Monday, 29 March 2010

Does every wine region need a Rene Barbier?

Ryan Opaz was paying more attention than me. As part of our trip to Alimentaria 2010 last week, we went on an organised jaunt around the Empordà region of northern Catalonia. At one of the wineries we visited, the proprietor said something I paid little heed to. It was only when Ryan brought it up again over dinner that its import became clear.

What did they say?

'We need a René Barbier' Ryan quoted.

Now, say what you like about René Barbier (personally, I reckon he's a genial, bearded Frenchman-in-exile [cf. Jean-François Hebrard of one of Toro's top wineries, Quinta Quietud]) or his wine, Clos Mogador (I know it's not cool to like the wines Robert Parker does, but I reckon it's pretty bloody good), the man is the jewel in Priorat's crown. Barbier was the bloke who put Priorat on the map; he stands as the biggest name in the region; ask for a top Priorat, people say 'Clos Mogador'.

So why would a winemaker in an interesting, small, up-and-coming region like Empordà be waiting for their very own René Barbier? Well, because once you have a big name with lots of praise/points, the idea is that everyone rides on the back of it.

There is a school of thought (to which I subscribe) that says this is not necessarily a good thing, but it might be germane to examine why, currently, the 'René Barbier phenomenon' exists.

Wines are not as ingrained as they once were. In Europe, previous generations drank wine with every meal. The producer (often a local co-op) was more or less irrelevant, as was the provenance - it was normally the closest wine region to hand.

But consumption has dropped dramatically, co-inciding with increasing awareness of brand, name and reputation, often led, it must be said, by savvy marketing. Therefore, perhaps coming from the consumer's privilege to have an abundance of choice (or from ignorance - it depends on your point of view), we gravitate towards the best-known name or the name with the best reputation or the name we see in advertising. This also applies to producers vying for share in the export market.

Thus the situation I experienced on the Toro stand at Alimentaria last week. Almost all wineries in Toro had a bottle of their wine for punters to taste, yet it was no surprise to see the Numanthia wine (the 'Barbier' of Toro) empty with an hour or so. In fact, despite a tiny number of die-hards tasting as many wines as the tannin and alcohol would allow, the majority of toffs who came to the stand gravitated immediately towards the Numanthia (like a socialite to Louis Vuitton) and proceeded to eulogise loudly to their compatriots.

It is possible that we are coming to a situation whereby in order for one to 'know' Rioja, one must have tasted Muga or Ramirez de Ganuza; Toro, Numanthia or Paciencia; Priorat, Barbier or Palacios; but no more. Because we are playing this game of identifying the greats, of requiring a 'hero' for every region, we might also kill off a more demanding, tougher but more interesting, life of adventure.

It was even true among ourselves - the invitees to Alimentaria - over dinner that evening. We ended up discussing 4Kilos, Mallorca's 'Barbier' wine made famous by top Spanish taster José Peñin. Again, the 'top wine' elected by the 'top' critic.

And so Empordà might spend its days hoping that Jancis or Parker (yes, themselves the cream of the crop) will elect one of their number to the Pantheon of required drinking (i.e. 'oh, if you go to Empordà, you must taste [insert 'Barbier' name here]').

While assured this will indeed promote the level of the region, we might lament the situation that allows the jewel in the crown to become all we see of the regal headgear.

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