Are the children really our future?

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With apologies to the late, great, Whitney Houston, I am taking a liberty in an attempt to harness the famous first line of the Greatest Love of All to my own ends. Namely, in response to an interesting piece that was posted by winesearcher about the decline of fortified wines under the provocative title “Fortified wine’s final generation?”

It is a piece that starts brightly enough, noting that “The magnificent fortified wines of Port, Sherry and Madeira are undoubtedly some of the greatest and longest-lived fine wines available in the market today.” But soon it takes a more pessimistic turn, noting that, the occasional green shoot aside, the image is all wrong, sales are down since 2003, people don’t drink much port or sherry any more etc. It is a pretty impressive piece full of statistics and quotes from influential sommeliers and the like, many of them full of doom and gloom.

The piece gives particular prominence to the reported fact that “the majority of fortified wine drinkers are males older than 45” while, by contrast, “only” 22% of people aged 18-34 are drinking sherry (and only 25% are drink port).  The piece then poses the worrying question of whether “fortified wine [is] heading for a slow death as Generation Y continues to shun the style?” Even more apocalyptically, the piece then worries about the impending extinction of the over 45s: “… as that generation eventually dies out, is there any evidence that younger drinkers will take their place?”

While the evidence looks solid enough and, it has to be said, sounds plausible too, the “angle” seems to miss the point. You see, what our younger colleagues may not yet appreciate is that, as the plaque in the capuchin monks famous ossary (you may have been wondering about the picture) points out, “what you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be“. Incredible as it may now seem, a mere 8 years ago I was myself part of that 18-34 demographic. On the other hand, the majority of people in that 18-34 demographic today will one day literally grow out of it. In fact, barring really apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster style developments or zombies, there will always be people (including males) over 45.

And the point is that at different times of our life our relationship with wine changes. Did I drink wine in my youth? Only occasionally, it must be said. I really started taking an interest in my mid-20s when I fell in with the right crowd in Brussels. As for sherry, it really only got hold of me much later – I would say at age 36 and I have certainly made up for lost time since then. For a start, it just wasn’t available to me before that – it is no secret that for the last 20 years sherry sales haven’t been as buoyant as in the past. I also think that sherry, in particular, is a grown up wine – challenging and complex, intimidating even. In fact, to me 22% seems a pretty healthy percentage- of course it could be higher, but unless that percentage has itself declined it doesn’t on its own look like cause to worry.

So I really don’t think it is a problem that the youngsters aren’t hitting these particular bottles right now. From where I am sitting the outlook for fortified wines – and particularly, dry sherries, is bright. As the piece itself recognizes, “Both Sherry and Port are growing in value and volume” and that growth in value is almost tangible in the market.  Pioneers like Equipo Navazos and Tradicion have forced open the cellar door and an ever larger number of historic bodegas and classic wines are emerging, blinking, into the light. There are sherry bars opening all over the place. And  even more exciting things are happening as experimental mavericks are taking on the rulebook and questioning everything.

And the best thing about this renaissance is that it isn’t purely based on clever marketing (although there is some really clever marketing involved) but on quality, and in today’s world quality will win the argument. Going back to my spell in that 18-34 demographic, we didn’t have the internet, apps (we didn’t even have smart phones – imagine that), points scores, winetrackers or winesearchers to help us find the right wines and we didn’t have the million and one blogs by enthusiasts telling us what to drink. Today, all these innovations make it much easier for anyone with a bit of interest to find quality wines. It is no surprise to me that sherry has been a major winner as a result.

So please, let’s not worry about marketing to the kids – let’s just keep making the best wines we can. If you build it, they will come.

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