The badge of authenticity

Sunday, 6. May 2018 - 15:45

Ronan Sayburn MS

The premium end of the food market is obsessed with authenticity. No one asks where a €5.00 ($6.12) “farm fresh” chicken comes from, but shoppers paying three times that at a farmers’ market expect not only to look the farmer in the eye, but also to know the breed of the chicken, its daily exercise routine and whether it had a name. 

Fruit and vegetables also have the concept of authenticity: conscious consumers want to buy locally available, seasonal produce and even better if they are rarer varieties with a narrative relating to a specific territory. Biodiversity might be greatly reduced in the 21st century, but apples, tomatoes and potatoes (to name but three) are still grown in myriad varieties by artisan producers — api apples, noir de Crimee tomatoes and pink fir potatoes have their fanbases worldwide. What is wine’s equivalent? 

Seeking authenticity
Jamie Goode’s seminal work on natural wine from 2011 was called Authentic Wine. It’s a well-chosen term — after all, natural wine’s cause celebré is authenticity. Getting back to the roots, returning to historic and regional traditions and resisting globalisation are the watchwords.

A large part of that cause should and does relate to grape variety. Most growers who see themselves as part of the natural movement are keen to market those grape cultivars that truly originated in their region, and which have some kind of cultural resonance. Olivier Cousin’s claim to fame is not only his fight against the petty Anjou appellation, but also his championing of an ancient local variety — Grolleau is the badge of authenticity that gives his story its colour. Sicily’s Etna region probably wouldn’t have captured hearts and minds as quickly without the exoticism of its indigenous Nerello Mascalese to blaze the trail.

There’s a challenge with this celebration of lesser known cultivars — the wine industry and its geekier hangers-on are easily excited by rare and indigenous grape varieties, be they rediscovered, unduly neglected or just out of fashion. But are consumers following suit and embracing the movement away from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay?

Not according to a survey published in 2015 by the Wine Economics Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, which brought together data on worldwide vineyard plantings. The research by Kym Anderson and Nanda R. Aryal showed that during the 21st century, plantings of varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon had actually increased, finally toppling the much-maligned Airén from its number spot as the world’s most planted Vitis vinifera cultivar.

The caveat to this publication was that the latest figures were from 2010. If the research were repeated in 2018, would figures perhaps show a reversal of this trend? The picture from most wine professionals is anything but straightforward.

Ronan Sayburn MS heads up the team of 16 sommeliers at 67 Pall Mall, a wine club which opened in London in 2015. The club boasts the world’s largest by the glass wine list, now extending to 800 choices from a 4,000-bin “by the bottle” offering. 

Sayburn has no question about where the sweet spot lies: “The indigenous side of things in every country is where the interest is. The world’s got enough Sauvignon, enough Chardonnay.” He’s excited about a recent trip to Chile — “They were planting País there in the 16th century, and now it’s making a big revival, along with Carignan and Moscatel” — and confirms that he’s already long-listed a large selection of Chilean wines for potential addition to the club’s list.

That said, it is clear that even the highly educated wine drinkers who frequent 67 Pall Mall are hardly lapping up País, Poulsard or Romorantin by the double magnum. Sayburn notes that Schiava — a light red variety from Italy’s Alto Adige region — always does well, and that the Savoie and Jura have enjoyed a recent period of being in vogue.

But he counters this with the observation that lesser known grape varieties take a considerable amount of time to permeate into the public’s collective recognition: “You could make an analogy with a designer fashion house — eventually what they’ve done will filter down to high-street chains. So 10 to 15 years ago, people didn’t really know anything about Viognier, but a few Condrieu producers were putting amazing wines on the market and now there’s more awareness of the variety.”

Sayburn talks in similar terms about Grüner Veltliner — also little known outside of its native Austria a decade ago — and notes the relatively recent popularity of Picpoul de Pinet on the club’s list: “It’s the new Muscadet.” To many industry insiders, these names will seem almost over-familiar and anything but obscure. It’s a clear demonstration that the trade bubble can be unrepresentative of what is really selling on the floor.

Classics still winning
Across the pond, Pascaline Lepeltier MS appears to have presided over a more marked evolution during her eight-year stint at the celebrated Rouge Tomate restaurant: “When I arrived it was still dominated by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec — and even selling Riesling or Chenin was a challenge. But then with the new dynamic the wine world saw in New York, with more importers/distributors and broader ranges of high-quality wines, the spectrum expanded in an incredible way — partly due to the natural curiosity of American palates.” 

