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Jefford on Monday: Wine’s Sea Change

The USA, according to one report released earlier this year, has overtaken France to become the world’s biggest wine-consuming nation, with 330 million cases downed in 2010. Admittedly in per-capita consumption it ranks a rather weedy 57th, but if you have 312.6 million citizens, they don’t have to drink much more than a teaspoonful each to make a difference.

Another report (from International Wine and Spirit Research) indicates that Chinese consumption will overhaul the UK’s in around a year’s time; indeed TDA figures published by California’s Wine Institute indicate that it already has. If China’s 34.4% increase in consumption during 2010 can be sustained, then the wine-drinking efforts of its 1,339.7 million citizens in turn will make it the world’s biggest wine-consuming nation in a couple of decade’s time.  

India (1,210.1 million citizens, and set to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation by 2025) trails China, and there are bigger fiscal and cultural obstacles to wine drinking there, but it too has put on a turn of speed lately, with the volume of imported wine doubling there every half-decade, and with consumption of domestically produced wines increasing fivefold over the same timescale. For more about the passion of Indian women for wine, click here.

The wine world, in other worlds, is undergoing a sea change. It’s globalising faster than ever, and the future belongs to successful exporters. There are more lessons, too.

The first is that terroir is no longer a geek bolt-on for your back label, but increasingly looks like the key to long-term success. If you are producing a wine which several billion wine drinkers might aspire to drink one day, and which by definition is in strictly limited supply, the future does indeed beckon. The price of land in Champagne, Burgundy and Piedmont is already astronomical, but it can only rise further; a distinguished hectare or two in these areas must, in the long run, be more valuable than a stake in an oilfield or an iron-ore concession. This increasingly prized resource will never run out.  

In newer wine-producing locations, by contrast, the race should be on to find distinguished sites and give them maximum articulacy. The richest rewards in a radically globalised wine market go to those who can position themselves furthest up the ladder of qualitative aspiration, as Bordeaux’s performance in China has already shown.

Yes, ‘brands’ count – but brands without precise origins in the fine-wine world will always look suspect; in the long run it is the great vineyard and not the brand which will be worth most. (This is less true, of course, in regions like Champagne where blending is the rule – though even there the vineyards in their totality remain infinitely more valuable than replaceable brands themselves.)

The third lesson, one well-learned in Chile and Argentina in recent years, is that the domestic market is a very different place to the international one. No matter how proud you are of your domestic achievements, and no matter how much affirmation you get from consumers at home, the international market will taste and assess your wines in a different way, and for most existing wine producers in both hemispheres, the international market is where most future growth is. In a globalised world, too, domestic markets can never be taken for granted, as New Zealand’s rising penetration of the Australian market has demonstrated.

There are, of course, rough waters ahead as the ‘developed’ world learns to tackle debt and create durable financial systems, while the rest of the world works its way towards culturally appropriate political maturity. The fine-wine fundamentals, though, for those prepared to go out and meet our planet’s spring tide of new drinkers, look inviting. There’s no reason to fear 2012.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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