How niche is too niche in wine?
Category commentator Chris Losh has been on his travels - and not to those wine-producing nations the consumer knows about. Yet.
Does the wine world have an infinite capacity for novelty or are we already at peak diversity? Is stylistic/varietal uniqueness an advantage or a disadvantage? Can a strong national image overcome consumer hesitancy for the unfamiliar?
I was musing about such matters after a recent trip to Switzerland, where I had been invited to provide feedback on the country’s wine export potential. It was a visit that generated answers, for sure, but also raised a good many questions about what’s currently working - and what isn’t – in the wine industry.
Let’s get some of the groundwork out of the way first. Switzerland imports twice as much wine as it produces and sells almost everything that it makes at home - much of it directly from the cellar door. Historically, then, this isn't a country that has ever wanted or needed to export much.
Vineyard sizes are so tiny that land costs are measured in square metres rather than acres or hectares. Costs, meanwhile, are famously high. Unless you’re on a Swiss salary, everything from a can of Coke to a taxi ride is eye-wateringly expensive.
With small volumes and high prices, Switzerland is a structural inverse of most of the countries that have seen export success over the last 40 years, so it isn’t going to compete on supermarket shelves any time soon.
Let’s assume that - like other ‘niche’ countries that are not on the consumer's radar, such as the Balkans, Turkey or Eastern Europe - it is looking at independent (or specialist) retailers or – more likely – the on-premise. Most of the Swiss wines I tried begin at around CHF15 (US$16.45) per bottle, which means they'll be on wine lists around the $60+ mark. This instantly puts them in the ‘niched’ category.
In itself, being niched is not a bad thing. Georgia’s kvevri wines, for instance, are about as left-field as it gets, but they’re still more interesting to most sommeliers than, say, an Australian Sauvignon Blanc.
Switzerland - like many left-field producing countries - has lots of indigenous grape varieties. The argument runs that making wines out of Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge et al is better than, say, Merlot because they're unique and a more authentic local expression. Plus, handily, there are no direct comparisons from other countries.
I’m not so sure I buy this argument: It seems to be a journalistic ‘story’ narrative rather than one founded in the market. While I’m a big fan of, say, the Turkish Kalecik Karasi grape, I’d imagine it’s a lot easier to sell a Cabernet from the same country.
I’m also aware that the ‘local is best’ line can ring hollow when it comes from a market almost totally dominated by local tastes.
Back in the 1980s, South African and Argentinian wineries were convinced they made world-beating wine because they all sold domestically (for different reasons) and were never exposed to proper competition. One of the reasons they're so much better now is because they have had to be.
Take the Swiss local hero white, Chasselas, which is drunk in vast quantities as a bar wine. I genuinely couldn’t see anything to recommend it, though, and sincerely hope it isn’t the cornerstone of any export strategy. There is, after all, a reason why Chardonnay and Albarino are more popular than Airen.
Fortunately, Chasselas aside, there were plenty of interesting native varieties, most of which seemed to be made as single varietal wines. And, that's a shame: In my (admittedly limited) experience, they were often more interesting when mixed with other grapes. This is not just a Swiss issue; the debates about blends versus single-varietal wines – and indigenous versus international varieties - are very much live ones.
Blending is often a question of theory versus reality. Wine writers, needless to say, often favour oddball varietal mixes. Most retailers and producers will tell you that 90% of the wine-buying population tends to think otherwise.
The sweet spot, clearly, is to create something that's distinctive but also good. Switzerland (distinctive but not always good) is coming at this from the opposite direction than, say, Chile (generally good but not always distinctive). But, they're both grappling with it.
What’s true is that these second-tier varieties usually have attractive elements – but also obvious negative ones; rustic tannins, a lack of acidity, a flat mid-palate, for instance. Adding other grapes - be they local or international - can create something that still has a strong local accent, but is, frankly, better.
Puritanical local pride sometimes gets in the way of good winemaking.
These blended wines might not jump off retailers’ shelves but if you assume that you're building your presence in the on-premise, where they'll always be a hard-sell anyway, it wouldn’t be a factor.
Better, I’d suggest, to have something versatile, well-rounded and distinctive that a sommelier believes in than a unique, flawed, single-varietal wine.
One of the best single-varietal wines I had during my time in Switzerland was a Syrah. It was (by Swiss standards) a bargain (about $22) and, coming from essentially the source of the River Rhone, would be a relatively easy pitch to a restaurant. It might not be a ‘Swiss grape’, but there was still both a uniqueness and a historical fit to it.
Which brings me to the final point: national image. There’s no question that this matters. Italy’s wines might vary wildly in quality, but its national character of culture, opera and 'la Dolce Vita' is engrained and deeply attractive to your average consumer.
Germany, by contrast, is still seen as solid and efficient; somewhere you’d buy a washing machine from, but not wine. Elsewhere, consumer knowledge of some ‘edge of the dance floor’ countries like Serbia or Romania is often either negative or non-existent.
In this, Switzerland has an advantage: The country is associated with luxury, quality and beauty. Wine-wise, it’s small producers, slopes and mountains. There’s a lot of attendant imagery to like and, crucially, all of it fits with the almost-certainly high-pricing.
Swiss wine will never be influential. I haven’t written about it here because I think it'll be the next big thing. But, the baby steps that the country's wine producers take as they emerge blinking into the outside world will be fascinating to watch.
If the country can carve even a tiny niche for itself – and the styles that it uses to do so - then that'll tell us a lot about where the trends, the trade and the consumer are today.