I recently attended a fascinating masterclass featuring 10 or so top Italian Brunello di Montalcino producers each showing both a straight estate Brunello di Montalcino current release red as well as one of their prestige cuvée Riservas. The event had been organised by respected Italian wine journalist and commentator Walter Speller, who regularly reviews Italian wines for www.JancisRobinson.com. The event was designed to profile several producers located all around the Brunello di Montalcino appellation “square” to discuss and evaluate whether dividing the Montalcino region up into four further sub-zones was useful, necessary and in the interest of consumers.
Regionality across all wine producing nations is a hot subject and can be a surprisingly divisive topic. In this scenario, Montalcino is of course famed for more crisper, cooler styles of Sangiovese in the North East and North West of the appellation and riper, more opulent and robust expressions from the warmer Southern vineyard sites. Both areas contain big name wineries producing high quality, iconic, collectable wines. But is it necessary or even desirable to further subdivide the region and “complicate” the offering for the consumer? Some of the most vocal opponents of further regional sub-zones berated producers and journalist alike for their general lack of understanding of the wider market place and of consumers. Simply put, consumers were already overwhelmed with information and neither desired nor required the further complicating of what was considered a small and often poorly understood appellation.
I sat back, watched and listened with great interest to the various arguments until I realised that many of the most vocal opponents of the defined regionality message were in fact buyers working for large supermarkets or multiple grocers. At this point, I finally interjected to point out that the wines we were tasting in front of us ranged in retail price from circa £45 per bottle minimum (R850) up to £250 per bottle (R4,750). None of the wines we were tasting were remotely mass-market brands purchased by high street consumers for everyday drinking. We were looking at iconic, boutique offerings at premium prices that demanded a far higher degree of knowledge and engagement from collectors, connoisseurs and fine wine drinkers in order to be fully appreciated. Any buyer actually involved in the purchase of the brands present would immediately recognise this factor. Once again, the simple wine trade rule of segmenting the market and segmenting consumers appropriately and coherently had been thrown out the window for the argument against regionality.
All too often, I am confronted with the same dismissive views of regionality in South Africa. Do consumers care whether their Pinot Noir comes from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley or the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge? Quite simply, the answer, of course, depends on who your consumer target market is and what products you are selling and at what price level. A low engagement drinker looking to buy a very basic, juicy Pinot Noir or Chardonnay may, at a stretch, remember being told that actually the wine growing regions around coastal Hermanus are famed for these varieties, possibly prompting them to consider spending a little more than they may otherwise have intended. But can this type of consumer be compared to a deeply engaged Pinot Noir lover who is prepared to spend a small fortune on French Burgundy or who books their thousand Rand tickets to the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration held in January every year, to attend seminars, detailed tastings, vineyard tours and multiple masterclasses? Of course not. So why do so many in the wine industry insist on trying to lump all consumers together in the same basket as if they were some sort of generic group.
Some of South Africa’s greatest wine offerings in the past decade have grown, albeit slowly, out of a consumer demand for more regionality not less. More differentiation, not less. Indeed, very few of the brands created and championed by the new generation of young producers originated in wine growing regions that rolled easily off the consumer’s tongue. With limited access to fruit from the established premium regions like Stellenbosch or Constantia, this new generation made their mark with fruit sourced from vineyards off the beaten track in Piketberg, Citrusdal, Vredendal, Slanghoek, Elim, Bredasdorp and Malgas – Regions that were almost unknown in the mainstream a decade ago.
The long term results of this regionality trend has been two fold. On the one hand, the industry and countryside has been opened up to reveal the true diverse quality potential of great swathes of the Cape winelands once thought to be only good enough to produce grapes for blending into bland, generic co-operative blends. The other significant factor has been the clear regeneration and rejuvenation of the classical regions of the Cape which have been re-energised to communicate their premium message of regionality, terroir and uniqueness. More latterly, regionality has served to differentiate the varietal suitability message, promoting Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in Elgin, Syrah and Chenin Blanc in the Swartland, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties in Stellenbosch and Paarl and of course Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.
Consumer engagement and interest in regionality both in South Africa and internationally will always require a certain amount of push and pull from producers and retailers. We are all born with an innate desire to continue learning and growing as individuals. It’s just that sometimes we need a little bit of positive encouragement to do so. Regionality and its differing terroirs can serve as a powerful motivational tool.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.