Wine, quantity or quality?

When it comes to wine, as in many other fields, quantity and quality are often at odds. More than ever, in a context where the supply of wine far exceeds the demand, making the right choice is imperative and involves the entire process of viticulture, winemaking and marketing.

As a historic wine-producing country whose vineyards are the centre of “old Europe” winemaking, France sits consistently among the top three leaders of global wine production, alongside Italy and Spain, and lies at the heart of the problems created by overproduction. While global production in the 21st century hovers around 270 million hectolitres, consumption varies between just 220 and 250 million hectolitres, a negative differential to which French production contributes between 43 and 50 million hectolitres, depending on the year.

The problem of overproduction—and the crisis it creates today—directly leads to the question of quantity, in terms of grape and wine production. The rise of productivism in agriculture, particularly in viticulture, initiated in the 1930s and consolidated by the Pisani laws (1960-62), was made possible by the application of fertilisers and pesticides in the new vineyards replanted after the phylloxera crisis. These practices pushed the vines to produce unprecedentedly high yields, despite much lower planting densities per hectare. This was also facilitated by clone selection based on productivist criteria and the use of increasingly large and efficient machinery for treatments and harvesting.
The success of these practices led to the establishment of a “plafond limite de classement” (PLC) in 1974, in addition to the maximum yield-per-hectare permitted in the decree of each appellation. This allowed the INAO (National Institute of Origin and Quality) to increase yields by 10, 20 or even 30%, depending on the abundance of each harvest. It is within this productivist setting that organic growing gained momentum, offering a qualitative alternative.

In vinification, productivism was encouraged by the development of oenology and the numerous inputs and treatments which made it possible to produce wines from grapes that had been weakened by high yields and chemicals. These methods allowed the artificial control, and even improvement of wine quality, transforming “sickly” wines to drinkable wines.

In reaction to the exponential production of increasingly standardised wines with no discernible “defects”, but with no discernible quality either, and by adopting rules that limit (more or less strictly) the use of oenological inputs and treatments, wines once referred to as “produced from organically farmed grapes”, gained the title “organic wines” in Europe in 2012. On this foundation, but imposing higher standards (eliminating almost all oenological inputs), the concept of “natural wine” developed with growing success.

In addition to the problems of overproduction and the declining trend in wine consumption, there are also now manifold issues related to climate change, which is multiplying the struggles of winegrowing and causing a resurgence of vine diseases which affect both the quantity and quality of the grapes. This has a major effect on grape varieties poorly adapted to the changing climate, damaged harvests, and fermentation difficulties, all of which ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the quantitative approach and compel a reverse exigency on quality.

Stipulations for better quality are coming from domains that have emerged from decades of productivism with no way out, and from a new generation of winemakers who are reinvesting in many terroirs—with human-scaled vineyards, a “natural” philosophy and highly targeted marketing—but who are facing the challenges of that wider context that is witnessing the extensive grubbing-up of vineyards and surplus wine distillation. More than ever, the right choice—is there really a choice?—seems to be one of respecting nature by adapting to it rather than countering it, harvesting quality, rather than overexploited, fruit.