The World of Fine Wine
It’s always tempting—few people seem able to resist it—to think of one’s own time as particularly important, as a turning point in history. Yet there does seem to be much that is new and distinctive in the modern world of wine. Wine can never have been such a widespread, consciously consumed beverage in any earlier time—“consciously consumed” in the sense that, unlike earlier centuries when wine was widely consumed but with no more thought given to it than to the bread that accompanied it, we now subject wine to relentless discussion, description, and evaluation in the mass media, whether television, radio, print, or Web. Wine is more widely available than ever before, thanks to steadily growing demand and to rapid transportation around the world. And there is a far more extensive selection of wines than ever before, reflecting the rapid expansion of wineries in an ever-increasing number of wine regions throughout the world.
If this is an historic moment in the history of wine, we must ask about the place of fine wine, because the great bulk of wine produced is—as it has historically been—designed for mass and early consumption. Indeed, there are constant complaints that the expansion of the wine market has not only enlarged it in a quantitative sense but has also changed it qualitatively. Too much wine, it is often said, is being made to a more popular style, aimed at consumers brought up on mass-market New World wines that tend to be fruit-forward and short on structure and longevity. And as for longevity, there are constant concerns that producers of fine wine are shying away from vins de garde in favor of earlier-drinking styles. This is thought to reflect reluctance on the part of newer (and possibly younger) consumers of fine wine to cellar wine for three or five years, let alone ten or 20.
Are these anxieties justified? It depends whom you talk to, but at least some of the concerns—or the way they are expressed—seem more based on misconception than on anything else. How many fine-wine consumers in the past kept wine cellars to age wines for a decade or more? Probably (we can never know for sure) only very few, and a very small proportion of all wine consumers. On the other hand, one of the most robust items of the wine paraphernalia that fill stores and online catalogs is wine cabinets, where hundreds of bottles can be stored at a constant temperature and humidity. The fact is that we just don’t know how people treat their wines—how long, for example, those who purchased 2005 Burgundies cellared them before starting to drink them. It’s all but impossible to do anything more than speculate about long-terms shifts in wine consumers’ behavior, and notions about them might well be another vestige of wine snobbery.
BP and AP
This current picture of the wine world lies at the end of a longer narrative. If the history of wine is divided into eras or periods, as we divide history more generally, then two of them might well be BP and AP: before phylloxera and after phylloxera. The phylloxera aphid, as deadly and devastating as it was, transformed much of the existing wine world and, it could be argued, changed it for the better in a number of respects. In many areas of Europe, poor vineyards wiped out by phylloxera (many in marginal areas of northern France, for example) were not replanted, and those that were replanted tended to be located in regions more suited to viticulture. Moreover, replanting led to more consciousness of, and careful attention to, grape varieties. The replanting of vineyards shook up many of the fine-wine estates, of course, and we have seen (in part 4 of this series, WFW 26, pp.108–113) that the producers of Bordeaux began to emphasize more and more the historical depth of their properties in order to compensate for the youth of their vines.
It is arguable that many of the wines produced at notable properties in Bordeaux—for example—at the turn of the 20th century bore little relation to those produced during what is often called the “golden age” of Bordeaux, before the arrival of phylloxera. At that time, surprisingly little attention was paid to grape varieties, and different varieties were frequently planted in the same vineyard. The wines were often field blends—blends that reflected the distribution of different varieties in a vineyard—rather than the carefully measured blends that are made today. We now expect to be able to know the precise proportion of, say, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in a Bordeaux wine, but in the mid-19th century, this information was not only unimportant, it was also generally unavailable.
In this sense, fine wines from Bordeaux became more closely defined. Consumers might well have preferred wines from the Right Bank or Left Bank, though (in England, at least) all were frequently subsumed under the generic name “claret.” It is unlikely that many 19th-century consumers knew or cared why they preferred one bank over the other. During the course of the 20th century, however, the respective banks became surrogate terms for Merlot- and Cabernet-dominant wines—a further indication of a more precise and detailed perspective on fine wine.
It is true that there was evidence of growing interest in grape varieties during the 1800s, before phylloxera reached Europe. Visitors like James Busby, who toured European wine regions and collected vines for planting in Australia, carefully noted the varieties and their attributes. So did the owner of Chile’s Viña Carmen, who imported vines from Bordeaux in the 1850s—including Carmenère, which disappeared from Bordeaux during the phylloxera phase and was only identified as Carmenère (in the Viña Carmen vineyards) in 1984. Then there was Barone Ricasoli, who, in the 1850s, set down the varietal formula for Chianti after touring vineyards in the Rhône Valley, Beaujolais, and Burgundy. Phylloxera might have cleared the way for change, but we can see that change was on the way.
