Once, there were ‘quality’ wines with regional identities such as Chablis, Rioja and Chianti and cheap blended wines such as Mateus, Blue Nun and Wild Duck, not forgetting the emphatically non-regional Gallo Hearty Burgundy…
Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was shifted – largely by New World producers, with the enthusiastic support of UK importers and retailers – to grape varieties. At first, there were a few ‘fighting varietals’ such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Then, quietly, others such as Tempranillo, Carmenère and Vermentino tried to nudge their way onto the shelf, with varying success.
Today, in the US, the evolutionary process is moving to another stage… towards premium branded blends: wines that rely on the recognizability of the producer and the name of the blend, rather than the region or grape. Of course, there is nothing really new about producing a premium wine with neither regional nor varietal identity – Penfolds Grange and Barca Velha spring to mind – but these were exceptions to the global rule. Now, you can pay $20 or $25 or more for a bottle that just describes itself as “Red” or “White” and my bet – based on listening to the ground-level buzz in the US – is that you are going to see a lot more of them.
The logic behind this trend is perfectly clear – and ironically in line with the (often legally imposed) argument by French and other European wine producers against adding grape varieties to their regional labels. “I’m not selling Chardonnay” some would say, “I’m selling Chablis”. And, now that Chardonnays and Merlots can be found on every cheap shelf, it could be argued that those Europeans were right to hold their ground.
The alternative to sheltering behind a regional appellation is to rely on the prestige of your brand and to regulate supply to the volume of demand, behaving, in short, like a spirit or beer producer.
Little could better illustrate the growing polarisation of the modern wine world, with crowd-pleasing blends on the one hand and limited-appeal ‘natural’ wines on the other. And I have a few thoughts to offer about those…
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