wine geography

FROM THE TIME THAT the seafaring Phoenicians introduced wine to Egypt—and wealthy Egyptians grew grapes in a warm but otherwise imperfect climate 4,500 years ago—several geographic rules have guided the trade. First, it was never difficult to cultivate a taste for wine. If far-flung commerce proved impossible at certain times and places, the product could be sustained by a few advocates and the local population. The growth of an industry, however, came by one of two routes: either happening at the right locale or overcoming agricultural (and maybe perceptual) barriers through persistent scientific methods.

Europe’s leading producers—FRANCE, ITALY, SPAINGERMANY, and PORTUGAL—have been “in practice” for the better part of 2,000 years, originally replacing Roman state-of-the-art with a more indigenous craft. Grape growing and wine making occurred together in small, tightly bound locales, usually individual estates, monasteries, or villages. (Rough transportation and the fruit’s delicate nature would not permit much of a physical separation between the two activities.) The ravages of disease, war, and changing boundaries tested production, with growing mercantilism at times diluting, then demanding, integrity. When their supply of wine could not keep pace with consumption during the 18th century, Portuguese merchants simulated its taste and expanded its bulk by using a variety of natural additives, not necessarily in the local tradition. The crown subsequently instituted regulations in order to retain the large, influential English market. With renewed attention to local grapes, the first formal wine region, Douro, came into being.

wine geography

A regional rating system was conceived for the Universal Exposition in Paris (1855), when Bordeaux chateaux (estates) were ranked along a five-tiered system of crus (growths). These commercially driven designations later extended to other locales, ultimately coexisting with official French labeling requirements and ratings.

European governments initiated formal quality control measures starting in the 1930s, as part of the economic recovery plan following agricultural disasters and World War I. Two intertwined concepts developed. The French notion of terroir (reflected in the cru designations) implied an almost magical blend of traditional artisanship and local climatological/geographic features.

Elements such as sunlight, soil composition, drainage, and temperature were naturally observed and felt, but not scientifically dissected. Terroir became a besotted concept of place, internalized by most of Europe. A regulatory side emerged, too: winegrowing countries designated controlled appellations, regions with both growing and bottling methods tightly prescribed. Rating systems often validate such exemplary products.

Typology was generally overlooked in European viticultural parlance, however. Different regions have long cultivated several types of grapes, simultaneously. Blending was standard practice when done locally, but this alchemy largely eluded codification.

With vines exported to remote colonies, however, the question became: which varieties (and, subsequently, varietal wines) would survive where? European grapes flourished in some parts of AUSTRALIASOUTH AFRICA, and the Americas, yet even the CALIFORNIA wine industry, blessed with diverse and excellent growing conditions, boomed only when railroad transport afforded access to the more densely populated eastern U.S. market.

For countries off the major trade routes, viticulture was kept alive primarily by local/national consumption. South American malbecs and cabernets, descended from European varieties but nurtured regionally since the mid-1800s, have finally burst into a contemporary world market that is at once increasingly daring and demanding. And it may be difficult to fathom that companies like Penfolds and Lindemans, associated with the “new” Australian wine industry, have existed continuously for over 150 years.

Varieties that adapted readily to California and New Mexico were of the wine-friendly European Vitis vinifera. Indigenous (or wild) East Coast grapes named concord and catawba came from different species altogether, mostly Vitis labrusca. As a rule, their products did not excite consumers.

Explorers and merchants had been exchanging agricultural exotica since ancient times, but purposeful cross-polonization was largely unpracticed. The situation changed when the phylloxera louse, unwittingly imported from the eastern United States to Europe, rapidly destroyed vast acres of heirloom vines. Long immersion in infested soil rendered native American varieties immune to this plague. Ultimately, and despite trepidation, European vintners grafted their vines onto American rootstock.

While downplayed in the Old World, this rescue effort compelled agronomists in the eastern United States to once more attempt growing European varieties. The pioneering New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva fostered productive experimentation as early as the 1890s.

The scientifically based concept of MICROCLIMATE evolved from studies at the University of California, Davis, beginning in the 1930s and progressing asunder over the next 40 years. Like terroir in its geographic underpinnings, microclimate started with temperature and eventually yielded a more sublime climatological analysis, including local topography, fog, and hours of sunlight. The quest was to determine which varieties would grow best under definable conditions. This structured framework encouraged enthusiasts to expand viticultural boundaries; wines currently are produced in 48 of the 50 United States.

To consumers overseas merely 35 years ago, the Napa Valley was synonymous with quality American wine, and almost monolithic in its status. Today, microclimate applications bring a more exact definition to the European concept of terroir: the Napa Valley now is jigsaw puzzle of 15 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In fact, one can find hundreds of AVAs throughout the nation. Products within these areas must adhere to certain standards (such as percentages of regionally grown grapes in the wine), with districts “recognized,” but not drawn, by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The trend toward regionalization confronts a rival philosophy. As writer Stett Holbrook notes, American winemakers (and Australians, too) may be divided into two camps: “terroirists” and “counter-terroirists.” The latter have taken blending out of the closet and transformed it into art: several varieties may happily wed in a classical style, yielding meritage wines; the same type of grapes, from different regions, can be blended into superb and/or affordable varietals; or producers can strive for a taste type that consistently appeals to consumers and establishes brand loyalty.

If one can make (imperfect) generalizations between Old World and New World wines these days, it lies in the presence, or absence, of formal qualitative ratings. But even European traditions are changing. Precise geographic information (descending from region to village to vineyard, and all appearing on the label) once marked a distinctive wine. Yet some producers now squeeze varietal names, in larger letters, onto that same crowded micropage. During the 1990s, Italy added a fourth category to its denominazione di origine controllata system: indicazione geographica typica (typical geographic indication), which does not abandon regional identity but places greater emphasis on the variety or varieties contained in the bottle. Bringing another dimension to European labeling, French and German regional cooperatives can advertise their geographic affiliations while offering certain economies of scale to the consumer. Indeed, a consistent commercial challenge has been to close the DISTANCE between producer and market. Distance could be interpreted literally for most of history; now it is an information issue: recalling the adventures of footloose palates—even one’s own—and allowing them to guide future explorations.