Recent press by both large and small news organizations has talked about the influx of and dropping prices on European wines. Driven by shrinking wine consumption in the "old world" and increased competition from around the globe, we are seeing producers in France, Italy and Spain increasingly target the U.S. market, and doing so with compelling pricing. We get asked from time to time: "Why does Europe matter?" The sub text of that question is understandable. We have great domestic producers including some right here in our own "neighborhood." So why do we even care about the wines from overseas?
The economic forces currently in play are reason enough for these wines and the appellations of Europe to matter. The nature of the price competition is so fierce that it is in some ways turning the U.S. wine markets upside down causing what used to be expensive French and Italian imports to be more value priced, and domestic offerings from as close by as Walla Walla to be the main occupants in the super premium category.
This new mathematic reality is easier for the Europeans. Vineyards, wineries, equipment - from barrels to bottles and supplier relationships span centuries in that part of the world, while here at home the industry is so nascent that the investment in land and production facilities alone is still fresher and more costly. This naturally gives the Europeans some advantages on pricing. While we do see some great wines from Northwest producers in the $10 range, there are more from overseas in more varietals and styles at times overwhelming the domestic market.
Beyond the economic forces in play though the historical significance of wine made in Europe demands the attention they get, and really what makes Europe still matter in the wine world. Dating back to the times of the Roman Empire wine was a daily staple in much of Europe. Varietal selection, wine grape cultivation and even winemaking style and technique can be traced back many centuries in some cases with influences being seen still today on winemaking both here and abroad.
Some of the techniques most favored by winemakers here in the States are the result of techniques employed early on in the "old world" business of wine. For instance, oak barreling of wine today is employed to develop flavors, aromas and textural notes in wine. The practice, however, was established in Europe as a mode of transportation. Large oak casks could be filled with wine and placed in the hold of a ship for transport without fear of breakage and allowing for the transportation of large quantities.
The cultivation of varietals in certain growing areas based on what grows well in a climate was figured out long ago in Europe, too.
Centuries of trial and error revealed that Pinot Noir liked the cool climate of Burgundy, that Sangiovese liked the long warm days of Tuscany, that the cool early falls in Champagne were less important as early harvest of grapes for Champagne gave sparkling wines their signature crisp acidity. This long ago developed research gave American winemakers and viticulturists the necessary foundation for finding the best areas of California to grow different grape varietals, and carried through to the Northwest as vines were planted and wineries built in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
In ancient times blends were based on the combination of grapes planted together based on growing conditions. If different grape types came out of the same vineyard they were combined in the wine usually through co-fermentation. This early trend in Europe gave us some of most popular blends today: Super Tuscan blends being based on Sangiovese but also including Cabernet and Merlot, and the addition of small amounts of Viognier to Syrah for some of our most enjoyable Rhones, and the 14 different varietals allowed in Chateauneuf du Pape becoming the basic equation for the popular GSM or Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre made so frequently by wineries in the Columbia River Valley of Washington.
While current economic and demographic forces demand that Europe and the wine produced there get their due attention, the historic significance of the wine industry is seen throughout our domestic industry leaving us with no choice but to embrace that history. For consumers the wines of Europe in some cases represent compelling values, and in others draw us in by quality or style and will likely continue to matter even as our appreciation of our own local products grows, too.
If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d'Alene Press.
George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party a wine and table top decor shop in Coeur d'Alene by Costco. George is also the managing judge of The North Idaho Wine Rodeo, and is the wine editor for Coeur d'Alene magazine www.cdamagazine.com you can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.