Is Carmenere Chile’s Next Big Thing?

Can Carmenere be for Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina — a game-changing wine that opens up new markets and upgrade perceptions in old ones? That’s the question I asked at the end of my last post.

An Unlikely Curse

Chile has earned a reputation for good value Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; this good reputation is ironically an anchor holding the industry back as it attempts to move upmarket. It will be quite a struggle to get consumers to pay more for established varieties of Chilean wines in the UK and US. New markets and new wine varieties may be the key to future success.

This is where Carmenere comes in. Carmenere is a variety that once produced famous wines in Bordeaux. But when vines were replanted after phylloxera, Carmenere was phased out because of its succeptability to a disease called coulure, which reduces yields. It thrived in phylloxera-free Chile, where it was mistaken for Merlot, an error only corrected in 1994. It is still unclear how many of Chile’s Merlot vines are really Carmenere.

Carmenere is a niche product here in the United States. If you take varietal Carmenere and blends together they account for about 0.2 percent of Nielsen- measured U.S. off-premises wine sales. Concha y Toro is the leading brand followed by Santa Rita and Root 1. By comparison, Chile has about a 2.7% overall share of the measured U.S. market by dollar value, so Carmenere is still quite small, but not insignificant. Total sales of all Chilean Carmenere and blends are less than the dollar value of revenues from Concha y Toro’s 1.5 liter Cabernet Sauvignon alone.

The first Chilean Carmenere that I remember seeing here in the U.S. was a line of wines called Oops, playing up the Merlot-Carmenere mix up. Here’s a nice Chilean Merlot … oops! It’s really something else! I remember trying a bottle and while the label was memorable it didn’t do much to establish Carmenere or Chile in my mind as a quality wine segment.

Carmenere Comes to Britain

Fast forward to 2010. Wines of Chile launched a big campaign in the key UK market called  Carmenere: made for Curry.  It was apparently quite successful, winning the prize for “generic promotion campaigns” at the International Wine Challenge Awards. The idea was to link Chilean Carmenere with Indian food (generically called “curry” in the UK), which is Britain’s most popular ethnic food category, and hope that Chicken Tikka Masala would do for Carmenere what Argentinean steak has done for Malbec.

But a big Carmenere tasting report in the July 2011 issue of Decanter raises some doubts about the quality of the wines, which is obviously a key factor in the strategy. Chilean Carmenere is a “work in progress” according to one of the panelists. Others suggested that Carmenere’s best bet is in blends (especially with Syrah), not as a varietal wine. None of the 132 wines tasted earned Decanter’s top 5-star rating and only 6 received 4 stars. Eight-six wines were “recommended” and 35 were named “good value” (Chilean good value — of course!).

[By comparison, a June 2010 Decanter tasting of 255 Argentinean Malbecs produced four 5-star, twenty-one 4-star and 131 three-star “recommended” ratings.]

Interestingly, the panel suggested that the “overt, oaky, alcoholic, heavy-bottle wines” were made to appeal to the U.S. and South American markets and lacked the balance they’d need to find favor in the U.K. The tone of the review was not as dark as I am probably painting it here, but the conclusion was clear: there was nothing revealed in those 132 bottles that would fundamentally alter Chile’s reputation.

Curry and Carmenere in the U.S.A.

The Curry and Carmenere campaign was so successful in the UK that Wines of Chile brought it to the U.S. earlier this fall and we were invited to participate in a blogger tasting. Sue and I asked two of my “Idea of Wine” students, Marina Balleria and Mike Knape, to join us.  Marina and Mike both studied abroad in Chile and brought local wine knowledge to the table as well as excellent critical thinking (and tasting) skills.

 We concluded that Curry and Carmenere is not a ridiculous idea (Mike reported a “perfect” bite with one of the wines and an onion empanada with a curry sauce), but not all the matches were equally successful. In any case, curry doesn’t have the same significance here in the U.S. that is does in the U.K. Even if Carmenere hit a home run with curry that wouldn’t automatically open up a very large U.S. wine market segment.

