Monday, September 30, 2013

Serious Wine for Beginners: What's the Big Deal with France, Anyway?


As an American wine lover, I've run into some fellow Americans who do not have much awareness of wine's history in the world. American wine culture is rapidly developing in some parts of the country, but it is still very young. As a consumer product, wine is seen through the lens of a commodity, like crude oil or soda pop. The fact that what we call the "New World" wine industry (hint: we're a part of it) has only existed in its present form for a few decades gets lost.

More than one person has asked me "What's so special about French wine? We make good wine too. I like California wine better anyway." ...or something along those lines. The question is not about what you personally like, and sure, tons of good wine, and many great wines are made in the U.S.A.  We're getting better at it all the time, in spite of the nagging trend of industry consolidation and the corporatization of the industry. However, that again is really not the point.

Some perspective: We experimented and failed at quality wine making during colonial times. A century later, we successfully planted French grape vines, and started making decent wines, but disaster after disaster--some from nature, some man made--doomed our wine industry to failure. It wasn't until the 1970s that we really started making some world class wines. We've been doing quite well ever since, and so have a number of other New world countries, like Australia and Argentina for example. 

As all of this has been unfolding, it's important to remember that France, Italy, Spain, and others had already been making quality wine for centuries, in some cases millennia. Look at the map of France above. Those blotchy colored areas are its major wine producing regions. If you go back three hundred years, they existed and made wine in what today we would certainly call relative isolation. Local traditions develop over time, and expectations are built regarding what each of those wines is supposed to be like.

The E.U.'s Seal Designating The Class of Unique Quality Wines

Today, those traditions and expectations have become partially codified into an elaborate regulatory scheme, which the French led the way on. The European Union is enthusiastically mimicking this approach for all of its member countries. We Americans have little concept of this, and that's understandable. We are all a product of history after all, and our history is simply too short at this point.

So what makes French wine special?    More on this next time!

Marc Soucy   FWS  CSW



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