A few weeks ago, on September 28th, I went with a group of my co-workers to a couple of wineries on Long Island, New York. I had my first Long Island Malbec at Bedell Cellars and I have to say it is the best red I have had from Long Island. It had intense spicy and floral notes, rich purple fruit, and a good tannic structure that straddled the line of not being too soft or too firm, and a bright acidity. And I started to think that maybe Malbec can be a ‘signature wine’ for Long Island, and hence, I am addressing a Master of Wine question about the subject.
There are “Old World” wine producing countries that have signature wines, whether Chablis from Burgundy, Riesling from Germany, Rioja from Spain, Chianti from Italy (or Tuscany to some wine drinkers), and Champagne from ChampagneJ. It has made sense that “New World” wine producing countries would use the varieties in these regions/countries and make them their signature wine since they already have a proven track record.
England is finding success with traditional method sparkling wine that is made from Champagne classic varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Nyetimber, an award winning winery in England, was the first to plant these varieties and they had a vision that sparkling wine would become England’s signature wine. The amount England produces is still small, but they have gained a lot of international recognition; the major producers sell their wines in top international cities such as New York. Another example is Niagara with their ice wine style. They have turned their typically disadvantageous weather into a huge advantage, and they make pristine, intense ice wines.
The benefit of a signature wine is that it clearly markets itself to the consumer. There is not a lot of background information that is needed to understand it. This is vital considering the wine market is highly fragmented and competitive. There was a time when very few regions were represented on an international scale, but today that is no longer the case. Today, consumers need to connect a signature variety and/or style to a region or country, such as the success that has been seen in the past with Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and the above mentioned examples of style such as sparkling from England and ice wine from Niagara.
The main detriment of a signature wine is that it pigeonholes that region or country into a limited style or variety. Portugal red table wines are overlooked because of their great reputation for their Ports, also red and white table wines are overlooked for England and Niagara because of their signature sparkling and ice wines respectively.
But is it worth having a signature wine?
The emergence of Argentina’s wine sector with their signature Malbec variety was considered a success story. There has been a steady growth of demand for good quality but inexpensive Argentina Malbec from 2000 until 2011, making Argentina the fifth-largest producer in 2011, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine. In 2013, exports sales decreased by 5% from 2012, according to the trade group Bodegas de Argentina. There is no one who would debate, especially those wine drinkers in the US, that Argentina has found commercial success, and even though that success has dropped off, it can be fairly argued that it would have never come close to the export sales that it has achieved if it wasn’t for them exporting their ideal signature variety.
Richard Olsen-Harbich, who is the winemaker at Bedell Cellars, said that Malbec is becoming the rising star of Long Island. This is evident when you taste their Malbec, not available until 2015 and already sold out! It has the fruit of Argentina but the backbone of Cahors. Richard said that when he started making wine 30 years ago in Long Island that it was like the Wild West. Owners were planting internationally famous varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, because they did not know what else to plant. Long Island wines have come a long way since that time, and they are learning what works and what does not work. Malbec seems to be an ideal signature for them, and time will tell.
Considering the range of variety that currently exists in the wine world it becomes obvious that a region or country needs to simply define themselves to the consumer if they want success with their export sales. Yes, this may cause issues with no other styles or varieties being considered outside of these signature wines, but one needs to ask themselves, “Would these wines from this area of the world have any sort of chance on the international wine scene if they did not have a successful signature wine?” And if the answer is yes, then no need, but if the realistic, honest answer is no, then a signature wine must be found. Through time, hopefully, the signature wine will introduce the consumers to other types of wines that are made in the region. That is the hope, as wine is a business, and a business that needs to support people, but it is also a connection to history, culture, and a way of life, and ideally all of those aspects of wines can live in harmony.