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Tim Atkin MW: Is wine heading for an iceberg?

Published:  05 April, 2024

Prompted by a brilliant series on The Rest Is History podcast, I’ve been reading Richard Davenport-Hines’ Titanic Lives. It’s a fascinating tale of class, wealth, emigration and, of course, hubris. “The boat is unsinkable,” declared Philip Franklin, vice-president of White Star Line, the ill-fated ship’s owner, on the very night of the tragedy.

I’d always assumed that the iceberg that did for the Titanic loomed out of nowhere on a moonless night. There was no tell-tale swell around its base for the lookouts to spot, even if they had been equipped with binoculars. By the time the iceberg was sighted, it was effectively too late. What I didn’t realise was that the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, had received warnings from seven other vessels about dangerous icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland. The messages were “treated casually, or ignored”, writes Davenport-Hines.

The inclination to bury one’s head in the sand is not restricted to ostriches and Edwardian sea captains. Large sections of the international wine business are doing something similar right now. And in our case, we have had more than seven alerts, repeated over the past decade and backed up by statistics and facts.

The UK trade is justifiably in a lather about the labyrinthine, ill-considered duty system that is due to be introduced next February, rightly decried as “ludicrous” by Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. Assuming it goes ahead, it will be costly and time-consuming.

But there are much greater threats to the future wellbeing of the wine business right now, and not just in the UK.

The first of these is the increasingly strident anti-alcohol message emerging from the World Health Organization. In January, the WHO announced that there was “no safe level” of alcohol consumption. No more j-shaped curves, no more French Paradox. My colleague Felicity Carter has just published a superb piece in Wine Business Monthly about the infiltration of the WHO by NGOs that are effectively temperance organisations, such as Movendi International and the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance. Where is the wine industry’s spirited response, talking about the Mediterranean diet, the history and culture of wine, not to mention the proven benefits of measured drinking? It’s out there, thanks to organisations like Wine in Moderation, but its message is too quiet and apologetic.

Generational shifts

The second problem facing the wine industry – partly linked to those health lobby warnings, but not driven by them – is generational change. Millennials and Generation Zers aren’t drinking as much as their parents and grandparents did, especially but not exclusively in traditional wine-producing countries. When I talk to many of my friends’ children, I’m often struck by the difference between their attitude to alcohol and mine at a similar age. They speak of sustainability and authenticity, of healthier diets and moderate consumption. Of sobriety. Some drink beer; a few like wine; many eschew booze altogether.

The result is rapidly declining sales. Writing in the magazine Vinifera, the historian Gonzalo Rojas recently dubbed this the “new phylloxera”. Overly dramatic perhaps, but it’s no coincidence that Chilean producers are talking about pulling out 20,000ha of vines. They are not alone. How does the wine trade appeal to younger drinkers? Packaging? Marketing? New products? More responsible viticulture? These questions need urgent answers.

The third challenge for the wine business is the biggest of them all: climate change. It amazes me that there are still people who deny the reality of what surrounds us on a daily basis. An in-depth study recently published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment by seven scientists, including the revered Cornelis van Leeuwen of the University of Bordeaux, is terrifying, even if its tone is measured and conditional. The authors of Climate Change Impacts and Adaptations of Wine Production talk about the “enormous negative social and economic consequences” of drought and higher temperatures in “established winegrowing regions”. They add it is possible to adapt to this “hotter and drier” future, but only in certain places. Extreme weather events are part of the new normal. So is an increase in invasive species and fungal diseases. As I said, scary stuff that requires action.

Grapes are the world’s third most valuable agricultural crop, ahead of potatoes and tomatoes, apparently. Nearly half that total is currently transformed into wines and spirits. Will that still be so in 20 years’ time? Right now, I doubt it. The icebergs are on the horizon. The warnings are legion. Sooner rather than later, it’s up to us to take measures to avoid them.