The perpetual pendulum of taste

Perpetual motion machines are scientifically impossible, but that doesn’t stop people believing in them. As usual, the internet provides a happy home for such nut-jobs, for whom scientific impossibility is just another government conspiracy, man. Hence the abundance of blogs purporting to prove that perpetual motion machines are, like, totally real, and that the Large Hadron Collider is actually a stargate to a new cosmic wormhole. I’m not making this up, by the way.

Anyway, it turns out the wine industry has invented its own perpetual energy machine: the pendulum of taste. Like most things the wine industry creates (appellation law, cork taint, wine writers etc), it does little to advance the greater cause of humanity. But it’s nonetheless a thought-provoking subject.

When I started working in wine as a Majestic green-shirt – back when Majestic uniform was, well, green, and screwcaps were still viewed as modern technology – our best-selling wines were heavily oaked Australian Chardonnays. We’d sell Lindeman’s Bin 65 and the like by the pallet-load, which was appropriate because that’s pretty much what they tasted of.

Then, the pendulum of taste swung away, towards crisp, zesty, unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. In response, Aussie Chardonnay went on a crash diet, becoming more lean and reductive, as unrecognisable as the before and after shots in ads for weight-loss clinics.

Then, tastes changed again, veering towards more neutral styles such as Picpoul and Pinot Grigio. The same thing has happened for rosé, most of which tends to be a literally pale imitation of the Provençal style, where achieving the correct shade of pallid pink often seems more important than having any actual flavour. As for reds, the big, bold, heavily extracted style is now eschewed in favour of crunchy, bright vins de soif.

It seems that our preference for wine is constantly moving, and often swings from one extreme to the other, to the extent that it would hardly surprise me to hear that the next big thing is going to be ultra-high sulphur wines.

Anyway, these swings in taste are something peculiar to markets such as the UK, that import from all over the world rather than relying on local, native viniculture, where styles tend to change much more slowly, if at all.

But more often than not, what many consumers want is something in the middle: whites that are not too oaky, but not too insipid, or reds that are not too heavy, but not too acidic, whereas wine professionals are always looking to discover the next new trend, which naturally tends towards extremity.

For those on the frontline of the wine world, the best strategy is a compromise. Stocking a shop full of obscurities might please your fellow wine nut-jobs looking for new cosmic wormholes of flavour, but it will alienate most casual drinkers, whereas if you only stock mainstream styles, your shop looks boring and bland. I’m not saying this is the most revelatory insight; more that getting the right range of styles on to your shelves should always be an ongoing task – and for very good reason.

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