In brief, conventional wisdom states that the “New World” succeeded in bringing wine to the masses, certainly in the UK, by eschewing all that boring and confusing regional stuff and telling it like it is by stating right up front what varietal(s) the wine was made from.
Consumers, by definition, were interested in purchasing more and better wine but were put off by all those regional and quality indications, such as “Bordeaux Superieur”, “Denominazione di Origine Controllata Chianti Rufina” and “Qualitätswein mit Prädikat”. Too many words, languages and funny letters.
So in marched the honest speaking Aussies and Californians with their Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots. Sales of these wines took off and now they out-sell the Old World wines that are “stuck in the past” and “don’t understand branding”.
But how true is this really? More importantly, if people do believe in the pre-eminence of the varietal as a brand to sell the wine, how useful is it, and has it led us down a blind alley?
On the positive side, it is certainly true that simple, well designed and consumer-friendly labels made a big difference. The new wines were specifically designed to appeal to new wine drinkers, not those who knew, or pretended to know, about these things. This was true of the wines themselves as well as the packaging.
These new wines changed all sorts of conventions at the same time, not just the varietal labelling, so analysing why they worked is complicated. The label designs were fresh. The names were pronounceable. The styles were easy drinking and fruity. The alcoholic content from these warmer climates was often higher (and was still being used as a shorthand by consumers for better value in wine). There was even some consumer marketing and sales promotion and they were available in new kinds of wine shops like Oddbins and even, god forbid, the supermarkets. And, of course, they were “new” and “cool”.
However, the easiest thing to point to is the listing of the grapes on the front. But does this actually help?
My own view, and something I realise I will have to come back to if I am not to post a whole essay, is yes & no, but mainly No! I think that they are driving us to a blind alley from which the only escape is to return to the original ideas of regional labelling.
But I think I had better save this for another day.