By Suzanne Mustacich / AFP
MONTPELLIER: What do the Grenache grapes ripening above the smooth river stones of France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape have in common with the Xinomavro clinging to the slopes of Greece’s Mount Olympus?
That was the question facing winegrowers and merchants who gathered in the southeastern French city of Montpellier at the recent annual Vinisud trade fair, to brainstorm on ways to create a unified wine brand for the region.
“We share 3,000 years of history. Wine was an integral part of conquest and commerce in the Mediterranean,” said Jean-Luc Etievent, partner at wine importer Mediterranee and Co, as he chaired a panel debate on the challenge.
“But it’s difficult to create a Mediterranean brand that would help us differentiate our wines from other regions.”
Vinisud, the International Mediterranean wine and spirits exhibition held in Montpellier this week, regroups the wines from southern France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon.
Together the regions present account for 52.29 percent of the world’s wine production.
Most of the 1,700 exhibitors and 33,000 visitors at the show come to make deals, but the event also gave the neighboring countries a chance to brainstorm on a fresh image — in hope of boosting exports, especially to Asia.
Asian markets are a key growth area for wine producers the world over, with China in particular predicted to become the largest wine-consuming nation within 20 years, overtaking the United States.
Data released in January by the trade show Vinexpo predict the combined China-Hong Kong market to grow 54.3 percent between 2011 and 2015, even as growth slows in traditional consumer markets in Europe.
China is already the largest export client for France’s Bordeaux region, inspiring producers from the Mediterranean region, which begins just south of Bordeaux, to look increasingly towards the vast market.
But finding common ground was not an easy task.
While the Mediterranean does evoke a common set of images — olive groves, heart-healthy diets and sunny holidays by the sea — its wines are as diverse as the cultures ringing its shores.
“Above all, in the Mediterranean you’ll be struck by the diversity rather than the homogeneity,” said Alain Carbonneau, professor of viticulture at Montpellier University.
“We have several hundred grape varieties. And the climate? We once erroneously considered the Mediterranean climate homogenous but it’s not.”
The wine styles offer amazing variety, a mouth-watering selection of aromas and flavors and largely unpronounceable names.
In a sense, all that makes them typically Mediterranean is the ripeness of the fruit, Carbonneau suggested.
But driven by an increasingly competitive marketplace, the growers were willing to overlook the jigsaw puzzle of soils, climates and grapes to find common ground.
“There is a sense in Greece of belonging to a Mediterranean community, but we are conscious that there is a great diversity — which could be an advantage,” said Pavlos Argyropoulos, oenologist and co-owner of Pieria Eratini winery.
“We could build an identity based on diversity. Right now we need a strategy for marketing.”
Pooling resources makes sense when faced with the colossal marketing budgets of New World wine conglomerates and the strong brand recognition of established powerhouses like Bordeaux.
“Corsica is too small, for instance, to penetrate the Chinese market alone. We need to join with other regions and find a common promotional message,” said Jean-Marc Venturi, president of the Corsican wine trade council.
“I’m convinced we could do it — and keep our individual identities.”
One common thread that allows for, even celebrates, individual identities, is an interwoven past rooted in ancient civilization.
“If there is one thing we share, it’s a history,” said Nicholas Chain, marketing manager for Casablanca-based Ebertec.
“In Morocco, we need to re-discover this identity as a motor for developing exports for the future.”
Mediterranean wine’s diverse roots might also be the key to its long-term viability.
Biodiversity is vital for sustainability and a hedge against climate change, according to Carbonneau, but there is a dangerous trend towards ripping up less popular, indigenous grape varieties and planting ubiquitous international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
An emphasis on diversity would encourage growers to preserve the region’s cornucopia.
“We are losing grape varieties every year. We need to protect our diversity not only for our identity, but for our sustainability,” said Carbonneau.