Should the use of selected microorganisms for alcoholic or malolactic fermentation be considered as additives in wines?
Winemaking is a fascinating creative process whose interpretation includes both craft and a science. While the majority of winemakers aim for a balance between both philosophies, divided opinions on what extent wine production should be manipulated and controlled to produce the best wines spark highly controversial discussions. Current conventional understanding of microorganisms used in the process of alcoholic and malolactic fermentation is to classify them as processing aids, regardless whether they are indigenous or selected. Nevertheless, the natural wine movement insists that anything added (e.g. lab-bred yeasts, enzymes or bacteria) to wine should be listed as an additive and therefore be declared on the label so that consumers can make an informed choice. However, what happens when wild yeasts are selected from a specific ecosystem for their individuality and then are reproduced for the following vintages in order to achieve reliability? And would consumers really benefit from this transparency reflected on labels or would it just create further confusion?
Both winemaking techniques – alcoholic and malolactic ferment – can be either controlled by inoculation with carefully selected yeast strains (specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae) or lactic acid bacteria (specifically Oenoccocus oeni, Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc & Pediococcus) respectively. Alternatively they can be carried out spontaneously thanks to indigenous cultures. Regardless the method, the microorganisms used as catalysts are technically defined as processing aids (not additives or ingredients) as they are substances that are transient and do not remain to a significant extent in the finished contemporary wines. Both yeasts and bacteria are killed by increased alcohol level or thanks to sulphur dioxide at the end of fermentation and are then removed from the finished wine by racking and/or filtration.
The non-interventionist or natural wine argument, on the other hand, uncompromisingly asserts that foreign/selected yeasts and bacteria are additives and therefore not accepted in their unofficial codes of practice. Their argument is supported by the fact that it has been proven that different populations of wild yeast species are specific to a region/vineyard. This means that the regionally different populations of wild yeasts and other fungi produce regional flavours and wine characteristics and therefore are closely tied to expression of a specific terroir. Global research has shown that both vineyards (grape skins, vine leaves, stems, soil) and wineries (interior, barrels etc.) are heaving with microbial life. Dr Mat Goddard, senior lecturer and yeast researcher of The University of Auckland, has proven that Saccharomyces cerevisiae is unique to a place/region. He found that yeasts in West Auckland, Kumeu River share less than 0.4% of their ancestry with other international strains. Similarly, David Mills, Professor in the Departments of Food Science & Technology at the University of California at Davis, found specific microbes within California’s wine growing regions (such as Acetobacter in Central Coast, Methylobacterium in Sonoma and Lactococcus in Napa Valley) after testing over 270 ferments.
Based on these findings, only indigenous populations of yeasts and bacteria result in wine that faithfully reflects the sense of place. The clearest solution therefore would be to consider indigenous cultures as processing aids, and commercial cultures from a packet as additives as they alter the wine style despite not remaining in the finished wine. However, the issue is how to make this sufficiently clear on labels in order to provide consumers with accurate information and enable them to identify the origin and quality level of the wine. Also, consideration is required on how to avoid misleading or confusing consumers by listing extra ingredients whilst not portraying the wine yeast additions as detrimental or unfavorable in the consumer’s mind. It is thanks to the wine yeast companies (such as Lallemand, Oenobrands) and their ongoing investment that the risk of stuck ferments, the formation of undesired characteristics or a high level of bacterial biogenic amines have been eliminated, and that better more consistent wines can be created.
In addition to this labeling issue, the discussion gets even more complicated as wild yeasts can and are commercially developed in order to produce the authentic effect of spontaneous ferment yet in a control way. There are some producers worldwide that select their own indigenous yeasts and reproduce the same species for the following vintage ensuring a reliable start and finish of the ferment and retaining the individuality of the place. Quinta de Azevedo in Minho, Portugal developed a yeast culture from their vineyards called QA23 which has been successful for starting and controlling fermentation. Vasse Felix in Margaret River, Australia has developed their own yeast culture for the combination of individuality and reliability and in order to create consistent aromas.
In conclusion, there is no single answer as to whether yeasts and bacteria that have been commercially selected should be considered as additives or whether they should remain to be officially classified as processing aids. There are two controversial camps of producers who present valid arguments. In addition, a new method of capturing the benefits of authenticity and control is starting to be explored thanks to new developments in viticulture and a better understanding of the microorganisms responsible for alcoholic and malolactic ferment. However, the combination of using wild microorganisms and reproducing them muddies the waters between what is a natural element and what is an additive/ingredient. Consumers may not be aware of the implications of these production methods but if labelling reflects the difference there it is likely that despite being more specific, labels will become more confusing and possibly misleading about the quality of wine. After all, regardless of the method used, both are instrumental in meeting global demand for high quality wines.
