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Hanging in there

Published:  18 January, 2007

It has been confirmed. Wine, as we know it, is finished. By we', I mean those of us who believe wine should be an elegant, complex liquid composed of subtle flavours, balanced on a knife's edge of nuance and style. Oh, and it should, at least in its higher forms, say something about the vineyard and express some regional typicity.

Well, that's all over. A survey conducted by John Gillespie and Christian Miller of Wine Opinions, a California wine-consulting group, has found that consumers, especially those aged 21to 29 years old, prefer dark-coloured' wines with jammy fruit'. They also like their wine heavy' and full-bodied'. (Where does that leave Pinot Noir?) This research was presented at a seminar on hang time conducted by the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

Loyal readers will know that in the past I have ranted about hang time, the technique of leaving grapes on the vine until they are super-ripe in order to produce huge wines with high alcohol that also regularly gather high scores from certain wine critics.

Never mind that these wines offer no sense of place nor expression of variety: as long as they stand up and punch you in the nose, that's all that counts. (No wonder California has a muscle freak as governor and the US president is a wannabe Texas cowboy. Kick ass: that's the name of the game, whether its politics or Cabernet.)

Those surveyed were asked to give their reaction to three different shelf talkers', those little bits of paper that retailers stick on the wines to encourage sales. Some 55% of those questioned (identified as high-end' consumers because they were willing to pay $15 or over for a bottle of wine) said they were more attracted to wines described as bold and ultra-ripe' rather than rich and opulent'. How they made that choice is a mystery to me. They also were not concerned about the alcohol level of wine. In general, they went for descriptors that could be associated with big, tannic and over-the-top wines.

On the jammy' issue, the high-end' consumers split along gender lines. Among women, 43% found jammy fruit' an appealing descriptor, while only 20% of males found it appealing. Now there's a statistic to ponder.

There has recently been a flurry of wine marketing pitched at women, including an incomprehensible effort from Beringer called White Lies', so how can the marketing chaps identify a wine as jammy' to the ladies without driving away the fellows? It's enough to make me reach for the Tequila.

While the survey concerned mostly red wine, it also uncovered the fact that the description tangy with crisp acidity', often used for white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, drew more negative reactions than positive. Does this mean that we will soon see the launch of a new line of bold and ultra-ripe' and, who knows, even jammy' Sauvignon Blanc from California?

Whether tangy or ultra-ripe, US wine exports are continuing to set a startling pace. The Federal Department of Agriculture has reported a 32% gain in value and a 19% gain in volume for the first five months of fiscal 2005, which ends in October, so that growth takes in the last quarter of the calendar year 2004. In that year, exports grew at a record 28%, following a 17% increase

in 2003.

On the other side of the ledger, imports into the US also surged in the first quarter, showing an overall gain of 13%, with Australia, as usual, leading the way with a 15% gain. Elsewhere in the New World, Chile and Argentina both showed strong gains, with Chile up 31% and Argentina up 38%. Despite the weak dollar against the euro, Spain, Portugal and Germany grew in double digits, and even Italy edged up 5%. With the euro currently dropping against the dollar in the wake of the French non' on the EU constitution, prospects for euro wines appear to be even brighter as we shift into summer-drinking mode.

At any rate, Americans are apparently knocking back the good stuff, be it domestic or foreign, at a strong pace.