In the beginning, France was blessed with good growing conditions for wine grapes—as were some locales to the south, including Italy. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
More recently, in the beginning of a sit-down with my daily wine news site, I came across an article in which the central claim was that Italy is catching up to France in the fine wine game. My interest was piqued.
Most industry observers shy away from making a claim that one nation’s wines are better or worse than those of a another nation. They say it’s too complicated, or a futile endeavor. But this is the internet. If someone wants to tackle this fraught topic, I’m certainly blogger enough to submit a moderately fierce rebuttal.
Actually, I mostly agree. Italy is catching up to France. The international reputation of Italian wine is on the rise. Yes, France earns more money selling wine than Italy does. But Italy produces and exports more than France. Italy is also the sales leader in the U.S., the world’s largest wine market.
I would even say that Italian wines now carry as much cultural cache as do French wines. To my ear, Italy is regarded as more cutting edge, more innovative, and more diverse. There’s also a sense that you can find more value in Italian wine. French wine, meanwhile, tends to be more generally linked to ideas of haute culture.
Inevitably, the France vs. Italy comparison leads to another question: Why has Italy been number two historically?
The author of the otherwise engaging article I mentioned above (The Terroirist, 15 Jan 18: http://www.terroirist.com/) points to a conventional wisdom in Italian commercial lore—that Italy has long undervalued and undersold its wares. And not just wine.
It’s true that one hears a similar argument frequently in Italy: “The clever French sell their products and themselves with such confidence. If we could just do the same, our wines would be just as famous!” Everywhere you go, Italians all seem to agree on this, and with gusto.
Sorry, but I’m not buying this all-too-convenient justification for being the second nation of wine. Incidentally, second nation status means Italy has long been the envy of many wine producing nations.
I might be more sympathetic if Italian food were not the most universally beloved global cuisine. Sure, French food is grand, but one doesn’t find many French restaurants in Milan or Rome. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of Italian restaurants in Paris. Am I to believe Italians can market food but not wine?
So, if it wasn’t marketing, what was it that relegated Italy to second place?
One of my wine geek friends suggested this question surely deserves a book-length answer. Since that doesn’t sound like much fun, I’ll boil it down for you: French vignerons were lucky. They were good too, but they were mostly lucky.
Here’s how things went down.
In the beginning, France was blessed with good growing conditions for wine grapes—as were some locales to the south, including Italy. But the wealthy countries near France were not so blessed. External demand for French wine, along with healthy domestic consumption, compelled millions of French people to work in the wine business. By the start of the 20th century, wine had become an electoral crop in France. When poor harvests or fraudsters undermined wine sales, vignerons hit the streets and governments fell. In 1935, to protect the vignerons—and the politicians of course—France established a national system of wine appellations, the effect of which was to turn its wine regions into communally-owned, easily identifiable brands.
By the onset of the postwar economic boom, France’s geographically-based wine brands, or AOCs, were well established, and better known to wine consumers than competing regions. French regions soon became stylistic benchmarks and were able to demand top prices. This, in turn, allowed many vignerons to focus on quality at an early point in fine wine history.
It’s a great political economy story, and it all started with geographic luck.
That settled, allow me to introduce a supplemental theory for your consideration: France was also terroir lucky. So was Italy of course, but France was really terroir lucky.
If you are reading this article, you know that French wines and Italian wines don’t taste much alike. Unique terroir and unique grape varieties produce unique flavors in the bottle. As distinct products, French and Italian wines have always been subject to the preferences of the market. It’s entirely possible that French wines simply agreed with consumer taste expectations more frequently than did Italian wines.
Italy’s greatest grape varieties, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, are both naturally quite tannic and acidic, and thus tough to tame in their youth. By comparison, the wine made from France’s greatest grapes can be quite drinkable when young.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder why it’s so hard for Italy and other wine-producing counties to accept that France may have just been luckier. It’s not like the French make a cheese as great as Mozzarella di Bufala. At least not to my taste. What about pasta? Italy got pretty lucky with that stuff. And France surely doesn’t produce anything that tastes like a bottle of aged Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Italy, wine’s silver medalist, should take heart. Things could be worse. At least its two greatest wines are red, unlike poor Germany.
by Christopher Maclean
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