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lundi, 26 janvier 2015

WINE OF TOMORROW

TOMORROW: WHICH WINE?



 

Claude Gilois 

 

Not easy when you cannot read in tealeaves or a crystal ball, as predicting the future is a delicate and somewhat unpredictable exercise.   But, as always, only the past can cast a light on the future, and the present can help you steer the forecasting in the right direction.

 

 

 

The return of wine as a food beverage?

 

 

For Roland Barthes, one of the most eminent French semiologists from the first part of the 20th century, wine in France had reached the status of a totem drink.  However, wine and also milk (the other totem drink for Barthes) have now lost their status as totem for public health reasons.

 

Wine consumption has been declining at an alarming rate in France over the last 30 years and it is unlikely that it will regain its status as a totem drink and as a food beverage. It is neither desirable as wine was primarily responsible for 150 years of chronic alcoholism in the most fragile and indigent fraction of the population.  France had one bar for 80 habitants compared to 250 in Germany, 430 in the UK, and 3000 in Sweden.  France consumed twice as much pure alcohol as Italy, four times more than the UK and six times more than Germany.

 

Between 1950 and 1965, the French were seventy times more likely to die from an alcohol related disease than a UK citizen according to the British Alcohol Institute. So, for those who complain about some recent laws limiting the advertising of alcohol, let these few statistics be a salutary reminder.  Laws were passed in the 1980s  (Loi Evin), but they only restricted advertising of alcohol and tobacco, they are not the main cause of the decline of wine consumption in France. There is a similar decrease in all major wine producing countries including Spain, which has raised the status of vine and vineyards to a national heritage. 

 

From 1987 to 2003, wine consumption in France fell from 46,6 to 28 litres per year and per capita.  At the beginning of 2007, it was 24,9 litres/year/capita.   The French authorities have not attempted to raise taxation, which is very low on wine (0.039 €  per bottle compared to 2.26 € in the UK).

 

If wine appears to have some superiority over other alcoholic drinks as it contains a high proportion of antioxidants useful to reduce oxidative stress and eliminate the free radicals known to be responsible for important diseases such as cancer, it has nevertheless the same intoxicating capacity as any other alcoholic beverage with an equivalent content of pure alcohol.   Convincing the authorities that wine should be given a preferential status over all alcoholic drinks on the basis of a few scientific studies (which in any case will be disputed by the opposite side) is not going to be an easy ride when wine has been the main cause of chronic alcoholism for 150 years, and that France remains the biggest consumer in the world with 44 litres/year/capita.

However, this conception of wine remains very much alive among seniors and in wine producing areas.

 

Could we see vines and wine disappear?

 

The current viticultural diversity results essentially from genetic mutations. It only needs one mutation to change the colour of a grape variety. It is known today with genetic sequencing that the great majority of grape varieties are very closely related. The lack of crossing (cross-breeding) different plants has resulted in an impoverishment of its genetic material. The vine is probably the most fragile plant of all plants domesticated by mankind.  It has succumbed to several episodes of major diseases, in particular the phylloxera from 1870, which resulted in further impoverishment of its genetic material to the point where there is no propagation of plants resulting from crossbreeding anymore.  The increased use of clones rather than massal selection is an additional factor of the weakness of the plant. Some diseases today are so critical that there is no alternative but to replant the grape. Dead Arm, Eutypiose and Esca are examples of major diseases threatening the vineyard today.

 

 

Climatic changes: A threat for vines and the quality of the wine?

 

Two aspects of climatic changes appear to be able to cause major problems. Firstly, the displacement of fauna and flora to more appropriate latitudes, which is likely to bring other diseases to an already weakened plant.   This process is currently ongoing and will amplify in the years to come.

 

The other better known aspect is modification of the organoleptic characteristics of the vine.  Grape varieties can only be grown within a narrow spectrum of temperatures of about 2oC, outside this range grapes lose some of their aromatic definitions. This is what happened in Piedmont and Tuscany in 2009 where the Nebiolo and the Sangiovese, which are delicate grape varieties, lost a lot of their flavors and much of their typicity. There are ways of handling this situation without replanting Burgundy  and Bordeaux with Rhone varietals. Canopy management is the major way of keeping the grape sheltered from excessive heat. The New World vineyards make extensive use of this technique to great effect and some Australian domains have succeeded in lowering  the alcohol content of their wines by as much as 2o despite a context of dramatic heat increase and a drought that lasted 10 years. However, climatic changes are not uniform from year to year and in countries where vineyard practices and pruning go back for centuries, it is very difficult to adjust the canopy as a matter of urgency especially with meteorological forecasting that is unpredictable over 7 days.

