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mercredi, 24 septembre 2014

WINE UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

WINE SEEN FROM VARIOUS ANGLES


Claude Gilois

         

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Wine is the most healthy and hygienic drink (Louis Pasteur). It is wrong to condemn wine because a few drink it to excess (Montaigne).

 

Wine: a natural and nutritional drink

 

The concept of wine as a nutritional drink may seem to be from another age, but today it still has its aficionados and prevailed   for about a century (1760-1860).You can probably trace this concept back as far as the Middle Ages when towns grew bigger and the quality of the water started to deteriorate.   Europe, which had vines, resorted to ferment grapes as a substitute for water, while Asia, which had tea, used boiling.  It is only in 1760 that Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur for his advice on how to improve the quality of wine that Pasteur understood alcoholic fermentation, which transforms must into wine with natural yeasts.From then on, wine was defined as a drink resulting from partial or total alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or from must, under the influence of microscopic organisms called yeasts that profiler naturally. The degree of alcohol had to be at least 8.5%, but exceptionally it could be as low as 7.5% and retain the title of wine. It is, therefore, easy to understand Pasteur’s enthusiasm for such a product that provided natural, nutritional and medicinal qualities especially in view of the fact that the public health concept was not even born at that time.    

 

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Wine: a tempered drink

 

Several factors contributed to the transformation of wine as a natural product to a tempered one. Firstly, the law of 17th July 1980 under the French Third Republic which facilitated the opening of premises for the sale and consumption of drinks, in particular in the working areas of Paris. At that time, there were three licensed premises per five dwellings in Paris and wine was the main drink, but disease of the vine restricted its availability. Odium struck first around 1850, followed by phylloxera that destroyed most French vineyards. Wine was then gathered from various areas and countries and assembled, which prompted Leo de Bernard, a columnist from the French newspaper Le Monde, to describe these wines as ‘Bordeaux made in Bercy’[1].  Blending took place with wines imported from Morocco, Spain and Algeria. It was only when grafting onto American rootstock was discovered that the production returned to normal in the early 20th century, but it did not stop the fraud, wine tempering continued, resulting in an excess availability to the market. 

The First World War was used to resorb excess production. The association of the Languedoc producers donated 200,000 hectolitres of wine to the army.  The ‘poilus’[2] were initially allowed a quarter of a bottle, then their allocation went up to half a bottle and eventually to a bottle. They may not gone to fight happily, but at least they probably fought with less fear. 

Wine consumption continued to grow in France reaching its peak in 1930, but the wine business continued to face crisis due to excess availability and dwindling prices. The INAO[3] was created in 1935 to put some order in to the wine industry. To belong to this body, a wine had to have characteristics inherited from natural and human factors. The concept, the location and man’s work on the location to enhance the quality of the product introduced the concept of terroir, as we know it today. 

Wine consumption only started to decrease in France in 1940 with the Second World War, but France still remained the main consumer of wine in the world per capita with 29,million of hectolitres  consumed in 2010 against 60 million in 1950.

 

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Wine: a manipulated drink.

 

Neither I nor anyone who has drunk with me has at any point felt embarrassed by our excess. At the ‘table of life’, we sat down, good hosts, without thinking for one second that those who would come after us would not replace what we were drinking with such prodigality. In a drunkard’s memory, we would never have imagined that we would see drinks disappear from the world before the drinkers[4].

