Jonathan Meades: The Trabant in a bottle

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The Independent Online

In the spirit of research ... This habitually signals hefty, jocular irony.

In the spirit of research ... This habitually signals hefty, jocular irony. But I mean it literally. It was in the spirit of research that, at different times, I tasted Blue Nun, Hirondelle, Mateus Rosé, Piat d'Or, Jacob's Creek and Black Tower. I did not expect to much enjoy them and, sure enough, I didn't. But it's important to have sampled them, to have sated curiosity. One cannot in good faith excoriate or, for that matter, defend a product of which one has no direct experience. Better, then, to listen to one's palate than to heed the reputation or to be gulled by the protestations of brand-managers. You know the smugly desperate line: so many people can't be wrong. Oh no?

Again, just as it is necessary to taste a great wine in order to recognise a good one so is it necessary to taste a bad wine in order to recognise a mediocre one. Further, these wines – I use the word in an access of benevolence – are useful indicators of British popular taste which, evidently, veers towards the quasi-chemical, the cloyingly saccharine, the insipidly emetic. They are the vinous analogues of a Harvester meal, of Celine Dion's records, of the products in a branch of the mysteriously ubiquitous Clinton Cards – perpetually naff, perpetually outside (rather than out of) fashion, perpetually bought in vast quantities by people who are indifferent to such considerations, who are susceptible to advertising or who know no better.

It was announced last week that Black Tower is to be rebranded, despite its claim to be among the top 20 best-selling wines in this country. This could be taken as a sign that the constituency of people who know no better is shrinking. Or it could simply mean that the yeomen of the Black Tower are tardily jumping on what has proved to be the bandwagon of the past five years, that they are subscribing to the nostrum that there is no product whose performance cannot be improved by a makeover.

Black Tower has been around for almost 35 years. It is a contemporary of wine in boxes, of rehydrated grape powder, of Spanish "burgundy" of dodgy blends, of two-litre bottles of filth "brewed from banana skins in the cellars of Ipswich". The plethora of such products was an opportunistic response to a shift in British drinking habits prompted by mass tourism to vinous countries. These products preyed on a collective oenological ignorance and were marketed in the certainty that in such circumstances the British would buy anything. This, remember, was before Augustus Barnett and Oddbins, let alone specialist supermarket departments: the only (limited) high street chain then was Peter Dominic. Otherwise the complexion of the wine trade was as gentlemanly ruddy as it had been in the immediately post-war years when the majority of table wines came from two sources, France and Germany: hock, piesporter, bernkasteler ... the names seem as quaintly dated as Armstrong Siddeley, Lanchester, Allard. Which for younger readers are marques of English car which disappeared in the 1950s.

Today the English own German cars and German electrical goods. If anti-German sentiments are still harboured, they are certainly not expressed through our pockets. But envisage a past when millions of Trabants – Robin Reliants with an extra wheel – were imported from the east, and imagine what that would have done for the reputation of German automotive engineering: would our roads be so packed with BMWs, Mercs, Audis? Of course not. However solidly constructed they would be tarred with the same rusty brush that has thwarted the sales of up-market Japanese cars. Serious German wines have suffered because they come from the country of Black Tower and its kin.

London is the wine warehouse of the world. No other city is as vinously cosmopolitan. Germany is the only country missing from the feast. That is an unhappy situation which is unlikely to be changed by Black Tower's rebranding. Indeed it will be exacerbated by a process whose aim is to introduce the stuff to a generation that's innocent of German wine. This generation is more clued up, more exposed to quality, more inclined to turn up its nose in distaste than its starved-for-choice predecessors were. So all that it's going to discover is that Black Tower is, well, Black Tower – which isn't going to do German wine any favours.

What next? Wincarnis: the new Red Bull.