Are wine appellations really nonsense? Are appellations the reason why Lidl sells Chianti at £3.99? Will it make any difference if instead of the “appellation” the label will have the grape? Does the problem lie somewhere else? Is the amount, as quantity, of wine produced to be blamed? I had already touched the subject in several of my posts and always said I would have written a proper one but never got round to it until now. A couple of days ago, I found on my profile facebook a post from Robert Joseph about appellations entitled “The nonsense of appellations. Smartly labeled DOCG Chianti at £3.99 in Lidl” in which he blames the concept of appellations, the whole discussions that generated from it is only visible to us, however, it made me sitting on my computer and write my thoughts on it.
I could not agree more than creating a new appellation now, it is useless and expensive and the same resources could be more profitably invested in promoting the wines and the wineries involved and when it happens I always share my opinion, however, appellations that are already amongst us and we are familiar with, for me are brands, like Coke or Nike, and can be powerful brands if administered as such but like all brands, their value dilutes if not.
Until 20 years ago wine was either an Italian or a French affair, with Spain taking a bite, but now, wine is a worldwide business and while the new worlds does not have the traditions Italian and French and Spanish have, where wine is much more than just a products, these countries have transformed wine into a commodity. Merlot, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc are just like commodities and people buy commodities based on their price, the cheaper the better, there is no substantial difference between wineries that justify a premium, with a very few exception, and price is the only benchmark.
The classic example is chardonnay, until 6 or 7 years the most drunk white wine in the uk, due to the over oaking of some supermarket wine used to cover poor quality grapes, ageing or oaking is a good way of doing so, is currently the least favourite wine with many people just steering off the grape all together. The same people that used to love Chardonnay, now drink cheap Pinot Grigio because contrary to chardonnay, when drunk at 4 degrees like the majority of drinkers like it, has no flavour, it is just like cold water, they have substitute one commodity with another.
Why did I start here? I started here because Italy or France or Spain or any other country that has appellations has something that no other country has and for me this is a brand, it is up to them to make it a highly profitable one or misuse and damage it. A classic example, and the same wine used by Robert, is the Chianti. Chianti is a fantastic wine when properly made, however, for the wine drinker on the street, is the cheap wine that comes in a flask. Is this the fault of the appellation or the wine makers that did not understand that needed to move away from the flask and start presenting the Chianti like a proper wine? There was a time for the flask, but that time is now long gone. When I say wine makers I don’t mean just wine makers, but also the organizations that should support them which Italy is full. Why the Chianti consortium has not created a rule preventing winemakers to use the flask? When visiting Florence or Tuscany in general, shops still sell plenty of flasks with cheap Chianti on it for the tourists to buy that if drunk once at home, taste of vinegar. If the consortium allows this to happen, then they cannot expect that the same tourist at home will spend its hard earned money to buy a bottle of vinegar. In Florence they bought the souvenir not the wine.
Italy is full of appellations, way too many, probably some of them could be written off and are worthless, but appellations like Chianti or Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino and many more are priceless, no other country can produce a Chianti or a Barolo or a Brunello di Montalcino, they can all make a Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, however their brand has been diluted by short sighting and it is wrong to just blame the producers, most of them have never heard of marketing or branding and only know how to make wine, they been making it all their life and too often think their wines are the best in world.
Italian wine industry is made by mainly small producers, the majority of which, do not have the knowledge and resources to create a brand. In today world, to create a brand, does not matter what your product is, first requirement is big financial resources and long term planning, and Italian winemakers due to the lack of marketing skills and the necessity to make space in the tanks for the next vintage, never thought of their appellation or their winery as a brand, but just as a business making and selling wine, and unfortunately, the world is full of companies ready to exploit it.
When appellations were created, together with the consortiums to run them, their intentions was to guarantee the quality of the wine, but it never worked, the legislation behind them has never updated to include the changes in the industry and there are too many contrasting parties, wineries pro as well as against the flask, all sat on the same table and consortiums are not run properly, often without the right skills with the only results of not being able to take decisions.
Appellations are brands, but a brand is only worth something when it justify a premium on the eyes of the consumers, otherwise is worthless, currently Italian appellations are worth little and until a change in the way the consortiums are run and a change in the way the different appellations are granted, nothing will ever change and gradually Italian appellations will be worth less and less and the chianti or the pinot grigio or the prosecco will become cheaper and cheaper until will disappear all together but the problem are not the appellations but the people behind them.
To understand a bit more about how the appellation system in Italy works read our wine and grape guide