Top-flight wine a matter of interest

Steve Charters, professor of champagne management at Reims, France, says elitism in wine is a bad thing. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Steve Charters, professor of champagne management at Reims, France, says elitism in wine is a bad thing. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Any wine, whatever its price, should be in balance and have reasonably intense fruit, according to Prof Steve Charters, MW.

He was in Dunedin recently to give a lecture on aesthetic quality in wine at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art and take master classes in champagne at the School of Hospitality and in Central Otago.

Born and raised in the UK, he also considers himself Australian, having lived and taught in Perth for 12 years, and is now professor of champagne management at Reims Management School in the Champagne region of France.

But even if a wine was balanced and had reasonably intense fruit, it didn't mean you'd like it, because personal taste came in as well, he said.

An expensive wine should have more than just balance and intensity; it should also have interest and complexity, something distinctive that couldn't be found anywhere else, or something you didn't get elsewhere, he said.

Most wine drinkers are happy with wines that are balanced and reasonably intense, but professionals and serious wine lovers look for interest, complexity and distinctiveness.

Winemakers often think that if they can produce a good $15 or $25 wine, they can make a better, more expensive one by having more fruit and more intensity.

"They think, 'We want more flavour, so we'll reduce the yields and we'll use more new oak so we'll have more intense flavour and it'll be a better wine.' Actually, I think they are taking the wrong lead.

They shouldn't be saying 'how do I make this more intense so it's better', but 'how do I make it more interesting'," he said.

"I think interest comes not from more oak, which is what a lot of people use to give interest, but from a wine that is perhaps more representative of its place or the philosophy of the person making it."

He believes critics who evaluate anything, whether art, wine or food, must be able to separate their personal preferences from understanding the quality of what they are evaluating.

"If people pay $27 and enjoy it, that's fine. If people pay $8 and enjoy it, that's fine. I think elitism in wine is a bad thing. There is a big danger because wine, like many other aesthetic objects, is something that generates levels of what we in marketing call involvement. A high-involved person is really interested. A low-involved person may enjoy it but they don't need to know about or read about it."

As an expert in wine and consumer behaviour, he believes winemakers and food producers talk only to high-involved consumers, so their idea of what consumers want is shaped only by them.

Prof Charters is working with Dr Richard Mitchell, formerly of the University of Otago and now of the Otago Polytechnic School of Hospitality, on the relationship between food, drink, people and place, and has been following the growth of the Central Otago wine region, which he has visited several times.

He considers the region to be one of three main pinot noir-producing regions in the world - the other two being Burgundy, in France, and Oregon, in the US.

However, he feels there is too much new oak used in some of the pinot noirs.

"I think there is an issue over oak and I think they need to work on a sense of 'somewhereness' - but at this point, Steve Charters the wine lover and Steve Charters the marketing academic are moving apart.

"I would love to see more of the subregional differences between, say, Cromwell and Gibbston Valley and Wanaka or whatever. But as a marketing person, I say the world isn't ready for that yet. The crucial thing is that the territorial brand of Central Otago is supported and promoted by everybody. Outside New Zealand, I think there will be people who buy Central Otago pinot noir without really knowing which brand they prefer."