Updated: Jan 12
Above an Audio T HiFi shop in central Cardiff there is a relatively unknown company, or (excuse the pun) one man band which handmakes intricate amps for music, called Nytech Audio. I have a Nytech amp for the purposes of pure listening pleasure – the technical details don’t matter to me. I think the amp sounds great, for I am an amateur listener and that’s what matters. The owner and talented maker of these amps drowns me in technical jargon during a private session. I have to steer the conversation in a way which gets me to why the amp sounds great for Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Bonobo, the people I like to listen to, not the BBC Radio 4 recording of an intricate cannon blast. This serves as an apt analogy, as the message can transcend every industry and way of life, not just wine. There are technical experts, there are connoisseurs and mere amateurs. There are even people who would confess to knowing less than those who consider themselves amateurs – novices, and people who don’t really care.
Of late, I believe accessibility is a word that has been thrown around the wine industry, meaninglessly, as a subconscious response to the conception of wine being a hobby of the rich and a drink of the intelligencia. That is, Bourgeoisie and people with time, the lovers of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification, from which basis they can assume their en-primeur campaigns to add the latest vintage to their collections. Such beliefs about wine were reinforced by critics like Parker, awarding 100 points to his beloved strong, rich and (usually expensive) wines. Attempts to change such a dogma had come in the form of the resurgence of natural wine, and simultaneously, orange wine. I believe this resurgence is having the opposite effect and is not as inclusive as advocates would have you believe. What was an attempt at cradling the confidence of those that can’t afford the great grand crus of Burgundy recompensed by in the know winos, encouraging the necking of Rousillon Nouveau and unknown indigenous varietals from the depths of Slovenia is equally polarising for the novices. You can’t find Gravner in Tesco, nor ‘Chin Chin’ in Waitrose.
I choose these two specific wines deliberately. The former, because it incorporates two sides of the same coin. You can look at Gravner being £50+ a bottle and easily call it fine wine, and inaccessible. But, if you look at the symbolism surrounding it, featuring winemaking methods dating back to 6000BC Georgia, you can observe a wholesome ethos running through the winery, which is what natural wine fanatics may cling onto compared to insurance firm owned Bordeaux Chateau. Both are at two polarising opposites in the wine industry, and that’s not helping anyone, especially at £60, £70 a bottle.
Chin Chin on the other hand, a wine which, to my absolute disbelief, went viral over the summer with the help of Shop Cuvee and Noble Rot (who imports Chin Chin) is a wine I can easily get behind in helping give wine a more inclusive name and entice confidence. Averaging circa £10 per bottle depending on retailer mark-ups, it features a modern label with verve, drawn by the same eccentric artist that draws for the Noble Rot magazine. Whilst relatively uninspiring in flavour, it delivers in value, something I think consumers are increasingly savvy about. As a wine, it’s the definition of a summertime quaffer, something of great quality and pedigree you don’t really have to think about, and it appeals to people who don’t necessarily know a lot about wine. The wine is not a Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura Vinho Verde, it’s ‘Chin Chin’. What is being missed however, is retailers asking themselves how to model reccomendations; how, if somebody says ‘I like Chin Chin, what do I drink next?’ do we provide something equally accessible?
I have modelled the ethos of Cépage to similarly reflect wine for wine’s sake, where everyone can congregate, celebrate, learn and drink. Know your wine has many meanings and interpretations. Ultimately, it’s about becoming more conscious about what you’re drinking and knowing precisely what’s gone into the making of your bottle. That being said, there is a lot of strength in saying knowing about your wine is also knowing and feeling comfortable in what you like to drink. If you want Gravner, you can experience Gravner, if you want Chin Chin, you can do that too at Cépage.
I have seen a lot of retailers place an emphasis on piecing together various mixed cases, from the abstract to the classical. This serves a great purpose, but it is still, in my opinion, misinformed. That’s because I believe we must start engaging on a broader level, instead of delving into the depths of Burgundy, encouraging people to drink Saint-Bris Sauvignon Blanc and Macon Gamay without fundamental understanding. This creates estrangement and does very little for people’s wine confidence. It is, after-all, it’s experts in the field which appreciate complex, nuanced and relatively uncommon choices, like a BBC recording of a cannon shot.
Whilst Cépage has a number of broad mixed cases, including a Burgundy option, the Cépage Sommelier looks at the individual bottle recommendation, placing a greater importance on this than mixed cases. In the world of COVID, where personalised recommendations in a shop are relatively scarce and in person sommelierie is certainly non-existant, we must do what we can as wine retailers to answer the questions “I like Merlot, what do I drink next?” or, “is this wine sweet or dry?”. Whilst these questions are simplistic in the eyes of experts, they account for a majority of people’s requests as that is the level the average consumer is at. Speaking about residual sugar in your Mosel Riesling and what schist-based limestone does to your southern French Macabeu won’t encourage new customers, nor will regurgitating technical specifications from grand-marque champagne houses that you’ve downloaded off the internet.
Keep it simple, subtly guiding consumers through individual alternatives to styles they are familiar with, keeping the trust they have placed in you to provide them with an excellent liquid experience. Over time, I am sure it will slowly inspire confidence and a new wave of drinkers not estranged, but have been invigorated by our conscious effort not to polarise, but include.