There is a predictable moment in every annual wine program – somewhere between that feature that tells us that it is ok to drink rose, and the one that suggests that Aussie Chardonnay is now more Audrey Hepburn than Jane Mansfield – when thoughts turn to Riesling. Whoever starts the proceedings usually opens with Jancis Robinson’s quote of how Riesling – more than any other grape variety – carries with it an indelible signature of place. We then spend a day ambling to the conclusion that we – as a community of experts and early adopters – are of course right in our opinion; that consumers have not only missed ‘a trick’, but probably the proverbial ‘boat’ too; and that before too long we should look at introducing a similar scale of weight and dryness that has made Pinot Grigio the new darling of the chattering classes.
You see, for Australian winemakers, Riesling is an unshakeable article of faith – there to be celebrated, certainly not to be too robustly challenged, and, ultimately, always to be carefully put back on its altar: clearly understood by those who ‘believe’; resolutely misunderstood (or just ‘missed’) by those who don’t.
So it was with great interest that I read of the Barossa Grape and Wine Association’s latest attempt to ‘debate’ the Riesling issue. Of course, a tasting (in fact, three, of which read more below), but intriguingly also a panel of very different perspectives to offer some informed commentary. From the producer’s point of view, Jeffrey Grossett. Few, if any, could ever challenge his insight, achievement, commitment and credibility to Riesling on a global stage. Next up: a retailer, Peter Nixon of Dan Murphy’s Fine Wine. Here, no-one could call into question Peter’s contribution to promoting regional Australian wine-styles, or indeed that of the retail brand’s performance in terms of sales. Finally, and conclusively, John McLaren, a former partner of international agency Clemenger BBDO, and an experienced director of highly visible consumer campaigns and brand messaging.
Grossett was straight into his stride, even if just off a returning flight from Hong Kong. Australian Riesling was really all about being ‘dry’, and even his own experience with developing Alea (the off-dry Grossett cuvee at 14g/l) had been born out of existing customers now looking for greater diversity of style, rather than out of trying to coax new consumers to the category by – quite literally – sugaring the pill of moral instruction.
Nixon next set the frame resolutely in the commercial context of how the light wine market was currently performing, and rather confrontingly – but accurately – demonstrated that Riesling’s issue was not so much that it was ‘off-message’, but rather that it was ‘off-radar’. Nixon also got the prize for observation of the day: ‘Most consumers want to be entertained and rewarded, not educated…’. Food for thought, indeed.
As if on cue, McLaren brought great entertainment with no small amount of education too. The challenges of brand proposition and brand positioning were outlined, along with some great examples of what to do – and most entertainingly – what not to do. In an unprompted way, McLaren’s message was totally aligned with Nixon’s – as a community of brand owners, we continually fixate on ‘feature’, rather than ‘benefit’, and expect the consumer to share our love for production detail and nuance. In a sense, the McLaren and Nixon message was the same: don’t tell consumers ‘how’ or ‘what’ you made, but rather ‘why’ they should buy it.
I was impressed and enthused by the day, if not yet fully convinced that we had uncovered an answer. We had, however, uncovered a question: ‘What’s the problem with Riesling, and why do we want to fix it?’.
This appears to be an entirely sensible place to start, and I am delighted to say that John McLaren and I are intending to come back to the committee with a proposed response. Watch this space, but I suspect that like most issues of faith, it will require a leap…