Wine Book Reviews: Vino, Économie, Le Guerre & Leonardo’s Vines

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Four wine books with intertnational twists for your reading consideration.

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Alessandro Torcoli, In Vino Veritas: Praticamente tutto quello che serve sapere (davvero) sul vino. Longanesi.

Billy Joel tells us that wine is a simple thing. A bottle of white? A bottle of red? Perhaps a bottle of Rosè instead? Alessandro Torcoli wants us to know that wine is actually complicated, but not so complex that we can’t enjoy it. And that’s a good thing.

Torcoli is editor of Civiltà del Bere, a leading Italian journal of wine and culture, and an aspiring Master of Wine (there are no Italians on the current list of MWs — incredible!).

I am not fluent in Italian (or French, either — see below), but wine is a universal language and that plus some extra effort allowed me to read and enjoy Torcoli’s new book, In Vino Veritas. My efforts were well rewarded.

In Vino Veritas, as the subtitle promises, provides the reader with “pretty much everything you need to know (really) about wine,” which is to say that it is a survey of the most important topics in wine. I might be wrong, but I imagine that the book came out of Torcoli’s MW studies and represents his thoughtful reflections on the world of wine. Two things especially impressed me about this book.
First, the writing style is so fluid that it is a pleasure to read even, as I noted above, when struggling a bit with translation. Some of this is no doubt because it is written in Italian, which is a beautiful language. But it is possible to write poorly in Italian, too, so most of the credit must go to Torcoli, who is a poet as well as wine expert.

Although Torcoli’s book has global reach, analyzing both old and new world wines, it is written for an Italian audience and so uses Italy and its wines as the reference point. I didn’t realize how important the shift in perspective (from France in many cases) would be and how much it would help me understand and appreciate both Italian wines and those from other places.

This is an enticing book with much to offer both novice and professional. Highly recommended.

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Jean-Marie Cardebat, Économie du vin. La Decouverte.

Jean-Marie Cardebat is a wine economist who teaches at the University of Bordeaux. Although my French is only a little better than my Italian, I found this book accessible because it draws on both the language of wine and the lexicon of economics.

Prof. Cardebat’s book is an introduction to the economic analysis of the wine industry and successfully straddles a certain kind of line, telling economists about wine and wine people about economics without leaving either group behind.

Because of this the book’s organization is very different from that of a standard wine guide. Forget about the typical arrangement based on grape varieties and wine regions. We start instead with the determinants of the supply of wine and move to demand, the market structure, and price, drawing on relevant data and published research along the way.

The tone becomes much more analytical in the final chapter, perhaps because this is where Cardebat’s own research is most relevant. Well written and clear with many fine passages (although understandably not as poetic as Torcoli’s essays). A worthy addition to your bookshelf. You might also consider James Thornton’s American Wine Economics, for an American perspective on the topic.

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>>><<<Attilio Scienza & Serena Imazio, Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories. Positive Press.

The third book on this list is provided in English translation of the original Italian, which is helpful since its topic can be dauntingly technical.

I have had the pleasure to be on programs with Prof. Scienza in both the New York and Italy and to appreciate that he is quite a legendary figure in viticulture research. It is easy to see why.

This book analyzes the origins of and the relations between many of the most important indigenous Italian grape varieties using DNA analysis. An important topic, to be sure, but it can be quite technical and somewhat tedious for the novice like me.

So it is significant that Scienza and Imazio interweave the stories of the vines with human stories, drawing upon history and archaeology to help understand how the vines and the wines developed and how they gave us the wines and grapes of today.

One of my favorite chapters explores the family tree of Moscato and Malvasia. Along the way we are introduced to Zibibbo, which the authors compare to a sailor who has a son in every port because this somewhat obscure grape was instrumental in the evolution of so many other wine grape varieties.