She then proceeds to roll call an extraordinary range of varietals that have made inroads into her audience: Poulsard, Trousseau, Pineau d’Aunis, Romorantin, Mondeuse, Nielluccio, Godello, Mencia, Fiano, Freisa and Nosiola to name only a few. She does, however, note that older vintages of Bordeaux reds and whites continued to be far more popular at the restaurant than she had first expected.

Sabas Joosten is head sommelier of three Michelin star restaurant De Librije in Zwolle, Netherlands. His experience leans more towards Sayburn’s than Lepeltier’s. He doesn’t mention any specific varietals that are on customers’ lips but notes that wines from Portugal, Hungary and Greece have all done their bit to increase the presence of indigenous varieties on the restaurant’s list. Joosten’s audience doesn’t appear to find Riesling quite as problematic as British or American customers. He muses: “I don’t think we’ve done one wine-pairing menu in the past five years that didn’t feature at least one Riesling.” Despite his own love of Sherry, he still feels it is too risky to include as a pairing, although an unfortified Palomino Fino did make the grade.

Both Joosten and Sayburn are clear that “guests who choose their own wine tend to go for more classical regions”. Experiments with unusual varietals is something that is almost invariably hand-sold by the sommelier.

Retail appears even more conservative than the restaurant world, especially when the customer is left to make their own choice. Supermarket chains in Europe barely move beyond the “big 20” international varietals, even if this is spread over an offering of more than 1,000 different wines. Meininger’s reported about Waitrose’s listing of a Terret Blanc from the Languedoc last year, but this is still very much the exception rather than the rule.
Independent wine merchants tend to offer greater variety, partly as many are focused on wines at the more “natural” end of the spectrum, as a way of differentiating from the multiples. But again, big cities tend to operate in bubbles. Sam Brown is co-owner, with his partner Charlie, of a neighbourhood wine merchant in Leigh-on-sea, Essex — about 60km east of London. Vino Vero is fuelled by the passion of its wine-loving owners, but as Sam explained, it has to follow the local market: “Once you’re outside the London bubble there’s quite a bit of lag. Grape varieties that five to 10 years ago were having a thing — like Grüner Veltliner — still haven’t made it here. We’re finding that even now people don’t really know what that is.”

Nonetheless, he notes that the shop has had increasing success with Albariño and Dry Furmint. “Spain’s a popular holiday destination, people go there and drink Albariño or Verdejo in a bar, then they come home and know to ask for it,” he says. Tuscany’s minor red grape Ciliegiolo is also singled out: “It’s so fresh and fruity, people love it.”

Brown observes that indigenous varieties aren’t necessarily always obscure: “Everyone knows Argentine Malbec, but the vast majority don’t realise it’s a French variety. When you offer them a Malbec from Cahors, they’re quite interested and they’ve never had it.” His findings on price tally with Sayburn and Joosten: “At the premium end of the market people tend to play it safer — and if they’re splashing out for a present they want to go for something they know.”

In the vineyard
Taking all of these anecdotal experiences into account, there is little consensus on any rising indigenous stars. But what are producers are actually planting? Given that a new vineyard takes between five to seven years before it starts delivering quality, fashion in wine varietals moves more slowly than breeds of cattle or tomato cultivars. Furthermore, census data on vineyard plantings has historically only been collected every 10 years — with 2009 or 2010 being the last year where data is available in some countries — making it difficult to see the overall picture with any certainty.

Italy’s latest census on grape varieties by vineyard surface reveals an indigenous star that went unmentioned by everyone interviewed for this article — perhaps because relatively swift and massive growth sullied its quality reputation. Nero d’Avola has shown a 31 per cent increase in vineyard surface when comparing the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Italy now has almost as much Nero d’Avola as it does Pinot Grigio. Eurostat, the statistical collection agency of the EU, has more recent data from 2015 that shows that a further 3,300 ha have been planted since 2010.

Austria’s data, last collected in 2015, bears out the Grüner Veltliner theory — there were almost 1,000 more hectares of the country’s most well-known grape in existence in 2015, compared with 2009. This is the only piece of good news for indigenous grape fans though, as Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent and Neuburger are all in decline.

The message from these statistics is that as much as smaller retailers or sommeliers observe trends at the point of sale, those trends were already shaped to a degree in the vineyard. And the chances are that there, they were heavily influenced by supermarket buyers who know that easy-going Nero d’Avola is a far more reliable sell than Piedirosso, Freisa or Uva di Troia. 
Simon Woolf

Simon Woolf is the author of the upcoming Amber Revolution. This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2018 of Meininger's Wine Business International.