Sunday, 30 October 2011

Flagship wine: ambassador or juggernaut?

What is the wine or grape that first springs to mind when someone mentions France, Spain, Argentina or New Zealand? Bordeaux, Tempranillo, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc? These are considered the flagship wines of those countries, the ambassadors. But do they really bring value to their motherland's wine industry? Or do they shine so bright that they stultify it?

You can argue it either way.

Start with Italy. It has over 350 indigenous grapes, but the one variety that is its claim to fame is Sangiovese, used in so many great wines from Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino to the Super Tuscans. Sangiovese brought the world’s drinkers to Italy and introduced them to its many siblings—Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Pinot Grigio and more. Today, consumers everywhere appreciate the diversity of Italian wines, but they still pay respect to Sangiovese.

Like Italy, Portugal has over 300 native grapes, but it does not promote any particular variety in the international arena. The fact that one grape often has different names depending on where it is grown (north, centre or south) doesn’t help. As a result, perhaps, Portuguese wine has little recognition outside Portugal even today (except Port and Mateus Rosé). A few years ago, ViniPortugal decided to start marketing Touriga Nacional as the national grape, hoping it would achieve similar status to Sangiovese and bring the world to its many other wines. We are still waiting to see the results.

Most will agree that Tempranillo is Spain’s flagship grape. But what about Grenache (Garnacha)? It is an important variety in Rioja where Tempranillo gained its fame, and produces the expressive and concentrated wines of Priorat and the south. In fact, Grenache has more characters than Tempranillo as a varietal, yet it always seems a few steps behind.

Sauvignon Blanc, specifically from Marlborough, put New Zealand on the world wine map. Now every wine region outside New Zealand wants to produce a similar style of Sauvignon Blanc. However, this flagship grape has been so successful that all other great New Zealand wines are living under its shadow. The average consumer—and I am referring to the average, not those in the wine circle—is not even aware of Otago Pinot Noir, let alone the wines of other regions.

Chile is known for offering the best value in several international grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay. Yet it struggles to establish an identity. Conversely, its neighbour Argentina is, in a sense, better positioned in the world wine market because of its flagship grape, Malbec.

So, is having a flagship wine or varietal a good or a bad thing?

My marketing instinct tells me that nurturing a flagship wine is a good strategy. It provides a clear identity that differentiates the country concerned from other producing countries and allows its wine boards to create a focused campaign. But I do feel there may be room for more than one flagship per country given the spectrum of climate and terroir almost every wine producing country possesses. Bordeaux may be the best known wine in France but Burgundy must be close…and isn't Alsace Riesling equally characteristic? So, once the ball is rolling, the next phase of marketing should be to elevate other grape varieties or regions to flagship status.

Australia did a brilliant job by first associating the country with Shiraz, and later refining its image by developing a flagship for each region: Shiraz in Barossa, Semillon in Hunter Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon in Coonawarra and more recently Margaret River, sparkling wine in Tasmania.

In New Zealand, other regions are trying to get out of big brother Marlborough's shadow as well: Martinborough, the smallest region, is positioning its style of Pinot Noir, which is more concentrated than Otago’s, as its flagship, Gimblett Gravels is promoting its Bordeaux blend. Peter Saunders from Bishops Head in Waipara, reckons Riesling is that region's flagship.

Pinotage may not be everyone’s preferred choice but it stands for South Africa nevertheless. Consumers with basic wine knowledge are aware that Pinotage is from South Africa. This helps establish South Africa as a serious wine producing country.

Wines of Argentina, with its new image, logo, and a mission to build Argentina as one of the leading non-traditional wine exporters, rightly chose Malbec as its flagship red. But I hope equal resources will be put into marketing Torrontés as a flagship white at a later stage.

Most people would think Carménère is the flagship grape of Chile. At a recent discussion with Eduardo Chadwick, the sixth generation of Viña Errazuriz and President of Viña Seña, he said Carménère may be a typical grape of Chile, it is not reliable in the sense that it is difficult to ripen. Only quality conscious winemakers are able to produce world-class Carménère. Therefore, instead of focusing on a flagship grape, Chile should emphasise on the quality and diversity of its wines - Syrah, Cabernet Saugvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Well, I suppose one can’t force a flagship grape for the sake of it.

I believe a flagship wine is like a royal family—it represents the country and commands the attention and imagination of consumers. But one must visit and explore that country in order to truly appreciate its culture and diversity. Likewise, there should be times when a flagship wine is allowed to step aside a bit and let the others shine.

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