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The Placebo Effect

Not that long ago, a study by Stanford neuro-economist Baba Shiv proved that when people are told a product is expensive, they extract more pleasure from it.

This is not a hugely surprising revelation, particularly in relation to something as subjective as wine appreciation, but more interesting is the concept at work in his experiment – something called ‘The Placebo Effect.’

According to US marketing guru Seth Godin: “A placebo is a story we tell ourselves that changes the way our brain and body work. Any time a story or ritual changes the way we encounter something, we’ve experienced the placebo effect.”

My question: Is this a bad thing? If the label, the winemaking story or the sommelier’s spiel increases our appreciation of what’s in the bottle, surely this is to be applauded?

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Wine of our times

One of the questions I’m asked most in my travels is ‘what’s new in wine?’

For many years I would rattle off improvements in active dry yeasts, or bottle closures, and watch as eyes glazed over. Sure there were new brands launching every day, but from the perspective of wine drinkers there wasn’t much real change happening on a visible or consumer-relevant level.

Nowadays, like the list of alerts from my world current affairs app, there’s almost too much major stuff happening to keep up. Below are what I consider to be the important trends in wine right now. Some will endure and shape wine into the future, while others will surely fade or morph – their inclusion a symbol of the changing landscape of wine and wine consumers. There is no argument that the Millennial market (people born between 1981 and 1995, currently 21-35 years old), are the current hot targets for producers and retailers globally. Their spending power and drastically different priorities to former generations, underpin many of the trends below.

Natural Wines

The natural wine movement is gaining a foothold in Europe and the US, particularly with Millennial consumers, to whom its ideologies and brand stories are engaging. Natural wine resists being pigeon-holed: There is no universally accepted definition nor a global organization to control standards. However, purists demand that a wine only be called ‘natural’ if it is produced without adding or removing anything in the winemaking process (ironic as there’s nothing natural about the winemaking process). In accordance with this definition true ‘natural wines’ are unstable at bottling because they lack sulphur dioxide (SO2) or other preservatives to kill off any rogue micro-organisms and scavenge oxygen (both of which damage wine quality). The result is wine that is – more often than not – faulty at its core. Under normal tasting criteria these wines would be deemed well past their best, usually heading toward the vinegar end of the spectrum. Bizarrely this doesn’t dissuade many die-hard natural wine aficionados, in fact some of the most unappetizing natural wines are the most popular! I wouldn’t have an issue with this if it weren’t for the eye-watering price tags. In this instance, it really is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Interestingly, many of the original natural wine producers are now using sulphur (and filtering) which suggests they have come around to the view that great wine cannot be made on ideology alone. Orange wine, which deftly combines the Millennial desire for perceived authenticity, and a shiny new colour, is the trendy poster child of natural wine.


In its desire to corner the lucrative Millennial market, and in particular the female millennial consumer, wine has gone back to basic tactics: mesmerizing with pretty colours. The two latest colour offerings are orange and blue respectively, though I’d put my money on rosé as the hue to watch.

I ummed and ahhed about including blue wine in this piece: it feels more suited to a write up on the latest ready-to-drink aimed at teenagers transitioning from soft drink to intoxication.  However, I feel it’s important to note it simply as a marker of change, a sign of the times. Wine drinkers and the wine market is in a state of flux. Categories are blurring. Blue wine – the colour of poison – in all its artificially, cloying sweetness, really exists!

At the polar opposite end of the winemaking intervention spectrum is orange wine (sometimes known as skin-contact wines), which is made by leaving the skin of white wine grapes in contact with the juice for a period of time. Although orange wine sounds novel and modern, the process for making it has been around for hundreds of years and originated in the Caucasus. Because of the involved and often natural process (think spontaneous fermentation and deliberate oxidation), orange wines are made in small volumes and for that reason alone resist the mainstream. However, there is another reason I don’t see orange wines overtaking white or red in popularity any time soon: Quality. Due to the natural winemaking process, many orange wines are in fact faulty and show apply and cheesy characters, not to mention the bitterness and hardness that comes with excessive skin contact. There are of course exceptions, and good orange wines – offering a distinctly different flavor and textural sensation – do exist, but many rely largely on the emotional and intellectual component of wine enjoyment. They are the masters of the placebo effect!

