An unfortunate truth about wine

Friday, 23. February 2018 - 14:45

My father was a surrealist painter with a particular gift for perspective and a love for the works of artists like Dali, Magritte and de Cirico. From an early age, surrounded by canvases that were far from accurate depictions of the real world, I learned, first, that things weren’t necessarily what they seemed and second, that what you saw, and the way it looked, depended on where you happened be standing.

As the old trope has it, none of us, admiring the stylish way a swan glides across the water, has any notion of how hard its feet are paddling beneath the surface. Or even if one of those feet were actually broken.

When I was a consumer wine writer, much of my perspective of the wine world was formed by the producers I met - and by talking to my peers about their experiences. Between us, and with some generous help from generic organisations dedicated to presenting a positive image of their regions, we got to talk to many of the most ambitious and most successful wine producers on the planet. In Portugal, for example, I was dazzled by the young band of men and women who were revolutionising the Douro Valley; in the Loire, there were the winemakers who were shaking up Muscadet; while in Languedoc, I visited some brilliant estates in Corbières.

A dozen or so years later, I wear rather different hats. Now I’m looking for factual information that will help make commercial sense of the industry for readers of Meininger’s Wine Business International. Or I’m talking to distributors of the wine I am involved in producing in the next door region to Corbières and to my neighbouring producers. And the view is rather different.

While those Douro mavericks are jetting around the world, introducing critics and sommeliers to their Touriga Nacional, most of their fellow Portuguese wine producers are having a challenging time. Four out of every five bottles of wine sold in Portugal’s supermarkets (where most consumers buy it) are priced at under €2.00. When you deduct the 13% VAT, the retailer’s modest 5% margin, the bottle, label, cork, carton, transport and processing, there is not much left for the grapes. As one big Portuguese producer explained, most of the growers are selling them at a loss.

This situation is far from unique to Portugal. In 2015, the online newsletter Vitisphère reported that 40% of Corbières wine was also on sale for less than €2.00, while, according to the French newspaper le Monde, the average retail price for Muscadet was €2.56.

For the moment, the men and women from whose grapes these wines are made, survive by doing all the vineyard work themselves. But here’s the rub: most are in their sixties or older. Very few of their children, and still less their grandchildren, have any desire to take over the thankless, labour-intensive task of tending the vines. And no one else is going to do it. Over the next decade, unless someone changes the current business model, the plants will either be uprooted – as has already happened widely in Dão - or the responsibility of looking after them will have been handed to robots.

In Bordeaux, as I’ve pointed out before, a chateau disappears, on average, every day. From a high of over 20,000 in the 1980s, we are now down to 6,700.

Exposing the inconvenient truth that the current state of play is unsustainable wins me few friends; indeed at least one wine writer regularly accuses me of ‘hating’ the wine industry. Naturally, I see it rather differently. The people who complain that the oceans are being choked by plastic, or that the icecaps are melting are not enemies of the environment; quite the reverse.

Maybe this industry holds no future for thousands of grape growers with small plots of land, but I’d like to think that, between us, we can help at least some of them to survive and to preserve winemaking communities that have existed for generations. But that, of course, is just the way it all looks from my own particular perspective.
Robert Joseph