Meeting the demands of Past & Present ; Colonial Wine
How the deemed threat of global wine shortage can be countered with a new wine world off the back of the Colonial Age…
Like a dog with a particularly precious news-based-bone, this week the British media have been fascinated by the prospect of a world wine shortage. According to a report by Morgan Stanley, we face the growing possibility of demands far outstripping production, resulting in “a significant increase in export demand, and higher prices for exports globally”. There are of course plenty of reasons for this. Poor harvests and continuing ‘vine pulling’ in the Old World set against a new middle class market in the Far East and across the globe put huge extra demands on the market. For me, a solution to this can be readily found in the past. This is far from the first time that such strains have been put onto such an ancient production line. Wine has, after all, often been the preserve of the elite throughout history simply because it is a difficult liquid to get just right. It was only really in the Modern era that we have seen the arrival of cheaper, wines ‘for the people’. It was the Colonial era that really made this possible, when the Old World powers would find new regions to meet the rising demand.
One such region was North Africa. Initially brought under vine in the Ancient World there was a seismic shift in the country’s viticulture during French occupation. It’s incredible to think that by the 1950’s two thirds of the wine traded internationally was produced in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. This was largely due to their status as French colonies. Just as this region had been used as ‘the bread basket’ of Rome in the Ancient World, North Africa was very much the ‘vineyard’ of France for decades. Making rich, high alcohol rustic wines they would beshipped over the Mediterranean to be used as table wines or to be blended with the more ‘refined’ wines of France to create bulk. In times of conflict, such as the Second World War, or in times of poor harvest this ability to have vast quantities of basic wine was invaluable. It was the staple, blended with the thinner wine of Languedoc, which was given to French servicemen as their wine ration. When the region gained independence in the 1960’s Islamic officials encouraged vineyard owners to move away from wine production. There is reason to believe however, that a growing ‘wine drinking, Islamic middle class’ may once again be open to seeing the vine encouraged.
It was not just the French who would use their colonies as a means of producing vast quantities of cheap wine to keep up with the demand of their homelands or ex-pats. India has a long history of wine production dating back to the fourth millennium BC. But it wasn’t until the Victorian era where production became widespread under British instruction. The British army, often drawn from the cream of society, were used to the luxuries of the age. The thought of a long tour of duty in India, without still or fortified wine, must have seemed intolerable. Vineyards were planted with gusto to throughout the 19th Century to to meet the demand. Indian wine seemed to be on the up, gaining international recognition in 1883 at the Calcutta Exhibition. However, the humid conditions left the region extremely open to the worst ravages of phylloxera which devastated the country’s vineyards almost over night.
After independence was achieved a period of prohibition was instigated in the 1950’s which seemed to foreshadow the death nail in the Indian wine industry. However, something of a renaissance is gaining steam in the country. Ironically, it has been driven largely by French producers who in the late Twentieth century introduced the phylloxera resistant vines to India and really kickstarted the Indian wine industry. There is now a real driving effort to get Indian wine once again recognised as an international power – the natural match for the country’s cuisine and an area of huge untapped viticultural potential. In my opinion, it will not be long before we see Indian wine, just like Indian lager before it, introduced across the UK into curry houses and from there the sky is the limit.
These are all fantastically exciting wine regions which have their own indigenous grape varieties and a legacy of thousands of years of cultivating the vine. Perhaps it is these countries, as well as other new regions in the Far East and South America, that can provide the answer to the projected ‘shortage’. There is a strong historical precedent for their ability to do so. I hope however, in future we will see them more rightly as expressions of their own national cultural, independent wines which can take on the world in their own right rather than as a colonial by-product. Wines which can stand tall in their own right, rather than as a liquid only deemed fit to be masked and blended or pressed into desperate service when the Old World came calling.
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