We also learn about Leonardo Da Vinci’s personal vineyard in Milan, which still exists and has been somewhat miraculously reconstructed. How do they know what grapes were grown then and are therefore planted again now? Elementary, dear reader. DNA analysis — plus some human detective work that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. We can say with confidence that Leonardo favored sweet wine. Sweet wine? Perhaps that is part of the secret of the Mona Lisa’s mystical smile.

Hard to resist a book with so many fascinating insights.

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Christophe Lucand, Hitler’s Vineyards:How the French Winemakers Collaborated with the Nazis. Pen & Sword History, 2019.

Originally published in French as Le vin et le guerre (Wine and War), the English translation’s title really grabs your attention. Hitler’s Vineyards? Hard not to pull it down from the shelf to learn more.

This isn’t the first book I’ve seen about wine and World War II. One of my favorite wine books of all time is Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. It tells the story of how French producers walked a delicate line, trying to preserve their wines and vines during the Nazi occupation. The Kladstrups are wonderful story-tellers, so this is a book that is hard to put down.

Lucand’s detailed historical analysis of wine during the Nazi Occupation of France is fascinating, too. Nazi forces purchased truly enormous quantities of French wine from all regions and of all qualities at prices well above the market and shipped it all back to Germany. The money to buy the wine came from the exorbinate fees that Germany charged the French government for the costs of occupation. So French money bought French wine for German drinkers.

Although I am sure the wine producers had mixed emotions about these transaction, the fact is that the high-priced sales were welcome since large stocks had built up in the pre-war years. And, Lucand tells us, the occupiers worked to improve vineyard operations in order to keep the wine flows going.

When the clouds of war finally cleared, Lucand explains, the French wine industry was transformed from an inward-looking business to an export-oriented giant. Fascinating. Detailed, well-written, and controversial, Lucand’s history of France and its wine during the Nazi Occupation is an unexpected treat.

Second Thoughts about the Wine Wizards of Oz

The Wizards of Oz” (see below) appeared on The Wine Economist a dozen years ago in  February 2008. It looked to Australia for insights about what might be ahead for the wine industry. I’d forgotten all about this old column until it started getting  “hits” recently, which caused to me give in another look.

The basic idea was that what’s happening in the global wine market sometimes happens in Australia first or most clearly. I think this might have been one inspiration for my book Extreme Wine, which argues that the best place to see the future of wine is at the edges, where change is happening fast, not in the more stable center.

Re-reading this column makes me think how quickly things change (Fosters?) and how much some things persist. Do you think the argument stands the test of time? I am not sure how far I would push it now and maybe I pushed it too far then, too, but the climate change and ecological limits analysis still seems timely.

Let me know what you think in the comments section below (or tell me in person if you are attending the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento). Here’s the 2008 column as it appeared then.

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The Wizards of Oz (February 19, 2008)

20_australian_wine_industry_segments.jpgWhen I think about the future of the global wine market, my thoughts frequently stray to Australia because that’s where I see so many current trends originating or being most effectively exploited.

Export driven marketing strategy? That’s Australia. Branded varietal wines? Everyone talks about Gallo and Constellation brands, but who has done it better than [Yellow Tail]? Foreign market penetration?  The Aussies again, replacing the French as the strongest competitor in the British market and a strong presence in the United States.

Australia even wins the prize for the most sophisticated national wine strategy. Click on the image above to see a representation of the latest Australia wine strategy, which divides the market into twenty (20!) key segments where Aussie wines can compete.

Australia’s Boom and Bust

No doubt about it, if you want to learn about wine economics and integrated wine business, you should look to Australia. But that doesn’t mean that all is well down under. As I have written in previous posts, Australia has experienced a roller-coaster of wine market problems. First it was the problem of over-supply, which pushed prices down to unsustainable levels. And then, just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse, they did and the early signs of wine shortages began to appear, which caused me to declare that the era of cheap wine was coming to an end. In each of these cases, trends that I see in many places now were first apparent in Oz. No wonder that I’m starting to view Australia as my leading indicator of global wine market trends.

