Top wine producers go for secondary grape varieties for affordable quality

Christine Parkinson

Christine Parkinson

11 May 2018

At this year's Sommelier Wine Awards (SWA), Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan's group head of wine and the competition's head of judging, noticed a trend in secondary grapes, and wondered what it means for the on-trade?

Something interesting happened at SWA this year. A red Burgundy of judging at the won gold, but it was made from Gamay, not Pinot Noir. Meanwhile the cheapest Gold for a white Burgundy was an Aligoté, not a Chardonnay.

Something similar happened in the Loire, where Cab Franc didn’t win any Golds, but Gamay did. At first, I wondered if France had somehow experienced perfect weather conditions for Gamay. Then I noticed that Gamay’s classic region, Beaujolais, hadn’t won gold at all.

Our tasters clearly thought this was about finding affordable quality from classic regions, with comments about costs of basic Burgundy Côtes wines going up. This certainly makes sense: we’ve all seen the cost of wine go up recently, and Burgundy was expensive to start with.

Gamay and Aligoté grapes are cheaper than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so producers can make more affordable wines with them. What’s new here, however, is that producers seem to be making more effort with these secondary varieties.

For restaurants, this is good news. Classic regions like Burgundy and the Loire are always popular, but with prices rising, it’s becoming hard to offer an affordable entry point. Many diners want to stick with Burgundy, so an Aligoté or Gamay from a well-known producer is a much easier sell than something cheap but obscure. Secondary grapes fit the bill perfectly.

The interesting question here is whether this is a one-off, or whether we might be seeing the start of a trend? What might happen in other regions?

We’ve already seen Bordeaux producers working hard to promote their ‘third’ wines, which is a similar pattern, although using classic grapes. When Chablis finally gets back on its feet, I reckon we’ll find big name producers getting behind Petit Chablis.

At the same time, I think the concept of Burgundy village wine will start to gain kudos. Village could even become the ‘new’ Premier cru! It will be interesting to see how many of these ‘junior’ wines get gold medals at SWA next year.

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