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Secondary Varieties
By Jim Clarke
Sep 1, 2015
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First impressions last, and chances are, your first impression of Argentine wine involved Malbec.  New Zealand?  Sauvignon Blanc.  These and other countries have ridden their signature varieties to success in the U.S. market (and elsewhere), but they aren’t one-trick ponies, and are worried about being perceived as such.  If Malbec’s popularity fades, will interest in Argentine wine go with it?

 “We’re at about 65% Malbec--a little higher than in the past--and it continues to creep upward,” says Ed Lehrman, Co-founder of Vine Connections, an importer specializing in South America.  While Argentina does make highly-regarded wines from other “international varieties”--a handful of Cabernet Francs have received much praise from the press, for example--the industry has focused on finding a second grape they can call their own.  “Once upon a time Argentines would tell you that Bonarda was the next big thing for them, but we haven’t seen that happen.  Same with Torrontés.”

One challenge is the need for a critical mass of producers working with the grapes and exporting them in quantities large enough to make an impression in the market.  That’s true for those Cabernet Francs; a handful isn’t enough to establish a category.  I’ve tasted Viogniers, Chardonnays, and Cabernets that could (and to a limited extent, do) compete in the U.S. market, but many retailers seem reluctant to give Argentine bottlings of these varieties the shelf space.  In fact, that reluctance sometimes extends further back in the supply chain to the distributor and importer as well.

Sometimes the issue is not just new varieties, but diversity of expression among an established variety.  Cameron Douglas, MS is the Wine Consultant to the Musket Room in New York, which features an all-New Zealand list; he told me that’s the case with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  He’d like to see Americans embrace Kiwi Syrah and Bordeaux blends from Hawkes Bay, certainly, but he’d also like a wider range of styles of Sauvignon Blanc to get play in the States.  Consistency of style definitely plays a big part in establishing a signature variety in the market, but like an actor, eventually the grape, region, or even country can become typecast and not be considered for more other sorts of roles.

Being saddled with a signature variety isn’t exclusively a New World problem, either.  Germany’s reputation still hinges not just on Riesling, but on a certain, off-dry style of it, despite the fact that most German wine is actually vinified dry.  Rudi Wiest began importing dry Rieslings about 15 years ago; today he also brings in a number of other varieties from Germany, including Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sylvaner for whites, and Pinot Noir and Lemberger for reds.  Having an importer get on board and advocating different styles or varieties gives us the chance to enjoy them, assuming they make it through the three-tier system to the shelf, or wine list; Wiest focuses his placements on restaurants, in particular by-the-glass listings where guests can try the wines and the wines suit the food, giving them a leg up.

Turning on a Riesling fan to Sylvaner seems like a logical move, given their similarities, but Germany’s consistently cool climate means a change in variety doesn’t take one too far afield, stylistically--lower alcohol and higher acids will be the persistent theme, so exploration is relatively comfortable if one already appreciates German Riesling. 

Other regions are more varied, especially in the New World, where it’s too easy to think in terms of a country rather than a region in the first place.  There’s no reason to suppose a Syrah from Waiheke Island should have much in common with a Central Otago Pinot Noir, or (even more extremely) a Margaret River Chardonnay with a Hunter Valley Semillon.  And none of those are “signature varieties“ for those countries, which means they’re rarely discovered by casual audiences.  If you don’t like Sauvignon Blanc, you might not ever turn to the New Zealand section of the list, so the Man O’War Dreadnought Syrah might never make it to your glass (which would be shame).  If you’re reading this, of course, you’re probably interested and curious enough to explore, but as on the production side, it takes a critical mass of consumers asking for these wines to make it worthwhile for restaurants and stores to stock them.

Ideally, those restaurants and stores lead their customers to these wines in any case.  Acquerello in San Francisco is focused on Piedmont.  On the white side, Arneis and Cortese can satisfy the demand for Pinot Grigio--not a Piedmontese grape in any case, but one drinkers expect to find at an Italian restaurant.  “Those are the easy ones,” says Wine Director Gianpaolo Paterlini.  “We have more fun with Timorasso, which in body can do a whole range right up to white Burgundy or California Chardonnay in style.  If they like California Chardonnay, the first time they come in I might bring them an Italian Chardonnay; then the next time I’ll say ‘You had and Italian Chardonnay last time, but try this Timorasso this time.’” How else would a Chardonnay drinker know this rather obscure grape would appeal to them?  (Well, yes, they could read about it here.)  Among reds, Nebbiolo is naturally the signature variety, but Paterlini says many of their local guests prefer riper, softer, more fruit-forward wines, so his staff directs them to Barbera--a “secondary variety” that’s been around long enough to become enshrined as a thing in itself. 

According to Chuck Hayward, Wine Buyer at the Jug Shop in San Francisco, which stocks a wide range of New Zealand and Australian wines, most signature varieties can credit their success in the U.S. market to offering something domestic wines do not:  “Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc--there are no California equivalents.” Capitalizing on that uniqueness makes financial sense, but it makes producers and regions subject to public fickleness, as the Australians discovered when America’s taste for Shiraz collapsed several years ago.  For producers, putting forward other varieties is--among other things--hedging one’s bets; for the wine drinker, these secondary varieties are a reminder and opportunity to explore.