The wine press is so full of stories about unusual and autochthonous varieties, that it would be easy to believe that new and interesting varieties are filling the world’s retail shelves and restaurant lists.
But nothing could be further from the truth – a situation that has Dr Richard Smart, viticulturist and international consultant, deeply worried for the future.
As writer Per Karlsson pointed out on the Forbes website, “The 13 most popular varieties are planted on a third of the vine area of the world, according to [the] OIV.”
Cabernet Sauvignon is still king of the wine shelf, according to Karlsson, planted on 340,000 ha worldwide. Merlot fares nearly as well, sitting on 266,000 ha.
Dr Richard Smart believes, strongly, that it’s dangerous for the world’s wine industry to be standing on so few legs, a situation he terms the “Coca-cola-isation of wine”.
“The ‘international varieties’ and their likely number is a matter for some conjecture,” he says, “but their very existence casts a strait jacket over the international wine sector.”
His problem is not that wine consumers are presented with a narrow range of drinking choices, but that having too few varieties grown makes the commercial wine trade vulnerable to climate change and moreover denies the extraordinary diversity of wine.
The reason for this narrowing of wine grape repertoire is not hard to find – varietal labelling, he says. “Probably an unintended consequence has been that, globally, wine consumers have focused their wine appreciation on ten or so of these grape varieties, ignoring thousands of others. And this has led in turn to the planting of more of these varieties.”
Dr Smart thinks it’s unrealistic to call for a return to generic labelling. The solution, he thinks, is to “increase the number of international varieties, this time with less preoccupation with grapes of French origin.”
It’s not an easy problem to solve, as the entire commodity production and distribution chain is geared towards a handful of varieties, along with ‘generic red’ and ‘generic white’. The only thing that will change the situation is if consumer demand for new varieties is stimulated.
Dr Smart suggests making another ten to 20 varieties part of the commercial repertoire; get international agreement on a wider range of ‘international varieties’ that have the potential for commercial success, and then encourage producers, distributors and buyers to promote them. “How about a truly international competition to select these 30 varieties – is there a sponsor out there willing to help?”
This is where you come in. Can you suggest a variety that might have strong commercial potential?
It’s not as easy a task as it appears. The variety will have to be robust enough to be grown in different climates and soils. It will have a taste that suits the mass market palate. And it must have a name easy to pronounce.
Send your candidates, with a short explanation of why you think they have merit, to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will pass them on to Dr Smart. He will evaluate suggestions, and begin creating a Mighty 30 (or so) list, as a preliminary to proposing an international taste-off
And then the hard work will truly begin.