France vs Italy: the clash of the titans of Wine

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| Is Bordeaux really the center of the fine wine world?

France and Italy are the big dogs of wine, but who would win if they faced each other?

According to exchange platform Liv-ex, Champagne and Tuscany recently increased their secondary market share to 14.8% and 7.9% respectively. Sassicaia’s 2017 vintage sold for a record £2,400 ($3,018) per case last week, up 41.2% from its release price. This brings us to a conclusion. If profit is your holy grail, you know which horses to bet on.

Of course, there are enophiles who demand more from their bottles than a return on investment. Attributes like diversity, value for money and even, he whispers, fun. So that’s the puzzle. Which country deserves your dollars the most?

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer is asked by his new boss (a super villain with a nuclear device): “Which is your least favorite country, Italy or France?” The answer to Homer’s answer is priceless: “Hehe heh. No one ever says Italy.” And, yes, a nation’s inherent likeability should factor into our purchasing decisions; we’ve all forgiven a sometimes inedible rye bread and marinated anchovy sandwich in the past, thanks to friendly service.

Of course, you won’t find many of the criteria below in the auction manual. But the idea that such considerations are insignificant doesn’t sit well with an inquisitive millennial audience looking for non-monetary stimulation.

Diversity

Only one nation in Europe (Portugal is my second) deserves to win the diversity crown. You know who I’m talking about. Italy has more than 350 appellations and more than 100 IGT appellations. There are around 100 varietals in regular use across the country, while hundreds more are held in reserve, added to blends when the winemaker sees fit. Mastering Italian wine can take some time. But that is precisely what interests us: Negroamaro and Aglianico are true originals. Good Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are made everywhere. It’s boring as hell.

Granted, growers in certain regions of Italy have a penchant for international styles (French grapes, in other words), but we’ll get to that later. Bolgheri’s entry into the collector circuit is based on reproducing a long-established formula, established by the French centuries ago. Yet there is a treasure trove of original flavors to be discovered in Italy, particularly in the north and south, which leaves France for the dust. Not all native grape varieties are worth the time of day. But enough are.

Winner: Italy

Value for money

Let’s send a pernicious myth for good. France, the land of gem hotel rooms for $5,000 a night (hang your head in shame, Paris), can offer good value for money. I am talking, among other things, of the red blends of Languedoc-Roussillon which can go for a song. There is an incredible amount of excellent wine being made today, most of which sell for less than $30. This includes a bit of Bordeaux and Burgundy. In a nod to mainstream fashion, relatively few of the bottles I tasted this year were overextracted or very ripe, despite a recent string of torrid vintages. Good. The European wine that attempts to mimic Hunter Valley alcohol levels is about as authentic as the counterfeit Premier Cru, labeled Chateuer Maton Rutherschild.

We tend to forget that with several brilliant vintages to its credit, the Bordeaux mid-range is not a rip-off. The quality of Bordeaux Blanc de Graves and Sauternes has never been better. Ditto for the Loire Valley appellations, in addition to Côtes du Rhône-Villages, Bourgogne Rouge/Blanc, and Alsace. The border region of France is sorely underrated for the amount of fun it provides.

In this regard, Italy falls short. However, there are two important caveats: the ‘lesser’ Nebbiolo from Piedmont has impressed lately, while good Chianti Classico is reasonably plentiful and rarely expensive. Yet in appellations like Barolo, you have to part with significant sums to achieve top quality. I’ve also noticed that too much Chianti (without the classico suffix) is about as exciting as a data entry clerk from Switzerland. Italy can offer value, there is no doubt. But France triumphs in the radius of the choices.

Winner: France

Innovation

Difficult to judge. Winemakers from both nations may have the same fetishes: sustainability; organic/biodynamic viticulture; using altitude to maintain acidity; concrete eggs; amphorae. I think that France and Italy are almost neck and neck in terms of organic area (25%). Climate change is just as worrying for these wine powers. Neither is resting on their laurels.

Winner: draw

Humility

A cruelly underestimated quality in a zeitgeist where narcissism is considered a virtue. Italy is the only European country I have encountered where the establishment will openly criticize its past efforts, choices and native varieties. From Sangiovese to Carricante, you’ll always find an Italian ready to discuss a varietal’s faults.

However, this is not just gratuitous iconoclasm. If a winemaker in Tuscany feels that a French import will provide better quality, then in the mud he walks away. The following caught my attention this year: “There is a presumption that the ‘right’ variety must be the native grape of the region…the right variety is simply one that responds to the terroir with pinpoint accuracy, offering a sense of place and top quality wines The fact that the Chardonnay is not native to the island [Sicily] was irrelevant in the eyes of my father,” said Benjamin Franchetti, son of the late Andrea.

Chiara Lungarotti, a very proud Umbrian, accepted. “My father, Giorgio Lungarotti, reintroduced Cabernet Sauvignon to our region in the 1960s and then, in the early 1970s, Merlot and other international grape varieties. Behind these experiments there was a great curiosity to understand how the international grape varieties could behave in our The first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard that my father planted was initially dedicated to a 100% Cab wine, then, from its first vintage in 1977, to our “super-Umbrian” San Giorgio, today produced with 50% Cabernet and 50% Sangiovese. Umbria is indeed an excellent example of coexistence between indigenous and international grape varieties.”

Such a declaration would be unthinkable in L’Hexagone; producers would rather drink a poisoned croissant than welcome Italian varieties. Can you imagine proposing to a Burgundian to replace Pinot Noir with Nebbiolo? In Bordeaux, the decision to allow a maximum of 10% Touriga Nacional in Bordeaux/Bordeaux Supérieur wines was not universally welcomed, at least based on numerous off-the-record conversations. If Bordeaux winemakers are pushed too far and asked to plant Müller-Thurgau en masse, they will likely go on strike.

The contrast in attitudes is vast. Italians are proud of their culture, but they are ready to ask for help when needed. This is one of the reasons why no one ever says Italy.

Winner: Italy

Ideal for white wines

The world is getting warmer, which means we’re all going to be drinking more white wine and chilled beer. Who is best placed to satisfy our desires?

I guess it depends on the context. France, rather brilliantly, can do chic and everything else; your options run the gamut, from $2,500 Montrachet to low-cost Chenin from the Loire, or perhaps a delicious Pinot Gris from Alsace. France has made white wine an art form. Consumers need not look elsewhere.

The competition? Vermentino and Gavi are generally sound quality. There are delicious aromatic whites made in Friuli-Veneto, while Greco di Tufo hits the summer. The number of luxury brands has also increased in recent years, including Ornellaia Blanc. I can’t comment on the quality because I’ve never tasted it.

In the end, there are many more ordinary whites made in Italy than in France, especially if it is Trebbiano. Humdrum Trebbiano is a certified passion killer: stale, charmless plonk. Like high-yielding Pinot Grigio, but worse.

Winner: France

So, in the final analysis, nothing separates them. But still, no one ever says Italy.

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