We found the alcohol and oak that the Decanter tasters noted, but Marina suggested that oak is part of what she expects from Chilean red wine, so this was a positive feature for her — a defining style. One of the bottles was heavy indeed — 1084 grams according to our scale, the heaviest bottle I’ve encountered since I started keeping track.  Not exactly in keeping with the “Chile is good for you” environmental theme. Most of the wines were more interesting when re-tasted the next day.
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 So what did we decide about the critical question — is Carmenere the special one that will lead Chile into the next phase of its wine market evolution? Not yet — I think that’s the answer. We didn’t find the distinctive style and consistent quality that we were looking for although there were some we really liked (and — sorry! — thought were good values).
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Project Carmenere is still under construction. When will it be finished? This is hard to say. Malbec wasn’t built in a day, although the Malbec boom, when it came, developed very quickly. Carmenere’s story may be the same — or maybe the time has passed when hot new red varieties can make wine drinkers swoon.
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Either way I think it will be tough for Chile to achieve its 2020 goals but I think they need to try. Carmenere may be Chile’s best bet and I look forward to tracking its progress.

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Here are the wines we tasted for the Curry and Carmenere event. Thanks to Wines of Chile for inviting us to participate and thanks to Mike and Marina (see photos above) for their insights.

Blogger Tasting Wine List

1- Emiliana Natura Carmenere 2010 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

2- Casa Silva Los Lingues Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $22

3- Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

4- Montes Alpha Carmenere 2008 / Colchagua Valley 90% Carmenere, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon SRP: $24.00

5- Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2009 / Apalta Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $16.99

6- Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carmenere 2009 / Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $19.99

7- Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2009 / Peumo Vineyard, Rapel Valley 100% Carmenere SRP: $20.00

8- Haras de Pirque Cabernet Sauvignon / Carmenere 2007 / Maipo Valley 40% Cab. Sauv., 37% Carmenere, 13% Cab. Franc, 10% Syrah SRP: $13.00

Chilean Wine at the Crossroads


When Oz Clarke spoke at the Wines of Chile Awards seminar earlier this year, his theme was simple and clear: Chilean wine is at a crossroads and it was up to the people in that room to decide which direction to go. Would they make the same mistakes as winemakers in Australia, for example, or choose another path? Oz, who was a stage and film actor in a previous life, is a dramatic speaker, but if you watch the video I think you will agree with me that his message is even more powerful than the delivery.

Preaching to the Choir

Oz Clarke is not alone in this view and to a certain extent I’m sure he was “preaching to the choir.” Wines of Chile released its ambitious  Strategic Plan 2020  about a year ago (you can download a pdf of the full report here). The plans calls for Chile to become the #1 New World producer of “sustainable and diverse” premium wines by 2020.

The carefully devised Plan projects an average annual growth rate of 9.2% and is based on strengthening the recognition and appreciation of  “Wines of Chile” as a world-class appellation, which will in turn increase the average price, sales, and added value for all Chilean wine industry stakeholders, including small and large growers, suppliers, wineries, and exporters.

The plan focuses on four messages to drive the transformation:

  • Diversity and Quality. Chile has much to offer with respect to quality, diversity, and wines that over-deliver at every price point.
  • Sustainability. Sustainable Chile: Clean, efficient, and responsible.
  • Country Image. Chile is good for you.
  • Innovation. Chile: Moving above and beyond.

The plan’s ten year time horizon speaks to the sense of “Chile at the Crossroads” immediacy while the four “strategic pillars” indicate how much needs to be done in terms of recasting Chile’s image. Chile’s reputation as a producer of bargain Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc needs to be reshaped in terms of both wine types and price points. And the image of Chile itself must be updated or redefined, according to the plan’s analysis, so that the country sells the wine  (as Italy’s image obvious does for Italian wine) and not the other way around. (Whether a campaign built around the slogan “Chile is Good For You” can accomplish this is debatable.)

Audacious Goals?

Exports are key for Chile since domestic consumers drink up only about 30% of total production.  The idea that revenues might grow by 9.2% in the next decade is not as ridiculous as it might sound, given the current economic climate, although it is certainly an audacious goal.

Chile’s wine exports grew by a yearly average of 33% in the 1990s (according to data in the Wines of Chile report) and by 11% per year between 2000-2009. But whereas growth came through both increased price (7%) and quantity (25%) in the 1990s, the 11% revenue growth in the 2000s was due to volume growth (12%) offsetting 0.1% average price declines. The new strategic plan calls for a radical change, with rising price not higher production driving revenue growth.  Good idea, but easier said than done.

