Wine... it's complicated

Wine... it's complicated

Author: Tom Planer

Wine is confusing to most people.

In the UK about half the population buy a bottle monthly or more.

But even among those regular drinkers, 3 in 4 of them find navigating the wine selection in a supermarket or wine shop overwhelming.

So if you find buying a bottle confusing, you’re definitely in the majority, even among your fellow wine lovers.

But why is it so confusing?

It mainly boils down to too many words, too many languages, too many synonyms and no consistent systems for organising everything. 

Information Overload

To start with there are a lot of grapes. 10,000 different varieties to be inexact.

Many have multiple names and synonyms depending on where you are in the world (e.g Syrah vs Shiraz) which means the total number of grape words to remember is even higher.

Then there are around 100,000 producers & wineries in the world, each with their own names & logos. A whole load more wine words to remember.

Most of these producers are making multiple different bottles. According to the average wine labels / SKUs per winery is 20 (which seems high) but even if you halve it, you’re still looking at about 1 million different bottles of wine being produced in total.

To put these numbers in perspective, a London Taxi driver has to memorise 25,000 street names and 50,000 places of interest during “the knowledge” - a memory exercise so complex it literally changes the physical shape of their brains.

By this count there is at least 15 times more “wine information” out there than taxi drivers need to learn during the knowledge. 

Lost in Translation

As well as the sheer volume of information, language throws an additional spanner in the works.

Walk into any wine shop or supermarket in the UK and you’re going to be looking at French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese & German at the very least.

That’s a whole load more words.

What does Vieille Vignes mean? What does Gran Reserva mean?

If you don’t speak the language, or you’re not a wine nerd - they’re pretty much meaningless.

To complicate things even more, they sometimes mean very different things within the same country.

A Grand Cru in Bordeaux is slightly different from a Grand Cru in Burgundy. Riserva in Italy refers to ageing requirements of some sort, but can mean anything between 1 year of aging and 5.

Let’s not even get started on the difference between German Trocken Riesling (bone dry / not at all sweet) and Trockenbeerenauslese (50% more sugar than a can of coke).

Do you speak wine?

Once you’ve navigated your way around all the other languages you’ve still got English to contend with.

Most drinkers aren’t familiar with wine terminology at all.

Despite “dry white wine” being the most popular wine order in a pub or bar - a lot of drinkers wouldn’t be able to tell you what the dry part means (it means not sweet FYI).

If you can get to grips with the basic terminology there are still a tonne of flowery synonyms employed by those writing tasting notes (including yours truly) helping to confuse anyone who isn’t an expert.

Speaking of flowery & using this as an example you might see this as floral, aromatic, perfumed, fragrant, blossomy, herbaceous.

High tannin wines might be described as structured, grippy, bitter, chewy, tight, astringent, aggressive, harsh, angular, coarse or rigid.

So as well as knowing what tannins are in the first place - you need to know the word in all its guises in order to decipher the tasting notes.

We need more structure

There are a lot of amazing specialist wine shops - but one of the problems is that there’s inconsistency from shop to shop.

Some categorise by country & region, some by price, some simply by colour. All of these are fine for people with a bit of knowledge. But if you don’t know what taste differences to expect between a Burgundy or a Rioja - it’s not going to help you too much.

Even shops that categorise according to wine style, can cause problems, because if every shop has their own language and way of framing and categorising styles - customers who shop in multiple locations (i.e everyone) still can’t transfer their learnings & knowledge between shops.

They might like zippy whites, but what about zingy whites, or citrus whites, or refreshing mineral whites or high acid whites?

Mind Games

To add insult to injury - on top of all this information to remember - you're also essentially fighting against your brain when trying to remember the cues that link the information back to the physical product.

A lot of wine is about taste, and taste is 80% about smell. Your olfactory system (smell) is the only one of your senses that bypasses the thalamus (brain processing centre) and goes straight into your memory. 

It's the thing that made Proust's madeleine catapult him back to his childhood, it's responsible for jolting vivid memories that stop you in the street when you get a waft of smell you can't place, and it's the reason that remembering the properties of the wine you drank at the dinner party last week is almost impossible.

So what should you do?

Well there are a couple of different options as a wine loving consumer.

First you can learn about wine - but realistically everyone who wants to do this is doing it already - and it doesn’t come without a cost (in money, time & brainpower).

So your next option is to buy the same wine every time you go to the shop.

But where’s the fun in that? There’s a million bottles out there - do you really want to find one and stick to it?

You could just gamble and pick at random. But if the average person likes about 40% of wines out there (on average) - you’re likely to end up with a lot of mediocre wines & even some getting tipped down the sink.

You can buy whatever is cheap or on special offer - so at least if you don’t like it it’s not the end of the world financially. But you know deep down that more expensive wine does tend to be better quality - and maybe you also have an inkling that the slashed prices are just a way of shifting stuff that’s not selling.

Right now there is no perfect option, but we’re hoping there will be soon…

If you’re still reading, you clearly identify with the issue at hand and so the best thing to do is sign up to our mailing list, because this whole article has really been a long and roundabout way of saying:

We’re working on something.

There are going to be some big changes happening at Wine Unpacked over the next few months - and we think we’ve got the answer to all your problems. Well, your wine problems at least.

Sign up below & stay tuned!

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