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Changing wine world

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One of the most attractive--if sometimes frustrating-- aspects of the wine world is that it is always in a state of change. A generation ago, France was the leading exporter of wine to the US, Argentina’s wines were almost unknown here, Illinois grapegrowers were on the verge of extinction as was a grape called Viognier. That’s all changed.

Recently, a few reports were released that buttressed the notion of change. One report writes off an old, almost knee-jerk idea that Cabernet Sauvignon dominates in the Médoc sub-region of Bordeaux. The 2010 Census of the Vineyards of France, as well as updates of it in 2011 and 2012, now indicate that Merlot is the most widely planted grape there. It’s not a commanding lead, but for the entire Medocain peninsula, Merlot has 47.2% of the acreage and Cabernet Sauvignon has 46.1%. (as recently as 10 years ago, Cabernet Sauvignon’s lead over Merlot’s was 50% to 44%). For the AC “Médoc” it’s a 52% 43% in Merlot’s favor and for the AC “Haut-Médoc” it’s 47% to 45%. Only in the four communal AC’s of the six in the Haut-Médoc –-St.-Estephe, Pauillac, St.-Julien and Margaux –- does Cabernet maintain the lead (in the other 2 –Listrac and Moulis--it’s Merlot-land).

Merlot’s rise is not localized to Bordeaux. In 1968, France’s three most widely planted grapes were, in order, Carignane, Aramon and Ugni blanc: today they’re Merlot, Grenache and Ugni.

Italy’s 2010 census just came out. Catarratto and Sangiovese remain the leading white and red grapes since the 2000 census. Merlot has increased a bit (9%) but other so-called “international” varieties have surged. Pinot noir has jumped by 57%, Cabernet-Sauvignon by 69%, Chardonnay by 67% and Syrah by 554%. But three grapes long connected to Italy have also increased strongly: Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) by 54%, Prosecco by 127% and Pinot grigio by 159%. And Viognier went from 1 acre in 2000 to almost 3,000 in 2010 (world-wide, the grape is estimated to be planted to about 30,000 acres)

In 1982, Minnesota had 2 wineries and maybe 25 acres of grapes. Today it sports over 40 wineries and 2,000 acres of grapes the great majority of which are known as “cold hardy” grapes. Minnesota isn’t Florida; but a number of grape breeders has over the last 30 years been crossing native American, vinifera, hybrids therefrom and even some Russian, Ukranian and Latvian varieties in order to obtain grapes that can survive a Minnesota growing season. Much of the early work to create such varieties was that of Elmer Swenson, a tee-totaler from Wisconsin.

Other cold-climate states have been doing the same thing over the last generation and have created little winegrowing industries in the process. Thirty years ago, who would have thought that states like Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota would be winemaking areas?

And China. In 1988, China boasted 343,000 acres of grapes, the vast majority used for the production of table fruit. Today, China has 1.4 millions acres of grapes, the great majority of new plantings going to grapes for winemaking. It is now the world’s 4th largest grapegrower.

Lovers of the status quo, be comforted. In 1985, the top 11 countries which consumed French Champagne drank 93% of the production; in 2012, the top 11 countries still drank 89% of the production. Champagne marketers, if that’s not a clarion call….

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