This makes the news in Jancis Robinson’s column in Saturday’s Financial Times particularly sobering (not a good word for wine lovers). Robinson’s article suggests that Australia has hit ecological limits to the production of cheap wine. Water is scarce and expensive and this means that the cost (and therefore price) of bulk wines like [Yellow Tail] must rise — from A$0.40 in 2006 to A$1 in 2007 according to the article. That’s not quite a leap from unsustainable to unaffordable (the A$ is about 91 US cents today), but it presents a completely different business model. More to the point, however, the price rises exist because costs are high and the product is in short supply. Robinson is optimistic that Australian winemakers can compete and even thrive in the new market environment, but adjustment won’t be easy.

Robinson reports that Fosters has started sourcing some of its Lindeman’s brand from its vineyards in Chile (for the British market) and South Africa (in the U.S.). This continues the practice we have seen in the U.S. for some time for short-supply Pinot Noir. U.S. brands like Pepperwood Grove and Redwood Creek frequently contain Chilean and French wines respectively. Now, Robinson reports

There is much talk, though not much evidence, of basic bulk wine being imported into Australia from southern Europe, South Africa and South America to fill the so-called “casks” (boxed wine) and the cheapest bottles and flagons for the bottom end of the domestic market, prioritising export markets for such inexpensive Australian wine as the brand owners can afford. Australia has swung from famine to feast and back to famine in terms of its wine supply recently and bulk wine imports are nothing new. I remember encountering a director of one of Australia’s largest wine companies looking very shifty round the back of some fermentation vats at Concha y Toro outside Santiago de Chile in the mid-1990s.

Ecological Limits?

Now the problem here is not that the Australians are passing off foreign wines as their own. The wines I have seen have been clearly labeled and the few cases I know about where winemakers have tried to fool the public (some years ago in New Zealand, as I recall) ended badly for the dishonest producers. They were punished pretty severely in the marketplace when their tricks were revealed.

No, my concern goes more to the heart of the problem. Maybe Australia’s ecological constraints are a short term problem that will disappear. Maybe it is an Australian problem with no implications beyond the land of Oz. Maybe ready supply from Australia wannabe producers in South America, South Africa and Europe will always be there to fill the gap.

But that’s a lot of maybes and economists are trained to get nervous when it’s maybe this and maybe that. We know that the effect of climate change on the wine industry is real. And we know — or at least I think I know — that Australia has often been a good indicator of emerging trends in global wine. If this is the case, then we are indeed about to enter a new wine world, one where the natural constraints on wine production may be about to become as important as marketing strategies.

Wine Book Review: Back to the Future? Strong, Sweet & Dry

9781789141528Becky Sue Epstein, Strong, Sweet & Dry: A guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala. Reaktion Books, November 2019.

What do Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala wines have in common? They are all fortified wines (the “strong” part of the book title). You probably have bottles of several if not all of them stashed away somewhere in the back of the wine closet, although you might not have thought about them in a while.

And they are all delicious. Time you brought them out of the closet and onto the table where they belong! Becky Sue Epstein’s entertaining and informative new book is just the nudge you need to do it.

There are two themes that run through the chapters on the different wines. The first is a classic rise, fall, rise again arc. Each wine was once the object of intense interest and widespread celebration. Then, for reasons that are sometimes the same (phylloxera vine devastation) and sometimes unique to the particular situation, interest declined and production faded away.

Now, however, these wines are enjoying a bit of a renaissance.  Back to the future! Why now? Well, this leads to the second theme. As they declined, each of the wines was reduced to a stereotype (think stuffy Port and cigars or your grandmother’s sticky sweet sherry). Now, however, there is more interest in exploring the diversity of these wines and returning to their roots.

