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The terror of terroir - By Tony Keys

The terror of terroir - By Tony Keys

Terroir, sense of place, regionality, marketing, fiction, fact and bullshit. How much do each of these - which are hard separate - influence the price of wine?
In reality, is it not the price per bottle that really counts and transcends all the chatter about sense of place, region or terroir?
Regionality is about pride: 'this is where I live, raise my family, work my land, make my wine and I damn well want the world to know how good this region and its wine is'.
Recognition for wine producing regions can be traced back to ancient times but considering resin, gypsum, lead, lime, lye-ash, marble dust, myrrh and a host of other substances were added to the wines produced, the provenance of those vineyards is muted. Of course, wine had a spiritual aspect to it back then too, as referred to in this extract from an article in the New York Times, 30 January 2009, by Alexander Nazaryan:
'The Greeks taught us plenty about philosophy, government and art. And we can learn from their drinking, too. They loved wine, yet knew that its consumption must be carefully controlled. The fermented grape was an exalted, mysterious object.'
So what real benefit does sense of place bring to wine in its entirety?
Personally, I think there is very little benefit, but there are many counter arguments and I will come to some of them shortly.
Kate is a personal friend who is highly intelligent, articulate, runs her own business, is a mother and enjoys wine. Asked what she bases her wine buying on, she replied:
'The quick, easy answer would be, I either try something new based on the label or I go for something I've tried thanks to recommendation from someone else. Once I find something I like, I just tend to stick to it until someone shoves something else into my hand and I think - oooh, that's nice!'
Another friend and knowledgeable wine consumer, Peter, said: 'It seems to me to boil down to how serious you are about wine to be interested in its regionality. Certainly for the options games, enthusiasts seek out such wines while still sometimes considering the blends as worthwhile inclusions.
And we can't say that blending is a recent thing because other than Penfolds, many of our premium wines, even in the '50s and '60s, were multi-regional blends. Moreover, in those days, they made plenty of Claret, Burgundy, Chablis and Hock, all of which were made to a cellar style.
'So I suppose what I feel I'm really saying is that the majority of wine consumers probably don't care about the region as long as they like it, while us few enthusiasts prefer to see wines from definite regions, but won't knock back a [Penfolds] Grange, Bin 707, etc.'
While I don't have proof I estimate 85 per cent to more than 90 per cent of people who enjoy a glass of wine think along the same lines as Kate, and the few think as Peter does. Which raises another question, if that is the case, why the constant discussion about sense of place or terroir?
Part of the answer is undoubtedly economic, but just how economic? Does not ego play a very large part? To be proud of one's possessions is also an attitude that stretches across the millennia. Owners of vineyards are happy to boast of the respect their wines generate even if they are not involved in any way with their production. What they will do is talk about that special place or, put another way, bullshit on about just how good their piece of dirt is. With climate change rapidly changing the landscape, it is blowing apart the boasting, but keeping large egos down is hard work.
Jerry Lockspeiser has been involved in the UK wine trade for many years. Currently, he is chair of Off Piste Wines and an opinion piece writer for Harpers. He is quite direct in saying for 99 per cent of consumers region does not matter a jot in their purchase decisions. He softens this by saying unless the region happens to be the brand then the region becomes crucial if they perceive it to be. He defines this further:
'A more analytical answer is that it depends who the producer's target customer is. Your [TK] questions can't usefully be answered uniformly for all wine drinkers. For those interested in how and where things are made then, yes, it attests, but as you suggest they are a tiny part of the total market. However, they might be a very big part of the target market for a specific winery whose business plan is clearly targeting that group of consumers and the kind of retailer they frequent (assuming they have a business plan which is by no means a given).' 
Consumers thinking of countries as regions or brands has a sense of the ridiculous, but what about the broad acceptance of Australian wine in the UK, or the cover-all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in Australia or sparkling wine in many countries simply referred to as Champagne? In the minds of many consumers, countries can be brands and regions also. Rioja is as complicated as any region but in the UK many consumers just think of Rioja as a soft red wine. As Lockspeiser puts it:
'When mass market consumers buy Rioja or Cotes du Rhone they are not buying because they have a deep understanding of the regions' specificity, but because the words represent a style of drink they like. Accolade Wines' research a few years ago showed that over half those buying Rioja didn't know it was a place.'
Larry Lockshin, head of the School of Marketing at the University of South Australia Business School and a Professor of Wine Marketing at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, has put forward some figures which go some way to backing my own argument:
'Research I have done in the past showed that first domestic consumers choose red/white/sparkling and grape variety, then key in brand for wines under about $18 and then look for region/wine style above that price point. There is a difference between low and high involvement consumers, where for low involvement consumers fewer are used; it's a simple process. High involvement consumers (about 30 per cent of Australian wine buyers) use more complex cues, especially combining cues: grape variety, region, brand.
'We've done some work overseas in Europe, US (two are several years old: USA and UK) with China more recent. We find the high/low involvement difference, but fewer buyers are high involvement in most of these countries:
USA, about 12 per cent
UK about 15 per cent
France about 10 per cent.  
'The price points where high involvement kicks in are also lower in most of these countries due to lower tax rates and more supermarket competition.'
Despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to the majority of consumers around the world not being interested in a defined sense of place that is smaller than a region or country, there is a huge push in Australia to promote region, sense of place and terroir.

From the 2017 Jan/Feb issue of the Wine and Viticulture Journal
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