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Professor Dr. Gergely Szolnoki Professor Dr Gergely Szolnoki is responsible for consumer research and market analysis at Geisenheim University. In an interview with Raffaella Usai, he reports on what is important in the marketing of Piwi wines - and that the wine industry is getting in its own way.

Prof. Szolnoki, what is the focus of your research on Piwi wines?

Szolnoki: My colleague Christoph Kiefer and I are working on the question of how the acceptance and positioning of Piwi wines can be improved within the framework of the joint project VitiFit, which is financed by the Federal Programme for Organic Agriculture and other Forms of Sustainable Agriculture (BÖLN). We are trying to involve the entire value chain, i.e. winegrowers, traders, associations and end consumers.

Are there already strategies recommended for the marketing of Piwi wines?

Szolnoki: No, there are no strategies yet. But these are the goal of our work. In the first phase of the project, we talked to many winegrowers and traders. The traders in particular are very reluctant to talk about the subject. And I am talking about specialised traders as well as buyers from the food retail sector and restaurateurs. All of them report that they have felt little demand from consumers so far. And there is a reason for this: the majority of all Piwi wines in Germany are sold ex-farm. Direct marketing has a decisive advantage: at the winery, the winemaker can explain the wines to the customer, make him understand the difference between Piwis and traditional varietal wines by tasting them. This explanation is of great importance. Because consumers have no idea what Piwis are.

The two winemakers Eva Vollmer and Hanneke Schönhals from Rheinhessen want to achieve more popularity for Piwis with their project "Future Wines". Do you also think that the negative image has to do with the unwieldy name?

Szolnoki: Absolutely. That is the first important point we found out in the first year of our project. The average consumer does not feel addressed by the words "mushroom" and "resistance". We did a survey among winegrowers and traders and it turned out that the term "sustainable grape varieties" is much better received. We will include this aspect in our recommendations. The fact is: vintners and the wine industry have to find innovative communication strategies for Piwis. And the "Future Wines" project is a perfect example of this, because it is almost self-explanatory.

Innovative grape varieties need innovative communication.

Sustainability and climate change are two important issues that concern many consumers. Piwi wines absolutely hit the nerve of the time. My impression is that it is rather the wine industry itself that is the problem why these wines sell so badly.

Szolnoki: Yes. Unfortunately, most traders and sommeliers are not yet convinced of Piwi wines. I think it is a pity that there is so little curiosity. The wine industry itself is very conservative. It should no longer be so in the 21st century. We won't make progress that way; we need to open up, especially with "new grape varieties". But I am firmly convinced that sooner or later the multipliers will also take the topic seriously.

Are there still too few excellent Piwis?

Szolnoki: The quality is currently developing. By that I mean above all wines from second and third generation Piwi grape varieties, not necessarily Regent - although fortunately there are exceptions. Take Cabernet Blanc, for example, a great grape variety that has two advantages: On the one hand, the wine's aroma can absolutely keep up with a Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, this grape variety has a great name. We have tested several grape variety names with consumers. And Cabernet Blanc was among the best-known grape varieties, even though it hasn't been around that long.

Do you need high ratings from international critics for the wines to attract attention?

Szolnoki: If you consider how long it took, for example, for the Gambero Rosso to take certain new wines seriously - the Piwi winegrowers still have to be a little patient. The more Piwi wines come onto the market, the more likely they are to be noticed. And since many are currently experimenting with these new grape varieties and trying to find out how to achieve even better wines with them, it won't be long before some of these wines achieve top ratings in international competitions.

The South Tyrolean winery Lieselehof produces exclusively Piwi wines. In their communication, the Morandell family deliberately focuses on luxury, glitz and glamour. Could this be a way to position Piwis?

Szolnoki: Yes, of course. It is a different narrative than that of "future wines", for example, but it is innovative and attracts attention. If the Morandell twins manage to position their wines in the luxury segment, the whole Piwi industry will benefit.

How can you make the consumer more aware?

Szolnoki: The problem is the consumer's risk assessment. When he stands in front of the wine rack, it happens within a second until a judgement is made about the wine. The consumer has neither time nor much of an idea - in this case the autopilot is working in his head. He wants to minimise the risk of making a wrong decision. The so-called key information is scanned in his head: Region, origin, price, but also the grape variety. In the end, the consumer buys what he knows or seems to know. And that is the huge dilemma for the Piwis. Although the price and quality are right, they are not yet getting through to wine lovers enough. But sustainable wines will be more and more in demand, I am sure of that. The industry will be forced to educate itself about this external pressure.

Will in the future more winegrowers include Piwi wines in their assortment?

Szolnoki: I assume that in the future Piwi wines will also arouse more and more interest internationally. We see excellent examples from Italy, France and also the New World. There, the wine market reacts faster. At the moment, winegrowers are concerned about the use and thus the reduction of the pesticide copper. Since there are hardly any copper alternatives at the moment, Piwi grape varieties quickly become the answer. Currently, winegrowers still lack experience with these varieties. Many do not even know how to handle them in the cellar and what products can be made from them.

How can winegrowers position Piwi varieties?

Szolnoki: There are several possibilities. One is the single-varietal vinification and subsequent sale under the name of the grape variety. But the winegrowers can also rely on cuvées with fantasy names, in which they use a Piwi share of 50 percent. Or they can make a blend, for example mixing Sauvignon Blanc with ten percent Cabernet Blanc. Piwis can also be used to produce sparkling wines, even though not all varieties are suitable for this. They are already being used successfully for pet nats. There are many possibilities. If I were a winemaker, I would pursue a concept that encompasses several strategies.

Is there a lively exchange between Piwi winegrowers?

Szolnoki: Still too little. It would be desirable for winegrowers to be better and more generous with information and experience. Everyone could benefit from that. And, as the results of our studies show, the winegrowers would like that too.

There is little appealing visual material on the subject of Piwi wines. Even as a wine journalist, you are faced with the challenge of presenting the topic in a way that appeals to your readers.

Szolnoki: (laughs) Yes, you are absolutely right. Visual communication is half the battle. With beautiful décor and advertising, you immediately have the consumer on your side. Unfortunately, when it comes to piwis, we are still a long way off. But I am confident that with a little time and motivation, this will soon change.

Photos: © Geisenheim University of Applied Sciences; header © 123rf.com

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