Life Beyond Grape Variety


There is much about how wine is taught, sold and marketed with which I disagree – I suppose that is what comes of having been in the wine trade for such a long time.

However the big thing that I really object too is so fundamental to many consumer’s view of what wine is, that just voicing my opinion might appear somewhat strange and old fashioned.

I fundamentally disapprove of the current focus on grape variety. Wines are sold and marketed chiefly by grape variety and all the wine qualifications and examinations concentrate on grape variety.

To my mind the grape variety from which a wine is made is just one of the pieces of information that a consumer could find useful. What is more, if too much attention is paid to it, then it can limit choice as well as help.

If you are under 35 and reading this, then the chances are that you think of wine by grape variety – this is because you have experienced 20 years or so of marketing based on grape variety as the most important piece of information about a wine.

I know why it is done and it has had a positive effect. When I joined the trade there was very little mention of grape variety on wine labels as the non-European regions were little heard of as yet. Once Australian wines hit these shores with their rich fruit, soft tannins and higher sugar content their rise was irresistible. The fact that the labels were in English and appeared much simpler than their European counterparts was also a bonus.

As a consequence varietal labeling really took off, to such an extent that beginner students on my courses can nowadays get quite irate with traditional European labels that contain no mention of the grape from which the wine is made – they often seem to think it daft.

Success

I cannot deny that varietal labeling has been useful, as it is a simpler thing to learn what sort of wine a Sauvignon Blanc is, than to learn the name of every wine made from it; Sancerre, Menetou-Salon etc.. Therefore if you know what sort of wine a Sauvignon is and that grape is mentioned on the label, then the consumer has an ‘in’ to that wine.

It has worked too, wine has been popularised and many (although I would bet it is still a minority) now know what Sauvingon Blanc is and broadly speaking what wines made from it are like. The same goes for Chardonnay, Syrah/Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and a handful of others.

Let’s be generous and say that Malbec, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Grenache and Riesling can be included in the above list. That gives a bank of 16 known grapes – 16 out of hundreds, thousands even.

I believe that focussing on the range of grapes that sells, because they are the only ones available does us all a disservice. It limits choice to such an extent that many people I have spoken too are quite unaware that other grape varieties are out there producing delicious wines.

It also gives the impression that the choice of grape variety in a given place is purely down to fashion, fad or marketing. As a consequence the fact that Bordeaux eschews Syrah for Cabernet and Merlot can seem at best quaint and quite often a ridiculous annoyance to people who think grape variety is all.

A few years ago I was pouring Chilean wine at a fair and a man came up who only drank Australian Shiraz – this was before Shiraz in Chile was as common as it it is today and we didn’t have any. He would not contemplate any of the other reds we were showing and got quite angry, considering it a peculiar affectation that Chile did not grow much of the grape that he wanted. I carefully explained that there was no tradition of Syrah in Chile, but that it was now beginning to be widely planted with some success, but this explanation just annoyed him.

He wanted Shiraz, nothing else and as Australian wine was becoming more expensive he wanted cheaper options and the fact that Shiraz was not a grape they traditionally grew was of no interest to him.

Limiting a consumer to a single grape variety does not really create a wine lover, it creates someone who likes that grape and it is a wasted opportunity to get them to enjoy other things and enrich their life.

Narrow Choices

Focussing on grape variety narrows consumer’s choices, creates a huge amount of overlap in wine ranges and squeezes out the less famous grapes by over inflating demand for the famous ones.

We all believe that wine is more available today than ever before and that there is plenty of choice in the supermarkets. Well, go and stand in any of the major supermarket’s wine department and have a good look at what you see.

A sea of Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Pinot Grigio, perhaps around 20 examples of each, all within a pound or two of each other and all doing broadly the same job. Do they really need all those, surely something else could get a bit of a look in?

New Horizons

I believe that for all the commercial good focussing on grape variety has done, it is now time to move on a little and create some demand for other things. If we carry on as we are then some wonderful grapes will die out and attempts to create a market for the likes of Spain’s Godello will whither away.

It is sad that 20 or so years ago the trade, even supermarkets, were proud to lead the consumer and to offer new experiences. Today I think the trade simply follows the consumer and offers them wines that are a known quantity. That is easier, but is not good for the future of the wine trade and does consumers a disservice.

We all know that giving the consumer what they want is flawed as a mantra, as often it is only based on a choice of around 16 grape varieties at most.

I love introducing people to new wines and wine experiences, because I think consumers’ options are so limited by the market. Most people have no idea how much exciting wine is out there and that much of it is just to their taste.

Surely someone who enjoys Sauvignon Blanc will like Verdejo or Grüner Veltliner? I know these grapes are more widely available than some, but they still appear to be outside many consumer’s varietal experience.

Wouldn’t it be doing most Pinot Grigio drinkers a favour to introduce them to Malvasia or Pinot Blanc? Wouldn’t most fans of lighter Chardonnay enjoy Gavi’s Cortese grape?  I am also sure that many a Shiraz enthusiast would relish a Monastrell or a Castelão.

To me wine is all about new experiences and broadening horizons and yet we have fallen into a trap of going so far and no further and the wine trade and wine consumers are in a comfort zone filled with a very small number of grape varieties.

I always urge my students to buy at least one bottle a month from a wine merchant that can give advice – rather than a supermarket. I am sure this will broaden their choice and enrich their wine drinking experience.

I also encourage them to buy one bottle a month of something they have never heard of or ever felt like trying before – who knows, they might just find their new favourite wine. How big a gamble is buying a bottle of wine that is different? We all risk far greater amounts of money all the time, buying a CD based on one song, a cinema ticket, a DVD. After all what is the worst that can happen with a bottle of wine? Despite what many people think, no one is going to judge you and is ending up cooking with it really so bad?

Promise me that you will rush out and buy something different, you could even let us know how it tastes.

16 thoughts on “Life Beyond Grape Variety

  1. Great article Quentin. Shame you didn’t make it to my recent #RavenousForRiesling pop up blind tasting. Throughout 2011 I will be hosting many tastings, events and masterclasses. It would be great to have you along.

    • Hi Robert
      Thanks for your comment, what I wrote certainly seems to meet with approval from people who write about wine. Keep me posted on other tastings etc, always keen to come along. See you soon.

      • Also, I was careful not to mention Riesling much as I think that is a different subject from my main rant! People know it, but think they don’t like it, whereas most other grapes they don’t know at all.

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