The appellation system
Indirectly, phylloxera also lay behind another trend that underpinned wine marketing in the 20th century: the use of appellations. The designation of some wine regions had taken place earlier—Chianti and the Douro Valley are examples—but it accelerated from the end of the 1900s. What spurred the adoption of the appellation system in France was the widespread adulteration and fraud that took place when wine supplies declined as phylloxera killed vineyards. “Wine” was made with raisins; wine from grapes was adulterated by additives to give color, flavor, and texture; and wines from different regions were blended and sold as wines from the most prestigious.
To give consumers more confidence, and to rebuild the battered French wine industry’s domestic and export markets, the appellation system was introduced as a regulatory regime. It would certify the provenance of the grapes the wine was made from, and guarantee quality not only by a taste test but also by confining appellation-labeled wine to the grape varieties that grew most successfully in each appellation, and by controlling yield and other aspects of viticulture and winemaking. This system was adopted, with variations, in many European countries and led to appellations becoming brands. Indeed, the restrictive regulations were designed to protect each appellation from producers whose shoddy wines would harm the brand.
The appellation system was remarkably successful—to the extent that, in France, the appellation obliterated the grape variety. Consumers who drank white Burgundy might not know that they were drinking Chardonnay, while ordinary Bordeaux reds were any combination of five varieties. The same principle was followed in some regions outside France (such as Chianti and Rioja), while some national appellation laws showed the variety as well as the designated wine region. So compelling were the new
appellation brands that they were adopted by producers in other regions. Sparkling-wine producers all over the world called their products “Champagne,” while myriad Burgundies, Hermitages, Rhines, Chiantis, Ports, and Sherries were produced in California, Australia, and South Africa.
Another marketing strategy linked to the appellations also emerged during the 20th century: terroir. Although often associated with the monks who worked the vineyards of Burgundy hundreds of years ago, the concept of terroir—definitions vary, but it generally refers to the total environment within which grapes grow—did not enter general wine discourse until the 1900s, when, in order to highlight the uniqueness of specific wines, they began to be described as “expressing their terroir.” Like the word, the concept was French, and it was never intended to apply to any non-French grapes or wine. There are reports of French viticulturists assuring New World producers that the latter did not possess terroir—a clearly false proposition because every piece of land (including my back yard) has terroir. Like appellation, terroir took on a life of its own in the later 1900s, and it became a common feature of wine marketing well beyond the borders of France. Although it is now a much-contested concept, producers throughout the Old and New Worlds employ it as they promote their wines.
Need another world
The fact that we can refer to the global spread of such phenomena points to one of the most notable shifts in the marketing of fine wine: the rise of the non-European world of wine. In this sense, wine has been part of a process of globalization that accelerated during the past few decades, and for wine it took two principal forms: the emergence of fine wines from the New World, and the expansion of the market for fine wines beyond Europe and North America. In both cases, of course, there had been precursors before the late 20th century, but the second half of the 1900s saw shifts that were unprecedented in scope and scale.
Until the 20th century, fine wine was synonymous with the best wines of Europe. The category mostly comprised wines from the highest-regarded regions of France, together with some from the most prestigious areas of Germany, Italy, and Spain. Sherries and Ports, as well as some sweet wines, such as Tokaji from Hungary, might be included, but the rest of Europe was terra incognita for the fine-wine enthusiast. Wines from the rest of the world—the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand—were regarded as below fine wine, even (perhaps especially) in their own markets. One exception was Constantia, a sweet wine from South Africa that was often compared to a fine Sauternes and was highly prized in Europe in the 1800s.
In the second half of the 20th century, individual wines from the New World began to make their mark. One of the first was Penfolds Grange (called Grange Hermitage until 1989), which was produced from the 1950s. Now, many New World wines are included in fine-wine lists, even if these are still dominated
by France. California easily leads the New World in this respect, and a key event in the recognition of California wines was the 1976 tasting in Paris, at which wines from California were judged better than some of the most prestigious wines of France. It was a one-off comparative tasting that might well have dropped out of sight, but the publicity it engendered gave it immense significance. It seemed to be recognition that fine wine could be made outside Europe and that New World wine was not destined solely to fill supermarket shelves and the bins on wine merchants’ floors.
This tasting gave impetus to a sea change in attitudes toward wine not only from California, but from the New World: It was no longer regarded as a mass of common
wine from which might emerge (as much on the basis of probability as from grape-growing and winemaking skills)the occasional fine example. Instead, and without at all understating the premier status still accorded to European (and particularly French) wines, we see the growth of a geographically more inclusive perspective on fine wines. Indeed, since effectively appellation rules prevent European producers from expanding production, non-European wines were needed to meet growing demand for fine wine.
