Does wine need to be original?
Tasting wine for a living should facilitate a good understanding of what constitutes quality in wine. But one important factor that can become much more difficult to judge is similarity versus originality.
This month, London hosts dozens of tastings showing thousands of wines. I've been tasting a lot of Syrah/Shiraz in particular, and the vast majority fall into one of two main styles: peppery, low alcohol, fragrant, relatively light-bodied ; and rich, ripe, high alcohol and full-bodied.
Some are better than others, and while there are a few bargains to be found, there is a pretty close correlation between price and quality for this category of wine up to £25 (but above that, it is much less reliable).
Because so many of them are so similar, not only in price but in style, quality and packaging, it is very difficult to know which to recommend. This is where the story of a wine comes in, meaning that, all else being equal, the wines with the most engaging background and/or marketing support are the most likely to attract the attention of the press, buyers, sommeliers - and therefore ultimately reach the wine drinking public.
The ones without the stories more often than not get forgotten about, another identikit bottle lost in a sea of sameyness.
Going on taste alone, none of these dozens of similar Syrah/Shiraz wines stands out. That means that wines with a degree of originality are instantly more attention-grabbing: Cinsaut fermented in clay pots or wild-grown País from Itata and suchlike. These are original wines, no question, and often very delicious and interesting. They are the kind of thing that the wine trade get excited about.
Yet they are often produced in tiny volumes, are relatively expensive and don't necessarily fit the expectation of flavour that would appeal to the mainstream. The danger is that the wine trade loses touch with the reality of the broader wine market and focuses excessive attention on a tiny niche.
Originality is definitely a good thing, and innovation is needed to keep an industry vibrant and evolving - but that doesn't mean that the majority of wine is bad simply because it conforms to a very familiar flavour profile. The challenge is to maintain interest and enthusiasm for wines that are stylistically common and over-familiar.