Controversially,  there is also a trend toward using these fortified wines as the base for cocktails. Wine cocktails? OMG. How could you do that to a nice wine? Yes, I know there are purists who turn their noses up at this idea, motivated perhaps by the fear that it is a slippery slope that leads all the way down to Vintage Port and Coca Cola. Shudder!

But Epstein embraces the idea, pointing out that fortified wine cocktails are part of the history of these wines. People made cocktails a hundred years ago using whatever products were available. And fortified wines were often more readily available than Gin or Vodka, for example.  No reason why such a drink can’t be tasty. And it is probably lower in alcohol than many spirits concoctions.

sandemanSogrape, the Portuguese producer of the Sandeman wines, has embraced the old/new trend. My 2016 column on Port wine developments noted that the Sandeman Tawny Ports were packaged into new bottles designed to look at home behind the bar. What do you think? The shape is more like a whisky bottle and very different from the traditional black Port bottle with its stenciled label.

Sue and I have a strong interest in fortified wines and have been fortunate to be able to sample many of them — including some unusual ones like Commandaria from Cyprus — at the source. But for some reason we’ve never explored Vermouth. Until now.

Epstein’s chapter on Vermouth convinced us we had to learn more. So now we are working our way through the local selection and look forward to adding this wine to our travel agenda list.

Becky Sue Epstein’s Strong, Sweet & Dry inspired us and I think it will inspire you to try something new that’s also something old. Highly recommended.

Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.

Snow’s Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had  divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.

Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve?  How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.

“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”

Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?

The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.

“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”

historyLife Among the Vinos

Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.

I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars.  I was inspired by Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in America. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist, and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Two Ideas of Wine

The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.

Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

The Trouble with Being King of the Hill

mappa-collio

For a long time Collio and its neighboring regions in Italy’s upper right-hand corner have been King of the Hill when it comes to Italian white wines. It started in the 1960s when Collio, which had long been known for its excellent hillside terroir, abolished the old share cropping system, which favored quantity over quality, and got a head start on many competitors in the adoption of modern temperature-controlled white wine fermentation practices.

Exceptional grapes were combined with winemaking techniques that preserved fruit and aromas. The results were some stunning mono-variety white wines — Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and native varieties, too — that established the region’s reputation.

The Trouble with Hills

As I noted last week, Sue and I have been coming to Collio since 2000 and the wines have gotten more and more interesting — strength built on strength. But the trouble with being King of the Hill is that you must constantly defend your position against determined competitors and this has been Collio’s challenge.

Collio’s distinctive terroir is impossible to copy, but other wine regions have worked hard to reel in Collio’s early lead in vineyard and cellar practices. Now there are excellent white wines from many regions of Italy north, south, east, and west. Some of the Vermentino di Gallura wines we tasted recently in Sardinia, for example, were absolutely world class.

And of course there are competitors from all over the world to be considered starting of course with New Zealand, which was only a fly speck on the world wine map back in the 1960s. There is a lot of competition today for the title of King of the White Wine Hill.

Grape Expectations

Collio’s challenge is ironically made more difficult today because of its focus on mono-variety wines. Pinot Grigio was easy to understand in the early days compared with wines identified by appellation. That was an advantage. But today there are Pinot Grigio (and Sauvignon and Chardonnay) wines from all over the world and the Collio brand is perhaps overshadowed in New World consumer minds, which often focus on grape variety more than region.

The focus on grape variety unexpectedly puts Collio in directly competition with New Zealand, California, Australia, France, and a host of other regions. The advantage of a hilltop position is diminished. The fact that Friulano, the region’s signature native wine grape, has been serially rebranded (Tocai, Tocai Friulano, Friulano) under orders from the intellectual property police hasn’t helped.

So Collio is facing increased competition from other parts of Italy and other parts of the world. There is also more competition within Friuli itself. We heard reports of massive new plantings out on the plains that threaten to flood the market with cheaper wines and drive down precious margins. They won’t be Collio appellation wines, but they will still compete. Yikes!