So (and this is the “crossroads” theme again), Chile needs to turn things around in a fundamental sense and this may be difficult in today’s market environment as an excellent interview with  with Rabobank’s Stephen Rannekleiv in a special September 2011 Chile Report  issue of The Drinks Business makes clear. Rannekleiv is an optimist about Chile’s wines, but very cautious about its wine industry’s ability to meet the 2020 goal.

 Something Completely Different

Rannekleiv suggests that Chile seek out new markets to supplement but not replace the UK, its largest export market today, where margins currently are thin or even  negative and where upward price adjustment is extremely difficult. Focus must be on price and quality, Rannekleiv notes, so major supply surges must be avoided.

It is very difficult to raise price (without dramatic loss of market share) for existing product lines in today’s market, so  “Chile needs to find something different, such as marketing around new varieties that are exceptional; it also needs to continually work on improving quality.”

There is no silver bullet, Rannekleiv suggests. It will take a combination of controlled output growth, continuing quality improvements, image development and new products and markets to turn the Chilean wine industry onto the right path.

Getting the Message Out

One element of the Wines of Chile strategy is a series of blogger wine tastings that are designed to educate, inform and persuade social media representatives and their audiences of Chile’s new direction. I took part in one of these programs last year that featured Chilean Syrah and Pinot Noir, stressing the diversity of Chilean wine.

This certainly is part of the 2020 strategy’s message (and the wines told that story pretty well), but Syrah is a problematic market these days and while Pinot is popular, it is hard to break in except at the bulk level. (Although both Chile and Argentina produce Pinot Noir, for example, neither country made the cut for inclusion in Benjamin Lewin’s recent book In Search of Pinot Noir.)

Is Carmenere The Key?

Which brings us to Carmenere, the focus of the most recent blogger tasting program.  Is Carmenere the key (or one of them) to Chile’s crossroads dilemma? Carmenere is (like Malbec) a Bordeaux variety that is now better known in the New World than the Old. Can Carmenere be to Chile what Malbec has become for Argentina, a signature variety that creates a new market and that serves as a brand ambassador for the entire country?

A Carmenere boom would tick a lot of the Wines of Chile 2020 plan boxes. Is Carmenere the key? Come back next week for my answer.

Occupy Napa (and Sonoma and Burgundy and Bordeaux)

One of my loyal readers, perhaps inspired by Wine Economist posts about bargain wines and Martians versus Wagnerians, writes to suggest that I  organize an “Occupy the Vineyards” movement. The purpose? To protest that part of the wine world that focuses on iconic wines for elites. What about the rest of us, he says? What about the other 99% of wine drinkers who are looking for good, affordable quotidian wines and don’t really care about impossibly expensive 100-point wines?

Not Wine Porn

It is a very Wagnerian idea (the reference here is to Philip Wagner, who promoted a democratic notion of wine here in the U.S., not the more famous aristocratic composer) and I am very sympathetic towards it. Wagnerian wines don’t have to be cheap cheap cheap, they just need to be good drinkable, affordable wines   Wine food, not wine porn, if you know what I mean. A sensible idea.

So I started fooling around on the internet, searching for titles like “Occupy Napa” and “Occupy Bordeaux.” I figured that a catchy name would help make the point.

But they’re already taken — by groups affiliated with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Occupy Napa leads weekend protests at a Napa, California town square. Occupy Bordeaux seems to be part of the broader Occupy France movement. (I thought France was already occupied …)

CafePress website sells Occupy Bordeaux souvenirs including T-shirts, water bottles and the neat 20 ounce drinking glass pictured here, but I don’t think it is directly affiliated with the group in France. The Occupy Together website has a cool interactive map that shows “Occupy” movements around the world and lists their websites if you are interested in seeing how this movement has evolved.

The Occupy Principle

I like the idea of promoting a more casual idea of wine, but I guess I won’t be using the “Occupy” trademark, since it would be  too easy to confuse the wine group with the larger transnational advocacy movement.  But I think that what I am calling the “occupy principle” probably applies to both.

Usually we think that movements need to stand for something quite specific — to have an clear agreed agenda — and in the long run I think this is very important. But in the short run sometimes it helps if a movement is a little ambiguous, with a flexible identity that can lend it self to several different purposes and attract a good many followers. I think this ambiguity helped the Occupy Wall Street movement to gain initial attention and to spread as it has done.

