The Fine Wine Debate

The Fine Wine Debate

Dec 15, 2021

For some time now, South African wine afficionados have been locked in a debate around what constitutes a ‘fine wine’ as opposed to a ‘good wine’ and whether, in fact, such a distinction even exists.

In the latest episode of the Vinimark podcast, our host Jono Le Feuvre is joined by Pauline Vicard, executive director of ARENI Global, a research and action institute dedicated to the future of fine wine.

Creating conversation platforms for Fine Wine, ARENI brings together critical thinkers, from iconic fine wine producers to academics and business leaders, resulting in a well-researched, global and multi-disciplinary approach to an ever-changing world.

They recently conducted a study and released an in-depth report exploring both the definition of fine wine and the many profiles and behaviours of fine wine consumers. Titled ‘The Future of Fine Wine Consumers 2021’*, it contains a wealth of data points across four major markets: China, Hong-Kong, the United Kingdom and the USA.

In our podcast, Le Feuvre and Vicard discuss some of the main findings of the report, and also delve into whether South Africa features in the fine wine category at all.

Defining fine wine

One of the first things the ARENI study set out to unpack what the term ‘fine wine’ means to both trade and consumers.

“We interviewed more than 200 members of the trade in an effort to understand what fine wine means to them,” explained Vicard. “We extracted a definition from this and put it to the consumer to see if they agreed.”

In terms of trade, the ARENI team sat down with producers, distributors, sommeliers and journalists and ended up receiving a wide array of responses – from definitions such as ‘fine wine is a wine that has value on the secondary market’ to ‘fine wine is a wine worth talking about’.

In collating all of this data, they managed to come up with four essential components that seem to set fine wines apart from good wines:

  • Top quality taste - The starting point for fine wine is high quality within the bottle (Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity). It simply cannot be Fine Wine if it is not already excellent wine.
  • The capacity to stop time – “A fine wine provokes emotion and wonder,” said Vicard. “A good wine you might like, but it’s not going to stop time and make you remember everything around you.”
  • Intentionality – A fine wine must express something of its relationship with the winemaker and the fact that a wine of this nature doesn’t just happen ‘by mistake’. It must be a testament to the fact that - from the beginning to the end - the winemaker is really willing to do the best that he/she can.
  • Sustainability – A relatively new concept (or maybe just the return of an ancient one) in winemaking, there seems to be a general consensus amongst the trade that a wine has to be made sustainably in order to be considered ‘fine’.

“For it to be considered a fine wine, you have to have these four things - so it’s not either or, it’s all of them together,” said Vicard. “A good wine may have two out of four, but then a fine wine will have them all.”

The consumer’s view

Once this definition was established, the ARENI team approached consumers in the UK, US, Mainland China and Hong Kong with a series of questionnaires through Wine Intelligence.

In order to make sure that apples were being compared with apples, they presented consumers with a price point based on Place de Bordeaux’s tiered system that includes wines priced at between 30 and 400+ Euro per bottle.

“In order to complete the survey, people had to buy wines that were over $75 in the US, 50 pounds in the UK and HK$500 in Mainland China,” explained Vicard. “So, if you’re not buying over those price points, the questionnaire would stop and we wouldn’t continue to interview them.”

Apart from these consumers, ARENI also did a series of face-to-face interviews to see if the high-net-worth individuals (those buying wine in the highest price tier) were behaving in the same way as the ‘regular’ fine wine consumer.

Vicard points out that there were interesting similarities and differences across the four markets.

There seemed to be general consensus around the fact that – just like the trade had pointed out – fine wine has to have the capacity to age and travel through time.

Furthermore, consumers in all four the markets place high value on wines that have received good ratings from critics and come from well-known winemaking regions.

In terms of differences, consumers in the US and UK responded more to taste attributes, while the Asians focused more on scarcity.

Does quality necessarily equate to a high price point?

In response to the hefty price points set out for the fine wine consumers, Le Feuvre asked whether the romantic notion that quality wines could exist without necessarily being expensive was at all possible.

Vicard responded that there was no doubt that quality could exist at prices that aren’t completely exorbitant, but that at the same time, every winemaker will attest to the fact that making their very best wine will never be cheap.

“Fine wine doesn’t happen by mistake or accident and winemakers spend hours questioning the viticultural practice, the winemaking practice, the attention to detail, the attention to the vines themselves, the attention to winemaking. It’s just those little details. Everything from the beginning is thoroughly thought-through,” said Vicard.

Where South Africa stands

So, while there is no doubt about the fact that South Africa produces some truly excellent wines, the burning question on our minds is whether – according to international consumer and trade opinions – South Africa features as a producer of fine wines.

“When I talk to the trade in the US and the UK, South Africa certainly qualifies,” affirms Vicard. “In terms of region, the trade gets quite excited about Stellenbosch and the Swartland and everything that’s happening with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay around Hermanus.”

When it comes to consumers, however, South Africa didn’t really feature in ARENI’s quantitative analysis.

“When we’ve done the one-to-one with high-net-worth individuals, they said they’ve considered South Africa and have some wines in the cellar, but they still don’t see it at the same level as other places of origin,” said Vicard.

She added that South Africa is, however, in a good position at the moment, as it can answer to what Vicard sees as two major trends: Bordeaux-style blends and Chardonnay.

“It always helps to put a region on the map when they work with international varieties on a very high level, because that is how people compare and how people can actually place them,” she said. “The fact that South Africa is doing remarkable Bordeaux-style blends and really good Chardonnays will help bolster brand South Africa.”

She concluded that diversity is something she sees as a big strength for South Africa. The challenge: to market our wine diversity successfully!

To listen to the podcast episode, click HERE

*To access the full report, you need to become an ARENI member

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