European structure versus New World freedom (passing off a class assignment as a blog post)

1 May

I am taking the Diploma class from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.  I just passed Unit 2 and am now taking Unit 1 online.  I know that taking Unit 2 before Unit 1 makes no sense.  That’s the system though.  Anyway, I just took a practice test for Unit 1, but I managed to be late with it, so I can’t get a test grade.  It doesn’t matter to my final score, but the input would have been helpful.  I figured I would post this here & see if I can get any input.  It also helps me get a post out here without writing anything else.

This is an essay question.  I wasn’t allowed to use any notes and I had 75 minutes to answer it.  I’m sure I could have written something better with reference to notes, but this is what I could knock out in 75 minutes with no notes.

Here was the question

  1. Why was Europe’s quality wine system created, and what aspects of wine production does it regulate? (25% weighting)
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the quality wine system from the point of view of the producer and consumer? (25% weighting)
  3. Why has the new world had success with the varietal approach? (25% weighting)
  4. What can tomorrow’s wine industry learn from these contrasting new and old world approaches, and use going forward? (25% weighting)

Here’s my answer

European structure versus New World freedom

Although it oversimplifies a more complex issue, it is generally fair to say that European wine making is determined by quality wine regulations while New World wine making is not.  There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach.

In many wine producing areas of Europe, the location of the vineyard determines the grape varietal or varietals.  It may also control the percentages of those varietals in the bottle.  Beyond that, the classification systems in certain areas such as Burgundy and Bordeaux ultimately dictate the final price of the wine.  In most of the New World, the grower is free to plant whatever grape that they feel will grow well and will be saleable either as a direct producer of wine or as a crop to be sold to a winery.  The winery itself has the freedom to make whatever wine they feel will taste and sell the best.  They are also able to age the wine the amount of time that they desire, rather than depending on iron clad rules such as those governing the release of reserve wines such as Brunello.

Although we tend to look at the current European quality wine system as something scientifically created and based on empirical data, that is not really the case.  Despite some real work to match the best grape to the site, (especially the work done by the Cistercian monks) the current system is a hodgepodge of quirks masquerading as wine truths.  In 1395 Philip the Bold dictated that the Gamay grape should no longer be planted in Burgundy and the Pinot Noir grape should be the red grape planted.  He said that the Gamay was a “disloyal” grape.  This is probably the first step towards the European quality system. The most famous classification system of course is the 1855 Bordeaux classification.  In this case, Napoleon wanted a classification of the best Bordeaux wines.  The list that was submitted was pretty good for its time, especially in the Medoc.  Unfortunately there were a number of wineries left off the classification.  Even worse was that the 1855 classification ossified and has only been slightly updated over the last 159 years.  Wineries like Chateau Petrus were not part of the classification and wineries which have changed hands and expanded their vineyards have the same rating as they did 159 years ago.  This would be somewhat analogous to picking the best automobile manufacturers in the 1920’s and then basing everything about producing and selling automobiles on how those cars were produced.  There are certainly some things about an old Packard that I admire more than my Toyota Prius, but it would be absurd to argue that since Toyota didn’t exist in 1929 that you should run out and buy a Packard today. Over the years the various wine regions adopted their own systems of Crus or other quality control system.  The various local regulations have generally been adopted with few changes into the European Union wine regulations.  Key changes in that system occurred in 1978, 1999, and most recently in 2008.  Much of the thrust of those laws has been to reduce the “wine lake” in Europe.

The current European system regulates where you can plant vineyards.  In many regions it dictates what grapes can be used (Bordeaux and Burgundy for instance).  The division of the EU into growing regions dictates whether sugar or acid can be added to the must.   Alcohol percentages are also regulated based on those growing regions.  Percentages of various substances like iron, copper, sulfur dioxide, and total acidity are regulated.   In some areas, harvest times are still regulated and in a few areas mechanization of harvest is forbidden.  Irrigation can be allowed or not allowed depending on the regulations.  The maturation and handling of the wines can be dictated as well.  This is not true in all regions.  The Languedoc has much more freedom than Bordeaux for example.  Labeling is also regulated.  The most important aspect of labeling is the Cru or Classified Growth system.  A Grand Cru wine is always a Grand Cru wine and a Premier Cru wine is always a Premier Cru no matter which wine is actually the best in a given year.

For some consumers the quality system makes wine buying easier.  If they want to buy a Southern Rhone wine, they feel comfortable believing that a Cotes du Rhone Villages will be better than a standard Cotes du Rhone.  They would be willing to spend more money on a Cotes du Rhone Villages Laudun than on a Villages without an AOC name.  They would also expect that a Châteauneuf du Pape would be a superior wine to the others I have mentioned.  These consumers can navigate the system so that even if it is a producer with which they are not familiar, they should have a sense of the quality and even the style of the wine.

