I am often struck by the apparently huge gap there is between what we, as wine writers/critics of various descriptions, consider to be « interesting » wines, and those wines which are actually consumed by the vast majority of wine drinkers. How many of us (wine writers) taste the wines that the majority of our contemporaries actually drink? I think that this is a question that we should consider more regularly, and then deal with in some form or another. I will not take this as an opportunity to put in a plug for any of my recent books, but the subject was in fact provoked by what I found to be a very interesting article on Jancis Robinson’s excellent web site, penned by Richard Hemmings MW and which relates his recent tasting of the UK’s top ten wine brands. I am quite sure that most of them are totally unknown and indeed untasted by the majority of my colleagues, so here they are, in the order of their UK sales last year:
1). Isla Negra, Seashore Merlot 2013, Central Valley, Chili (belongs to Concha y Toro)
2). Echo Falls, Merlot nv, California, USA
3). Blossom Hill Merlot 2016, California, USA
4). Gallo Family Vineyards Merlot 2015, California, USA
5). Casillero del Diablo, Merlot 2016, Valley Central, Chili
6). Barefoot Shiraz nv, California, USA
7). Yellow Tail Shiraz 2016, South-Eastern Australia
8). Hardy’s Varietal Shiraz 2015, South-Eastern Australia
9). Jacob’s Creek Classic Shiraz 2016, South-Eastern Australia
10). McGuigan Estate Shiraz 2016, South-Eastern Australia
My first comment is that one may say that this list is simply a translation of the current British supermarket offering. True, but think about the top wine brands in any other major wine market, and then read on into the second part of this article to have a wider perspective.
My second comment is that none of these wines is European, despite the fact that the United Kingdom is, apparently at least, still attached to this continent. It is a fact that the fragmentation of European wine production makes it almost impossible to build strong wine brands that would have a chance of imposing themselves on international markets. This point can be underlined by taking a look , below, at those wine brands that sell the most bottles world-wide (the figures come from 2016).
A final point is that three of them are non-vintages wines, which of course provides a wider palette for blending for the producers concerned, given that all of these wines are surely multi-regional blends made to fit a certain taste profile. And why not? Not every wine drinker is looking for a so-called « taste of place » in their wines, just a decent glass of wine at an affordable price.
Now for the top selling wine brands in the world
1). Barefoot (belongs to Gallo), California, USA
2). Concha y Toro, Chile
3). Gallo Family, California, USA
4). Changyu, China
5). Yellow Tail, South-Eastern Australia
6). Sutter Home, California, USA
7). Robert Mondavi, California, USA
8). Hardy’s, Australia
9). Beringer, California, USA
10). Great Wall, China
I agree that the definition of these brands are slightly different from that of those of the previous series as they are mostly, in a sense, « umbrella » brands that incorporate a range of different individual wines, whereas the selection taken by Richard Hemmings is one of individual wines. But the message is exactly the same: there is not a single European wine in the list, and a clear domination of wines from three New World countries, which are the USA, Australia and Chile, to which one must add China for the world brands, given the individual weight of the Chinese market.
What other deductions can be made from these hit-parade charts based entirely on volume? Firstly that there is no pretension about any so-called « best wines in the world » such as some wine magazines love to produce annually and which mean strictly nothing. These lists are based entirely on a single fact: volume sales. One can of course criticize this as a single criteria, and indeed it is true that such volumes also have a lot to do with agreements in the fields of distribution in supermarket chains, not to mention promotional and advertising budgets that are developed by large volume sales.
Just to provide a single figure in the volume of sales department, Concha y Toro, the second world brand, sold in 2016 some 185 million bottles, and just one of their sub-brands, Castillero del Diablo, about 65 million bottles. This is about double the annual sales of the number one Champagne brand. Now Concha y Toro owns some 9,500 hectares of vines in Chile, which accounts for around 8,5% of the viticultural surface of that country. Such a degree of concentration would perhaps be unthinkable in France, for example. But in other liquid fields, such as beer or spirits, this would not be the case. I am not saying that one is « right » and another is « wrong ». I feel, on the contrary, that this question should be regarded on both sides and with as much objectivity as possible. I would suggest, however, that the main argument against such a degree of concentration is that of financial monopoly amongst a small number of owners, and an ensuing impoverishment of the rest of the working wine population. On the other hand, I would not pretend that the quality of the wines are any lower that those produced by the very fragmented wine producers of Europe, and perhaps even the contrary.
To follow up this article at a later date, I intend to locate and taste and comment the top ten selling wine brands in France and measure them against some of the above-mentioned wines, just for fun. Rest assured that none of them will be so-called « natural » wines, which probably account for 0.001% of the world’s wine production and, quite unreasonably, about 10% of the world’s wine communication. I tasted a couple of these last week and they have since helped clear the pipework under my kitchen sink! Such a pair of scandalously dangerous (to one’s palate for sure, and probably even possibly to one’s heath) beverages I have never yet encountered. There is no control over the sanitary level of wines, contrary to what is in place for foodstuffs. I intend to name the culprits one of these days in case any of you are ever offered a bottle.