Since it was launched as a ‘fine wine think tank’ in 2017, Areni Global has hosted a number of conferences and round tables across the world and published four white papers. Throughout, the effort — in involving a wide range of highly respected individuals from within and outside the industry — has been to define fine wine, to establish how it fits into the modern world and, most crucially, to consider its future.
All of the previous white papers have been interesting, but the latest, launched last week at Sotheby’s in London, represents a huge leap forward. It is essential reading for anyone interested in anything beyond what one might call ‘beverage wine’.
Why does fine wine need a definition?
Underlying the paper, is the “growing chance that the world we are living in today will become cynical about fine wine, seeing it as an overpriced alcoholic drink, reserved for an upper-class elite, whose production not only wastes precious resources such as land and water, but which also creates all kinds of negative environmental and social impacts,” as Pauline Vicard, Areni’s Co-founder and Executive Director says in her introduction. She goes on to say there is a very real possibility that fine wine could lose its “social license” and that there is no reason to believe “that the is the historic and cultural prestige associated with fine wine will protect it from these growing pressures.”
A cynic might argue that unless and until there is a dramatic reversal of the economic inequalities to which the world seems to have become numb, there is a strong likelihood that the ultra-rich will continue to enjoy ultra-premium wine in their private jets. But ‘fine wine’ is a broader concept than few dozen those one-percenters might have any interest in.
For Areni, fine wine has to meet five criteria. It has to be “balanced, harmonious and complex and — and this is a separate quality — is has to potentially provoke emotion. There also has to be a relationship with its maker, the person responsible for expressing the terroir and the fruit. To these three, after listening to the wine trade and drinkers, have now been added sustainability — environmental, social and financial — and recognition by what the UK critic, Jamie Goode, has usefully dubbed the “community of taste”. As the report says, “Without recognition, wine lovers will fail to regard a wine — however great it might be in terms of quality — as fine.”
- Balance, harmony and complexity
- Potential to provoke emotions
- Relationship with its maker
- Environmental, social and financial sustainability
- Recognition by the “community of taste"
However, one of the factors many associate with fine wine is excluded from this list. There is no need for a track record stretching back across centuries.
History isn’t as important as it was
As Spanish Master of Wine, Pedro Ballesteros Torres points out, many of the most famous regions owe their success to being located close to a major city and/or means of distribution in the shape of a port, river or train line. Today, it is possible to buy wine from locations that would have been unimaginable a century ago. Modern viticultural and winemaking expertise also allows producers to produce fine wine almost from a standing start.
Nowhere illustrates this better than New Zealand, where it’s taken Nigel Greening just 25 years to make Felton Road Pinot Noir into a fine wine that is known across the planet. Greening, who went to live in the southern hemisphere nation “almost on a whim” says that from the outset he only wanted to make limited quantities of top-class wine, and to price it accordingly. “We knew we had to achieve a high price point. We knew to be financially successful as a winery that small, we would need to be hitting price points that put us in the top 1% of pricing around the world. And Pinot Noir can do that.”
"People who grow grapes live at the bottom of the heap in financial terms. (...) It’s not a pretty picture.”
Looking forward, Greening says that, “people who grow grapes live at the bottom of the heap in financial terms. They tend to be poorly paid. They’re living at a subsistence level. It’s not a pretty picture.”
For fine wine, this has to change. But at the other end of the price scale, labour shortages are a problem that get worse with every season. It is easy to imagine that, while fine wine will be produced by properly-paid workers, beverage wine will have to rely on robots. The social impact of that trend needs urgent discussion, but it is outside the remit of Areni.
A new approach to grapes and viticulture
What is in that remit, however, is the kind of grapes from which fine wine is produced. This topic is addressed by António Graça, Head of Research and Development, Sogrape and frequent panel chair at the Mundus Vini competition. Graça is concerned at the way a focus on clones has left the wine industry vulnerable to potential catastrophe. “Today, in the vast majority of vineyards across the world, vineyards are planted with one single genotype,” he says. “So we have a huge lack of genetic diversity that makes [them] very susceptible to changing environments.”
Graça acknowledges the potential of gene editing to protect vines from specific diseases but points out that it does not address the issue of diversity. He prefers to rely on ‘polyclonal’ vineyards. “Instead of having a single clone, we use a selection of between seven to 20.”
Within the Sogrape vineyards, technology has a vital role to play.” We are working at the level of the individual plant with remote detection technology. We can now understand which plant is in which state. And it doesn’t mean we manage them one by one, but it means that we can draw the borders between where the different phenomena are occurring with precision.”
This, he says allows his team to “consider… our vineyard as a web of multiple interactions. This is a huge change in mindset because before, vineyards were pretty much managed as if they were factory processes. And today we are finally coming to terms with managing them as complex entities of living beings.”
"Consider our vineyard as a web of multiple interactions. This is a huge change in mindset (...). Today we are finally coming to terms with managing them as complex entities of living beings."
Other issues to be addressed
Ballesteros Torres, Greening and Graça all have a lot more to say in the report but there are many other voices, ranging from US-based consultant Rebecca Hopkins to Jamie Ritchie, Chairman of Wine & Spirits at Sotheby’s.
What if collectors change their drinking habits?
For Hopkins, health is an issue that needs to be addressed. “I see more and more collectors that quit fine wine because of wellness… If that collector is looking to change their drinking habits or their relationship to fine wine, where can we point them that keeps them included in the conversation?”
"Unlike art, wine needs to be consumed and destroyed.”
The paper goes on to make the point that fine wine is less like art than some would like to suppose. “While art continues to appreciate in value, at some point wine becomes worthless as wine, because it’s no longer drinkable,” it says. “At this point, rare and historic bottles become sought after, not for the wine they contain, but for their historical value. In other words, unlike art, wine needs to be consumed and destroyed.”
The Areni paper is bound to spark a lot of discussion and argument. As Vicard says, summing it up, it is “a work in progress… wine is a beverage that defies easy definitions, and for every claim, it’s easy to make a counter-claim. So take this white paper in the spirit that’s intended ― as a way to provoke thought and discussion, just like a good bottle of wine.”