Collio Bottleneck

There are as many responses to the the increased competition as their are growers and producers. One important initiative is Collio Bianco, a signature white wine blend that producers hope can help establish the region’s brand more concretely in consumers minds. Think Collio (not just the grape varieties) for exceptional white wines .

bianco

The official definition of Collio Bianco has evolved. Once this wine was a simple field blend. Then it because a loosely regulated blend of native grape varieties that was noteworthy for its lack of distinctiveness. Kitchen sink wine, made with leftovers not used in the favored varietal bottlings.

More recently Collio Bianco was been defined as a white blend made from just about any mixture of native and international grape varieties. The idea is to give winemakers freedom to make the very best wines and have them bear the Collio label and fly the region’s flag.

A special bottle shape was created to further distinguish this wine from others on the shelf. What do you think?  The longer, thinner neck requires a special cork. Choosing this bottle (it is a voluntary program and the special bottle is not required) is a commitment to promoting the region’s brand as well as the individual producers’ products.

One Blend to Rule Them All?

Our hosts arranged for our press group to taste 24 examples of Collio Bianco. Vintages ranged from a 2013 (Primosic Klin  — it was spectacular) to several 2018s (bottled earlier than usual especially for Vinitaly and maybe not at their very best when we tasted them).

Some of the blends focused on the native grape varieties. Gradis’ciutta, for example, presented a Friulano, Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla blend.  Others producers combined native and international grapes. Venica & Venica’s Tre Vigne blended Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon. Ronco Blanchis blended Friulano, Malvasia, Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Marco Felluga’s Molamatta combined Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Ribolla Gialla. It was, as you might guess, a pretty interesting experience, especially since we tasted the wines blind.

The Weight

The question now is what is Collio Bianco and can it bear the weight of expectations? The wines we tasted showed high quality but, given that they come from different producers, sub-regions, and vintages using different grape combinations, we struggled to find any other defining characteristic. And I guess that was the point of the exercise. Only after the fact did I realize why the tasting was titled “Characterized by not being characterized.”

So Collio Bianco wines have quality and they are diverse. Each is a bit different from the rest and consumer experimentation is richly rewarded. This is surely something, especially since the wines from some other regions sometimes seem to all taste alike. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

The good news is that many Collio producers recognize that the challenge of being King of the Hill and they have determined that quality and distinctiveness is the right response. The region also benefits from a consorzio organization with strong leadership and, just as important, pretty good follower-ship — not something that we always find. The greatest mistake would be to rest on past accomplishments, ignoring the competition’s gains,  or to think in terms of quantity instead of quality. That’s the fast track from the top of the hill to the bottom.

The Beginning of the End of the Old World Appellation System?

“Some New World regions are adopting European-style AOC rules,” the Italian journalist I met in Sardinia explained, “Do you think this is an important trend?”

“No. Just the opposite. I think the Old World appellation system is under attack and will need to change to survive.”

He looked at me like I had dropped down from Mars. This was clearly not the answer he was looking for, but I think it is true. I wasn’t able to explain my logic very well in the rush of the interview, so let me try to explain here.

We Have Met the Enemy …

New World wine appellations are geographical indicators that specify a wine’s origin and help differentiate a region’s products. Some of these designations are very valuable (Napa and Sonoma, for example) in terms of price premium. Others are of little economic value, but can sometimes be useful in other ways that I don’t have time to explain here.

The Old World appellation system starts with designation of origin and adds to that a system of rules that restrict grape choices, blend components and ratios, viticultural practices, and other factors. AOC rules can literally fill a book as Jancis Robinson shows us in the classic video above.

AOCs (and Italian DOCs, Spanish DOs, etc.) evolved as essentially protective structures based on the experience in Champagne, which was the model for the current system. (I wrote about this in my book Money, Taste, and Wine). The first goal was to protect regional reproducers from fraud by outsiders passing off their imitation wines as the real thing.

