What factors are required for grape varieties to become international brands?

Here’s another Masters of Wine question I have decided to take on for my blog. I will define “international brand” as a singular idea or concept that creates name recognition, perceived quality, and a strong mental and emotional connection with a large percentage of customers (in this case wine drinkers) around the world. So if we consider those attributes, what factors would need to be required for grape varieties to become an international brand? I will argue that potential to make high quality wine, availability in the international market place, sensory appeal (generous texture while having a solid backbone of structure), heritage, and a variety that is just easy to pronounce for most people around the world are all factors that are necessary. Also, I will consider if it is better to be an identifiable or unidentifiable variety, and if it is better to be a variety that is ideal for blending or as a single variety. If you have a different way you would define international brand or you think I missed some factors that would be required for grape varieties then please let me know! But for now here I go with brainstorming this idea.

The first variety that comes to mind is Chardonnay. Yes, I have had my own conflicted feelings about this chameleon grape variety. But according to the Wine Institute in California Chardonnay is the most popular grape variety in the US, and China Briefing Reports states that Chardonnay is the preferred white grape variety in China. Practically every wine growing region grows it to some degree and it has not only an affinity for expressing terroir but also can be easily transformed by wine making techniques. There is no doubt that it is capable of producing high quality wines… Would anyone like some Montrachet?! Or what about Chardonnay from Adelaide Hills or Walker Bay? They can knock you off your feet! And no problem with availability….like I said before it is almost grown everywhere. It can make a great blending partner adding body and/or acidity, or it is certainly fine as a single varietal wine. As previously mentioned, yes, it is capable of great sensory appeal with a generous texture (lots of body) and good structure from acidity. It can be unidentifiable as a neutral variety or distinctively definable with wine making techniques, and so easily manipulated to suit the needs of the market.

Antinori's dinnerI recently wrote about a dinner I attended at the new Antinori winery last May. We were served some of the best wines in Italy, but I have to say the wine I constantly think about is the 2006 Cervallo della Sala from Antinori themselves. It comes from Umbria and is 85% Chardonnay and 15% Grechetto. This wine was showing beautifully and everyone at the table was talking about it. It had lots of mouthwatering acidity, complexity of spice, white floral and mineral notes, and an extraordinary length. A little over a month ago, the marketing director of Antinori, Enrico Chiavacci, came into our store to give us a staff tasting. There were many stunning wines: Solaia, Tignanello, ect.

All the Antinori Wines

But the wine he kept going back to was the 2011 Cervaro della Sala he poured for us at the beginning of the tasting.

Cervaro della Sala  And one can be jaded and say that he was trying to really sell this wine since it was lesser known. But when I think about how many people in the trade who were extremely impressed by this wine at that dinner back in May, I have to think there is something remarkable about that wine. Plus, I think its remarkable! The wine seemed unique in its sense of place but undeniably Chardonnay at the same time. That is what great Chardonnay can do… it will show the skill of the winemaker while expressing sense of place. The similarities and differences of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault are great examples.

What other grape varieties have the factors required to become international brands?

How about my favorite grape variety Pinot Noir? And no, I’m not saying that because of Sideways… I have already gone on a rant of how I can’t stand that movie in a previous post. The main area where Pinot Noir cannot compete with Chardonnay is the access to moderate quality at entry level prices. Try to find moderate quality at mid-market prices! Pinot Noir is a very difficult grape to grow and it can easily suffer from Brett, VA, or just plain mildew aromas and flavors. And finding high quality Pinot Noir will cost a small fortune. If we consider that most of the world drinks entry level and/or mid-market priced wine then Pinot Noir cannot always deliver high quality to most consumers.

Well, let’s consider an even more wine nerdy variety than Pinot Noir. Riesling. Every wine nerd in New York City loves Riesling. They get fake tattoos of it, they go out of their way to try to learn the complicated German classification system, they drink it dry, semi-sweet, and sweet- sweet, and they will spend significant amounts of money on it even though they are only living check to check. Yes, Riesling is a very high quality wine, and just on its ridiculous ageability some have argued that it is one of the greatest varieties in the world. But it is only made in a limited amount of countries and hence it is only sold in limited quantities around the world. It does not have the availability that Chardonnay has globally.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have gone head to head for the spot of most popular red grape variety. And they both are loved and hated for their structure. Cabernet Sauvignon is traditionally a harder single variety to sell to the masses than Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon has those firm tannins. Merlot was always easy drinking with its lush texture, and hence, it had higher mass appeal. But a lot of cheap Merlot made in the 1990s created an image of a flabby, low quality wine. What is interesting is that they are both capable of having a generous texture combined with a good backbone of structure under the right viticultural and winery conditions. These varieties, under ideal conditions are on the same level as Chardonnay as powerful international brands. Merlot certainly has an upper hand when it comes to a variety that is easy to pronounce.

