Bordeaux vs. Bali: The Wine Wars

By Margolis, Mac; Mazumdar, Sudip et al. | Newsweek International, October 5, 2009 | Go to article overview

Bordeaux vs. Bali: The Wine Wars

Margolis, Mac, Mazumdar, Sudip, Grove, Sophie, Zoninsein, Manuela, Newsweek International

Byline: Mac Margolis; With Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi, Sophie Grove in London, and Manuela Zoninsein in Beijing

Rajeev Samant developed a taste for wine during his years in California, first as a Stanford student and then as an engineer at Oracle in Silicon Valley. So when he returned to his family's picturesque farm northeast of Mumbai, he decided to try growing table grapes. He had his doubts: crops of mangoes, peanuts, and roses had already failed. But the grapevines flourished in the cool nights and sunny days. Samant brought in some ringers from Napa and imported India's first sauvignon blanc and zinfandel grapes, and Sula Vineyards was born. He corked his first bottle in 2000--just as Indians were beginning to catch wine fever. Now the winery uses a pneumatic grape press and giant fermentation tanks to produce 18 different varieties.

Samant is just the kind of upstart winemaker the old guard from Bordeaux and St-Emilion loves to hate. He's young, innovative, and unschooled in the traditions of winemaking. And he's catering to the kind of clientele that Maurice Large, former president of the Beaujolais producers' association, once denounced as "philistines" with a taste for "alcoholic fruit drink." Although total global wine consumption is down slightly for the first time in decades, it is growing rapidly in the developing world. Since 2001, wine consumption in India has soared by 25 percent a year. Brazilians are mobbing wine--appreciation courses, eager to flaunt their command of oenology or even become sommeliers--the hottest new profession since fashion modeling. China, now among the top 10 consumer markets, plants more wine grapes than Australia.

Indeed, where there are wine drinkers, vineyards are sure to follow. In Vermont, a state best known for maple syrup and cheddar cheese, vintners represent a $5 million business. North Africa is paved with grapevines, from Morocco to Egypt, which has doubled its annual output since 2000 to 8.5 million bottles, and now exports to Europe. There's even a successful winery in Bali, encouraging enthusiasts to declare tropical wine a genre unto itself.

To be sure, even weekend oenophiles might turn up their noses at these vintages. So it's not hard to imagine what the old-time winemakers in France and Italy must think. As they see it, the old "New World" producers--Australia, the United States, South America, and South Africa--have been hard enough to stomach. Thanks to them--and falling consumption in many rich countries--European vineyards now account for less than half the world's grape production. In China, Australian and Chilean wines rival those from France. But India? Morocco? Bali? It's just too much for the traditionalists. Tres mal, sniffs Large, who accuses the New World dilettantes of "treating wine like Coca-Cola."

The elite winemakers have always pinned their high-quality product on heritage, the tradition of growing, culling, and fermenting grapes, handed down from generation to generation, that cannot be easily exported or imitated. They also like to boast of terroir--literally, "the land." But to the French, terroir has come to mean a mystical combination of soil, sun, weather, cultural identity, and legacy that the most storied chateaux have leveraged to ennoble their vintages--and their prices.

Lately, though, this powerful conceit has come under assault. Scientists have learned that the land itself is only part of the riddle of producing quality wines, and perhaps not even the most important part. Comparing data on soils, grape varietals, and picking and bottling techniques across 100 vineyards, economists Victor Ginsburgh and Olivier Gergaud have found that natural endowments are overrated. What produces the finest wines are not so much the mysteries locked up in a patch of land but what winemakers put into it. "Making better wines is due to ability, not weather," says Michael White, wine scholar for the Department of Watershed Sciences at Utah State University. …

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