Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Beginning of the End, Part 1

There's little doubt that wine has been bought, sold and traded as a commodity for almost as long as it has been cultivated. But the rapid expansion of the global wine market over the past several decades is a phenomena with only slim historical precedence. Bordeaux may be the best example of the first "branding" of a wine and a region in order to trade or sell their product to consumers who lived many hundreds of miles (or kilometers) from the vineyards themselves. But certainly Sherry and Port were doing the same thing around the same time, and possibly even earlier, and there's evidence that ancient wine merchants provided certain wines to the wealthy and powerful in Greek and Roman societies that were made with the specific tastes of these valuable consumers in mind. It seems, however, that preference for wines produced in a particular manner or from a specific locale were probably a happy accident at this time. The ways in which technology and information were spread during antiquity and even in the Medieval Period make it unlikely that farmers in Northern Algeria or the Valle d'Aosta would all of sudden decide to change their winemaking methods in order to compete for markets in cities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Clearly, this is not the case today.

In the past 10 or 20 years vintners and companies across the globe have rushed to cash in on the ever increasing demand for wine in both new and established markets. Many are eager to hit the sweet spot in positioning a wine that looks, tastes and performs like some of the most successful global brands. Producing the next Yellowtail or Kim Crawford or Santa Margherita is a prize that's hard to resist. In the meantime a movement has emerged in winemaking that is antithetical to all of this. The natural or sustainable wine movement (or whatever you want to call it) emphasizes much smaller production levels, traditional methods and often organic or biodynamic practices. The idea is to return wine to its sense of place and produce something that is in harmony with its immediate surroundings.

The backdrop to all of this is the modern wine era that begin to emerge during but mostly after the two World Wars. Traditional wine-producing areas in Europe began to increase production with an eye towards new markets, some rustic, traditional wines began to emerge as more serious players and winemakers outside of Europe began to compete with the motherland. By the 1960's and '70's Italy, France and Germany were all exporting lakes of bland, indistinguishable but inexpensive table wines like Soave, Valpolicella, Riunite, Beaujolais, Bordeaux and Liebfraumilch. Most of these wines were exported and sold by just a handful of large companies buying wine from all over w/ little regard to quality or typicity, but at the same time a few producers began to increase the quality and decrease the quantity of some of the very same wines. This made it increasingly difficult for consumers to differentiate the few good reds from the Veneto (for example) from all the bad ones. So France started tightening it's AOC laws, Italy introduced the DOC's and Germany came with its own set of quality control laws. These regulations coupled w/ a little negative press for mass produced wines (most notably the "anti-freeze" scandal in Austria in 1985) were doing a good job of pushing more and more European wine producers and merchants toward favoring quality and originality over quantity by the late '80's and things probably would have continued to improve (and in many cases did) except there was another player entering into the game of wine: the rest of the developed world.

(The picture was found on this lovely little blog).

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