The second goal (and the reason for such detailed regulation) was to protect quality producers in the region from neighbors inside the region who might cut corners and sacrifice quality to increase profit while benefiting from the regional “brand”.

Very high yields, for example, might increase a particular winery’s profit, but the lower quality dilutes the value of the appellation to all others. It is a cut-throat situation. “We have met the enemy and he is us” describes this element of the AOC program.

So AOCs seek to defend the regional brand from threats from the unscrupulous both outside and inside the region. Today, however, there are two powerful forces that threaten this system and will force it to change. Indeed it is already changing.

Shifting Center of Gravity

The first force is the global market, where the fastest-growing segments and categories are not closely aligned with the AOC system and where the premiumization syndrome is strongest. American consumers have shifted their market’s center of gravity to higher price points, but not higher prices for the same products. They will pay more than before but the product has to be differentiated and appealing. So innovation, which is not a strong point of the AOC system, is increasingly important.

Sue and I saw this when we visited the Valpolicella region a few years ago. The AOC system basically provides opportunities for Valpolicella wines, Ripasso, and Amarone in ascending order of retail price (I am leaving out details to simply, but you get my drift).

We met producer after producer who responded to this situation by creating proprietary blends of grapes that were “downgraded” to IGT status (because the blends don’t strictly adhere to the rule book), but upgraded in terms of price because of their effective branding and high quality. These new IGT wines were designed to fit price points created by premiumization that were not easily attainable with existing AOC products.

There is nothing new about the IGT movement — remember when super-Tuscans were controversial, which feels like a very long time ago? But the IGT trend, which basically slips out of the AOC handcuffs, has gathered unstoppable momentum. We see these wines everywhere now — France, Italy, Spain, everywhere. And some of them of fantastic. AOC? We don’t need no stinkin’ AOC?

In a sense the rise of these “super-” wines represents a shift in mentality that is worth noting. If the AOC system if defensive at its core, the IGT movement is entrepreneurial, seeking out new opportunities and breaking rules to get them.

Climate Change Challenges

The AOC system can withstand these market forces, although some regions will find it in their interests to adapt as Chianti did in the face of super-Tuscan success. But a second force is harder to ignore and will be even more threatening in the long run: climate change.

AOC rules are often promoted as an evolutionary pinnacle. We’ve had hundreds of years to figure out what grapes and blends are the very best for our terroir and here they are laid out in the rule book! Best of the best. You cannot improve upon the AOC rules.

It is a nice argument, but what happens when the terroir changes due to new climate patterns? The answer is that the wines need to adapt and evolve to remain at the peak, which is hard to do if the rule book doesn’t change. AOC standards need to evolve with the climate or become irrelevant or, worse, counter-productive.

Bordeaux Adapts

Some Old World regions already see the writing on the wall, as Jane Anson reported in Decanter earlier this year. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur producers now are able to experiment with “accessory grape” varieties that may better withstand climate change than the traditional (and designated) grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

“The red grapes for trial,” Anson reports, “will be Marselan, Syrah, Zinfandel and Arinarnoa. In white, Liliorila, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng Blanc and Chenin Blanc will be tested.” A recent VinePair article called this “a small revolution,” but I see it as something bigger and this is just the start.

Anson’s article continues,

Veronique Barthe of Chateau la Freynelle, who is working on the project with the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur Union, told decanter.com this was not a form of sacrilege.

‘We are not trying to make 100% Syrah in Bordeaux, but to test which grapes work best on which terroir in the region with the intention of introducing them only if they offer real quality,’ she said.

This sounds like exactly what a winemaker should be doing, don’t you think? “When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?” according to Keynes. When the climate changes, what will the AOCs do?

So the AOC system is under attack from the inside by IGT wines and from the outside by climate change. The system will adapt, but it won’t be the same. We can debate whether this is a good thing or not (I’m on the good thing side), but it is going to happen. And that’s what I wish I had time to explain to that Italian wine journalist.