December 5, 2013 7:25 pm

Wine: The new bunch

The world is drinking more than ever, despite its waning appeal in southern Europe

Marcel Sabaté is general manager of a company making particularly good cava, the sparkling wine that is one of the distinctive flavours of Spain. When Castellroig was founded in 1994, he sold every bottle to his fellow Spaniards. But today he ships 70 per cent abroad.

“Sadly, when I go to present my wines in Spain I spend more time talking politics and economics than actually talking about wine,” he says.

Spain has more land under vine than any other country but its per capita annual wine consumption fell 46 per cent between 1995 and 2011 to only a little more than Britain’s. Consumption is also sinking in other countries traditionally associated with wine, including France and Italy.

Yet the world is drinking more wine than ever, thanks particularly to enthusiasm in the US, China and Russia. Wine has never been more popular with Americans, particularly the younger generation who are joining wine clubs, taking wine courses and embracing wine tourism and wine bars with zeal. Wine knowledge and opinion is growing ever more fashionable. In China, much of Asia and to a certain extent Russia, wine-drinking, even if accompanied by less connoisseurship, is also seen as novel, modish and a signifier of sophistication and westernisation.

In big European wine-producing countries on the other hand, wine is decidedly old-hat. It is what earlier generations drank and has long been associated with peasant culture.

Although in France there are signs that disaffection with wine has hit rock-bottom, in general for younger southern European drinkers, wine seems much less exciting than heavily advertised beers, spirits and sodas. For many in Europe’s Latin cultures, taking a wine course would be as bizarre as studying potatoes.

So resolutely has France abandoned the drink that has virtually defined its national identity that it now looks almost certain that the French will cede the crown as the world’s biggest wine market to the Americans. Indeed, the US, which has never been a big wine exporter, has become the third-biggest wine importer. It is also by far the biggest wine producer outside Europe, having overtaken Argentina as the world’s fourth-biggest producer many years ago.

Thanks to an extraordinary growth rate in vine plantings, China is now the world’s fifth-biggest producer, and consumer, of wine. This century Chinese consumption of wine has overtaken the amount consumed by the British while consumption has plummeted in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina. Thanks to the enthusiasm with which today’s Chinese drink, display and give bottles of wine – the more lavishly packaged the better, no matter what the quality of the contents – China will not be a net exporter of wine for many years. The Chinese are already significant importers of wine, much of it imported in bulk and questionably relabelled.

Chinese per capita consumption of wine is still very low: just over one litre a year, whereas Luxembourgers manage nearly 50 and the British now consume more than 20, despite annual increases in UK wine taxes. The American average has grown to more than nine litres a year per head and continues to rise.

For much of the late-20th century the EU routinely produced far more basic wine than it drank, and exports of this low-quality ferment outside the EU were decidedly limited. But thanks to systematic financial incentives to pull up vines in the less propitious wine regions – particularly the flatter, more fertile areas of France’s Languedoc and the more workmanlike Italian wine districts of Sicily and Puglia – European wine consumption and production are more or less in balance today. (Recent rumours of a global wine shortage, fuelled by a small 2012 harvest in France, were inaccurate.)

Meanwhile, China, Australia and particularly Chile have been planting vines like mad, and South Africa has also been steadily increasing production. Australia continues to juggle its supply and demand, not helped by the strength of the Australian dollar and drought in the inland, irrigated wine regions that once acted as the country’s cheap wine factory. In the mid-1990s, Chile had barely a fifth as much land under vine as Argentina but it has been developing new wine regions so quickly that it now jockeys with its eastern neighbour as South America’s biggest producer and exporter.

As for wine quality, it is difficult to quantify truly objectively. Overall standards of vine-growing and winemaking have undoubtedly risen considerably. When I began writing about wine in 1975 only about half of all wines were free of technical faults such as oxidation or excess sulphur. Today much less than 0.5 per cent of the thousands of wines I review every year are technically faulty. Standardisation came at a price for a while when, in the mid-1990s, it seemed that vineyards might be taken over by a mere handful of international grape varieties and too many wines seemed to be made to the same blockbuster recipe. But now there is a keen awareness of the need to retain biodiversity and the precious ability of wine to express the unique characteristics of the exact spot where it was grown.

Thanks to the vine pull scheme in Europe, old world wines have never been better quality, even if they are increasingly spurned at home. The recent oversupply of wine has kept producers everywhere on their toes, despite rising production costs. There has never been a better time to be a wine drinker.

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