International versus indigenous varietals

Donnerstag, 16. März 2017 - 16:45


As thousands of wine producers and buyers pack their bags in preparation for ProWein, they do so against a global political background that has changed significantly since last year. These are not good times to be a foreigner. Whether you are a Mexican in the US, or a Tunisian Muslim in Holland or a student from Madrid seeking work in London, you’ll be assaulted by a growing chorus of voices including government officials’, telling you to go home. The notion that, by adding diversity, migrants actually have anything positive to offer seems to be increasingly unfashionable.

The wine industry is, of course, built on diversity and the halls at ProWein will be full of bewildering ranges of wine styles, but some similarly illiberal attitudes are evident in many wine professionals’ approach to wine. Looking at the bottles on show in Düsseldorf, they’ll often grumble at a ‘globalisation’ of viticulture that has seen grapes like Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon take root almost everywhere.

When talking to producers from countries like Greece, Portugal, Georgia and Turkey, in particular, they routinely offer the same heartfelt plea: “Please don’t introduce ‘international’ grapes”. The people who buy wines in our country, they continue, simply aren’t interested in a Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay from yours.

The truth of that statement remains to be proved, but there is plenty of evidence that the wine drinkers of at least one of those proud, historic nations, seem to be remarkably open to quite a lot of vinous migration.

Of the 2,263 Greek wines on show at the annual three-day Oenorama fair in Athens last weekend, nearly a third –  29% – were made partly or wholly from non-Hellenic varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Viognier and – especially – Syrah. Of the 188 stands, only 45 supported the Indigenous-Only philosophy.

These figures need to be taken in the context of an event focused almost exclusively on Greek professionals and consumers, at which almost all of the top producers were present, most of them presenting wines from denominated regions where international grapes are forbidden. It’s also worth noting that, according to Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, author of the most respected guide to Greek wines, these migrants occupy less than 10% of his country’s vineyards. 

My own view, after tasting as many of the wines on offer as I could - and after offering various British wine drinkers all sorts of ‘fascinating’ wines from local varieties from several countries - was that, while indigenous varieties may offer more interest to vinous purists, anyone looking to build a more sizeable overseas market might find greater potential in a blend that included one of those migrants. But my opinion is beside the point: the motivation for the Greek producers broadening their vinous minds lay in the wines they can sell in Greece. Some, admittedly, will be sold to tourists, but these were not the target of the Oenorama event.

The problem with any kind of hardline anti-migrant policy, is that there is no way of knowing what you may be missing. If one of Donald Trump’s predecessors in the White House had instituted a travel ban on Syria, Steve Jobs’ father might never have been allowed in, and Apple might never have existed. A similar ban on Germans in 1885 would also have kept out Friedrich Trump, the new president’s grandfather.

A brief glance at the history of food and drink puts all notions of ‘regional purity’ into dramatic perspective. Without the acceptance of migrant ingredients from the east, and the southern hemisphere, Italy would have no risotto, pasta, or tomato topping for its pizzas, France would have no French fries and the visitors to ProWein would have no chance to sample Dusseldorf’s famous potato dumplings…
Robert Joseph