What’s the world’s oldest brand still around today? Hoover? Ford? Oxo? Coca-Cola? These were the names that sprang to mind when I asked the question of some colleagues. Sorry, but these household names are mere striplings when it comes to marketing history.
Unless you see ‘Christianity’ as a brand it’s hard to look farther than the Premier Cru red wine from Bordeaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, a wine continuously marketed and promoted under its own name since the mid-seventeenth century. Haut-Brion appears in the diaries of Samuel Pepys as a highly desirable tipple. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to a friend, also commended Haut Brion (though he failed to spell it correctly).
What do brands do for us? Initially they provide an introduction to wine’s delights. Very few people come to wine by picking up a bottle bearing an obscure label from the Costieres de Nimes, saying “Must try this, I’ll take it home tonight.” What brands do is give us confidence. The wine market is the most fragmented in the world, with the possible exception of womens’ clothing. Even in a small wine merchant’s the choice is daunting; you’ll be faced with at least 400 bottles. Brand psychology is an open book; the sub-text reads “choose a branded wine and you are far less likely to make a cock-up.” Brands also provide a step ladder. If you could afford to work your way through, say, Penfold’s range of red wines from Koonunga Hill (around €14) to Grange (around €200) you’d have a pretty good palate by the time you reached the end of the line. You’d also have a handle on the quantum leap in enjoyment you can get by paying a tad more each step of the way. The existence of a ‘reserve’, ‘riserva’ or ‘reserva’ on the stepladder is no accident. It is there to prevent newbie drinkers from jumping ship when their palates crave a more sophisticated offering.
At the same time there are things that branded wines can’t do for you. They can’t give you that singular high that goes with linking a wine to an individual character or a small plot. Even when they highlight the connection between one of their wines and its ‘terroir’ it’s difficult to see the revelation as anything other than a marketing ploy. Worse, brand drinkers are denied the unbounded joy of boring the arse off their friends with the one about the little Chateau that they “discovered” whilst driving through France where they had “the most divine wine that ever existed”.
This time of year is ‘catwalk time’ for wine writers, when the supermarkets roll out their winter collections. Dunnes Stores were the first to switch on the spotlights and it was evident that their wine buying team are doing a decent job, particularly in bringing budget drinking to the ‘church mouse generation’. Hitherto, my normal advice would be to shun anything under €10 unless you want something to pep up a casserole but here, amazingly, was a very drinkable 2008 chardonnay/viognier, Tilia from Argentina, a gift at €6.99. A savvy blend, this; the viognier (around 25%) gave the wine a lovely floral lift. Also from the same stable came a clean, modern Malbec, Alamos, very nicely made red, well worth the €8 ask. California is not a region that springs to mind when you are looking for low cost decent drinking but I liked the Marmesa Brook Ranch syrah (€9.99), very balanced with good chunky fruit – ‘steak wine’. The wines of Laurent Miquel have been one one of the stars in Dunne’s firmament for some years. They had another highly quaffable chardonnay/viognier, Nord Sud 2009 at €8 and the 100% viognier, 30% of which was matured in French barriques, at €8.95 was better still. Wine of the show, for me, was the striking, dark-toned Sancerre, Domaine des Grosses Pierres, bang on the money at €12.99.