Less is more: why it pays producers to promote a signature wine
You can name a wine after its grape, where it comes from, or both, as in Argentine malbec. While there's a risk of promoting uniformity, regions that don't do this, such as Chile, lack signature wines
If you're not an obsessed wine drinker, you can be forgiven for thinking the industry doesn't have a lot of compassion for its customers. For example, a question as basic as what the name of a wine actually means has no consistent answer. In some areas of the world (mainly Europe), wine is named after the place it is from, as in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Barolo. Others trade under the name of their principal grape, such as shiraz or chardonnay.
A seemingly more promising approach uses a recognisable combination of region and grape variety (note the word "recognisable" - Barossa shiraz, yes; Grampians gewürztraminer, no). The Italians have been using this hybrid approach for years, as in Barbera d'Alba (barbera grape from the Alba region), and an increasing number of countries worldwide are using region and grape together to create "signature wines".
Some regions have done this with resounding success: for many people, the name "Marlborough" is merely the first half of the phrase "Marlborough sauvignon blanc". Cabernet sauvignon, although grown in virtually every region of California, has a special affinity with the name Napa. This synergistic linkage of region to grape can be a boon to both the industry and the people who drink their products, standing as a good predictor of wine style, if not quality.
And yet, while the wine industry reluctantly accepts the necessity of such categorisation, it is an inherently individualistic one. It resists with all its might any action that it sees as tamping down the experimental spirit. No sooner is a new appellation christened in France or Italy than a dissident producer plants something odd and declares a desire to be emancipated from overly restrictive rules.
These individualists and their supporters tout Argentine malbec as a prime example of the homogeneity resulting from overt efforts to develop a signature wine. Particularly in the US, where five times as much Argentine malbec was sold in 2009 compared with 2005, it stands accused of having ridden a wave of gluggable familiarity to its pole position. Typifying this view is a tweet from wine buyer Alessandro Marchesan of Britain's Roka and Zuma restaurants: "Malbec is like pizza and sex. It doesn't matter how bad it is; for some people, it will still be OK."
Without getting into the fairness of these accusations, it's instructive to look to Chile, which has almost made a point of eschewing signature wines and focusing instead on good value versions of virtually every style imaginable. The approach has served it well, particularly in new markets.
However, if asked to name just one quintessentially Chilean wine style, I would struggle. Making a wide variety of wines might please many people, but doesn't give the country a particularly strong identity.
The question of the importance of signature wines weighs heavily on the world's emerging wine regions such as Greece, Turkey and even China, which don't have a defined international image yet. For areas with a rich viticultural history, traditional grape varieties and wine styles are considered as much a national treasure as, say, the Parthenon. On the other hand, it's acknowledged that diversity can be more of a hindrance than a help when a country is trying to crack new markets.
Greece has been rather big on the grape-region combos, and wine lists across the country speak not just of "xinomavro" but "Naoussa xinomavro" and "Santorini assyrtiko" rather than just "assyrtiko". The promotion-minded Greeks have sensibly pared their offerings down to just four grapes - two "serious": assyrtiko (white) and xinomavro (red); plus two fresh and fruity: moschofilero (white) and agiorgitiko (red). This generalisation, of course, can go too far, as agiorgitiko can be quite serious and xinomavro was recently served out of the Naoussa town square fountain. But ultimately it's helpful.
The inescapable fact is that no matter how great our interest in wine, we rely on archetypes to get by. As much as producers want to be individuals, the best thing for them is often seeing their region attain an internationally recognisable signature wine. Even if it's only so they can turn it on its head. Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer