Tuesday, 12 March 2013

It’s Not Just “Horse Play” in The Meat Business You Know!

Firstly, being Irish means the first thing to happen when any big news story breaks is the joke texts start to fly. My favourite text arrived the same day that Tesco was reported to have a problem with some of their beef products. And then the text “News Flash…Traces of Zebra found in Tesco barcodes….” And I still giggle at that one.

But seriously, I think it would be fair to say, where you have opportunities for big volume business you are always going to have a few unscrupulous people. Remember the Pollock being sold as Cod in the chip shops story? Who was making money behind that story? The horse meat scandal was the most public example (so far) of what can go on and how some people are prepared to do just about anything to increase profits. In the case of beef, some would argue that the public demand for cheap beef was to blame but the truth is, its all about greed.

When it comes to wine I am certainly not an expert. In fact, I consider myself a non-drinker. I would maybe have a drink three times a year and when I do take a drink it would be things like Baileys or Cointreau, anything that doesn’t taste like alcohol. Last year I went to southern France on a wine buying trip (I had two really good wine guys with me, (Gabriel Cooney of On The Grapevine & Ouzos Head Chef Raouf Djeffal) the first day we visited six wineries and tasted some thirty wines. To say I got pissed would be an understatement, I slept in the car all the way back to the hotel and I’ve been at the butt end of their jokes ever since.

I was recently sitting with a group of wine guys and our Ouzos restaurant managers discussing our wine list. We were talking about importing more wines directly for Ouzos. The discussion turned to Pinot Grigio and what these wine guys told me left my hair standing on end.


According to Tom Doorley
Pinot Grigio is the Italian for Pinot Gris, made famous by Alsace but traditionally grown in NE Italy too. Pinot Grigio was made famous (so I'm told!) by Sex in the City in which it became shorthand for "white wine" - hence vastly increased demand for the stuff from Italy. A bit confusingly Pinot Gris used to be known as Tokay d'Alsace in Alsace. In other words, Pinot Grigio became the new Chardonnay, but Chardonnay has more character.

Pinot Grigio is drunk by people who either (a) can't think of anything better to do or (b) are terrified of finding themselves drinking a wine that actually tastes of anything. In fact, really good Pinot Grigio exists (and tastes faintly of grapefruit zest to my palate) but is very expensive and not really worth it. 

According to Anthony Tindal of Tindal Wine Merchants
Pinot Grigio is bastardised from Pinot Gris originally from Alsace and nothing like the real Alsace deal. Designed for the simple palate without taste buds, to be as innocuous as possible, so as not to disturb rabid conversation, and certainly not to be masculine and aggressive or have character or flavours. There is little control over wine production in Italy. It is commonly known that Italy sells 30% more’ Pinot Grigio than it actually produces.

Here are three facts worth considering;
  1. Import of lesser known white juices from Spain to Italy is very high.
  2. Production of Trebbiano Bianco is as much as 50% higher than actual sales of same. So where does that juice go?
  3. 2012...harvests throughout Europe were disastrous, although Pinot Grigio was only down 5 % on last year’s figures. Spanish whites were down 35%, Trebbiano was down 50 % and the result was an increase in the price of Pinot Grigio with sales also anticipated to be up year on year.

The very big question we are left with is, where is all this ‘Pinot Grigio’ coming from? Drink it if you like Suckers, I’ll be sticking with Pinot Gris from Alsace.

According to Gabriel Cooney of On The Grapevine Dalkey
Here is a good question for your dinner party - what is the most widely planted grape variety in the world? Chardonnay? Merlot? Cabernet Sauvignon? The answer, those wine buffs among you will know, is Airen. Yes, the little known Spanish varietal is grown in vast quantities on the plains of La Mancha in central Spain. So how come we don't see lots of bottles of Airen on our shelves? Well, you can get some in Spain, but in general it is used as a blending wine. So what? Well, that is fine if it is blended in to wine in Spain and is all controlled by the regulatory authorities.

However, when you hear of tankers of Airen making the long journey over to northern Italy for blending in to Pinot Grigio, it makes you stop and think. It's been well known for years that Italy makes more "Pinot Grigio" than it grows, but I always presumed it was being plumped out with the less trendy Pinot Bianco or at worst some sad lonely bunches of Trebbiano, but Airen!?

It does perhaps explain how, with increasing demand and static production, the price is going down instead of up, as would normally be dictated by my rudimentary understanding of economics. So, once again, some unscrupulous producers will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Watch out for the imminent demise of Pinot Grigio as the trendy tipple of the day.

So, if you like Pinot Grigio and want to drink the real thing, shun that cheapo bottle for €5.99/€6.99/€7.99, even if it has been "reduced from twice the price (because it hasn't, it was never that price in the first place - do you think supermarkets don't make a profit on wine?). Seek out the Pinot Grigio made by a reputable family producer and sold by someone who knows what they are talking about.

So, the question remains - if they are putting in Airen, how come its not bubbly? Don't get me started on Prosecco.......

Where do we go from here?
I don’t think this Pinot Grigio story will ever make the headline but it shows you how big business will sometimes do whatever it takes to make money and how nobody is actually watching. If you think the European bureaucrats will protect us with regulation and labeling then just stop and think of Findus Beef Lasagna in 2013.

The good news is, if there is any, this time it’s about cheap wine so relax this wont kill you (in moderation of course) and remember,” To drink is not the answer; however, drinking will make you forget the question.”

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