Tradition & Regulation is Giving Way to Innovation and Imagination as the Classic European Wine Regions Up Their Game
As cited in an earlier Wine Geek Speaks missive, for the better part of the 20th century, if one wanted ‘good’ wine, that meant buying imported wine—usually from France, Italy or Germany. Then in the last quarter of the century California reared its head, and the pendulum swung quickly & firmly in that direction. Today, as America’s wine drinkers become ever more savvy and curious about wine, and as European vintners are pushing the envelope, our collective gaze is looking to northern Europe once again.
Wines from the ‘Old World’ (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria primarily) have always been the standard: the wines which the other wine producing countries measure themselves against. And though the range of quality for any of these classic zones can be vast, the classic wines have always been fairly dependable and predictable…until recently.
First, the whole ‘Mondovino’* thing from the 80’s and 90’s—when all the wine world was listing towards producing Cabernet, Chardonnay & Merlot (usually with a dollop of new oak)—fizzled out. It was (happily) replaced with some vintners’ recommitment to autochthonous, or heirloom varieties. These vintners realized that the uniqueness of their region and in many cases their unique, local cultivar was their raison d’etre; they weren’t going to be able to take on Yellow Tail, et al in making serviceable—and cheap—Chardonnay. But a Carricante grown at 3,000 feet above sea level? Only Mt. Etna can offer that. All this at the same time that the stranglehold that Cabernet and Chardonnay had on restaurants in America is fading—we have numerous restaurants in Michigan that don’t even carry Chardonnay or Cabernet!
Next in this sea change is the growing body of knowledge and understanding of winemaking and viticulture among vintners all over the world. In the past, if one were born into a winemaking family in say Auxey-Duresses (that’s in Burgundy), their entire ‘education’ was what they learned from their father or grandfather, or possibly from a nearby neighbor (who likely learned from their parent or grandparent). Now there are not only numerous modern winemaking schools sprinkled throughout the classic regions, but a large number of the current generation of winemakers (Gen-Xer’s and Millennials) visit and work at wineries in other regions, allowing them to be exposed to processes and techniques grandpa had never dreamed of. Indeed, many young vintners today work two crushes a year: one in the Northern Hemisphere (when harvest is usually September/October) and in the Southern Hemisphere (March/April). Talk about expanding one’s horizons!
Additionally, though by no means are these European nations (nor the E.U.) dispensing with the regulations governing regions and production rules, there are more frequent liberal interpretations of the rules, as well as a relaxing of the prohibition of making ‘non-compliant’ wines (think of all the ‘orange’ wines from Friuli for example, or the growing number of vintners using amphorae; this would have been verboten 20 years ago).
And then there is the subject of price/value. Though undeniably, the cost of premier vineyards in zones such as Grand Cru Burgundy, Pomerol, or Bolgheri sell for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars per hectare when they come up for sale, vineyards in the less vaunted appellations sell for considerably less—and less than vineyard land in California in many cases. Actually, many, many domains farm land that has been passed down for five, ten, or even twenty generations—land that has long since been bought and paid for. Point being the overhead at some properties in Europe is relatively low, so they can frequently sell quality wines, with unique personality and pedigree for less than their American counterparts.
Get out of your comfort zone—try some wines from the Eurozone!
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‘* Mondovino was a movie/series made about the ‘industrialization’ of wine in the early 2000’s…lots of sacred cows get gored