The Occupiers I have read about resent and oppose unequal wealth and power (the gap between the 1% and the rest), but differ in many other respects. It will be interesting to see if a clearly focused agenda emerges and, if it does, what specific goals are adopted. Perhaps, of course, the protest itself and the consciousness-raising it provokes are sufficient as a first step.

Conspicuous Non-Consumption?

A wine movement for the 99% would surely bring together the wine world equivalent of “strange bedfellows,” too. Some supporters are just cheap (or thrifty, if you will) and want a little respect for their self-restraint. Others may be against an elitist idea of wine or oppose conspicuous consumption (which in the case of trophy wines often takes the rather bizarre form of conspicuous non-consumption — costly “collector” wines to look at and talk about, not necessarily to drink).

The reader who originally suggested the Occupy Wine idea has a more basic approach: wine doesn’t have to be a mystery (and most wine isn’t) and it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg (most wine doesn’t). There’s no reason that perfectly decent, relatively affordable wine can’t be a part of almost everyone’s daily life. That’s a Wagnerian attitude through and through and I can see why he wantd to see it given more attention in the wine world.

The Commanding Heights

So if there were to be an Occupy Wine protest, where would we gather and what would we do? That’s a bit of a problem since the places that sell the most wine (including supermarkets and wine shops) often have a lot of choices for the 99 percent — not much to oppose there.  Costco is the largest wine retailer in the U.S. and although it does sell some icon wines, most of the products are more affordable. Most 99-percenters probably view Costco as friendly territory because of its policy of marking up wine only 15% for most bottles and 17% for house brand Kirkland Signature wines.

I suppose that we could protest in front of high end restaurants that sell superstar wines at super-nova prices. But I think restaurant wine mark ups are an issue of their own. And besides, the smell coming out of the kitchen would probably make me crazy. We could meet at Trader Joe’s to acknowledge the Two Buck Chuck phenomenon, but it wouldn’t be the same.

No, we would need to occupy the “commanding heights” — which in the case of wine means the wine media, where the 1 percent wines are praised and raised to an often unreachable altar.  But there are flaws in the plan to Occupy Wine Spectator, too. First, all the popular wine magazines are making efforts to reach price-sensitive “99%” buyers just now, even if they also run stories about one percent wines. Even Wine Advocate identifies good values and I have seen box wines and house brands included in some wine magazine reviews.

Fait Accompli?

The other problem is that I am not sure that there is a market for an alternative Occupy Wine magazine that would focus on everyday wine values and ordinary wine lifestyles. The target audience probably wouldn’t buy it — they’d rather spend their money on wine than wine literature. And in any case there are several wine blogs that cater to the good value audience.

Maybe … and this is only speculation … maybe we have already occupied wine and we just don’t realize it? The wines are there and so are we, the 99 percent.

Occupy Wine is a fait accompli? Who knew! Spread the word.

Bottoms Up: The Bargain Wine Revolution

George M Taber, A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks. Scribner, 2011.

George Taber knows something about how seemingly small events can sometimes turn the world of wine upside down. He was the Time magazine reporter who covered the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting where top French wines were matched against California Cabs and Chardonnays in blind tastings evaluated by famous French critics. The New World wines held their own and even took the top prizes in both red and white categories. Thus was a fermenting revolution recognized and encouraged.

Now the issue isn’t so much Old versus New as it is Expensive versus Cheap and Elites versus Masses. Taber sides with a democratic vision of wine and this book is a celebration of the fact that there are more drinkable bargain (less than $10) wines in the world now than ever before. The glass is more than half full. Drink up!

What to Drink (for $10 or Less)

Taber’s celebration comes in two parts. The second half of the book is a bargain wine buyer’s guide. Taber provides top 10 lists of his favorite “$10 and less” wines and wine brands sorted by grape variety and region. He also recommends a couple of splurge wines in each category for good measure.

My, what a lot of inexpensive wine George Taber must consumed to write these recommendations. Bottoms up, indeed!

Here’s what I mean. The section on blush wines highlights 10 wines including a $3 Oak Leaf White Zinfandel (from Wal-Mart) and a $6 Riunite Strawberry White Merlot. I assume that Taber tasted the big selling Sutter Home White Zin and found it wanting since it does not appear on the list, but he doesn’t list all the wines he tried in each category, only the best ones, nor (and this would be particularly useful) the really really bad ones to steer clear of.

