A little bit of history. The Champagne marques were the earliest wine brands, and they’re still the biggest. Luxury goods group LVMH have taken things to a new level, buying up Moët et Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Veuve-Clicquot and Ruinart. How big are they? They’re very big – big enough to make chairman Bernard Arnault the richest man in the European village.
Some of the earliest still wine brands were hot stuff – now and then my dad used to buy Mouton Cadet when it really was the “second wine” of Bordeaux’s first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild. It ain’t any more. If there was a twentieth growth, Mouton wouldn’t make the cut. The rest of the time – in the `seventies - we were weaned on the likes of Mateus Rosé, Blue Nun and Stowells of Chelsea. Those dinosaur brands are still with us and plenty of people are surprised to know that, even though trends in wine consumption have changed out of all recognition, they’re bigger than ever – Mateus sells around 20m bottles annually. Needless to say, the wines are somewhat better these days – everybody has to compete, after all.
Wine doesn’t fit corporate plans for global branding in the way that beer and spirits (where the real money is) do. It’s small fry next to the Bacardis and the Smirnoffs (go into virtually any bar in world and you’ll find them…). The frustration of Fosters, who bought up great swathes of Australia’s wine business in the ‘nineties, was palpable. The facts are that wine is variable; the better stuff is, by its very nature, limited; it’s not possible to respond swiftly to demand; and the whole weather thing? Well, it’s a nightmare …
But these chaps are smart as hell and they don’t give up. Currently the top ten brands in the UK account for a little under 30% of the total market, which at around £5bn, means that each single per cent that they scrabble for translates into sales of a million pounds a week. Pernod Ricard have taken the route of simplification and consolidation and their Jacob’s Creek comes closer to being a global wine brand than most (while being, a) not bad; and b) with multiple levels of irony, the biggest “French” wine brand). Pernod Ricard also appear to be experimenting with the possibilities of making a region – Rioja – interchangeable (or at least confusable with) a brand with their phenomenally successful Campo Viejo. Another new approach is the nomadic or supra-national brand – some Blossom Hill wines, the number-one seller in the UK, are from the USA, some are from Italy and some from Chile … and does anyone mind?
So what’s out there now? Well, of the other top UK sellers like Hardy’s, Gallo, Jacob’s Creek, Lindemans, Echo Falls, First Cape, Kumala, Stowells – yes, really!- and Wolf Blass, the southern hemisphere ones are better than the Californian-based ones and – if push comes to shove – I would drink any of them (but only if cider was the only alternative).
At the next level (down in terms of scale, but up in terms of quality) there are both reliably ubiquitous stand-bys (and anybody who thinks Yellow Tail or Banrock Station are crap isn’t just arguing with me – they’ll have to take on Hugh Johnson as well) and some proper stuff. Again, the best are from South of the equator: St. Hallett, Penfolds and McGuigan from Australia: Oyster Bay, Villa Maria and Brancott (formerly Montana) from NZ: Concha Y Toro (including Casillero del Diablo), Errazuriz, Cono Sur and Yali from Chile: Argento, Alamos, Viñalba, Norton and Zuccardi from Argentina; Kanonkop, Fairhills (fairtrade), Nederburg and Zalze from South Africa are some of the names to go for.
Up North, it’s probably best to forget the USA, for now, and the picture in Europe is patchy. France has always struggled with brands – the French themselves, in fact, abhor Le Piat d’Or. But things are changing and merchant-owned brands like French Connection and La Différence are gradually raising the bar. Some ambitious, quality-conscious, large-scale producers – be they private (like Paul Mas, Gérard Bertrand, Laurent Miquel and Skalli) or co-operative (like Mont Tauch, Plaimont and Blason de Bourgogne) – are coming close to breaking the mould and are worth looking out for.
Spain’s not great – I’m not much taken with the big-selling Riojas – although Torres (especially Viña Sol) deserve a special mention while the best brands are to be found in fortified wines (the same applies in Portugal) and, increasingly, in fizz. From Italy, Canaletto is worth a mention and Germany’s Dr Loosen and Johannes Leitz have great plans based on excellent QPR (quality/price ratio). The old world isn’t really brand land but a lot of great bargains are to be had from the supermarkets’ own brands and “private brands” and we’ll be looking at those in the next two parts.