Sackbuts and Sauvignons – why ancient isn’t enough

What kind of music do you most enjoy listening to? Do bagpipes, sackbuts and recorders feature heavily? Do you drink much mead? Do you wear wooden clogs? A few of my multitude of readers across the globe may have a positive answer to at least one of these questions, but only a few. A somewhat larger number – including the keenest classical music enthusiasts – may, like me, have recordings of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven by musicians playing ‘original’ instruments, but I’ll bet that most are, again like me, quite happy to hear the Goldberg Variations sound the way it does when performed on a piano rather than a harpsichord.


And how about grapes and wine styles? Do you drink a lot of Uva di Troia, Lemnió or Rkatsateli? These are all interesting ancient grape varieties that can and do produce attractive wines. Whether any of them has the crowd-pleasing appeal of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, is another matter. 

So what? You may cry. It doesn’t have to be every grape’s or wine’s vocation to please crowds. Indeed a failure to do so can be very appealing: how many of us have a favourite coffee bar around the corner from the far busier Starbucks? But these are personal opinions, and we should pause before expecting others to share them – especially when their livelihood is at stake.

Every year, hordes of wine ‘experts’ – aka journalists and bloggers – fly into old wine regions such as Turkey and Georgia and gush over almost everything they see. “Thank God”, they cry, “that your vineyards have been unsullied by internationally popular varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon… We just love the fact that we can’t even pronounce the names of the grapes you use, let alone spell them… As for your amphora… Well you should make all of your wine in them; it’s your point of difference after all… And under nocircumstances plant any of those pesky international grapes!”

And then they fly home. Some, I’m sure, settle down to a daily glass or two of ÖküzgözüBoğazkere or Rkatsateli, but most will have moved on – and back – to the Rhônes, Burgundies, Bordeaux and Spanish and Italian reds and whites they were drinking before their flight to Ankara or Tbilisi. It was my Meininger’s Wine Business International colleague, Felicity Carter, who first drew my attention to this kind of condescending inverted-colonialism, after finding herself among just such a group of visitors to Georgia. 

As she said, hearing some of her fellow travellers’ comments, was rather like listening to visitors to primitive parts of Africa enthusing over the cleverness of the primitive people’s sanitary arrangements and the absence of mobile phones. Yes, there is something interesting about anything that has survived over the centuries, from a type of pie to the language historically spoken by the inhabitants of a particular region. And, yes, it would be a pity to see the pie or language disappear completely. But do most of us actually regularly want to eat that particular culinary delicacy or learn to converse in Welsh? I doubt it. And how well could the Welsh survive if none of them spoke any other languages?

Telling a Turkish wine producer that he shouldn’t use internationally popular grape varieties is rather like telling the owner of an Ankara gelateria that she shouldn’t serve vanilla or chocolate ice cream. When I last flew through Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, roughly half of the Turkish wines on sale in the Duty Free shop were produced exclusively, or partly from non-indigenous grapes. People with time to spend before or between flights, similarly had the choice between a traditional Turkishtantuni,or a chicken or meat döner, or a Burger King Whopper or a Basilico pizza. I don’t believe that the people who run that airport are part of an international conspiracy to promote globalisation; they’re giving their customers – Turkish or foreign – what they like. Just as Turkish Airlines is doing when it offers its passengers a glass of Turkish Syrah.

The nice people responsible for promoting the wines of Turkey, Georgia or wherever did not, by the same token, spend large sums of money flying in all those experts simply in order to hear them saying complimentary things about the way their winemakers go about producing their wines. They want to sell those wines overseas. No, I’d correct that. They need to sell those wines overseas, and in some quantities. And anyone who suggests that there are lots of consumers in London or Lower Manhattan who are just itching to lay their hands on some Rkatsateli or Öküzgözü is lying – if only to themselves.

Most humans, like most other animals, are creatures of habit. We return to the same places on holiday and the same favourite restaurants, and we buy the same foods and wines: the ones we like, and find easy to buy. It’s no accident that vanilla and chocolate ice cream are so popular across the globe, nor that consumers from Manchester to Moscow happily queue to buy Big Macs and drink Starbucks coffee. This is not to say that Rkatsateli or Öküzgözü – under more pronouncable names, most probably – won’t ever find a substantial following outside their own markets. But it won’t happen by itself, or because a few bloggers and wine writers think it ought to, simply on account of their ancient heritage and ‘different-ness’. Or not until most of us somehow discover the delight of wearing clogs and listening to sackbuts.

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