Revolution from Below

The first half of the book makes the case that maybe you should take bargain wines more seriously (and not just because of the current economic situation). Taber sets out to undermine the conventional wisdom about wine. Maybe wine judges are as confused as the rest of us. Maybe taste is so subjective that your opinion really is all that matters. Maybe (gasp!) bottles and corks are a pointless anachronism when it comes to everyday wines and you should reconsider your prejudice against “box wines,” which have changed a lot since you tried them in college.

My favorite chapters are the profiles of the iconoclasts who are leading the wine revolution. Taber’s reporting skills are put to good use in telling the tales of Fred Franzia (the godfather of Two Buck Chuck) and John Casella (the father of Yellow Tail wine).  Both wines changed the world in important ways and it is interesting to have their stories told so effectively and to be able to see these two phenomena side-by-side.

The final chapter (before the buyer’s guide) examines China. Will it too change the wine world? Maybe – that’s the answer here. China is still a work in progress and perhaps it is too soon to draw many conclusions. Taber does a good job pulling together different trends and facts.

What’s a Bargain?

One of the ironies of this book comes from the fact that Taber needs to define what he means by “bargain wine” and value (like taste) is pretty subjective. He draws the line at $10, which is a good thing I believe since this allows him room to include a lot of pretty good wines in his lists and not just focus on extreme values. Ironically, however, a $10 wine is classified as “premium” and sometimes “super-premium” here in America. The majority of American wine drinkers think of a $10 wine as a splurge.

I have friends who are afraid to try a $10 wine because they fear that they will be able to taste the difference and be forced to turn their backs on the $6 wines they’ve been enjoying for years.

I wonder if wine snobs will be annoyed by George Taber’s book? After all, with this book Taber seems to suggest that democratic wines deserve the same respect as those Judgment of Paris aristocrats. Me? I’m just grateful that he’s done the dirty work of tasting and sorting all those really inexpensive wines so that I don’t have to! Bottoms up!

On Champagne: Keynes or Adam Smith?

John Maynard Keynes loved Champagne. When asked if he had any regrets in life he admitted to only one. I regret that I did not drink more Champagne, he said.

He even applied economic analysis to Champagne. Looking for ways to increase revenue from the bar at the Cambridge theatre where his ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova often danced (Keynes subsidized the theatre, so he had an interest in its “liquidty”), he studied the cross elasticity of demand between ordinary and premium Champagnes and proposes a novel plan to increase total expenditures by altering prices.

Raising the relative price of the cheaper stuff would make the more expensive tipple seem a better deal, he said, and increase total revenues. I don’t know if the author of Essays in Persuasion was able to persuade the bar manager to go along with the experiment.

Adam Smith, Terroirist

There is no indication that Adam Smith was fond of Champagne or even gave it much thought. Perhaps this was because of the difference in time and place relative to Keynes, but I think it might be because Smith was a terroirist. He believed in the idea of terroir and wrote in the Wealth of Nations that the wine grape was particularly sensitive to local growing conditions. He noted that certain famous Bordeaux wines earned a terroir premium in the marketplace.

If Smith was in fact a terroirist he might shy away from Champagne because most of the Champagne wines in the market place are relatively terroir-free.  Yes, of course, they represent that terroir of the Champagne appelation. But the wines that come from the big houses are blends that come from hundreds of growers and several different vintages. The wines are made in the cellar (through the highly manipulative methode champegnoise) at least as much as they are made in the vineyard. They can be excellent luxury products to be sure, but consistency is generally valued more than terroirst local or vintage variation.

Grower Champagnes are different; Smith and Keynes would both love them. They combine all the luxury and sensuality that Keynes appreciated with Smith’s intellectual focus on local conditions. Grower Champagnes are made in teeny tiny quantities by individual Champagne winegrowers from estate fruit. They are cult wines sold by specialists like Terry Theise, who also champions high terroir Rieslings from Germany and Austria.

Popping a Fat Cork

Is there a market for luxury terroir wines like grower Champagne? This question led us to a Seattle door marked “Fat Cork” where owner Bryan Maletis imports an exclusive list of grower Champagnes and sells them directly to small but growing local and national network of Keynesian-Smith and Smithian-Keynes buyers.

Bryan is well placed to take on the grower Champagne business. He has deep experience in the wine business, most recently as brand manager for Champagne Laurent-Perrier at Winebow, the big distributor. His connection to the grower networks and understanding of the market and distributional issues are valuable assets.