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The best terroirs and the best producers are likely to absorb the climatic changes with more ease and they may even, at times, turn these threats into opportunities.

 

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Industrial, terroir, cult or natural wine: Which model for tomorrow?

 

Industrial wine:

 

Probably a multi-tiered wine production and distribution that will be witnessed in years to come. As for the agri-food business, it is the productivist model that will be the dominant force in wine in the future. With this model, the wine is mass-produced and mass-marketed in the same way as any other product from the agri-business. Wine is rectified with all sorts of flavors enhancers, not without a certain amount of talent, usually to compensate for the poor quality of the primary material. Viticulture and vinification are standardised to the extreme and wine can be tailored in a different way according to its market destination (less tannins for the Chinese, more wood for the Americans). As a general rule, the bigger the domain, the more standardisation and greater manipulation. 75% of wine consumed today belongs to this category and will continue to be the dominant model and distributed essentially via supermarkets, but a change in paradigm towards less manipulated wines is beginning to emerge and is gathering momentum since the beginning of the new millennium. 

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Wine from organic farming and organic wine.

 

Wine produced from organic farming is increasing rapidly. Some of the best domains are now farming in this way or biodynamically and they provide the incentive for others to follow. It is a shame that the top domains of Bordeaux are very slow to follow this path, but there are explanations that we will discuss later. Organic farming is by far the least polluting way of farming today, in particular grapes, as maximizing the yield is not the most important factor.   We should see an important development of this farming in the years to come, despite important lobbying for the agri-food business and reservations from the food and wine institutes about these farming practices. As we know, organic farming does not necessarily give a passport for quality.

 

 

Terroir and traditional wines derived from acquired knowledge: a cultural concept

 

Terroirs for grape growing are on the whole well identified in Europe and in some regions (Burgundy, Piedmont) the degree of matching soil, climate and grape varieties is astonishing. But, in the 19th and first part of the 20th century, viticulture has extended well over terroirs that were the most suitable for grape growing. As consumption is decreasing in Europe and will continue to decrease,  as well as consumers desire to drink better wine, some of the vineyards on lesser terroirs will disappear. Others will continue to be discovered, mostly in the New World but also in Europe (Eastern Europe), and also in France albeit on a more limited scale. Only Champagne in France appears to be determined to increase the size of its vineyards on terroirs that, if they do not have vines already, probably never deserved to have them. Champagne may be mythical and its bubbles synonymous of joy and happiness, the concept of ‘national bubbles’ is appearing quite fast in some countries with climatic conditions well suited for the production of sparkling wine. New Zealand, Tasmania and even England are showing some very good results. It is worth noting that Champagne sales have been falling over the last few years.

 

Californian winemakers have the tendency to describe their wines as one-third terroir (climate-soil), one-third grape variety and one-third human intervention. But, over time, in some regions, the know-how has become the major component in the production of fine wines and some wines produced today have a large human footprint. Wine from Jerez, Montilla Moriles, are among these even though some dry wines are produced on albarizo soil (mix of limestone and clay). The Amarone Della Valpolicella necessitates the drying of grapes and the Venetia region  is not known as one of the great terroirs of Italy and the know-how predominates, likewise, Madeira, Marsala and even Porto could fall into this classification.

 

It is the terroirs and the know-how that need to be defended as they are unique, have a cultural dimension and their history is very often ancient and of high historical richness.

Some people argue that it is an elitist conception of wine, this may be true, but it is difficult to understand how a fine wine can be appreciated to the full without knowing the geographical and historical context in which it has been made. There is a far more elitist conception of the wine, which considers that fine wine can only be made from the so-called international varieties on a handful of terroirs.