Although New World producers first adopted European appellations for their wines (even though “Burgundies” were seldom made from Pinot Noir), they later employed varietal names, and soon world markets were awash with Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Shiraz from Australia, and Cabernet from California. For their fine wines, however, many New World producers adopted brand names, as Penfolds did with Grange and the Chadwick/Rothschild partnership did with Seña.
The spread of fine wine
The arrival of fine wines from the New World led to a dramatic widening of the world’s fine-wine inventory, particularly after the expansion of wine production and a wine culture in the 1990s. Although per capita wine consumption has grown steadily, there has been a massive (though difficult to quantify) growth in interest in wine in general, and in fine wine in particular. The evidence lies in the expansion of the wine media, wine culture, and the many opportunities to sample fine wines at public wine tastings.
Along with the geographical broadening of the provenance of fine wines went a similar expansion of the market for fine wine. Two shifts were involved here. One was the emergence of new wealthy elites in Eastern Europe and in Asia, mainly as a result of social changes that followed political transformations in Russia and China and the emergence of strong economies in other parts of Asia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a prosperous stratum emerged and began to show its status through conspicuous consumption. Fine wine was among the goods consumed. The same effect could be seen in East Asia, where fine wines, especially classed growths from Bordeaux, found a prosperous and new market.
The growing market for fine wine (often accompanied by rising prices) was soon followed by a counterfeiting industry, and over the past two or three decades there has been growing concern over wine fraud. Some estimates are that counterfeits account for up to 5 percent of fine wines sold. Fraud, of course, takes many forms, some more evident than others, some more egregious than others.
One might see the labeling of non-Champagne sparkling wines as “Champagne”—a common practice until quite recently—as a form of fraud. But with few exceptions, there was no intent to pass off a bottle of sparkling wine as genuine Champagne, because the label clearly showed it as a product of Australia, Spain, or elsewhere.
The counterfeiting of fine wine is quite different, in that it is an attempt—no different from counterfeiting fine art—to portray a product as the real thing. Fine wines that have been counterfeited in this way include the world’s most famous, of course, because they would sell for the highest prices: Bordeaux first growths, Penfolds Grange, icon wines from California, Canadian icewines, and Super-Tuscans. In all of these cases, the counterfeiting involves both the label and (of course) the wine, and some producers have resorted to embedding security measures in the labels and the bottles.
Thous shalt not drink
The broad changes in the marketing of fine wine during the 20th century—such as the rise of the appellation system and the emergence of the New World—took place over a period when there were significant cultural and political shifts. The temperance movement that had made headway during the 19th century led to various forms of prohibition in many countries in the first half of the 1900s. The American Prohibition (1920–33) is by far the best-known example, and it effectively wiped out California’s wine industry while it was in force. Prohibition of various sorts was adopted as far apart as Scandinavia, Australasia, and Canada, and when it was removed (generally in the 1920s and 1930s), many countries and smaller jurisdictions regulated the sale of wine (and other alcohol) more tightly than they had previously.
The reasons for regulation had to do with issues of public morality and order and concern at what was known as alcoholism. To those concerns were added policies in respect of drinking and driving and the general effects of alcohol on health. From the 1990s and the discovery of “the French Paradox,” the recognition of the potential health benefits of moderate wine consumption countered some of these concerns, but we would have to conclude that, during the 20th century, wine was marketed in a cultural environment that was anxious at best, when it came to alcohol consumption, and hostile at worst. Historically, there have always been concerns at the effects of alcohol on society and individuals, but they were more pervasive and took greater regulatory form during the 1900s.
Finally, the economic ups and downs of the century affected the fine-wine market. Two world wars had their effects on fine wine. In the first, wines from prestigious producers were blended with ordinary wines from Languedoc to provide rations for French troops. (It is unlikely that going “over the top” after a ration of St-Emilion was any different from doing so with half a liter of red from somewhere near Béziers.) The Russian Revolution of 1917 all but put an end to a profitable Champagne market until the end of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. In World War II, many of the great regions of France were occupied by the German army, and whole cellars were stolen. The periodic booms and busts of the global economy can dramatically affect sales of fine wines, as the most recent recession has demonstrated.
Yet, over the long term, which this series has surveyed, the fine-wine market has not only survived but has prospered and expanded. Fine wine has been transformed as wine in general has changed, thanks to important innovations in technology and winemaking practices. It has also taken on different cultural and social meanings, drawn from specific historical contexts. And the marketing of fine wine, whether in Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, or the present time, reflects all of these changes. Fine wine is embedded in its time and must be understood and appreciated that way, as well as for the sensory delight it gives.
This article originally appeared in Issue 27, 2010 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous.
It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Neil Beckett. Find out more at the magazine website: www.finewinemag.com
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