Champagne is one of the most aspirational and pleasurable drinks worldwide. It not only tickles our palates with its effervescent bubbles but its true essence lies in the way it makes us feel; it symbolises the good life. It is a delicious fizzy alcoholic beverage. It is a luxury. It is a brand. It is a unique terroir and region. It is about craftsmanship. But above all, just as Rolex stands for heroic achievement or Tiffany for love and beauty, Champagne is a symbol of celebration.
It has become indispensable in developed societies and has managed to become intertwined in our lives especially at key social moments. Whether you are toasting on New Year’s Eve, sharing a glass on holiday or christening baby or ship, Champagne is a crucial requirement. In fact, it is so popular that its demand is accompanying more diverse events, perhaps an end-of-the-week treat or a cheeky glass with your dear friends.
Magnums and other large Champagne formats have never been so popular. Their presence and image provide real a sense of theatre to an occasion. The appeal of the larger format is so strong that consumers are willing to overlook the ambitious margins in order to throw a memorable party.
The distinctive pop was once only exclusive to royalty and an affluent elite with high status but now it is a luxury that anyone can afford, although possibly not to the notable excess of Jay-Z or Winston Churchill. However, it can now be consumed anywhere and anytime. It is possibly the only alcoholic drink that can be drunk in the morning without anyone batting an eyelid. But that does not mean that it has lost its sense of luxury and exclusivity.
Thanks to its successful marketing, Champagne retains its power to make us feel special. It is a smart product that delivers emotional benefits to consumers who affiliate themselves to different brands according to the perceived value, status and what each signifies. Great brands establish their essence and emotional value in the consumer’s mind. Above all they inspire us with their mystique and history. So that when we buy a bottle of Champagne, we are being influenced subconsciously by its desirable pedigree and mastery.
The essence of Champagne cannot be captured in one glass, it is an emotional and sensual experience with exceptional story that many wish to be part of. It is one red carpet that you do not need to be a celebrity to be able to walk on.
Is fine wine an old people’s game? If so, how does one bring the younger generation into spending their hard earned income on better bottles?
Purchasing fine wine is not only expensive but it also demands a level of wine knowledge. Therefore it naturally suits those consumers that have accumulated both wealth and experience over the years. Unsurprisingly, the younger generation tends to pay less for a bottle of wine as they earn less money and lack the confidence in their choices. One way of making wine more accessible is to educate young consumers but not everyone wants to be educated, so the challenge for the wine trade is to give the new generation confidence to engage with wine in an entertaining, non-intimidating way.
Fine wine is often seen as too formal, exclusive and rather complicated and none of these traits attract younger drinkers who seek fun and inclusivity. Therefore, the challenge is not only to inspire wine drinkers to trade up but firstly to motivate young consumers to appreciate good wines. In order to get consumers to drink less but better wines the wine trade needs to build effective new marketing strategies that are focused on the consumer and their eating and drinking behaviours.
There is currently a real interest and enthusiasm in food and wine in the UK concentrated particularly in London. The explosion of gourmet establishments such as trendy bistros, coffee shops, cheese and bread specialists, pop up restaurants and wine bars has seen an exciting revolution. Wine bars such as Vinoteca, 28-50, The Remedy, Sager & Wilde offer customers an opportunity to indulge in a better choice of wines and small sharing dishes while creating a deeper social bond and building loyalty, lacking in other sectors.
Diners are not only broadening their taste horizons when eating out from hotdogs to lobsters, but they are also starting to experiment with different ways to enjoy wine. Drinking wine over ice or mixing it with fruit juices are a couple of ways that a new generation of drinkers are getting their first taste of wine. The latest consumer trend is towards fresher lighter still and sparkling wines for their versatility and food friendly appeal. In addition, indigenous grape varieties are increasing in popularity driven by the consumer desire for provenance and authenticity. Not only tastes are changing and challenging traditional wine perceptions but also the way consumers value the shopping experience.
Wine shops like The Sampler, Bottle Apostle, Vagabond Wines and Hedonism Wines are rightly putting the consumer at the centre of their business and focussing on their emotional as much as their rational reasons for buying wine. They have managed to embrace innovation and create shopping spaces where people want to be. Using Enomatic machines people can now sample wines before their purchase. By creating relaxed areas with beautiful displays, customers can socialise and be inspired to drink better wines. The most successful retailers don’t just sell wine but offer an experience.
However, the painful truth is that a huge amount of mass-produced uninteresting wine and food is still sold through supermarkets. Consumers may be more interested in the provenance of food and wine, seeking local organic produce but the price and promotional activities are still the biggest purchasing drivers. This has resulted in miniscule margins for producers and agents but worse still a dire selection and no service for consumers. It would be too easy to just blame supermarkets who under the premise of giving consumers what they want, use bottom end wines and heavy discounts to lure people into stores. But the wine industry would really benefit more from giving consumers a clear purpose for the consumption of better wines by offering incentives and connecting with them emotionally.
