Emma Dawson MW isn’t just senior wine buyer at Berkmann Wine Cellars. In her spare time, she’s run a number of educational wine ventures, including Naked Grape Tastings for consumers and 52grapes.com, a free website offering consumers the chance to join in and taste 52 grapes in 52 weeks. She’s passionate about grape diversity and has been instrumental in bringing wines from formerly obscure regions – Lebanon, Greece and Turkey – to the UK market. Ahead of World Biodiversity Day, we talked to her about why grape diversity is so important and how she brings her love of esoteric regions to her work.
Swirl’s purpose is to champion lesser-known regions and varieties – and diversity is an implicit part of this. What got you interested in grape diversity?
I was really lucky at Marks & Spencer. In 2012 I was given a project – one of my first big buying projects – to go and find wines which matched a new range of Eastern Mediterranean food. The remit was to explore that whole quite large swathe of countries and find if there were any decent well priced wines we could list. So, the brief was very broad and I did a lot of research because it was such a great opportunity to get such an adventurous remit as a buyer. Eventually I came up with five countries. It was actually really nice: I thought I was going to get about two wines listed from this exercise and we ended up with something like 12. And then, because I was at Marks & Spencer where everything is own label, I also had the great opportunity to go to these countries. Marks & Spencer’s way of working is that you have to go to the winery and check it meets all quality standards and so on, you can’t just put an own label on it. So, I could go to Greece and Lebanon and Turkey and see what those countries had to offer. I think that’s what really sparked my interest, the realisation that there was so much more out there.
How did 52grapes.com tie into this interest?
In about October 2018 my boyfriend and I came up with the idea as something fun we could do together. He was doing all these drinking challenges but they had nothing to do with wine. And I thought that was a bit ridiculous – you live with a wine buyer! So, [we came up with this concept] which I found interesting. Having worked in a supermarket I always wanted to champion customers trying something a bit different. Seeing from friends, too, how reluctant people are to try new things because they don’t have the information and the confidence, I wanted to give people a fun journey, to make the exploration [of different types of wine] something to enjoy rather than fear.
Of course, more obscure grapes or region may be a harder sell for consumers. How to you integrate your passion for grape and regional diversity with your role as a buyer?
When I talked to Alex Hunt about joining Berkmann, part of that conversation was that I was into these more esoteric countries. Before I joined, Berkmann did have wines from Turkey which was quite unusual. But Alex definitely did say to me – now you’re joining can you help us expand into these areas, so I therefore brought in wines from Greece, Lebanon and Georgia. I actually used the experience and knowledge I had from going to those countries a lot to know who the best people were to work with.
I do think the most important thing, though, is to catch the right moment. For example, at the moment we have some great orange wines to meet the increasing demand for unusual wines – and they’re certainly selling well at the moment. I was having a chat with Mary Pateras from Eclectic Wines who has, from my perspective, done the job of bringing Greek wines into the UK and making them big. I don’t think she gets enough credit for that. She was talking about how her importing company is now finding there is so much more demand – it’s beginning to reach ‘peak Greece’. Consumers are no longer finding it to be an ‘unusual’ wine country, it’s becoming almost mainstream. It’s a lovely thing to see that progression.
How can producers of wines using more obscure grape varieties, or winemakers in more obscure regions position themselves for the best success in the UK market? Do you find things like grape names, for example, to be a barrier for consumers?
I think there’s enough interest in, say, Georgia, that grape names are becoming less of a barrier. People know enough about the country, want to try qvevri wines and so on. I think you have to be careful about getting overexcited. We’ve been looking at other countries like Armenia and Moldova, and whilst the wines are lovely, I do think you have to wait for the point where there is enough demand and there’s been enough awareness created.
Its why I really do think that there’s a lot of power behind countries like Georgia funding generic bodies to promote their wines. That’s a great thing for an importer to ride on the back of and list things. If you try to do it in isolation then it is very difficult and sometimes the risk doesn’t pay off. And that doesn’t just stand for unusual countries – we could be talking about a small region in Italy which could be quite hard to get people interested in. It can be a barrier to some but for a specialist restaurant it can be a great point of difference. So, I just think these wines need to be proposed in the right way.
A producer has also got to be conscious of where they want to position the wine and in what market. The acceptable cost price in the UK is very different from that in China or the US. I always encourage my producers if they want a chance in the UK you’ve got to make your wines at a reasonable price. People are only willing to experiment under a £15 price point. So, if you can hit that sweet spot, you’ll have much more of a chance of being recognised and then can introduce more expensive wines.
And don’t be sucked into using international varieties for name recognition. I listed a lovely Turkish Sauvignon Blanc at Marks & Spencer which completely bombed and we realised straight after that that it was because it was exactly the same price as a New Zealand Sauvignon. There was no motivation for someone to try a Turkish Sauvignon instead of the one they know they love from New Zealand.
Why is diversity important in the wine trade?
When I did the 52grapes blog Richard Smart, the amazing viticulturalist got in touch and we had some great conversations about grape diversity. He’s the one more than me who’s very passionate about the meaning of diversity and how we’re at a crunch point as many regions around the world are uprooting their native varieties to plant more commercial ones. It’s nice, for example, to hear that in Chile they’re looking at their old vines – but it’s still a tiny proportion of the country’s total wine production. I think we should really champion all the countries maintaining their old vines. Otherwise we will lose diversity, we will find at a certain point that there are fewer grapes in the world.
The most obvious reason we should celebrate grape diversity is climate change. A lot of these older varieties are more adapted to their environment. We need to really plunder our resources to figure out which grape varieties best suit the changing climate in various regions. In Australia they’re starting to explore this a lot, planting lots of Italian native varieties which are more adaptive [to the new climatic circumstances].
I’d also challenge why we think certain grapes are ‘better’ in the first place. I find it really funny that we have this ‘old’ and ‘new’ world division. It doesn’t make sense. I was actually doing a vertical tasting of Leoville-Barton for some clients and one of them asked me if he should try more Lebanese wine, he’d only tried Musar, and I explained that actually it’s the ancient world of wine. It’s the place where wine came from. As with Georgia, it’s one of the original winemaking countries. There’s a temple of Bacchus in Lebanon which shows that the Romans thought it was a good place to make wine. [When you explain these things] you suddenly see the penny drop. But I don’t think the penny has dropped for many consumers yet that there was a time before Europe, and before those countries were making wine. That to me is fascinating. I studied history at university and I find tracing it back to where it started, and not just assuming that the grapes became well established because they worked in France.
When you look at the history of European wine, even, France quickly became dominantly established with an efficient, well run wine industry. So, all of its grapes started to dominate the wine world. Arguably, if Italy had been a little bit more organised and focussed on higher quality before France – Italian grapes could dominate as international varieties. Not saying that Cabernet and Chardonnay and so on aren’t fantastic – but we should also consider all these lovely old ancestral grapes. We should add those older, [more obscure] grapes to the mix and open our minds to reconsider what really are the ‘best’ grapes in the world.