Diner’s Diary
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Future of wine: how China, climate change and technology will transform the industry

Wine expert Robert Joseph points to a future where blends suited to mass consumer tastes replace vintages, glass closures replace cork and screw cap, robots pick grapes, and wine shops offer experiences like modern bookstores

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 June, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 June, 2018, 7:00pm

British wine expert Robert Joseph complains that the wine industry is changing at the speed of a snail. The author of several books, founder of the International Wine Challenge and producer asked aloud this week why winemakers and merchants won’t move with the times.

He was giving a talk at Vinexpo Hong Kong, a major trade fair, called “The Future of Wine Has Changed”.

With technology, climate change and consumer habits fast evolving, wine cannot be made, packaged, marketed and sold the way it is now, he says. For an hour and a half, Joseph outlined foreseeable trends that could disrupt the wine industry, and which he believes should be embraced now.

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Joseph sees a big disconnect between the technical aspects of wine that a rarefied group feels qualified to grade, and the reality that the vast majority of drinkers don’t care about appellation and fermentation, and just want to drink wines they think taste good.

The problem starts with wine bottles looking pretty much the same, whether they cost US$10 or US$100; the failure to educate the consumer about the differences is the fault of wine producers, he says.

His forecasts can be broken down into four main areas.

1. Climate change

He says that while US President Donald Trump and others may dispute global warming, climate change evidence is obvious; from his own experience, in the 1970s to 1980s grapes in Burgundy had 9 per cent residual sugar, while now the level is 13 per cent.

Rising temperatures are prompting vineyards to move to the hills, or farther north in Europe and North America. He has tried pinot noir from the Netherlands, not historically a winemaking country, he says.

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Joseph believes the traditional schedule of growing grapes and harvesting them is over – nothing is predictable any more. So, he asks, do we need vintages? “In Bordeaux, 2013 wasn’t a good year. Should they have released that vintage? Or maybe they should have blended it with something else?”

Blending will become more common, Joseph says, because in some years not enough wine will be produced. He cites a successful brand called “I heart wines”, from the UK, that has a range of affordable pinot grigio, merlot, sauvignon blanc, rosé, Prosecco, and shiraz wines that Joseph says taste the way people want them to taste, and aren’t complicated.

Sustainability is crucial for the wine industry, especially since it is not very environmentally friendly, he says. New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and California are ahead of Europe on sustainability. He points out that Spain-based wine producer Torres uses hybrid cars and solar panels.

2. Technology

Drones are already being used in vineyards to check for disease and drought, while sensors in the ground measure how dry the soil is and indicate whether vines need watering.

Joseph showed a picture of a small robot with “hands” like scissors that can prune vines. While they still need to be refined, wineries like Kendall Jackson in California are already trying them out. As a result, there will be less need for manual labour. He says New Zealand wineries are almost fully automated.

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For marketing, augmented reality can help promote wines, he says. Users who scan a wine label could hear explanations of its contents; or people could strap on a pair of virtual reality goggles for a walk through a vineyard.

He recently saw a Taobao app used at a wine show in Shanghai. Within 35 seconds of a picture of the label on a bottle being uploaded to the app, it had identified the wine, given its details and offered an option to buy on the spot.

“There’s no need to wait to find a wine shop, or know how to pronounce the name of the wine, or read wine critics’ reviews – if they like it, they can buy it right away,” Joseph says.

3. Taste trends

There are wines that are finished in bourbon barrels and consumers like the taste, Joseph says, even though wine connoisseurs turn up their noses. “Profit margins [in wine] are appalling so if people like it, why not?” he asks.

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He invites the audience to try a riesling made by Changyu, one of China’s big wine producers. “They say never sell white wine in China because they don’t drink chilled drinks, but I don’t believe it,” he says. Joseph argues that if a big Chinese wine producer is making whites, the tide is turning on red wines’ dominance of the China market.

Wines that don’t contain sulphites – an antibacterial agent used as a preservative – are considered inferior, he says, but producers such as Gerard Bertrand in Languedoc, France, are making good-tasting ones with no sulphur in them. His wines, and “zero sulphur” brands such as So Organic and Bertrand’s Domaine de L’Estagnère, will become more the norm, Joseph says.

4. Marketing

Joseph questions the way wine is packaged and marketed. He cites the case of Cupcake Vineyards, the brainchild of a then 23-year-old woman who observed soccer moms bought cupcakes as a treat. Why not make wine a treat? The wine was sweet too, and the label was coloured pink.

Chloe Wines is a similar story, making US$15 bottles of chardonnay that have sophisticated packaging.

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He showed a picture of a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, one of the most prized reds from Burgundy, France, that appeared to have a screw cap top. Is it right for this prestigious winery to use a screw top? Then he asks why the debate over wine bottle closures is just between corks and screw caps. Why not use other alternatives? A relatively new product is Vinolok, a glass closure which looks elegant and which Joseph says works well.

Why are wine bottles in 75 centilitres? He says Chinese consumers can’t drink that much in one seating, so the quality of a wine decreases by the time they reopen the bottle the next day. Why not make 50 centilitre bottles to ensure the wine is good, he asks. Joseph also predicts single-serve wines will be more widely available, and even packaged in cans.

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For most consumers, walking into a wine shop is a terrible experience, he says, so why not make them more experiential like bookshops with cafes?

And, how much longer will Chinese drink what we tell them to drink? he asks. He predicts China will develop its own styles of wine and packaging, just as California has after initially trying to imitate the French.