For producers, the system can be good because it reduces the number of decisions that a grower or a winery must navigate.  It also helps to regulate income.  Wineries with a certain designation can generally count on steady income.  That allows for planning over generations rather than over seasons.

The first problem with that system is that it is too complex for the average wine drinker to memorize.  A relatively new wine drinker might know that they enjoy a slightly sweet Riesling, but they probably have no idea how to read a German wine label.  They might buy an American or Australian wine labeled as a “Sweet Riesling” rather than trying to figure out if you were supposed to store a Kabinett Riesling in a cabinet.  Wine drinkers who are willing to spend a lot of money on a wine might know that they like Syrah and know that it is also called Shiraz.  That doesn’t mean that they know that a Northern Rhone red is made from the grape they love.  They might buy a Penfold’s Grange without batting an eye, but be unwilling to try a Chave Hermitage because it is a high priced wine of unknown type to them.

The larger problem to me is that the systems can stifle innovation.  The original Super Tuscan wines like Tignanello had to be labeled as IGT wines because they did not qualify for any higher status under Italian law.  It took a lot of confidence (and money in the bank) to produce a superior wine that couldn’t be labeled as on par with the worst DOC Chianti of its time.  Most producers in Europe cannot make that leap of faith either because of lack of funds or regulatory prohibition.  There are times when the laws are treated with a wink and a nod.  There are certainly vineyards that use drip irrigation when they are not legally allowed to.  I have known Italian wine makers who added water to reduce alcohol content on highly ripe grapes.  Those types of things happen because they are hard to enforce.  However, many choices that New World wine makers make are simply not allowed to European wine makers.

There are other issues with the European system, but the final one I will mention is the static nature of the Classified Growth system and similar systems.  Obviously none of the wineries in the 1855 classification have the same wine maker today.  The French response to that is that the terroir is the same.   In most cases that is not true.  When a 2nd Growth purchases adjacent land that belongs to a 3rd Growth, that vineyard is now part of a 2nd Growth.  Its terroir has not changed.  The grapes it produces are not now automatically better.  Nevertheless, fruit from that vineyard is now worth more and wine produced from it can now be labeled as a 2nd Growth.   Only the most Bordeaux obsessed consumer might be capable of keeping up with these changes.   The terroir has also changed over the years due to changes in climate patterns.  As the Earth warms, the region that was designated as a Premier Cru vineyard for the production of Pinot Noir may become too hot to produce the best Pinot Noir.  In 50 years, should the consumer still be expected to pay more for a Grand Cru Burgundy than an English Chardonnay?  Probably, but you never know.  Perhaps the climate in England will be perfect & it will just be too hot in Burgundy.

The New World has generally taken what we think of as a newer approach to vine planting and labeling.  In truth, the experimentation that is going on in planting a variety of grapes in a single region to see what happens is ancient.  Pliny the Elder wrote about different vines being planted in different places.  The Cistercian monks kept careful records of what was planted where and how well it grew.  This process took hundreds of years.  It just seems like things have been the way that they are now forever.

Early American wines tended to take their names from successful European names, regardless of what was actually in the bottle.  We can still see that marketing in Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, which may be hearty, but certainly isn’t from Burgundy and definitely isn’t made with Pinot Noir.  Over the years, wine marketers found that labeling by varietal increased sales.  The consumer was willing to try a new brand or a new label as long as they recognized the grape.  It was easier to learn that you liked Chardonnay and didn’t like Sauvignon Blanc than it was to learn that you liked white Burgundy and didn’t like white Bordeaux.  It also made it easier for merchants to rack the wines.  Now you could push your shopping cart through the grocery store’s wine section and easily find what you wanted without learning to speak German or memorize regional wine styles.  There are a variety of reasons why the New World consumer is more comfortable with this approach.  I think that the biggest reason in the United States is because the U.S. does not have the several century long continuity of wine experience that Europeans possess.  In England it was customary for years to buy a pipe of Port for a new born male.  That was generally enough to last him for his life.  French children grew up drinking wine with dinner, and wine and grape growing was not a distant concept to them.  In the early United States, wine was difficult to produce due to climate issues.  Americans drank more beer and spirits than wine.  Even worse for a culture of wine knowledge, Prohibition snapped what little wine history the country had built.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that wine really began its climb to prominence in America.

