Managing changes in taste: lessons from champagne in britain 1800-1914
This paper focuses on how taste in wine (and other foods) changes and the implications of this process for producers and merchants.
It draws primarily on the changing taste of and taste for champagne in Britain in the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1880 champagne went from a dosage level of around 20% (20 grams sugar / litre) to 0%. Champagne became the ‘dinner wine of the elite – drunk with roast meat and savoury dishes. Contemporaries accepted that while most people could distinguish the taste of good champagne from that of bad, very few could distinguish very good from good. The shift to dryer champagne was driven less by an appreciation of a changing wine than by social pressure; by the wish of the elite users to differentiate themselves from newly-wealthy middle-class users.
There is plenty of evidence to support the view that the majority of people do not have the tasting skills or sensory sophistication to identify small changes in the taste of a product from one occasion to the next. What they are good at is acquiring the taste for a given substance if and when it becomes necessary.
Using primarily 19th and early 20th century cases my paper will look at how changes in taste are created and how they can be sparked by broader ‘taste regimes’ developing in other areas – such as the 19th century panic over product adulteration. Once sparked how are they fuelled and accelerated by social and media pressure. I will then focus on how producers might and should respond to such changes. When and how fast should they make changes to their style of wine? What are the branding implications of such changes? Changes to product formulation can happen fast; changes to brands generally cannot. Is there a broader positioning opportunity to gain competitive share? If so, the opportunity be maximised by migrating to a new brand? Or is the challenge best met by (temporary) changes to label copy?
Such challenges faced a number of 19th century producers and their successes and failures provide illuminating insights for modern producers and distributors.
Issue: OENO Macrowine 2023
Oxford college (UK)