Monday, July 25, 2022

The biggest difference of European vineyards from those elsewhere

In places like North and South America, Africa or Australia, people have a vision of farms that spread to the horizon, measured in thousands of acres/hectares. Even vineyards are measured in tens or hundreds of acres/hectares, depending on where they are, so that we see images of rolling hillsides covered in vines. However, the history of Europe is based on a very different concept of land-holding — the endless vistas of grapevines might look the same, but they have many, many different owners. This makes a difference.

European vineyards (Alsace)

Historically, Europe has had three classes of land-users. At the so-called top have been the nobility, who owned lots of land but hired people to look after it for them — they had no role in the actual running of their farms. Next down the hierarchy have been the landed gentry. They lived in fancy large houses, and still hired workers to look after things, but they did also involve themselves in the running of their farms (that provided their wealth). Down at the very bottom of the heap were tenant farmers, who worked the land themselves, by hand, but did not actually own it — they had to give part of the produce to the landowner, as rent.

These days, the remnants of this system are still widespread in Europe, even though modern farms are mostly owned by neither the nobility nor the landed gentry, but by the proletariat. (NB. The wineries themselves may be owned by large companies.) For example, my house here in Sweden is surrounded by the remnants of the old feudal system. If I go for walks through the old farmland (and forests), I will frequently pass the tiny shacks in which the tenant farmers lived, next to the tiny fields that they worked manually. This is nothing like going for a similar walk in the USA or Australia. (None of the Longest straight roads in the world are in Europe, either.)

Needless to say, the European Union (EU) keeps a detailed numerical tab on the current situation of its farmland; and the survey data for 2020 are accessible in their online database (Eurostat). Unfortunately, only EU member states having a minimum planted area of 500 hectares are included in the data collection for any given crop. So, we cannot look at the vineyards of Sweden, for example, since there are only c. 100 ha of them (250 acres), in total.

However, there are data for the vineyard areas of 26 of the EU countries; and these are shown in the graph. (Note: there are currently 10 other EU countries.) Each point represents one country (some of which are labeled), located horizontally based on its total national vineyard area (ha) and vertically based on the number of actual vineyard people/companies who are recorded as owning that land.

Vineyard land-holdings in the EU

The pink line represents the situation where every vineyard is 1 ha in size (2.5 acres), on average. So, countries above the line have an average vineyard holding of <1 ha each, while countries below the line have a larger average. The two unlabeled countries near the line are: Czechia and Bulgaria. The EU average vineyard holding size is 1.4 ha (3.5 acres).

As expected, being the biggest producers, Spain, France and Italy have by far the largest total vineyard area. However, their average vineyard sizes are quite different, with those of France (10.6 ha) being much larger than either Italy (2.3 ha) or Spain (1.9 ha). It is likely that the bigger French figure is influenced by the history of large Medieval monasteries and châteaux that were the foundations of modern French wine-making (The evolution of wine — and its buildings — in France).

By non-European standards many of these vineyards are very small, and often not commercially viable. In part, this represents all of the family holdings of a dozen rows of vines, originally used for home wine-making or for eating. In the old days, one produced one’s own food, rather than visiting a shop; and many people still live like this, at least partially.

Note that Luxembourg has the next largest average holding (4.6 ha), after France. Many of you may not even know exactly where this small country is, let alone that it produces wine. However, the quality of wine is deemed high (The wines of tiny Luxembourg make a big impression), but about two-thirds of it is consumed within the country itself. It mostly consists of aromatic whites and Pinot Blanc.

Following Luxembourg, we have Austria (av. 3.8 ha), Slovakia (3.0 ha), Germany (3.0 ha), Hungary (2.4 ha), Portugal (1.5 ha), Bulgaria (1.4 ha), and Czechia (1.1 ha). It is important to note that we are not talking here about the number of wineries, but the size of individual vineyard holdings. For most owners (ie. grape-growers, not wine-makers), their grapes are sent to a local co-operative for vinification, or sold to a local commercial winery. Co-operative wineries are much less important in the New World.

After this, come the truly old-world vineyards, as described above. These include Cyprus (av. 0.6 ha), Slovenia (0.5 ha), Greece (0.5 ha), Croatia (0.5 ha), and Romania (0.2 ha — this is smaller than the block of land on which my house stands). Romania, for example, has 844,015 recorded holdings for its 180,683 hectares of vineyards, nationally; and Greece has 193,284 holdings for its 103,058 ha. Even the smallish island of Cyprus has 13,740 holdings for 7,613 ha of vineyards. In these places, the resulting wine is often quite generic, since it is produced by the large co-operatives. *

How the European Union keeps track of all of this information is not clear!