Bryan led us through a terroir tasting of three grower Champagnes (see the list at the end of this post) and the differences in wine were readily apparent to me and my Champagne research unit, which includes Sue, Joyce, Bonnie, Barry and Richard. Joyce revealed herself to have both a fine palate and an exceptional ability to express herself when it comes to Champagne and it was interesting to watch Bryan and his wife Abigail analyze the particular qualities of the wines in their portfolio in order to select the perfect wine for Joyce.

I asked Bryan about the challenges that his business faces, expecting him to start with shipping problems. But he told me that shipping isn’t an important barrier for him at this point. He has created innovative shipping containers that allow him to safely ship wine even in the hottest weather.  So check that important box. And he simply complies with all the interstate laws as best he can, accepting the constraints and pushing on.

University of Champagne

The real problem is that sparkling wine is a small part of the wine market and grower Champagne is a small part of that. People don’t drink Champagne every day, but save it for special occasions. Bryan would like to change that. And even people who have a Keynesian view of Champagne don’t necessarily know about grower Champagne, but may stick for the most part with the heavily-promoted brand names of the major houses.

It’s a marketing problem, he said, although I think it is also an educational problem (which probably makes it even worse). People won’t seek out grower Champagnes until they understand them. Once they taste them, however, I think many will be intrigued and want to probe the Champagne terroir as terroirists do for other wines.

Am I saying that, with a little education, Keynesians can embrace Adam Smith? I guess so! At least when it comes to Champagne.

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Here are the three grower Champagnes we tasted with Bryan and Abigail. Special thanks to Sue, Bonnie & Richard and Joyce & Barry for their assistance in analyzing the market for grower Champagnes. And thanks to Richard, of course, for sharing his business model with us and popping a few fat corks.

  • Perrot-Batteaux et Filles Cuvée Helix Blanc de Blancs (Bergeres-les-Vertus, Cote des Blancs)
  • Pascal Redon Brut Tradition (Trepail, Montagne de Riems)
  • Didier-Ducos Fils Brut (St. Martin d’Ablois, Valee de la Marne)

Grape Transformations: Piemonte’s Twin Tornados

This is the second in a series on people who have revolutionized the way the world thinks about wine or a particular wine region. This post takes us to Italy’s Piemonte region, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Two winemakers stand out here. Many of you have probably already guessed the first name: Angelo Gaja, who is associated with the transformation of Barbaresco. The second name? I’ll leave you in suspense for a few paragraphs. See if you can figure it out.

Gaga for Gaja

Angelo Gaja changed the way the world thinks about Piemonte wine (and to some extent Italian wine in general). Joe Bastianich (writing in his book Grandi Vini) says that Gaja is “the most famous Italian wine producer in the world” (this may come as news to the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, but I’m sure Joe knows what he is talking about). Barbaresco was seen as the plain little sister of sexy Barolo until Gaja changed everything.

Exactly what Gaja changed and how is a matter of opinion, although the achievement is clear. Bastianich looks to the vineyard, the development of particular vineyard sites and the production of “cru” single vineyard “terroir” wines. He also praises Gaja’s efforts to travel the world promoting his wines and the other wines of the region. The power of Gaja’s personality is clearly part of the story here.

Matt Kramer, writing in his book Making Sense of Italian Wine, tells a different story. For him Gaja’s contribution was in the cellar even more than the vineyard, where he introducing an international style to the wine by using small French oak barrels (Gaja also controversially introduced international grape varieties to the family’s vineyards).

Gaja’s second and perhaps even greater achievement, Kramer suggests, was to charge outrageous prices for his wines. “While few people know about wine, everybody’s an expert on money: Could this Gaja … really be worth that much money? The sheer chutzpah was captivating and so, too, it turned out, were the wines.”

Gaja became a role model for Piemonte and perhaps for aspiring winemakers throughout Italy.

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Barbera, Bologna, “Braida”

As much as I admire Angelo Gaja, enjoy his wines and respect his innovations, he is not alone on the Piemonte “grape transformations” podium. The second “tornado” is someone who did for democratic Barbera what Gaja did for aristocratic Nebbiolo. The achievement may be even greater.

Nebbiolo, the noble grape that is responsible for the great Barolo, Barbaresco and Langhe Rosso wines, is far from the most planted Piemonte grape. It has the best reputation, but perhaps because it ripens so late and requires specific site characteristics to excel, it is not as widely planted as you might imagine. There is 15 times more Barbera than Nebbiolo in Piemonte.

