Home News > March 2024 > Au revoir to le monopole

Au revoir to le monopole

Changing perceptions of what constitutes fine wine are leading to a shake-up of the traditionally French-dominated sector. James Lawrence investigates

For some time now, France's competitors have been circling. The fine wine market, once the exclusive domain of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy, has significantly diversified its portfolio in the 21st century. Indeed, La Place de Bordeaux now distributes blue-chip wines from Italy, Australia and Spain – Masseto and Penfolds Grange stand shoulder to shoulder with Lafite and Margaux. The days of an intransigent Gallic monopoly are, dare we say it, fini.

This, of course, presents a number of exciting opportunities – and perhaps challenges – for sommeliers working in the UK. As the ingrained bias toward L'Hexagone continues to fade, restaurants can source their upmarket drops from a far broader range of suppliers and countries; ongoing inflation is also playing its part, forcing buyers to eschew classical styles for up-and-coming genres such as Franciacorta.

“I do think people are more willing to look beyond Bordeaux/Burgundy when they seek a prestigious label in 2024 – prices for the above have gone through the roof quite recently and even dedicated oenophiles may think twice before purchasing,” agrees Stuart Bond, restaurant manager and sommelier at The Cavendish Hotel at Baslow.

He continues: “Therefore people may opt for something else at a more reasonable price point. I also believe people are more inclined to try something new as wine is a journey of discovery.” Last year, Beatrice Bessi, head sommelier at Chiltern Firehouse, revealed that her buying strategy had changed significantly in 2023, “as many established regions and appellations are becoming borderline unaffordable”.

She added: “Premium and even deluxe Italian sparkling wine brands are definitely ones to watch in 2024.”

Evolving priorities

This ongoing inflationary dilemma, combined with a greater consumer willingness to look beyond traditional names, is having a decisive impact on the fine-dining sector. According to Bond, only 50% of the restaurant's deluxe red wines are sourced from France; this would surely have been unthinkable – and commercially nonviable – in the 1990s. Meanwhile, The Cavendish Hotel now showcases an eclectic palette of super-premium New World whites (17% of the total fine wine list) and top-end reds (37.5%) from European destinations such as Rioja and Valpolicella.

“In the super-premium segment one of our most popular styles is the big and rich wines of Amarone della Valpolicella,” says Bond.

Marcello Colletti, head sommelier at Nobu Hotel London Portman Square, believes that the tech revolution has been a vital factor in the cultural shift away from Gallic myopia. “In a world of innovation, things are constantly changing, and people are accustomed to having information in a simplified and faster way, due to social media (short videos, fast-selling ads and so on),” he says.

“In 2024, a great wine list should be curated and designed for the food you are serving and the type of restaurant. Whilst all customers are different, I have observed that they are attracted to trying new things, from new grape varieties, particularly those with a story behind the wine or producer, to more unusual alcoholic beverages such as sake or shochu, as well as the rise of low-intervention/natural wine alongside the more famous beverage brands.”

Moreover, the once ingrained snobbery over cork versus screwcap is finally being laid to rest, according to key voices in the industry. For Western Australian producers such as Cullen (the screwcap-sealed Kevin John Chardonnay retails at over £100) this can only strengthen their position in UK fine dining.

"I wouldn't say that the nature of the closure affects the customer's perception of the quality of the wine. It just affects the price point of the bottle on the menu as [screwcap] production is cheaper for the winemaker,” reports Anna Dolgushina, sommelier and co-founder of Firebird Soho.

A bespoke approach

Of course, much will depend on the restaurant's clientele and ethos. Ian Campbell, co-founder of The Ten Cases, once wryly observed: “I think it's important that the list fits the concept of the place – sake and a porter with a smoked oyster floating in it in a classic French restaurant doesn’t instinctively feel right.”

Lucas Reynaud Paligot, assistant head sommelier at Hélène Darroze, The Connaught, wholeheartedly agrees. “Our restaurant is mainly driven by French wine which represents around 60% of the total; predominantly Champagne, white/red Burgundy and Bordeaux,” says Paligot.

“The truth is that fine wine is a synonym for expensive wine from France, because when you purchase a wine from Burgundy or Bordeaux (for example) there is an understanding that you are purchasing something with value and history produced by generations of winemakers. That said, we do need to value other parts of France and Europe such as the Mosel, Italy, Spain, Portugal etc, and New World regions because changing climates are resulting in lower yields in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and higher prices.”

Liv-Ex's annual market review would certainly support the idea of belt-tightening in the French luxury segment. According to its report issued in December 2023, the Fine Wine 50 (which tracks the movements of First Growths) and Fine Wine 1000 (the broadest measure of the market) indices were down 13.6% and 13.0% respectively at the end of last year. Historically, the greatest restaurant margins were achieved from sales of vintage Krug and 1982 Petrus, however, that paradigm may come under further strain as prices remain ambitious, to say the least.

Yet one must be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These iconic regions still have a significant cachet with the target demographic of venues such as Hélène Darroze; Paligot is reluctant to scale back his selection of classic names for that very reason. But with Chile, Spain and Italy increasingly nipping at the heels of French producers, most sommeliers can realistically broaden their buying strategies in 2024 without risking an ocean of unsold – and expensive – stock. In a world of diversifying tastes, the old establishment is having to fight harder to maintain our interest. That is something we should all celebrate.