Nevertheless, the UK is one of the most price-savvy markets in the world. Wine consumers slot primarily into two distinctive groups. The minority who are highly involved and interested in fine wines, and a large group of consumers unwilling to spend more than £4-5 per bottle (according to the UK Wine Market Landscape Report by Wine Intelligence carried in 2014). Over 16 million consumers buy wine in the supermarkets and despite some large retailers (such as Majestic, Oddbins etc.) successfully selling more premium wines, the majority of wine is still sold at £4. The average price per bottle has increased to £5.34 but this figure provides a false perception of people trading up. When you consider the duty increase by 46% in the last five years the real price of wine has in fact fallen in recent years. As Tim Atkin MW put it bluntly “a lot of people are still drinking wine that is mediocre or worse.”
Despite all the challenges, there are many opportunities that the wine trade can embrace in order to engage with young consumers. Strategic use of social networking where consumers are encouraged to like, review or recommend on a wine online is one of them. The new generation is technology savvy and this trait sets them apart from previous generations. They spend 108 hours per year on average browsing the internet for work and study, 77 hours a year reading news online and 71 hours a year on Twitter. Thanks to social media they can participate in conversations about wine and post and share wine photos. Whereas advertising offers a wide coverage, it is limited to one-way conversation between the brands and consumers. However, directly engaging with consumers through social media has become a fantastic two-way marketing communication tool especially for producers that are based many miles from their target market. New World producers such as those from New Zealand and Australia have proved to be natural communicators reflecting their understanding of social media and its value in engaging with consumers and the wine trade.
An online retail presence is also a great platform to attract new consumers but is still very much under utilised by wine companies. It not only offers convenience, which is often a key deal-breaker for today’s consumer, but also competitive cost, a wide range of exciting wines and fast hassle-free delivery. Whereas purchasing wine in store or restaurant can involve social risks by being embarrassed in front of friends or colleagues, buying wine online offers a more friendly and relaxing environment. It also helps less experienced consumers to search for wine in a less daunting way that assures them that the wine is good enough to share with others, instead just using price as the quality indicator.
To further battle the intimidation driven by lack of knowledge, producers can use packaging to communicate with consumers. Many young less experienced consumers rely heavily on descriptions from labels (or for that matter medals won and alcohol content). There are thousands of wines to choose from and it can be difficult for consumers to select one over another. Still many labels are as confusing as ever making it hard to gauge the quality of wine prior to purchase, even for a wine expert. Clear descriptive clues and attractive label design manages the perception of wine’s quality and drives the likelihood of purchase. Clever packaging can offer a promise of value that consumers will appreciate and a promise of something special.
Design recognition (including logo, brand symbols, patterns, colours etc.) also plays a key role in brand familiarity which is one of the most informational cues consumers use to assess wines before buying. Investing in brand image and marketing requires an entirely different approach depending on the scope and goal of brands. Whereas consistency is required for mass brands, experiences are essential for luxury brands. Many luxury brand owners have realized that the story of wine and its lifestyle projection can inspire and emotionally engage with consumer as much as the actual taste of wine.
Despite the visual appeal of a bottle and its brand familiarity, the most powerful influencer in selecting wines is a friend’s recommendation. When asked, the majority of consumers are more comfortable to ask for a recommendation from friends and family than asking questions in a store. The same factor wins when asked what would encourage consumers to trade up. Retailers have the opportunity to change consumers’ perceptions of the shopping experience by creating a more approachable atmosphere and using language that consumers understand. The wine trade also has an opportunity to create more wine events and focused tastings in order to encourage people to spread the word. Each loyal consumer has the power to play a role of an ambassador for the individual producer or brand.
Boutique wine producers may be able to learn from the recent rise in popularity of craft brewers around the world. They have much in common as they are small, independent and traditional. Neither have large financial investments yet their impact is significant. Craft breweries use experimentation with flavours and packaging to cleverly tap into the Millennial’s desire for adventure and to encourage beer drinkers to come back for more. This has resulted in the UK beer market seeing a shift in demand from lager (which has dominated the market for nearly 40 years) towards more full-flavoured beers, stronger Pale Ales and seasonal beers.
In conclusion, when communicating with the consumer, the goal should be to encourage people to make their choices on more than simply price and to experiment and try new styles. In order to make wine less intimidating, the wine trade would benefit from using familiar language that consumers understand instead of focusing on exclusivity and formality. Furthermore, the wine trade should not merely expect consumers to buy better wines but needs to offer incentives to do so. The most effective strategy to achieve this is to build on brand familiarity and loyalty, grasp the power of communicating through packaging and label design, encourage recommending and sharing of wine online and above all to offer a better shopping experience. Wine does not have to be a commodity but can be an enjoyable and social experience. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is to make good wine more recognizable, available and accessible to consumers.