Barbera! Making this humble everyday wine respected  and even fashionable today is a signal achievement. This is the claim to fame of the late Giacomo Bologna of “Braida” winery in Rocchetta Tanaro, just a few miles from Asti.

Barbera is not finicky like Nebbiolo — it will grow pretty much wherever you plant it in Piemonte, both where it produces outstanding grapes and where quality is not so high. There was not much of a premium for quality grapes in the early postwar era when wholesalers would buy indiscriminately and lump them all together. Giacomo Bologna thought he could do better and set out to achieve excellence beginning in the 1960s, when Gaja was also picking up steam.

The old Barbera was nothing special, but focusing on specific sites with old vines and low productivity, engaging in aggressive cap management and aging the wines in small French oak, Bologna was able to create both a new Barbera wine and a new image of Barbera wine. The top wines, including the famous Bricco dell’Uccellone, redefined the region and jumpstarted the quality wine movement.

Another “Braida” Revolution?

We visited Braida in June when were in Italy for the wine economics conference in Bolzano. Nadine Weihgold led us on a tour of the winery, pointing out the many ways that Giacomo Bologna’s vision and plans have been fulfilled since his untimely death by his wife Anna and his two children Raffaella and Giuseppe (both of whom are enologists).

We tasting the single vineyard wines and then Ai Suma, an extreme version of Bologna’s idea of Barbera that is only produced in special years. These are wines of distinction and reputation and so popular in Italy that a surprisingly small amount leaks out to the rest of the world.

Giuseppe Bologna happened to pass through on his way to the barrel room and, hearing the wine economics conversation, sat down to join us. “Is there anything else you’d like to taste?” Nadine asked? Embarrassed and apologetic, I confessed I wanted to follow these great wines with their vivacious but less prestigious little sister – La Monella, the frizzante Barbera that was the company’s first success. A simple wine, but with style and quality.  Were they offended? No, just the opposite. Grinning with obvious pleasure, Giuseppe went to work, corks started to fly and soon were we chatting away in mixed Italian and English.

Ai Suma might be literally the summit of Giacomo Bologna’s mountain, but his son Giuseppe has his own dreams and plans — and they include Pinot Noir. Pinot is a blending grape in this part of Italy, but Giuseppe has hopes that it might some day learn to stand on its own as Barbera has. He called for a barrel sample and the wine was very interesting — not an imitation of Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand, but something different, still developing, full of potential.

Pinot Noir in Barolo-ville? Giuseppe Bologna must be nuts. But then they probably said that about Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja back in the day.

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This video has nice images of Giacomo Bologna and family and tells the winery’s history very well (I think you can catch the gist even if your Italian is a little rusty). The first video features Angelo Gaja telling his own story. Cheers!

What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is Moscato The Next Big Thing (TNBT) in wine? That’s the question Liza B. Zimmerman asks in an article in the March 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly titled “A New White Zin is in the House.”

Moscato wines sales soared by 91.4 percent by dollar value according to Zimmerman’s article, compared with 4.9 percent overall market growth (Nielsen off-premises survey data for the 52 weeks ending October 16, 2010).  That’s a big surge in sales, albeit from a relatively small base.

Move Over White Zin

Some of the increase probably comes as consumers switch over from White Zin, as the article’s headline suggests. The decline in White Zinfandel sales is accelerating as measured by Nielsen, with a 7.4 percent decrease in the most recent month reported in the same issue of WBM. Since White Zin sales are huge (almost double the sales of Red Zinfandel, for example, and slightly larger than Sauvignon Blanc in the Nielsen rankings), it wouldn’t take many consumers switching from White Zin to Moscato to generate big growth numbers.

Wineries have been quick to respond to the trend. Sutter Home, the White Zin king, has a popular Moscato Alexandria. Robert Mondavi Woodbridge and Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars are in the market, too, and yesterday I saw an advertisement for a Moscato from Columbia Crest. Now that I have started to pay attention, I am seeing Moscato everywhere.

I associate Moscato with low-alcohol fizzy Moscato D’Asti wines from Italy, but Zimmerman points out that Moscato can be made in a variety of sparkling and still styles, which she sees as a plus. The fact that the wines do not typically cost an arm and a leg is an advantage, too. I will be interested to see to what extent Italian producers will benefit from the Moscato boom or if American wineries will capture much of the market growth.