Pink wine, otherwise known as rosé, has been growing in popularity since 2006 and for good reason: The quality of rosé is improving year on year. Traditionally dominated by female consumers in recent years’ good rosé’s similarity in structure and body to red wine is converting more men. Rosé is a genuinely distinct and interesting style, and ­– paired with the recent focus on quality – this category is only heading in one direction. My article expands on the many reasons to take rosé seriously.


It’s no secret that sparkling wine has been growing steadily in all major markets for the last few years. What you may be surprised to know is that it is Prosecco – not Champagne – driving this growth. In fact, according to some experts Prosecco is forecast to outstrip all other sparkling wines, increasing by over 36 percent, versus Champagne’s one percent, over the next five years! The improved availability, quality and value of Prosecco in recent years has made bubbles an everyday luxury rather than one reserved for special occasions. And while Champagne retains its crown of exclusivity, consumers now order Prosecco by name (rather than hiding it) signalling the extent of transformation in this category. Sparkling Rosé is also growing (in keeping with the rosé category’s overall expansion) and Spain’s Cava is finally getting in on this action, with a record 245 million bottles sold in 2016.

At the top end, in Champagne and in fine sparkling segments, brut nature otherwise known as ‘zero dosage’ is creating some noise. The driest of all Champagne styles it contains 2 grams of sugar per litre or less, compared with the 10 – 12g/l in most brut styles. These zero dosage sparklers are much more approachable than they were in the past thanks in part to climate change and the resulting riper fruit. They also reflect a couple of the most pervasive lifestyle trends globally: health and wellbeing, sugar-free and excluding certain ingredients or additives.

The other interesting development at the top end is in ‘Grower’ champagnes. These wines are made by small producers who traditionally supplied the fruit from their best vineyards to the top champagne houses. Making champagne under their own marque gives these winemakers freedom to experiment and they lead the innovation agenda in Champagne with drier, more natural and more exclusive wines. They also explore terroir more than the big boys who focus on house style and consistency from one year to the next.

Lighter Styles

The pendulum has finally begun to swing away from Robert Parker Junior’s rich, overly oaked, high octane red wines. Now we are seeing a movement towards lighter reds with higher acidity, lower alcohol, and less oak. Descriptions such as ‘water-like’ speak to the transparency and freshness which is being put ahead of Parker’s power and presence. White wines are moving along the spectrum towards lower alcohol. Top winemakers looked for 14 percent alcohol in their chardonnay a few years ago, now they look closer to 13 percent. Many of the white wines that are revered today today are dryer, flintier and more mineral than they were a few years ago. Oaked styles like chardonnay are less oaky and buttery, with more acidity and freshness. There is also a renewed interest in true balance to express the site of fine wines.

Organics & Biodynamics

Organics and biodynamics have been making inroads in wine for many years, and can no longer be called ‘up and coming’. The number of organic vineyards globally has almost tripled from 2004 to 2011 and organic wine is forecast to continue its growth. People are often confused about the difference between organics and biodynamics, as both are made from grapes grown without pesticides and chemicals. Biodynamic farming goes a step further and is based on the esoteric practices developed by Rudolf Steiner, which include consideration of lunar cycles when working in the vineyard. A number of top estates around the world use these practices to good effect and while there is little, if any, scientific justification for the practices (from a quality perspective at least), biodynamic growers may well be more dedicated to sustainable farming techniques than the majority of organic producers. Although the continued growth is global and unarguable, biodynamic and organic wines are unlikely to ever become truly mainstream due to their relative cost to produce.

A note on sustainability
Not all organic and biodynamic wines are made from sustainable vineyards. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well, there’s the carbon emissions created by the greater number of tractor passes through the vineyard (to manage fruit quality without pesticides), use of copper and other chemicals to control disease (which damage soil and resident micro- organisms), and excessive water use (even in regions where irrigation is permitted). There are sustainable farming models that are conventional (i.e. manage
use of all farming inputs to protect the environment) and there are sustainable models that are organic: the organic models are unquestionably best for the environment. NZ wine producers lead the way globally in sustainable viticulture and winemaking practices with over 98 percent of NZ’s vineyard certified as sustainably farmed.

I want it now!

You might have seen or read about The Marshmallow Test – where 3 and 4 year olds are given the choice of eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting for 15 minutes for 2 marshmallows (apparently it’s supposed to predict future success by way of measuring a child’s ability to delay gratification.)  Some kids immediately eat the marshmallow while others use a myriad of tactics to stop themselves eating it (closing their eyes, distracting themselves). Some almost get there, but break in the last few seconds.

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