There’s been a lot of talk in the wine trade of late about diversity – and rightly so. The industry’s track record in employing minority ethnic, physically impaired or non-CIS people is, to put it politely, not where it should be.
It’s something that needs to be addressed, and which all parties assure us is being addressed. So let’s hope in 12 months’ time it actually has been addressed.
We all know that the industry can move on these issues. There are, for instance, significantly more women throughout the trade than 30 years ago.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that literally every single one I’ve spoken to has got toe-curling examples of thoroughly inappropriate behaviour towards them down the years, from well-intentioned stupidity to outright harassment or discrimination.
That, and the fact that it’s taken, well… ages. Still, not enough of them are in the top jobs. So despite progress on one level, there’s still some way to go. But their influence is growing – and with unacceptable behaviour constantly at risk of being called out on social media, there are fewer places for sexist or misogynist dinosaurs – or discriminatory companies – to hide than there were.
What we need now is similar progress for the other under-represented groups. But much faster and in a more structured way. It simply can’t take 30, 40 or 50 years for LGBTQ+, disabled and non-white people to become not just a regular or accepted presence within the trade, but an influential part of it.
And their journey from here to parity can’t – and shouldn’t – be as fraught with trauma, micro-aggressions and outright opposition as has been that of women.
Certainly, if the wine world is looking for examples of the benefits of being open to ‘otherness’, it could do worse than take inspiration from what’s happening at the production level of its VERY OWN INDUSTRY.
Wine’s first big diversity shake-up happened 30-40 years ago, when the New World blew through the hidebound, slightly complacent European wine scene like a hurricane. Wine became simple, accessible, fun… It was like someone just turned up at a slightly stuffy European garden party with a ghetto blaster.
Since then, the pendulum has steadily been swinging back in the other direction. Big fruit and simplicity are still there to an extent, but, increasingly so are nuance, complexity and unfamiliarity.
‘When I started in the trade I wanted to demystify wine,’ says Hallgarten Novum’s Steve Daniel, who has lived through all the changes. ‘Now I want to demystify it. I want to put the romance back into it. It’s about where it comes from, the people who make it, the history…’
It is, in other words, about diversity; about accepting it, embracing it and revelling in it.
‘Different’, of course, takes many forms – in wine as in life. But there are three big trends.
Emergence of the Ancient World
So, you’ve heard of the New World and the Old World? Well now it’s time to get to grips with the Ancient World.
Georgia and Armenia have been involved in a slightly amusing battle over the last ten years to see who can unearth the oldest examples of wine making. Currently, the record is held by Georgia which reckons it has found fragments of pottery wine jars going back 8000 years.
It’s safe to say that this makes France’s Roman viticulture and the Bordeaux declaration of 1865 look somewhat unimpressive. Winemaking in the Caucasus is ancient indeed.
Armenia was badly served by the communists, who used it largely for brandy production, but has come storming back over the last 30 years with interesting red and white indigenous varieties.
Georgia’s wine industry never went away, and is well on the way to developing a cult following. The white varieties Mtsvane and (particularly) Rkatsiteli are becoming well known, as is the red Saperavi, which has the advantage of being easy to pronounce.
Georgia’s tradition of fermenting wines in qvevri (large earthenware jars) has spread worldwide. Zorzal, in Mendoza, for instance, are huge fans of fermenting in concrete eggs.
‘It helps to enhance the character, texture and sensation of chalky soil in the mouth (salinity),’ says winemaker Juan Pablo Michelini. ‘We can show the purity of an enhanced terroir…. The cement egg gives us a much more vibrant, electric, tense, nervous pure and local style of wine.’
David Rego, export manager at Herdade do Rocim in Portugal’s Alentejo region agrees. Like most wineries, they make wines with concrete and also more conventionally, with stainless steel and oak barrels.
‘Clay amphorae are more faithful to the terroir,’ he says. ‘They better preserve each grape character and do not impose themselves over the grapes like barrels do.’
It’s a bit like playing the same piece of music on a different instrument. Amphora-fermented wines are like a cello note: lower, longer and more insistently with depth and texture; stainless steel (plus oak) are more violin: louder, brighter and higher pitched.
There are cases to be made for both, but the added choice is exciting – particularly when it comes to food matching.
Growth of indigenous European varietals
One of the interesting aspects of the New World explosion was the way in which it introduced the public to the idea of varietal labelling. This, in turn, allowed them to buy wines from countries they might not have previously considered, reassured by a comfortingly-familiar grape variety.
It’s one of the reasons you can find Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc et al all over the world; wineries planted them not just because they thought they would taste good, but also because they thought they would be able to sell them.
But now the focus is shifting. Right across the Old (and Ancient World) producers want to show off the grape varieties that have been in their vineyards for centuries, even millennia. Varieties which, surprise surprise, are often better suited to the climate than the international versions.