While the American experience is not the only New World experience, it was formative.  The U.S, market has helped to shape the markets of New World producers such as Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand.

As the New World industry has matured and as the customers have matured with it, there has been a willingness to try more blends.  Building that base with varietal labeling was an essential part of preparing the consumer.  Many of the successful blends still state the varietals on the label.  That gives the consumer a comfort level.  If they know that they like Shiraz and they know that they like Cabernet Sauvignon, why not try that Australian Shiraz/Cabernet blend?  The varietals are the base of the pyramid of their wine knowledge.  As they learn what they like, they are able to be a little more adventurous without getting too far from their comfort zone.

In the future I believe that we will see some swapping of systems.  I doubt that the United States will ever adopt rigid controls on what grapes can be produced in what appellation.  I do think that certain grapes are becoming strongly associated with certain areas.  Casual consumers know that Napa makes great Cabernet Sauvignon and that Oregon makes fantastic Pinot Noir.  Those with more knowledge might expect to enjoy a Lodi Zinfandel or a Texas High Plains Roussanne.  Those associations will probably grow stronger as wine makers duplicate the Cistercian’s process of discovering the best grape for the area and as consumers demand more of a particular grape from a particular area.  There will be good and bad to that process.  Some less known areas will produce better, more appropriate wines and will make more money doing so.  Unfortunately there will be some grapes squeezed out of areas.  If everyone wants to buy Carneros Chardonnay, why would you grow Chenin Blanc there, even if you produced a nice Chenin Blanc?  I do believe that New World regions are still in a long process of understanding the terroir of their vineyards and I believe that there is much to learn from the European experience.

On the European side, I believe that more wineries will experiment with new production techniques and new production equipment as it is proven in the New World.  As New World wineries prove the effectiveness of newer techniques, it would be interesting to see how those techniques work in Europe.  I’m not advocating that all wine should be produced the same.  I think that there are ways in which Europe changed its wines too much in certain regions over the last 20 years.  There are some cases in Bordeaux where grapes were allowed to ripen probably too much because they wanted to make New World style wines and get higher points from Robert Parker.  There are also areas like Spain where wine makers have adopted New World practices like smaller barrels with less aging and occasionally using stainless steel.  That has meant that there are more clean and tasty Spanish wines than you would have found 20 years ago.  I expect that trend to continue.

New World wineries are beginning to adopt some Old World blending into their portfolios.  The success of the various Rhone Ranger wines shows how blending can be both financially and esthetically beneficial.  In American wine shops we are seeing more European wines labeled with varietal information.  There are white Burgundies that say that they are Chardonnay on the front label.  I have seen Rhone wines with varietal breakdowns on the back of the label…a label surely created exclusively for export.  There are a number of German wines that are produced with labels that could be from California.  I think those trends will continue on both sides of the Atlantic.

Finally, I hope that European governments will be open to changing the rules as wine regions experience climate change.  The worst case scenarios may never happen, but if current trends continue, mesoclimates that are marginal for a particular grape (which is often where the best wine is produced) may no longer be suitable for that grape and might be better suited for something else.  I know that New World producers will be able to make the adjustments.  I sincerely hope that European producers will be able to as well.

Differences in political structure and in history have shaped the approaches of Old and New World wine producers.  No one system has proven to be the best and there is something that each can learn from the other.

 

If you have read this whole thing, I sure would appreciate your thoughts.  To stick with my general theme, I have some football thoughts below.

The main thing that I am thinking about football right now is that moving the draft to May is annoying!  It means that the teams don’t get a better feel for their team until May.  It means that many of the free agents remaining on the market may have to wait until June to find their new home.  The biggest thing is that I am just sick of listening to the commentators talk about who is rising & who is falling & what might happen on draft day.  It is bad every year, but this year it is a month longer and a month worse.

My other thought about draft day is that if I were a player invited to the draft, I wouldn’t go unless I was certain to be in the first 5 draft picks.   There are around 31 players tentatively set to show up in New York to sit in the green room and come out to get a hug from Roger Goodell.  Some of those guys won’t be drafted the first day and the cameras will be focused on them squirming in their chairs.  Watching Brady Quinn or Aaron Rodgers, or Geno Smith fall in the draft was uncomfortable at home and I have to think it was much worse for them in New York.   Why not stay home & hang out with your friends and family?  After the draft you will have to go to work and won’t be able to spend time with them for a while.  If you want to go to New York later, you will be able to afford to do it in style.  If you just want to be on TV, remember that you will be on TV for 16 games or so a year if you do your job.  The potential downside is worse than the upside to me.

 

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