Monday, 4 February 2013

Indigenous vs. International Varieties

Wine writer Jancis Robinson has just released a new book titled “Wine Grapes - A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours”. The ideal holiday gift for your wine-crazy friend, although at a hefty 3 kg, it would be challenging stuffing this into a Christmas stocking. A tasting masterclass was held last month to commemorate the book launch. A point of interest was that the featured wines included not a drop of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or any other international and well-known varieties. Instead there were wines made from indigenous grapes such as Norton, Godello, and the tongue-twisting Öküzgözü. Unusual and obscure, these historical cultivars still play an important role in their domicile market.  

From one viewpoint, things have never looked brighter in the world of wine. The influence of oenological consultants and flying winemakers has raised the average quality of wine substantially. Domestic wine consumption is growing steadily year-on-year, fuelled by a vibrant dining scene. This in turn has led to more wine events and visits from producers keen to establish a local presence. As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said to his electorate during the post-war boom years, “You’ve never had it so good.”

But have we sacrificed diversity at the altar of familiarity? A quick browse of supermarket shelves reveals a wine selection dominated by a handful of varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz for the reds, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling for the whites. The wine lists of far too many restaurants are filled with safe but bland expressions of the same repetitious varieties. This situation is a far different cry from the UK, a market so far unrivalled in the breadth and scope of wines available. 

In theory, we would all want to support having more wines made from indigenous varieties. We associate these wines as having more character and heritage, made in an artisanal style as opposed to mass-produced wines fashioned for an international palate. However, retailers have only so much shelf space to play with. Would they rather display an unproven wine or one whose label customers recognise? How much are we creatures of habit, and to what extent are we willing to experiment?

Winning consumer acceptance of an unfamiliar variety takes patience and effort. An effective and natural way is to promote these wines alongside their national cuisine. Recently, I was delighted to discover Blu Kouzina, an unpretentious Greek restaurant along Bukit Timah Road. The wine list contained an extensive selection of Greek wines made from indigenous varieties such as Assyrtiko and Xinomavro, which matched the food effortlessly. When a restaurant takes the time to craft a wine list that includes selections from the same locality as the menu, I am reassured that they are providing a truly authentic dining experience. 

Amongst wine critics, there is a disquieting worry that the globalisation of wine has caused a loss of distinctiveness. Jumping onto the bandwagon and emulating famous regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy may yield short-term results, but in the long-term producers may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of competing with thousands of other identikit wines. More lamentable would be the irreparable loss of vine diversity and genetic material as indigenous grapes are uprooted and replaced with international varieties. 

How does the consumer fit into this debate? As our palates become more sophisticated, a sense of adventure is both healthy and a gateway to further wine knowledge. The joy of discovery is accompanied by bragging rights as well. A fellow wine lover may comment, “I had a glass of Château Mouton Rothschild 1996 last night…”, to which you’d reply “That’s nice, but have you ever tried a Narince from Central Anatolia?” Not very likely. 

Our collective appreciation and understanding of wines has progressed much in the last two decades. The next step is to move out of our comfort zones and actively seek out wine made from local varieties, which is usually more reflective of a region’s history and unique terroir than an international variety parachuted in to satisfy market demand. The day is surely not far off when we are as comfortable ordering a Nerello Mascalese as a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The above article was published in the December issue of Appetite Magazine.

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