As a non wine-obsessed consumer, one could be forgiven for thinking that the wine industry doesn’t have a lot of compassion for its customers. For example, a question as basic as what the name of a wine actually means has no consistent answer. In some areas of the world (mainly in the so-called old world, aka Europe) wine is named after the place it is from, as in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Barolo. Others (usually from the new world) trade under the name of their principal grape, like Shiraz or Chardonnay.
A seemingly more promising approach uses a recognizable combination of region and grape variety (note the term “recognizable” – Barossa Shiraz yes, Grampians Gewurztraminer no). The Italians have been using this hybrid approach for years, as in Barbera d’Alba (Barbera grape from the Alba region), and an increasing number of countries worldwide are using region and grape together to create “signature wines.”
Some regions have done this with resounding success: for many people, the name “Marlborough” is merely the first half of the word “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.” Cabernet Sauvignon, though grown in virtually every region of California, has a special affinity with the name Napa. This synergistic linkage of region to grape can be a massive boon to both the industry and the people who drink their products, standing as a good predictor of wine style, if not necessarily quality.
And yet, while it reluctantly accepts the necessity of such categorization, the wine industry is an inherently individualistic one. It resists with all its might any action that it sees as tamping down the experimental spirit. No sooner is a new appellation christened in France or Italy than a dissentient producer plants something odd and declares a desire to be emancipated from overly restrictive rules.
These individualists and their supporters tout Argentine Malbec as a prime example of the homogeneity resulting from overt efforts to develop a signature wine. Particularly in the US where Argentine Malbec quintupled in volume between 2005 and 2009, it stands accused of having ridden a wave of gluggable familiarity to its pole position. Typifying this view is a tweet from wine buyer Alessandro Marchesan of the UK’s Roka and Zuma: “Malbec is like pizza and sex. It doesn’t matter how bad it is, for some people it will still be ok.”
Without getting into the fairness of these accusations, it’s instructive to look to Argentina’s neighbor and rival Chile, which has almost made a point of eschewing signature wines, instead focusing on value for money versions of virtually every style imaginable. The approach has served it well, particularly in new markets. Still, if you close your eyes and think of Chile, what wine pops up first?
The question of the importance of signature wines weighs heavily on the world’s emerging wine regions like Greece, Turkey and even China, which don’t have a defined international image yet. For areas with a rich viticultural history, traditional grape varieties and wine styles are considered as much a national treasure as, say, the Parthenon. On the other, it’s acknowledged that diversity can be more hindrance than help when trying to crack new markets.
Greece has been rather big on the grape-region combos, and wine lists across the country speak not just of “Xinomavro” but “Naoussa Xinomavro” and “Santorini Assyrtiko” rather than just “Assyrtiko.” They’ve sensibly pared their offer to just 4 grapes – two “serious”: Assyrtiko (white) and Xinomavro (red); plus two fresh and fruity: Moschofilero (white) and Agiorgitiko (red). This generalization is of course fraught – Agiorgitiko can be really quite serious and Xinomavro was recently served out of the Naoussa town square fountain – but ultimately helpful.
Neighboring Turkey meanwhile has been less focused in its national branding, like a parent afraid of neglecting any of its cherished offspring. It’s not helped by the fact that Turkish names make the Greek ones look unintimidating (witness Öküzgözü), nor that region-grape affinity is less firm. Needless to say, Turkey has had a tougher time flogging its wines on the international stage.
Ultimately, the inescapable fact is that no matter how great our interest in wine we all rely on archetypes to get by. Even the most esoteric Burgundy-phile will speak of an off-piste style as “a Gevrey with a Chambolle nose but Pommard tannins” as if these styles existed in some concrete, immutable form. And as much as wine producers want to be individuals, the best thing for them is often their region attaining an internationally recognizable signature wine. Even if it’s only so they can turn it on its head.
Originally published in the South China Morning Post