but it also aims to avoid almost all the additives and processes used to produce the highly consistent, technically-perfect industrial wines that win medals in competitions and fill the supermarket shelves around the world. 

While this sounds like a welcome return to traditional values and methods, avoiding intervention during the winemaking can result in wines that smell and taste nothing like traditional ones. 

Those alternative flavours, combined with glugability, have won a large following. 

Today, every French city boasts a number of hipster wine-bars that only serve Natural wines with labels featuring cartoons, puns and witty slogans, rather than crests, châteaux and fancy script. 

Orange wine

A spin-off from the Natural movement is Orange Wine. 

This isn’t wine made from oranges. It is made by fermenting white grapes with their skins and judicious exposure to oxygen. 

It results in amber-coloured wines which have aromas of bruised apples, marmalade and wood varnish with a slightly bitter taste. 

They have been made in parts of Italy, Slovenia and Georgia for centuries but were never very popular. 

Orange wine isn’t really Natural or necessarily made from organic grapes but is seen as part of that alternative category of wine. 

While still rare in supermarkets and regular wine merchants, it has hit the lists of trendy restaurants, partly because of its ability to match Asian flavours. 

Celebrity wine

At the other end of the spectrum, consumers are willing to spend more to buy wines endorsed by celebrities. 

In the last decade there have been dozens of wine brands launched by TV hosts, actors and pop stars. 

While Brad Pitt actually owns the Provencal estate which makes his Miraval rosé, others have very little to do with the production of the wine. 

As a winemaker, it is frustrating to see that people are willing to pay through the nose for very poorly-rated wine brands created by the likes of Graham Norton, Kylie Minogue, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. 

Thankfully in France, these are few and far between, perhaps because when actor Gerard Depardieu, a professed wine connoisseur, launched his own brand it was widely ridiculed by the trade. 

Every new trend in wine is dismissed by connoisseurs and traditionalists as a passing fad but many of them linger on for years, selling vast numbers of bottles for those producers that ride the wave. 

Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology from Lincoln University, New Zealand and is the owner, vigneron and wine maker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon. www.domainetreloar.com

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