 

 

The date of the creation of the INAO corresponds to the birth of the agro-chemical industry, which really took off after the Second World War. While France and other viticultural countries in Europe were looking for a legislative framework to put an end to the sale of tempered wine, the development of this new industry allowed the transformation of a tempered product into a highly manipulated drink. It was the New World, which led the charge with the invention of industrial wines. Gone with it the philosophy and concept of terroir that took decades to evolve in Europe before being translated into law. Some major players complained that France missed the boat in securing its share of wines being manufactured in this way. How could it have been otherwise?  France had engaged itself in policies that were in total opposition to industrial wine. However, neither France nor Europe escaped the invasion of the agro-chemical industry in its vineyards and wineries. At first, they could only see advantages in using products from the agrochemical business, which reduced the work both in the vineyards and the wineries. With such a high dose of chemicals on the vines, fermentation with endogenous yeasts became difficult and often resulted in stuck fermentation, but the industry had the answer with cultured and aromatic yeasts and often the wine lacked flavours and substance, it had to be given a little lift… chaptalisation, acidification, de-acidification (sometimes on the same wine), flavour enhancers, adjuvants, colouring substances, tannins, oak chips, casein, bentonite etc.  The list of products is far from exhaustive… 

At every stage in the winemaking process, it was possible to add something. Wine became the most manipulated drink in the world; Coca Cola was a ‘biological’ drink in comparison.

 

Wine: a branded drink

 

As a toolkit was now available in the vineyards and wineries, marketers started dreaming of a wine world where there would be no variation that could not be corrected, and wine could be manufactured and sold like any industrial product, available all year round, they used manufacturing techniques to achieve this. They set the price first and then worked backwards to decide what could enter into the composition of the wine. The common prices found on supermarket shelves (3.99, 4.99, 5.99) is a perfect example of this philosophy. Masters of Wine were employed to improve processes. It is probably Australia that pushed this concept to its limits with wine very often referred to as varietal or technological wine, not without some success as the sale of Australian wines overtook that of French wines in the early 2000s in the UK.  

Brands such as Jacob’s Creek, Nottage Hill and Yellow Tail became well known. In some countries this philosophy of wine making probably reached the upper echelon of wine production. 

 

Wine: a cult and financial product

 

For a long time, the sales prices were correlated to their cost price after the domains applied their margins. The higher the quality, of course, the higher the price, but the margin remained within acceptable boundaries.  The best wine remained affordable for a passionate ready to break open the piggy bank from time to time to get to the nirvana of wine. Today, these wines are beyond the means of these passionate people who are probably most able to appreciate them to their full value. The cost price of a top wine has been estimated at between 10-15 Euros a bottle while the selling price for a first growth Bordeaux ranges from 200 Euros for an average year such as 2007, and 600 Euros for a great year like 2009. Top wine estates in Bordeaux show a yearly return on investment of around 80%, which in any business is phenomenal. For a while, the intermediaries pocketed a large chunk of the profit before the domains decided to claw back the best part of the margin. With this financial godsend domains, with the help of some of the best architects, are building estates that are verging on works of art. Welcome to the age of ‘bling’ wines.   

 

However, there are relatively few cult and highly speculative wines, no more than 50 to a 100 in the world, which leaves a lot of wines for professionals to sell and for amateurs to enjoy.   But who drinks these wines? Probably, very few people. They are mostly stored in fine restaurants to embellish their wine list, they are stored in private cellars often by collectors rather than drinkers, and, of course, they are bought by investment and pension funds. Welcome to the age of wine as an investment commodity.

 

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Wine: a cultural product

 

The age of the vineyards, the know-how of the ‘vigneron’, the place of wine in religious, social, cultural, gastronomic and touristic customs would argue favourably in the direction of wine being classified as cultural.  Spain and Argentina have declared their vineyards and vines as national treasures. However, in France, this request has little chance to succeed as it has a long history of excessive consumption, which created a major public health problem during the whole of the 19th century and in the first part of the 20th.

 

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[1] Area of Paris, which spread on 42 hectares and was used exclusively for wine storage.

[2] Name of the French soldiers in the First World War.

[3]  Institut National des Appellations d’Origine. The current French regulatory body of the French wine industry.

[4] [4] Guy Debord. Panégyrique I. 1989. Edition Gerard Lebovici.  Réédité  Dans: Guy Debord: Œuvres aux  éditions  Quarto Gallimard.2006. ISBN: 2 9 78202070 773749.

 

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