Why you can keep your ‘Merlot Day’

With supermarket wine offerings becoming more diverse, David Kermode implores you to seek out and sample the world’s unsung grape varieties in favour of the old standards

Words by David Kermode

Merlot grapes on the vine

It’s International Merlot Day next month. I happen to know this because I received a press release about it, rather than because I had any specific celebrations planned. It prompted me to look at the other varieties that merit a special day on which we are supposed to pay homage every year.

There are surprisingly few listed, all wearyingly obvious. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Viognier are all honoured, squeezed into the PR calendar alongside National Peach Cobbler Day and International Oatmeal Month. I have nothing against Merlot, but I struggle to see why we should devote space in our diaries to it – especially when there is so much else out there to discover beyond the unwitting star of Sideways.

Forget red, white or rosé, it’s all a bit beige

More interesting might be a day devoted to one of the other, less common, grape varieties available around the world. There are at least 10,000 from which to choose, so we could have a new and exciting grape awareness day for every day until 2049 (with the added advantage that we could also give National Shower With a Friend Day a miss next year).

I talk to wine contacts from continental Europe who are genuinely wowed by the range of producer countries on sale in the UK market, but there’s a caveat. Most of us buy our wine from a major retailer and, by and large, they do a decent job. Take a closer look at the shelves, however, and the diversity of varieties offered starts to reflect the emerging monoculture that has allowed approximately 80% of the world’s wines to come from around 20 different grapes. Forget red, white or rosé, it’s all a bit beige.

wine selection on supermarket shelf
'I’m not sure the choice has really changed that much since the 1980s': Kermode on the diversity of grape varieties on our supermarket shelves

The quality of the wine we buy has improved immeasurably over recent decades thanks, in part, to new exporting countries like New Zealand, but can we honestly say the same about the diversity of grape varieties that we’re offered? I have been buying wine since the late 1980s and, with the honourable exception of The Wine Society, or the newish breed of indie wine merchants, I’m not sure the choice has really changed that much.

Imagine if the food section still focused on the same core range of options? We’d be stuck in a milieu of margarine, Mother’s Pride and Ice Magic. Avocado, sourdough or sushi might never have happened. Think of other areas of retail too, like fashion. Primark doesn’t offer us the same styles each season. If it did, we’d still be in pedal pushers and rah-rah skirts. On the other hand, Gap tried selling us the same stuff year after year and now its shops are shuttered.

There are some exciting outliers. Middle-class Mecca Marks & Spencer has complemented its impressive-but-by-its-nature-predictable ‘Classics’ range with a sub-brand called ‘Found’, to celebrate some of the world’s lesser-known varieties. We’re born hard-wired to trust M&S, so it’s the perfect brand to champion those grapes that aren’t usually spotted on our supermarket shelves. Move over Merlot because we’re talking Romanian Feteasca Regala, Pais from Chile, Greek Moschofilero and Gros Manseng from Gascony.

M&S Found Feteasca Regala white wine bottle and glasses
The Feteasca Regala from the M&S 'Found' range

The stylish packaging and enticing front-label descriptions tempt shoppers to step outside their comfort zone, while potential food pairings are also suggested. The Found wines I’ve tried have been well made and, crucially, good fun. Marks is undoubtedly creating sparks again, but it’s not just the top end that can deliver. Discounter Lidl offers some real finds of its own in its limited edition ‘Wine Tour’ collection, including the likes of Austrian Roter Veltliner, Viosinho from Portugal and Hungary’s unforgettable Juhfark.

Who gives a toss whether you can pronounce the name of the grape?

There is clearly the shelf space for more diversity and the appetite from customers must surely be there, otherwise neither M&S nor Lidl would be doing it. And, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a discovery? The wine world is often described as intimidating, so here is a great opportunity to banish thoughts of snobbery, encouraging consumers to experiment instead. Who gives a toss whether you can pronounce the name of the grape as long as it tastes good? What’s more, most of these unusual varieties offer incredible value for money, with nothing I have mentioned costing more than a tenner.

It could all be so much more exciting. So, let’s make next month’s International Merlot Day the last and create space in our diaries for World Manseng Noir Day instead. That, I would happily celebrate.

What David has been drinking…

  • Schloss Gobelsburg ‘Tradition’ 50 Years, Kamptal, Austria (imported by Clark Foyster and already a collector’s item). An extraordinary release from winemaker Michael Moosbrugger to celebrate Gobelsburg’s 850th birthday, blending aged wines from 31 vintages, going back to 1971, from nine grape varieties to create a very special wine that’s rich, textured, complex and still surprisingly fresh.
  • St Dune, Pyla, McLaren Vale, 2020 (The Wine Society, £14.95) Autumn in a bottle, this is a lively blend of Nero d’Avola, Carignan, Negroamaro, Montepulciano, Grenache and Mourvèdre, co-fermented and matured in old oak that’s bursting with foraged blackberries and wild herbs.
  • Les Clos de Paulilles, Collioure Blanc, Domaine Cazes, 2020, Roussillon, France (The Great Wine Co, £22) Grenache Blanc and Gris, blended with Rolle, with enchanting floral aromas, plump texture and zippy lime acidity, this made a magnificent pairing with Indian-inspired cuisine at London’s Cinnamon Club.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.