p class=”p1″ align=”left”>In 1976, a nascent Californian wine industry had its red Cabernet Sauvignons and white Chardonnays pitted against French Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind taste test in Paris conducted by eleven judges. The organizer of the event, a British expat running a wine school in Paris, considered it a rigged contest. He, like everyone else, expected French wines to decimate their Californian rivals.
The results were shocking. The nine French judges were the who’s who of France’s oenophiles and yet the California whites took three of the top four spots and a Californian red took the top spot.
The French countered that their red wines would age better than the Californian reds, so the wines were re-tested in San Francisco almost two years later. This time the American wines occupied the top three spots in boththe red and white categories. The tests were conducted again for just the reds on the tenth anniversary of the original tasting. The whites were not re-tested because they were considered past their prime. For the 1986 re-test, the French Culinary Institute and the Wine Spectator conducted separate tastings. Californian wines grabbed the top two spots at the first and the top five at the second. Californians wines also occupied the top five spots on a thirtieth anniversary comparison among the reds held simultaneously in Napa and London.
Did the test prove that French wine had already peaked, that newer and hipper competitors were ready to occupy the world’s coveted wine throne?
The American press then and now sure thought so. In 2008 an American film was released dramatizing the 1976 contest. America besting the French in wine was like Argentina and Italy winning the gold and silver medals over the USA in men’s basketball in the 2004 Olympics.
Everyone loves an underdog story and other New World wine regions took heart from the American victory that they, too, could produce world class wines. Since then, there have been no shortage of informal taste test ‘competitions’ where Australians or Argentines boast that their New World wines trump established French producers.
On a bottle-for-bottle basis, there will always be an upstart New World wine that will outrank an established French variety in repeated subjective taste tests. Looking at each nation’s wine industry in its objective entirety, however, tells another story. From that picture, no other nation even comes close to eclipsing French dominance over the world’s wine industry.
The Wine Institute put together some interesting wine statistics in 2010. Just ten countries produce 80% of the world’s wine. France, Italy, Spain, USA, Argentina, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Chile, and Portugal, in that order. That 80% pie isn’t close to being split evenly. The top three, all Old World nations, produce half of the world’s wine or 63% of the Top 10’s output. All this despite France cutting wine production by 11% since 2007 and Italy by 7% per European Union wine reforms in 2008.
A look at world wine exports is all the more telling because it goes beyond mere production figures to reveal which countries’ wines have more of a global reach. In 2014, almost 30% of all wine exported worldwide was French. Italy exports about two-thirds what France does and Spain about a third. To put this into terms easier to apprehend, France exports more wine than Chile, Australia, the USA, Germany, New Zealand, Portugal, Argentina, and South Africa combined.
California accounts for almost 90% of American wine. More than half of Australian wine comes from the Australian state of South Australia. The majority of the wine produced in South Africa comes from the southwestern area of the country near the Cape Peninsula. France, by contrast, has twelve world famous wine regions. Even certified wine morons have heard of a good share of these regions — Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Rhone, Bordeaux – because French wines of note are named all named after a region.
France still clings tightly to its controlled term of origin naming system established in 1935, known as AOC in French. French wine has always adhered closely to the idea of terroir, a fusion of all the environmental factors (soil, climate, topography) in which a wine’s grapes are grown. A New World wine is marketed by the grape varietal the wine is made from – a Shiraz, Chardonnay Merlot, for example. It doesn’t much matter for naming sake if that Merlot grape was grown in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, Sonoma Valley, California, or the Thai region of Isaan. Most French wines, pretty much all the higher class ones you’re likely to see at a wine outlet outside France, don’t reveal the grape types used, just the region.
New World critics slam France for this type of confusing system which can constrain a French vintner’s creativity. Yet to see the situation only in this way is a simplistic look at the French wine industry. The AOC laws are in place to protect higher quality French wines, exactly the sort to be consumed in fine restaurants and reviewed in respected wine publications worldwide. Were France to mainly abandon this ‘limiting’ system, its wines would be forced to duke it out on the world stage on the same terms as all of its New World competitors that are considered more cleverly branded. Why join the rest of the passengers in economy seating when you can sit on the single plush pedestal?
France has carved out a niche for itself as the world’s most respected, most emulated, and most lucrative wine-producing country. The Republique can afford to let a few New World producers win a battle now and again. By producing, as an industry whole, the world’s most sought after wines, by being the yardstick by which all other respected wines are measured, France has already won the war.