TNBT Effect

Now to be honest, I don’t really care if Moscato becomes The Next Big Thing — I’m more interested in TNBT wine phenomenon itself.  Many of the winemakers and winery executives I talk with around the world display an understandable fascination with TNBT. White Zin, which once defined TNBT here in the United States, shows that fads and trends can at least sometimes develop staying power, as the huge sales figures make clear. But TNBT of today cannot afford to get too comfortable — there’s always another NBT on the horizon.

Some of my contacts in Italy worry about Pinot Grigio (PG), for example, which was TNBT for a while and continues to grow in the U.S. market. Nielsen reports sales of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris totalled $751 million in the sales vectors they monitor in the 52 weeds ending January 8, 2011 — much higher than White Zin’s $425 million for the same period. The Italians are glad that PG sales are growing, but they worry that their share of this market may be crowded off the shelves by U.S. PG wines (from Sutter Home, Barefoot Cellars, Columbia Crest and Woodbridge, for example).

And, of course, they are concerned that the market will swerve and TNBT will shift in some other direction entirely, leaving behind a smaller market niche.

Is Torrontés TNBT?

So when I was getting ready to visit the wine country in Argentina I found two groups interested in the question, is Torrontés TNGT?  — the hopeful Argentinean producers and fearful makers of Pinot Grigio back in Italy!

Torrontés is an interesting candidate for TNBT. Some people see it as Argentina’s signature white grape variety, ready to take its place along side Malbec in the market place. While Malbec has its roots in France (it is one of the classic Bordeaux blend varieties), Argentinean Torrontés is thought to be theirs alone —  a cross between Muscat (think Moscato) and the Criolla or Mission grapes planted by the early settlers. It is or can be intensely aromatic and some of the wines I’ve tasted (the Doña Paula, for example) seem to be all about flowers more than fruit or minerals. Distinctive, but everyone’s cup of tea.

Having read so much here in the U.S. about the amazing TNBT potential of Torrontés, I was a bit surprised at the reactions I found in Argentina. Some of the wine people we talked with were clearly enthusiastic and ready to ride the wave if and when it came, but others had doubts.

The optimists view Torrontés as the next wave of distinctive “Blue Ocean” Argentinean wines. Malbec paved the way, then Torrontés broadens the market, then Bonarda and so on each filling a unique market niche.

More than one person talked about the potential for Torrontés in Asia, pointing out how well it pairs with Asia food. Of course everyone in the world who makes white wine with good acidity dreams about selling their wines in Asia, so this is hardly an uncontested market. And it is also useful to remember that while you and I might like the taste of Torrontés (or Alsatian Pinot Gris) with Pad Thai or Kung Pao Chicken, most Asian consumers believe that wine should be red and that it is not necessarily meant to be consumed at meals. So caution is warranted.

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

I was surprised at the number of wine people who were Torrontés sceptics. Some were concerned that Torrontés lacks the quality to be an important grape varietal. They would rather focus on quality international varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to complete directly based on quality and price rather than trying to develop a new but possibly marginal market segment.

Torrontés is like Pinot Grigio, only it’s good, one expert told us with a grin — and  with obvious disdain for both wines.  Although Italian Pinot Grigio can be excellent, its reputation is influenced by simple basic products that flood the market and I think there is  concern that this could happen with Torrontés in Argentina.

The parallels with Italian Pinot Grigio are interesting. The best of the Torrontés and Pinot Grigiot wines come from particular geographic areas (Salta in Argentina, for example, and Alto Adige in Italy), but expanded production would probably  come from other zones where the quality is not as high.  As TNBT effect strikes, if it does, the initial quality could be undermined as output expands. The concern is that Argentina is not as established as Italy in world wine markets and its reputation might not be able to withstand a wave of mediocre wines.

But perhaps it is the nature of TNBT phenomenon that hot products simultaneously exist on many levels, simple and complex, highest quality and no-so-good. Perhaps that is the key to their success. Maybe it is the diversity (or is it ambiguity?) that allows fads or trends to evolve into TNBT.

Although wine snobs almost universally reject White Zinfandel, for example, some good wines of this type have been made, including an early vintage by Ridge Vineyards that I talk about in Wine Wars.

If this is true, then maybe Moscato and Torrontés have a chance!

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