Isa Bal MS: on incorporating indigenous varietals into the wine program

4 Oct 2021


Isa Bal needs few introductions as a sommelier. He has a more than 20-year career as a sommelier, notably winning the ASI Best Sommelier of Europe title in 2008 and holding the position of Head Sommelier for The Fat Duck Group for more than twelve years. In 2009 Isa passed the Master Sommelier exam. He is a highly respected member of the international sommelier community. We asked Isa for his thoughts about the rise of indigenous varietals and how sommeliers can present them in their wine programs.


ASI: In the wine world, like all other industries, there is a constant pendulum shift of consumer trends. Do you think this movement away from the international varietals that dominated the 90s and 2000s to indigenous and ancestral varietals represent a trend or simply the future?

Isa Bal: At the moment it is a trend, however they are also offering the wine loving public a wide range of flavours and aromas that they simply haven’t had before. So gradually it will settle down to be part of the mainstream.


ASI: In your opinion, what it is fueling this renewed focus on indigenous and ancestral varietals? Is it climate change?

Isa Bal: I am not sure if the climate change is really a factor here. For me the interest stems from several different factors. One being the consumers are interested in wines beyond Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, beyond the classic wine regions.

Travel is another factor that effects this, people are travelling to many different countries where they have their own indigenous grape varieties and sampling them in those locations and want to see them back in their own countries. This is not to forget the important effect of technology. It makes sharing and finding information so quick that producers who needed the help of journalists and sommeliers are less dependent on them to get their message across.


ASI: Even if climate change isn’t the impetus for the varietal shift, we can all agree that the changing climate of wine growing regions worldwide is placing great pressure on the resources for sustainable viticulture. Is it therefore necessary to investigate grape varieties that are not only indigenous to that place but rather look to indigenous varietals from hot climates? What are your opinions on producing crosses of ancestral varietals to create super grapes capable of performing better in the new climatic reality but also with great organoleptic qualities?

Isa Bal: It is a fact that climate change is presenting viticulture under a great pressure; we should also consider the changing weather patterns as well as the increase in temperatures, we might see the more heat resistant varieties trialed in more northern locations. Although this is not just about temperatures, rising temperatures also brings more disease pressure especially in locations with presence of water body, unusual rain times etc. It may not be as simple as just planting more north, wine industry itself must adopt more environmentally friendly approach. For example, to reduce the carbon footprint shipping in bulk once again may be looked at. I think creating a new cross does take a considerable time, then you need to understand the variety in viticultural terms, stability and the best way to turn it into wine. Do we have that time? I’m not sure.


ASI: Beyond climate change are there other reasons fueling this change? With a return to traditional agricultural practices, and a rise in the locavore movement, is a return to native varietals also a reflection of a desire of a new generation to have a deeper connectivity to their land, including looking to varietals that have centuries of tradition in their region? Are you seeing this reflected in wine lists and food menus?

Isa Bal: In simple business terms these varieties offer a uniqueness where else a better-known international variety increases the competition. I see countries like Greece, Georgia, Turkey, Portugal being much more successful with their own varieties. Those varieties also offer a new taste and aroma profile that enhances our experience. I think each market has a different approach to this. But in the UK there is definitely a growing interest in indigenous varieties.


ASI: When it comes to wine judging, classic regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo etc. have decades and even centuries of producing a broadly similar style of wine, making comparatives easy.  However, with the rise of small-scale production of indigenous varietals there are little, if any, benchmarks. How does this impact how you access these wines?

Isa Bal: I believe it is important to approach each glass independently of its identity. Zero expectation. If the variety in question is new to me, I would speak to people who know the variety and try to learn a little but still ultimately it is a glass of wine and I approach it like that trying not to reference it to a better-known regions or varieties. Admittedly we are biased towards what we know so it will take a few tries to start to get the picture. An open mind is the key.


ASI: Would you argue indigenous grapes the exponent of terroir driven wines? Examples could include Xinomavro, Maratheftiko, Xynesteri, Assyrtiko, Nerello Mascalese, Alvarinho, Bobal etc.

Isa Bal: Not sure about this one. A Cabernet Sauvignon will reflect a different characteristic in each different region. Take Cabernet Franc for example; there are many different regions/countries making wine from this variety and producing wonderful wines with distinctively different style and personality.  It could however be said that local varieties there for the reason they better suit to the area needing minimum intervention during growing and wine making.


ASI: This move to indigenous varietals is both a great opportunity for sommeliers but also provides some challenges? What is the sommelier’s role in promoting indigenous / ancestral varietals? Do sommeliers have an obligation to increase their focus on these? Are there challenges to incorporating these wines onto wine lists? Is it more challenging for tradition white linen style restaurants that have organized their cellars according to classic regions or perhaps classic varietals?

Isa Bal: As sommeliers roles are ever changing depending on where they work and their approach this can be true that they have a role to promote these varieties, but the context needs to be right. I would say regardless of the style of restaurant indigenous varieties can work, market depending. I think France, Italy, Portugal and Spain already have a wealth of indigenous varieties and it works for them. But if you look at a country where there isn’t a collection of indigenous varieties promoting these varieties could be easier. In my wine list here at Trivet for example I list the wines according to the era when winemaking started. So you will find countries like Georgia, Armenia, Turkey at the front of the list and so on. This has been very well received and we are having a lot of fun!