It was during the late 1980's when I first set out on my journey of discovery of the great big world of wine. That was around the time that Diane and I began enjoying the odd bottle or two of Bulgarian Cabernet, Romanian Pinot, various Aussie blends and the like with our meals. Well, everybody has to start somewhere - and some of those wines were, I seem to recall, very enjoyable. But it wasn't until I began to discover such delights as Chateau Musar 1979 and Penfolds Bin 28 Shiraz 1987 that I began to suspect that there may be so much more out there to discover.
I can't remember who pointed me in the direction of Chateau Musar, but I am eternally grateful, because various vintages have given me so much pleasure over the years. And I still have a few 1991's, 1996's (much underrated, but gaining weight all the time) and 2001's tucked away. Not that Musar is cheap anymore (my first bottle cost around a fiver) but, at around £15 a bottle for the current vintage, it is still a relative bargain. As for Penfolds Bin 28, I can remember exactly where I first heard about it - from the results of the much-publicised International Wine Challenge (IWC), where it won a gold medal and was named "red wine of the year". And a beautiful wine it was too - so much so that it really fired my imagination and got me really interested in Aussie wines. Oh, how times have changed...... Is it my palate that has changed/evolved, or are Australian wines so different, these days? If truth be told, perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. However, I digress...........
Perhaps it was always the case that wines entered into the IWC were mainly from the supermarkets and high street chains such as Oddbins, Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms-Up and Majestic. But then again, 20 years ago, the supermarkets and the afore-mentioned high street chains genuinely were pushing the boundaries and unleashing countless interesting (and often brilliant) wines onto the market, thereby introducing a whole new audience to the delights of good wine.
But fast-forward 20 years, and the scene is much more depressing. Oddbins is a mere shadow of its former self (although some brave soul is attempting to revive its fortunes - with very mixed results, it would seem), whilst Thresher is reduced to selling predominantly "brand" wines at vastly over-inflated "normal" prices, but thinks it is clever to offer "buy 2 bottles and get a 3rd bottle free" - or (a variation on the same tired theme) "40% off", by way of cheap viral marketing. Perhaps they should stick to selling fags and Special Brew. Majestic is still trying (a bit) although its ever-increasing size means that more and more mass market wines are finding their way onto its shelves, at the expense of the more interesting wines from smaller, independent growers. I guess it won't be long before they are as "interesting" as the various arms of the giant Laithwaites empire. As for the supermarkets, they have mostly become deserts for thirsty wine drinkers on the lookout for interesting and unusual wines. In fact, the less said about them the better.
Which (finally!) brings me back to the International Wine Challenge. I had a look through some of the results yesterday and they made for depressing reading. Or, at least, the French ones did. Obviously, the first sections I headed for (using the "Find me an award winning wine" search facility, on the right hand side of the page) were red and white Languedoc and Roussillon and Vins de Pays. And virtually all I found were pages and pages of generic wines churned out mostly by village co-operatives, negociants and multi-national concerns - exactly the sort of boring stuff to be found on supermarket shelves. The odd "bronze", here and there - perhaps even a few "silver", but mostly just "commended". There even seemed to be several pages-worth of "awards" for the giant Skalli/Fortant de France outfit - they make a few decent(ish) and technically correct wines, but nothing to get excited about. I then headed to the Burgundy section and found much the same - mostly generic bottlings and wines from a few negociant firms and bottom-end growers (i.e. mostly supermarket wines again).
A quick look at the California section revealed yet more branded wines, along with, it has to be said, a few top-end and icon wines as well. What really caught my eye, though were the various Australian sections - countless pages of awarded wines, ranging from the usual generic stuff, through to some of the top icon wines, and all points inbeween. Which only serves to illustrate just how aggressive the Australian growers (or more likely their regional and national marketing boards) are in promoting their wines. It doesn't necessarily mean that Australian wines are better - although judging by the results of this competition, you'd think Australia was by far and away the greatest wine producing country in the world! Of course, you have to admire the Aussies for their marketing efforts. After all, they haven't become the number one exporter of wines to the UK market by sitting on their backsides and waiting for it to happen - which is what the French (or, at least, their regional maketing bodies) seem to do.
The problem is that France - as a whole - sees itself as the greatest wine-producing country in the world. Which, in my opinion (and, I would venture, that of a decent majority of the world's wine lovers) it is. But that is beside the point. The pre-eminence and reputation of the top wines from France's greatest regions means that they will always sell. But what of the thousands upon thousands of small, independent growers throughout the country who are producing brilliant wines, but struggle to find a market for them? Other than small merchants such as myself, together with the more adventurous agents/importers, there appear to be few routes into the main markets such as the UK, Europe, the Americas and the Far East.
It is easy for people like me to blame the French marketing boards for this (and I frequently do!) but there is another equally plausible explanation; that the sheer diversity of France's wine regions, styles and number of quality-minded growers - which is undoubtedly its greatest asset - also happens to be its greatest problem. Vive La France - Vive la Difference, as it were.
So what is the solution? I only wish I knew. Perhaps, in our world of homogenous products and homogenous food and wines, there is no big solution. But (and I know I've said this many times before, but I'm going to say it again) if a marketing body with the apparent clout of Les Maisons de la Régions Languedoc-Roussillon cannot even provide funding assistance for the publication of the first major book on the region's wines written in at least 6 or 7 years (by my friend Peter Gorley), then what hope is there?
I must say, this blog entry began as a bit of a rant about the futility of the International Wine Challenge and all it stands for. And don't get me started on the fact that it would cost me in the region of 100 quid (plus several sample bottles) simply to enter one single wine into this competition. If I wanted to enter (say) 20 of my wines, I would immediately be 2 Grand (plus goodness-knows-how-many cases of wine) worse off. And for what? I've seen more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that "serious" wine drinkers (the ones I want to drink my wines) are not the slightest bit interested in whether a wine has some or other award ticket draped around its neck. Call it snobbery, but I avoid such wines like the plague. Problem is, 95% of the UK's wine drinkers see an IWC medal on a bottle and immediately assume that it is better than all of the other bottles on the shelf.
So, to round off what has become a bit of a lengthy post(!) and to answer my own question; What is the IWC all about? Well its about marketing, of course. And on that score, the supermarkets (and the Australians) win hands down.