Who drinks international wine?

While reading Paul Lukacs’ highly engaging book Inventing Wine, I came across a paragraph that shed light on a subject about which I have often wondered. Why is it that Paris, a capital of a historically wine-mad nation, has such a shortage of international wine options? Sure, this is changing, especially in the hipper parts of town, but why do Parisians so rarely venture away from their (admittedly diverse and excellent) domestic options?


There’s a good chance the juices of these Tuscan grapes will end up in a British or American wine glass

I realize that is is quite an American perspective, but I always assumed that people interested in wine would want to branch out and drink the wines of the world. Americans certainly do this — wine enthusiasts and winemakers in California, for instance, happily guzzle tipples from France, Italy, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Croatia, even Japan and China. But why is it that foreign wines are almost never present in French restaurants, nor in all but the most esoteric wine shops?

This is not a definitive answer, but Lukacs shows us that it’s not a recent phenomenon. Londoners, just like New Yorkers, have long been shaping tastes with their pounds (or dollars). Here he refers to the 1760s:

It may seem surprising that England, a country whose climate precluded significant viticulture, would play such an important role in the development of modern wine. But English consumers influenced wine styles and wine quality almost as much as winemakers on the Continent. The format of Dodsley’s cellar-record book intimates why. It included sections for Burgundy, Champagne, Claret, Madeira, Port, Rhenish, and Sack, all of which a gentleman presumably would be expected to stock in his cellar. By contrast, in wine-producing countries, people drank native wines almost exclusively. This was true even for the nobility, the members of which certainly could afford whatever they wanted. The French court at Versailles, for example, consumed copious quantities of wine, but virtually all of it was French (and most from northern France at that). By contrast, precisely because domestic wines were virtually nonexistent, a London wine lover, no matter whether a lord or a tradesman, had no patriotic pride when it came to deciding what to buy and drink. As a result, English tastes became extremely wide-ranging. And given the country’s wealth, coupled with its expanding middle-class population, it’s not surprising that virtually all of winemaking Europe vied for the English market’s attention. This was a classic case of demand shaping supply. The English palate wanted new wines in new styles. Winemakers in France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain (and to a lesser degree Italy, the Middle East, and even some of the colonies) were more than happy to oblige.

— Paul Lukacs, Inventing Wine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012

The tastes of those who demand wine have always been part of the equation of making it. Historically Londoners, New Yorkers, and consumers in countless other places have imported nearly all their wine. Rather than passive bystanders they have been active participants in the evolution of wine. This continues today, stronger then ever, as quality wine options abound and expand like never before. That is the power of the international market, where modern wine lives.

I should mention that I learned about Inventing Wine from the authors of yet another excellent wine book, A Natural History of Wine, Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle. Respectively an anthropologist and an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, the authors describe the scientific basis of wine and its evolution, which is quite technical but still digestible for a general audience. I recommend it for the scientifically-minded.

About andrewy

I love wine and writing about it, because it's basically the most interesting thing in the world.
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2 Responses to Who drinks international wine?

  1. Nicholas MOSES says:

    For various reasons, wine simply isn’t a “habit” in the paradigmatic British or North American mundane life the way it has remained in the paradigmatic French or Italian mundane life. Not only was the most obvious solution historically local production, but these latter two countries have also never really bought into the “free trade” mania that, in exposing Britain to competition, finished off what was left of its wine industry (helped by the sugar rationing of World War I).

    To the extent that wine itself is something of an exoticism in the British or American mind, it would be more easily wedded to that which is foreign and therefore also exotic. A true snob might add that the Brits really have little choice, given the selection of local wines available on the isle (having tested British wines, I tend to view that opinion more as a statement of fact than an assertion of snobbery).

    On the other hand, American wine does not get nearly the publicity it should, even among Americans, bearing in mind that in three successive international concourses in the 1970s and the 1980s, Californian Cabernets bested AOC Bordeaux for the top places. (The results are sometimes called into question, to the extent that the Bordelais are somewhat more inclined to make Cabernet mixes with high aging potential and so it is uncertain whether the wines tested were at a comparable “optimum.” What is considered a “good” Bordeaux needs on average to age longer than what is considered a “good” California Cabernet. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that American wine *can* be good in its own right, if comparatively expensive [see above re: free trade].)


  2. Ahu says:

    Very interesting post… It makes perfect sense but I also see the exceptions. Ironically, I have spent the last 2 weeks in Germany where I have either been served German whites or Italian / French reds… guess the theory holds true but I will need to explore further 🙂


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