And talking about trying to pronounce varieties’ names, what about Gruner Veltliner; a grape variety that cannot be considered as an international brand because of the difficulty of pronouncing the name.

This leads me to a variety that has gained a lot of recent popularity and it is very easy to pronounce. Malbec. It is an international brand, but it is not on the level of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Main reason is heritage. All of these varieties originate from France. But Malbec is not considered a high quality variety by its own home. I remember taking a class with Denis Dubourdieu in Bordeaux a few years back and he said at one point, “Malbec is a wine for peasants.” Also, you need to consider that English is not his first language, and he may have not meant it so harshly. But he was basically saying it is not a high quality variety. This point was actually confirmed by head winemaker of Clerc Milon, Jean-Emmanuel Danjoy, a week ago at my retail store. He gave us a staff tasting and he mentioned having a small percentage of Carménèrein the blend. One of my co-workers asked about Malbec, and he said that in Bordeaux they do not consider it to be a high quality variety. There are many winemakers I know in Argentina who would disagree. Also, there may be other motives for Bordeaux not considering it a high quality variety, but the simple fact is historically it is being portrayed as lower quality. Unfortunately, sometimes perception is more important than reality when trying to become an international brand.

Sauvignon Blanc is a identifiable variety but may be too identifiable. Its distinctive herbaceous aroma is not easily altered to conform to market trends like Chardonnay. Yes, it is an international brand but it does not rival the international brand status of Chardonnay. Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio) is known for being neutral. But it does not take to wine making as well as Chardonnay and its lack of acidity makes it difficult to manage high quality wine in moderate to warm climates. It is unidentifiable but incapable of being distinctive when it needs to be, and hence, does not have the range of Chardonnay. It is important to have both traits to become an ideal international brand that satisfies various types of palates.

Chardonnay can be easily seamless in a blend, and add various qualities such as body, structure or impart wine making notes that it absorbs brilliantly. And it stands alone as a single variety in warm, moderate, and cool climates, with oak aging, 100% stainless steel, partial MLF, full MLF, no MLF, lots of lees aging or only a touch. It really is a chameleon and a great example of an international brand by its capability to be a great single variety and great blending partner.

Wow, you would think by this blog that I am crazy about Chardonnay. It would not have been the variety that I would have picked if I was going on personal preference. But I tried to analyze this question as a professional. I thought about those factors that are required for an international brand, argued it in my head and on paper, and Chardonnay seemed the ultimate choice with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot vying for a close second.

I told you what I think; please feel free to let me know if you would argue another point.

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  • Tariq Piracha

    Sounds like a fun exercise. Might be cool to see a spreadsheet or table that breaks down the “requirements” and then go through all (or some of the more prominent) grapes to see what makes the list based on your criteria. I always thought of international varietals as having two major characteristics: produced in multiple regions/countries, and consumed worldwide to a minimum volume. Though I have no idea how one would determine what that minimum volume of wine ought to be.
    However, I have to disagree with you on the pronunciation category. I think this is way too western-centric a criteria. A tough pronunciation for who? For North Americans? Brits? With the massive rise of China as both a consumer and producer of wine, how easy is it for them to pronounce Symphony? Or Chenin Blanc? Or Sangiovese? I don’t know the answer to that question, but if we’re talking about “international” grape varieties, it seems like a very odd (and exclusively western) idea to make pronunciation a criteria.

    Would love for you to expand on what you mean by heritage, and how that would be judged. Looking at your Malbec example, I’d be inclined to say that Malbec should be considered an international variety, even if it is not a significantly popular variety in France, because of both volume sold internationally and that it is now being produced in multiple regions. But my criteria is awfully simplistic. 😉

  • Tariq, I agree that the pronunciation factor is a weak point, especially considering across the globe. This point would be more specific to the US market I think. This certainly wouldn’t be true in China. When I have heard people who work in mainland China with wine they said that they mainly have Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay planted because when they were an emerging wine drinking and producing country they thought the best place to look was France and these just seemed like the best choices. And interesting that because they are traditionally a tea drinking culture they like the tannic nature of Cab S. Also, another point an MW pointed out to me is that some varieties may be planted a lot more around the world because it is easy to grow and maintain. It’s an interesting topic.