Wine brands (as opposed to wine labels) create expectations about what is in the bottle – which is why it behoves critics to form their judgements in a blind tasting. When you approach a wine in a sighted environment you are expected to have preconceptions, otherwise the marketing people have failed in their task. Since the aesthetics of taste are far more subjective than most of our other judgements, we are all more susceptible to the subliminal messaging associated with a brand’s attributes.
Once a product is firmly established in the market place, the brand owner wants to rake in as much revenue as possible in order to secure a return on the initial investment. In no time there are brand and range extensions: listings and shelf facings from retailers are more easily secured once you can prove the punters trust your product. However, this can often lead to confusion over the brand’s “message.”
Consider the Bellingham range. At its entry level it offers well-made varietal wines. Most of the examples I’ve tasted over-deliver at their price point. The Homestead Shiraz 2017 is completely delicious, with real fruit intensity, plush but not overly tannic textures, good length and balance. It’s hard to beat that in a sub-R100 wine.
At the top of the Bellingham range however is the Bernard Series – so named to honour the founder of the brand, Bernard Podlashuk. Previously called “The Maverick” it has been the source of a number of quite special bottlings over the years. When Graham Weerts (who subsequently went to California and now heads Kendall Jackson’s vineyard operations) made the first examples, he set a new benchmark for hand-made wine production in a big commercial cellar. His successors have maintained the principle, crafting small batches of sometimes quite exceptional creations. The latest Old Vine Chenin Blanc, the 2017, is a little like dry, liquid Seville orange marmalade. Its spectrum of flavours covers apricot compote, grapefruit zest and pear-drops. In short it is as fine a chenin as you’re likely to lay your hands on.
The problem is that Bellingham is seen as a commercial not craft cellar, and while the Bernard series doesn’t scream “Bellingham” it also can’t (and shouldn’t) hide its provenance. Small batch wine can be made in big wineries, but it’s very difficult to convey a sense of artisanal in the midst of the industrial. Ideally you need different production sites, different personnel, and a different engagement with wine enthusiasts.
There’s some tolerance for a price spread within a range, as long as the message is consistent, and the branding contributes an explanation to the rationale. Consider Kleine Zalze: there are three main tiers to the brand, each named to explain (subliminally) the price point: Cellar Selection, Vineyard Selection and Family Reserve. As you go up the price pyramid you expect the fruit to come from the better vineyards (Vineyard Selection) until at the top, it’s single site, and (presumably) limited quality.
The pricing reflects and corroborates the message. Cellar Selection reds sell for around R100, Vineyard Selection for R170, and Family Reserve R400. When you taste the ranges alongside each other you are aware of the differences: the Cellar Selection wines are easy and accessible, the Family Reserve bottlings have more richness, more obvious signs of barrel maturation – in short they taste expensive.
Using a motor car brand as a comparison, you go from an Audi A1 via the A4 to the Q8. The range works because the consistent message is about brand and engineering, and the differential is about size, performance and sense of luxury. It’s not about German engineering for a couple of the cars, and Afghani design and execution for the others.
Wine drinkers are no more willing to be conned than car buyers. They need the intrinsics to add up to a coherent and credible message. Commercial and craft production do not make comfortable bed-partners. Nor do German hand-knotted carpets, or high-tech cars designed and assembled in Kabul.