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Exploring alternative premium whites

Published:  05 August, 2021

Modern food and lifestyle choices often naturally lend themselves to white wine, but is the trade doing enough to encourage consumers to trade up and seek out premium choices beyond the usual suspects? In a world where reds often hold top spot, Andrew Catchpole invited a panel to discuss how to better capitalise on and communicate the USPs of alternative higher-end whites, to inspire and broaden consumers’ repertoire, to the benefit of both trade and punter alike. DO Rías Baixas provided the sponsorship and wines in order to whet appetites for the session.

The Panel:

Carlos Read, Spanish wine specialist, WineTraders 

Xavier Rousset MS, co-founder, TRADE 

Paul Shinnie, buyer, Alliance Wine 

Noel Young, owner, NY Wines

Andrew Catchpole, host and editor, Harpers Wine & Spirit

How were the Rías Baixas Albariños showing?

Paul Shinnie: One of the things that Rías Baixas has offered and continues to offer is a guarantee to consumers, because they have that lovely consistency of quality. You’ve got wines which are light, fresh, mineral and with lovely, racy acidity, you’ve also got wines with a bit more lees ageing, fatter, richer, which have more complexity. And those styles have a sort of obvious link to the more premium. But they are accessible and immediate; you can dive straight into a bottle of Rías Baixas Albariño, generally.

Are quality reds given more airtime than quality whites, with the latter at the very highest end also tending to be recognised from fewer regions of the world?

Noel Young: There are people buying wine to consume there and then, and some people looking to buy wine to lay down, to sell it on. And clearly that’s where red wine still rules the roost. But in terms of white wine, I think there’s a huge appetite for trying new things, for trying better things, or trying different things. And people don’t have a problem with spending £30 or even £50 for something a little bit different, that’s not just a white Burgundy. My experience is that it’s got easier, particularly over the last 18 months, people have been much more open to trying new things, happy to spend more.

We do a lot of mixed cases and a lot of people went from just buying their regular half dozen of the same old things to saying, ‘Well, why don’t I try your mixed cases’, and then discovered different wines, tasting things like Grauburgunder, Albariño, Godello, etc – it really opened a lot of people’s eyes to what else is out there.

What of the trend to modern, lighter styles of food, does this necessarily play to white wines more often?

Xavier Rousset MS: In people’s minds, the starter is white, red is the main course. And the starter is half the price of the main course, so the wines tend to reflect that. They spend, say, £50 on a bottle for the starter, and they splash out double that for the main course, and it has to be red. For restaurants, it still is the classic [white] Burgundy. And if they take a risk with something new, a Chenin or Albariño, they’ll spend £30 or £40, and if they feel confident they like the grape, then they’ll splash out £80 another time. But they will never spend straight up on something they’ve never heard of or not tried before.

PS: To an extent, white wines are bought to go with the meal in the moment, whereas people will buy a red wine more by reputation, rather than by how it might actually fit with the meal. So people will go away with a better experience for their white wine than they might with their red wine.

Carlos Read: There are fantastic obscure white varieties, made in small quantities all over the place, but many people have never heard of them, so it comes back again to recommending them. Although food has become much more interesting now, with so many fusions and styles, and different trends coming in, it’s still tricky because the consumer needs to be pointed in the right direction. And that comes with trust.

What are the best cues or techniques that you can suggest for encouraging customers (and trade clients) to better engage with less-run-of-the-mill quality whites?

XR: It’s education. Assyrtiko has done a very good job. People recognised the quality and are willing to pay more. But it’s a very long journey, it doesn’t come overnight, and I think what you need as a region, for the grape, is consistency. It takes some high-quality producers to make a difference. But it’s a long-term game to change the [customer] mindset.

NY: All these little iconic wines are great, and they help build profile, but there’s still an awful lot to be done to get people to actually drink them and be more adventurous. The one thing that the majority of gastropubs and restaurants can do is offer better wines by the glass. Don’t just do the classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio – we use Coravin in such a great way in our wine bar. The most popular wine throughout since we opened 18 months ago has been dry Riesling, by the glass.

XR: We use Coravin, which is amazing for by-the- glass – people will splash out £15 for a glass of white and then have a bottle of red. It’s been a game changer for fine wines by the glass. But it’s still 70% premium red, 30% premium white.

NY: It’s down to us, the wine trade, to do better, to speak to restaurants and wine bars, to actually train the staff and give them a bit more confidence to sell better wines by the glass, more food wines by the glass. I really think there’s a huge thirst for it.

CR: We’re talking about premium wines, which covers a multitude of sins. The simple fact is that many esoteric white wines may be low production, but in the middle ground, there’s an enormous range of very accessible well-priced wines. If you’ve a Pinot Blanc or Vermentino or Assyrtiko in the mid-price range, then surely it’s not complicated for the shop or restaurant – ‘Why don’t you try something more adventurous for the same or less money?’ It comes back to gentle, enthusiastic persuasion. I’m a Spanish specialist, and yet 80% of what I sell is white.

NY: We’re lucky, we’re at a time now where the quality of the wine that’s in the UK has never been better, the diversity is fantastic, whether red or white. So there’s literally no excuse to not be converting people to trying better wines.

Albariños pre-tasted:

↘ Mar de Ons Bodegas Aguiuncho 2020

↘ Villarei Bodegas Altos de Torona 2019

↘ Altos de Cristimil Luis Garcia Alvarez 2020

↘ Turonia Quinta Couselo 2020

↘ Pazo Torrado Adegas Terra de Asorei 2020

↘ Genio y Figura Attis Bodegas y Viñedos 2020

↘ Castro Martin Family Estate ‘Sobre Lías’ Bodegas Castro Martin 2019

↘ Viña Lareira Rectoral do Umia 2020