Turkey’s native Öküzgōzü and Kalecik Karesi reds and the Narince (to rhyme with ‘ninja’) white are fascinating – and, I’d say, much more worthy of your pound than the myriad French varieties the country produces.
More wine savvy customers probably know about Portuguese Touriga Nacional-centric blends from the Douro because of its links to port. But there are great combinations of local grapes all over the country, usually in a highly approachable style, and they’re starting to appear in greater numbers.
Hungary, meanwhile, is starting to gain ground with Furmint. The white Tokaji grape has a taut, slightly austere air to it, but its aficionados love its disciplinarian acidic smack.
Countries like Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and even Poland are all coming forward too.
If I had to pick one style that I think really ought to take off, however, it would be Malagousia. Greek whites in general are terrific – zesty, herbal and very different. Assyrtiko – particularly grown on the wind-lashed volcanic clump of Santorini – is, I’d argue, one of Europe’s great wine styles.
But Malagousia, from the north of the country is simply impossible to dislike – kind of a Greek Albariño. It’s a great story, too – with the variety essentially rescued from extinction by one man, Evangelos Gerovassiliou of Ktima Gerovassiliou.
‘It wasn’t normal to grow Malagousia when I was young,’ he says. ‘But I believed in it from the start. It was so expressive.’
You should believe in it too.
Old friends in New Places
This final category is, perhaps, the one that has received the most attention. While the New World countries mostly made their name with the classic French varieties of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the northern Rhone, the last 20 years has seen significant experimentation.
Some of this can be attributed to a yen for innovation – New World winemakers don’t like to stand still for too long. But it’s also down to a growing awareness of the nuances of their terroir (new varieties simply work better in some vineyards than what was originally planted), and – inevitably – to climate change.
Water shortages and climbing temperatures have seen Australian growers putting in increased amounts of Mediterranean grapes, which weather the country’s hot temperatures far better than the likes of Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc.
As you’d expect, they tend to be riper than their European counterparts – a Tempranillo from the Adelaide Hills is not going to taste like a Rioja. But they also hold their structure better than French varieties, and – crucially – need less water.
Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola and Tempranillo are probably the most successful reds; for whites, Fiano is a standout with Vermentino a close second.
In cooler New Zealand it’s no surprise that the shift has been to other cool-climate styles as they search for alternatives to Sauvignon Blanc: Riesling is well established, but Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Gris and even Albariño are looking really promising. South Africa’s growers, meanwhile, are paying more attention to some of the old vine varieties that would have been used for port and brandy production, and are making stellar wines out of them.
Some New World growers are even making Trousseau, which isn’t even that widely planted in Europe. Riccitelli are leading the charge in Argentina, so perhaps it could follow Malbec and have a renaissance on the other side of the world.
There is, in other words, an extraordinary amount happening at the moment. These ‘different’ wines might not be cheap – but that’s not their shtick. They’re indisputably different, vibrant, unexpected, quirky. Thinking they should be cheap as well undervalues their uniqueness.
Sure, they might be hand-sells. But whether you’re a restaurant or an independent merchant, you owe it to your customers to embrace the diversity on offer at the moment and at least try.
Chris Losh’s Recommendations
These guys have put a lot of time and effort into reviving an ancient vineyard on the island of Brac, planted with local varieties. I had zero familiarity with the Posip grape, but I’d quite like to get to know more about it after this. When cool, there’s an attractive brisk mint/lime-leaf quality to the variety, which broadens into a beguiling tropical note as it warms up in the glass. One for herbal chicken dishes.
The impact that the egg fermentation has on this variety is fascinating. Cab Franc can be in that leafy coriander area with not much behind the screechy aromatics. It’s distinctly ‘marmite’. But here the aromatics are toned down – it’s pepper-spiced not leaves – and they’re integrated into a broad mulberry palate, that has a great granular texture to it. Really versatile.
I tend to think of Malagousia as the Greek version of Albarino, and that’s borne out by this wine. It’s like inhaling the aromas from a basket full of cut lemons and limes, but on the palate an attractive fuzzy peach note rumbles away in the background to broaden things out. Great as an aperitif then on with a seafood main course. Impossible to dislike.
Trousseau is originally from the Jura, though (known as Bastardo) it’s also grown in the Douro. But it doesn’t taste like this in either place. It’s surprisingly pale – Burgundy Pinot like – with sappy red fruit flavours. But it’s through the palate where this scores. Savoury and even gently earthy, with a brisk acidity and taut tannins. There’s something quite Italian about its structure, so no surprise that it’s a superbly versatile – and different – mid-week food wine.
The Viñatigo winery is all about reviving native grapes. This is a laudable initiative in itself, but even more so when you get results like this. This Marmajuelo is a deep golden colour, with lush, plush tropical and stone fruit layered over a gentle net of acidity. Cheerfully sun-filled, it’s silky and mouth-filling and absorbs spices and strong flavours without overwhelming them.