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Cult wine and investment wine

 

Traditionally, this status was obtained mainly on the quality of the wine. More recently, it takes a lot of time and investment to obtain a cult status,  an example being the Rothschild’s long fight to have Mouton upgraded to a first growth. A stratospheric score from Parker puts a wine and a domain into orbit, but this is not sufficient. It is now necessary to confer the wine and the domain a status of luxury products. Luxury groups, whose main objective is to confer a cult status to their wines and domains, to remove any correlation between the cost price and the selling price, own an increasing number of top domains.  The quality of the wine and the domain is less important than the perception that the new oligarchy has on them.  The perception has overcome reality. Any device can be used to get to a cult status, from the transformation of the winery into  a work of art, to installing a chime playing national anthem (Angelus) the latter being borderline on caricature. 

 

Cult wine, of course, will come from the best terroirs, but the luxury business is based on scarcity and high price and we will not see a marked increase of these wines, but a marked increase of their price if the number of millionaires in the world increases, which is highly probable.  Financial investors, who have ventured into this field are not on their usual ground and will stick with the starred wines, preferring on the whole the investment products proposed by financial markets for which they have a better understanding. The great majority of real connoisseurs will have to pass on these wines unless the Coravin system takes off. There is no point being green with envy, there is plenty of fine wine to treat a budding cirrhosis.

 

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Natural wines: a necessary market …    but not for everybody

 

Natural wines are today a specialist market very well organised especially in Paris, there are just as many aficionados as critics.  Developed in the first instance in reaction to the invasion of the agro-chemical industry, it has managed to impose itself as a new category in the world of wine.  Natural wine has a connotation that smells strongly of sulfur, a substance that it is difficult not to use in winemaking without obtaining aromatic deviations and for which no other product has yet been found that has the same efficacy. It is worth pointing out that sulfur is allowed in making natural wines.

 

The Food and Drug administration has estimated that 1% of the American population is allergic to sulfur (more than 3 million people) and among the 5% of the population that are asthmatic (10% of the American population are asthmatic), the reaction to sulfur can  be life-threatening or even fatal. Patients treated with corticosteroids or suffering from an enzyme deficiency (G6PD) are also at risk. This is why every bottle of wine is labeled: “contains sulfides’’. It is therefore not a minor health problem as some people think and it totally justifies the existence of such a market although the great majority of people drinking these wines do so for other reasons than health problems and some of these wines are sometimes barely drinkable. We should see an increase of this market as winemakers get more expertise in elaborating these wines and eliminate some elementary defects.

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Oenologists:  Half angels -  half demons … Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 

When oenologists work for the industrial wines then the worst can be expected and all sorts of manipulation will take place. There are the principal artisans of the emergence of industrial wines and their standardisation, which dominate the market today. However, the best contribute not only winemaking, but also to viticulture. From Emile Penaud to Jean Claude Berrouet, from Michel Rolland to Stéphane Derenoncourt, the list of renowned oenologists is long. The less competent, like poor wine, do not leave much trace, the others can reach iconic status.

 

 

The top oenologist laboratories have panoply of equipment worthy of the best laboratories measuring human biological parameters. They should provide the best possible data to the prescriber to treat the subject in the best possible way.

 

One question remains… to what extent have technology and new chemical products permeated the world of fine wine as they did with molecular cooking in gastronomy  with the success that we know. 

 

 

American and European tastes: Traditional wines versus modern wines. Wrong debates?

 

This is a recurrent debate in wine literature especially in France. If there is a European taste and an American taste it is far from being proven. Comparative tastings done by the ‘Grand Jury European’ from Francois Mauss have not lead to conclusive results. In any case should one be privileged over the other because we are on one side or the other of the Atlantic? There are even people who argue that there are two schools of wine, one represented by Robert Parker and Michel Rolland and the other one by Michel Bettane and Olivier Poussier, I am not sure that they would agree with this.

 

As far as the traditional versus modern wine debate… it leaves me just as cold. I have never been able to decide whether I prefer an Amarone from Quintarelli or an Amarone from Dal Forno, likewise a Brunello from Siro Pacenti or one from Cupano.  However, it proves one thin; it is not necessarily to invest in the most up to date technology to make great wines.

 

 

 

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