The next big wine thing?

27 October, 2016

Like many people who work in what might be called the ‘non-productive’ side of the wine business (from sommeliers to merchants to writers), i’m often asked if i’d like to try my hand at making the stuff myself.

My answer is the same as most other ‘parasites’ (as Jancis Robinson MW once memorably described wine writers): not unless I already had a large fortune of which to dispose. Starting a winery from scratch – establishing vineyards, buying equipment, setting up an infrastructure to sell the stuff – is both capital intensive and blood pressure inflationary. Physically hard, too, if you’re going to look after the vines yourself.

A more intriguing, or at least realistic, proposition would be to get involved in developing a wine brand, where the cost of entry is less prohibitive and the potential rewards – at least financially – are greater. But, in an industry that seems more than usually resistant to rational analysis, where to start? This was the subject of a conversation I had with the French-born, UK-based buyer Yves Fourcade, who plies his trade for Marks & Spencer, which currently has by far the most interesting and inventive wine range in the major UK multiples. Ruminating on the ingredients of recent mass-market successes in the wine world, we attempted to come up with some common themes, a linking thread that would help identify a potential next big thing which could form the basis of a brand.

Fourcade suggested the process by which a specific wine style suddenly seizes the public imagination is largely a mystery. He pointed to the recent surge, in the UK, Scandinavia and the US as well as France, of the once-obscure Picpoul de Pinet, sales of which, even 10 years ago, were largely confined to seafood restaurants in the corner of the Languedoc where it’s produced. As Fourcade said, “Nobody could have predicted that it would get so popular. Everyone has one now.”

True enough, I said, but in its unoaked, lightly fruited, dry-white simplicity, didn’t Picpoul at least have something in common with other recent phenomenon, such as Pinot Grigio, and, with added fizz, prosecco? Maybe that’s the key, I added, only half-joking – refreshingly neutral white wine, from a region or grape variety beginning with the letter P. Come to think of it, isn’t that why so many retailers have started stocking Pecorino in the past year or two?

Fourcade wasn’t convinced and referred to both Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec as counter examples – and not just because of their opening initials. Like it or loathe it, Sauvignon Blanc always had a strong and recognisable personality. On the other hand, Malbec sells no matter the style or where it comes from. Much the same is true of Rioja.

Success in wine, it seems, will always have an element of guesswork. But that doesn’t stop people like Fourcade and me speculating (albeit, in my case, from a commercially risk-free distance) on what comes next. And, for what it’s worth, both of us reckon there might be a future in a variety that, while difficult to pronounce correctly is easy enough to remember and that, after many years being hidden in blends in Gascony in south west France, has started to crop up in New Zealand. Gros Manseng as the next Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc? You read it here first and quite, possibly, last.

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