The value of familiarity in wine

Emerging regions are regularly encouraged to lead with their indigenous grapes. Robert Joseph says this could be a mistake.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Did you hear about how Hilton, Sheraton and Hyatt will no longer offer international breakfast options in their Tokyo hotels, and how they will restrict their morning menus to typical Japanese fare such as steamed rice, miso soup, fermented soya beans, pickles and dried seaweed? No? 

That’s hardly surprising because it’s fake news. I made it up. 

Those hotels, like their Japanese-owned competitors, the Imperial and Grand Nikko, would never dream of doing anything like that – they know many guests expect to start their day with toast, cereal, muesli or fried egg and bacon.

To survive economically, big hotel groups need to give their customers what they like, rather than what they think they ought to like.

That’s the same rationale behind Turkish Airlines pouring Turkish Chardonnay and Syrah on their flights, rather than indigenous Turkish grape varieties. They need to keep huge numbers of passengers happy.

Over the last few days, I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of indigenous versus international grapes, having been invited to participate in almost back-to-back conferences by Wines of Moldova and Wines of North Macedonia. In both cases, the discussion veered towards the question of whether producers should focus exclusively on  local varieties like Vranec and Feteasca that set them apart, rather than embrace international grapes and winemaking. 

Behind this lay a rhetorical question: “Does the world really need any more Cabernet Sauvignon?” that comes out of the same bag as “Does my city need another Starbucks?” and “Does anyone care what Kim Kardashian thinks?. To which the unwelcome answer is, in all cases, “yes”. 

According to the OIV, Cabernet Sauvignon may be the second most widely-planted wine grape on the planet, but in the US, China, Romania and Hungary, its acreage is still being increased by producers who believe they have good reason to do so. In mid-2019, Starbucks had 30,600 cafes across the globe, and was opening new ones at the rate of over 1,600 per year. It is likely that at least some of Kim Kardashian’s 190m followers take a keen interest in her thinking.

It’s all a matter of perspective. If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc or Starbucks latte, you want more of them, but if you are a wine or coffee enthusiast – or jaded journalist – you might prefer something different. Crucially, though there might be some disagreement over this, there’s no right or wrong here. Tastes vary, and it’s a simple fact that infinitely fewer supermarket shoppers have heard of Kalecik Karasi and are likely to buy a bottle, than would choose a familiar Cabernet Sauvignon.

So does that mean that producers everywhere should work harder on promoting their indigenous grapes? Or that they should give in and plant easier-to-sell international ones?

I don’t see the issue as being anything like this binary. First, there is the question of how the indigenous wine actually tastes. Georgia’s Kisi is fascinatingly aromatic; its Rkatsateli is neutral and no more interesting than most Trebbiano. 

Argentina’s Malbec is more of a natural crowd-pleaser than Chile’s Carmenère, but its white dry Muscat-like Torrontés makes friends less readily. Easy-to-understand wines are easier to sell.

North Macedonia’s Vranec is often referred to as being “powerful” and “masculine”. Jancis Robinson, while describing a Rezerva Familije Sjekloća 2005 as a “fine wine by any measure” also says that it has a “balsamic/medicinal twist” and is “not to be contemplated without food”. Without having tasted that example, but from my own experience of the variety, I know exactly what she meant. Frankly, I don’t think this is a wine that would be as easy to serve to a wide range of guests as, say Moldova’s more approachable Rara Neagra which, however, is intrinsically a less interesting grape.

If the North Macedonians had huge amounts of Vranac to sell, its “masculinity” might be a challenge, but they only produce around 200,000hl, or 20% of their million hectolitre harvest. Some they will consume themselves. A large proportion of the exports will go to neighbouring countries where wine drinkers are already familiar with the style. That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of the world. What they need to do is forget the supermarkets and focus on communicating and selling to the niche of wine drinkers who will relish the individual style of their wine.

Moldova’s situation is different. It’s a bigger producer, has been growing international varieties since it was part of the Soviet Union and has substantial volumes of these and of its indigenous Feteasca varieties and Rara Neagra to sell. It needs the volume sales offered by supermarkets more than the North Macedonians.

As one of the poorest countries in Europe, it cannot afford the generic marketing campaigns required to introduce its grapes to Merlot and Pinot Grigio drinkers, and there is no proof, in any case, that these efforts actually succeed. For the Moldovans, there is a clear logic to blending their own grapes with those people in other countries already know. Non wine-enthusiast shoppers are more likely to feel the confidence required to buy a Cabernet-Feteasca, and more likely to enjoy a flavour that bears some resemblance to one with which they are familiar.

There are lessons to be learned from comparing the ancient regions of Greece, which focused on their own varieties and remained in a niche, and Sicily where Planeta earned international recognition – and sales – with versions of Bordeaux and Chardonnay before introducing an increasingly broad market to its Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Grecanico. 

A small boutique hotel in Tokyo might get away with an exclusively Japanese menu. Larger establishments with hundreds of guests can’t. Smaller wine-producing nations and regions may have the luxury of focusing on indigenous, hard-to-pronounce grapes. Bigger ones may not.

Robert Joseph

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