I have often written that the best wine is an expression of culture. This is easy enough to understand in historic wine-producing regions, where centuries of local traditions have contributed to the identity of the wines.
But what about more recent wine regions like California or Australia, where decisions about grapes, methods and styles of wine have often been made by individual entrepreneurs motivated by commercial expediency or ego? The cultural antecedents of many 20th century wines, made without community involvement, were more difficult to trace.
However, in the past 20 years, the internet and social media have brought people around the world ever closer together, creating new wine cultures regardless of physical proximity. Growers and producers who were once isolated can now be part of the community’s efforts, perhaps adding to our understanding of terroir and a sense of place.
These communities can share thoughts and ideas, ask questions and discuss solutions, no matter how far apart they are physically. Natural wine producers in Australia’s Adelaide Hills, for example, have direct access to colleagues in France’s Loire Valley or Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. A Syrah producer in Sonoma can meet weekly to relax or do business with friends in Cornas.
What is gained by this ability to communicate? Answers to questions, encouragement, guidance, being talked over the edge – things that come from participating in a community in real time. All these elements help to improve not only the general quality of wines, but also the ability to make distinctive wines.
In this way, like-minded cultural groups are formed, which directly influence the type of wine that is made. Let me reinforce that with some background.
What is a sense of place or terroir, to use the all-encompassing French term, has evolved over time. A century ago, terroir referred to the unchanging physical characteristics of a place that shaped the identity of a wine.
This included the geology – the soil and bedrock, the elevation and inclination towards the sun. It included the climate, the source of the water needed for the vines, and how that water flowed into the earth. It included the flora and fauna of a particular area.
As science has gained a better understanding of the physical world, this understanding of terroir has expanded. Flora and fauna now includes the microbial life in a vineyard, the yeast and other organisms in the air and on the grapes, as well as the microorganisms and other life in the soil.
There is another element understood as part of the terroir: the people who grow the grapes and make the wines, especially if these people are part of a culture of shared ideas and beliefs.
This culture encompasses the traditions of communities defined by geographical proximity, including the grapes grown in the area, the viticulture and winemaking techniques, the tools and equipment, as well as attitudes and ways of thinking.
This is why, for example, you can travel from one part of Italy to another, even through a valley, and find a different kind of wine, made with different grapes and using different methods.
It’s also why, in much of the historic wine-producing world, wines were identified by geographical terms – Volnay or Chinon, for example – rather than the names of grapes. The geographical indication was all it took to understand that a wine made by the people of Volnay would have one taste, and that the wine of Chinon would offer another.
The culture and upbringing of the vigneron, the person who grows the grapes and makes the wine, shapes their perspective on wine. In this way, good wine can express the culture of a place and its people.
As wine cultures developed locally, they were also exported. The ancient Greeks and especially the Romans brought their way of thinking about wine to the distant places where they roamed. In the Middle Ages, monastic communities such as the Benedictines and the Cistercians spread the gospel of wine to various parts of Europe.
No place has embraced the intricacies of the terroir as much as Burgundy. The people there not only believe that a Gevrey-Chambertin tastes different from a Chambolle-Musigny, they know it does to every fiber of their being.
All this makes sense in wine-producing regions with age-old traditions. But what about newer wine regions without such a long history passed down from generation to generation?
Colonizing missionaries brought vineyards and wine to South America in the 16th and 17th centuries and to California in the 18th century. Many other California vineyards were planted in the 1800s by immigrants who tried to imitate the traditions of their native land as closely as possible.
It would have been interesting to see how these vineyards and winemakers would have evolved, but their development and connection to the modern era ended during Prohibition.
The modern American wine industry that emerged after World War II is rooted in commerce and entrepreneurship rather than cultural tradition. Which grapes to plant, where to plant, and how to make the wine were largely business decisions rather than the organic evolution of a way of life.
The element of culture is the main difference between the Old World and New World wine-growing regions. While the construction of the Old World and New World may come across as condescending and meaningless to some today, I think it applies when talking about cultural influences.
Thanks to the internet, growers and producers are no longer sent to isolated and island groups, except by choice. But the creation of widespread wine communities is not something that has happened solely thanks to the Internet. It simply accelerated a process of mental and emotional globalization that has been going on since World War II.
The internet is only the latest in a slew of telephones, televisions and jets, and of course the post-war prosperity that allowed people to take advantage of these tools.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, young people who took up winemaking, whether they were the next generation of a winemaking family or new to the wine world, have often traveled to other countries for internships and work placements in other wine cultures. They have brought back what they have learned and integrated it into their own bottles.
Over the years, they may have been able to nurture relationships and hit the ground running when they got together at festivals and events around the world. Now the internet has allowed this integration to continue over time and immediately.
At one point, globalization in the wine world created fears that homogenization was paramount, that the great diversity of grapes and wine styles would diminish and the world would drown in an intoxicating sea of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
Instead, the opposite has happened. The world continues to embrace and explore the potential of both new and old grapes, from places long prized and from areas rejected for generations.
A better understanding of wine science, greater confidence in local grapes and traditions, greater consumer curiosity – all are responsible for this current wealth of diverse wines. And so are the new communities that have allowed newer wines to flourish.
I am thinking of the natural wine producer in Australia or the Syrah producer in Sonoma. At one point or another, they may have all been outliers in their area, considered eccentric or iconoclastic. They may have felt isolated, perhaps unable to reach their potential due to lack of support.
Now that that support is available, the result is not wines that taste like those from the other side of the world, but that convey the unique qualities of where they live and work, their own terroirs.
It’s commerce and connection, and maybe a new wine culture too.
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