Non-European vineyard

Anyway, I have the data to compare this situation to a few states of the USA in 2017 (see How has the vineyard area of the US states changed over the past century?). The top six states by total vineyard area (in order) each have average individual holdings of:
  • California (29.9 ha),
  • Washington (22.0 ha)
  • New York (10.8 ha)
  • Oregon (5.9 ha)
  • Pennsylvania (8.5 ha)
  • Michigan (6.3 ha).
Only France gets anywhere near these average vineyard sizes (although Luxembourg is 80% of the Oregon value).

As another comparison, we can compare these vineyards sizes to the number of wineries themselves. Based on the number of wineries per state in 2021 (Statista), these are the average vineyard areas used per winery:
  • California (74.0 ha)
  • Washington (35.2 ha)
  • New York (29.4 ha)
  • Oregon (10.3 ha)
  • Pennsylvania (14.4 ha)
  • Michigan (22.2 ha)
Clearly, many if not most New World wineries buy in grapes from other than their own vineyards (see How large does a winery have to be, to be consistently profitable?). **

Walled vineyard

So, that is the difference between the Old World vineyards and the New World ones — the continents are not different just in the taste of the wines they produce. History still matters, along with terroir and technology. This situation arose when Europeans finally adopted the practices of the Agricultural Revolution, where the people of the Middle East invented farms, instead of being hunters and gatherers. The New World situation arose during the Industrial Revolution, when mechanization allowed farms to become much bigger. ***

Let’s face it European vines are grafted onto native American rootstocks (to deal with phylloxera); so the Europeans have to maintain something of their own! And of course, US viticulture was originally established on European principles in the eastern states (This 60-year-old winery changed the way America grew grapes), and Spanish missionaries further west (California's OG wine grape might be its modern day savior).

* Note that Wine Enthusiast is no longer enthusiastic about tasting wines from Bulgaria, Croatia, Luxembourg, Romania, or Slovenia, along with a bunch of other countries; and even many US states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.

** It is also worth noting that in many parts of the New World the Covid-19 pandemic has created problems for grape-growers, especially at harvest time (eg. Situation critical for some growers with farm labor missing in action). In this situation, the smaller your vineyard is, then the less of a problem you are likely to have (because you can do the work yourself).

*** This is also when global climate change was initiated, although it took another century and a half for humans to notice its effects. Things often work very slowly in this world, no matter how much modern people try to rush.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Fruit wine and alcohol-free wines really are also wines

Recently a commentary appeared in Australia: C’mon, is alcohol-free wine really even wine? This noted that: “I see no-alcohol wine has become a thing. What’s next? No-grape wine?”

This is perhaps the silliest discussion I have seen on the internet for a long time; and, believe me, I have seen plenty of very silly ones. Both alcohol-free and non-grape wines make perfect sense. That is, the concept of “wine” is not restricted to grapes, nor is it restricted to grape wines that have not had their alcohol removed. Let’s take each of these two ideas in turn, during which I will present a couple of bits of information about myself..

Non-grape wine

Wine can, of course, be made from any fruit at all, not just grapes. Wine is fermented fruit juice, or, more strictly, the fermented sugars in that juice. This process can be performed naturally (ie. in nature) as well as artificially (ie. in a purpose-built container). Fermentation occurs because there are naturally occurring yeasts on the grapes and other fruits to ferment them, or those yeasts have accumulated in places where fermentation is already occurring.

Technically, fermentation is simply the action of enzymes that produce chemical changes in organic substrates. It can be more narrowly defined as the extraction of energy from carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen. Humans have used fermentation to produce foodstuffs and beverages since the Neolithic age. For example, fermentation is used to produce the lactic acid found in pickled vegetables (and silage versus hay), and yogurt, as well as for producing the ethanol in alcoholic beverages (wine and beer).

Primates (apes, monkeys, humans, etc) have long been recorded to have a predilection for fermented juices, as well as unfermented ones; and they do not seem to care much about what fruits are used, so long as the juices taste nice. In this case, the desired end-product of ethanol is an edible form of alcohol, which has interesting psycho-active effects.

More to the point, non-grape wines can last just as long as any of the fancy wines modern people make from grapes. My wife and I have made non-grape wines for a couple of decades, now. [Actually, my wife is the winemaker, and I just assist.*] Indeed, we have recently (2022) been tasting a selection of the older ones; and they are all still pretty good:
  • Green gooseberry 2003
  • Green gooseberry 2004
  • Green gooseberry 2008
  • Green gooseberry 2009
  • Green gooseberry and strawberry 2008
  • Red gooseberry and strawberry 2008
  • Cherry 2011

Yes, you read those dates right. My wife and I agreed that the 2003 wine was still very nice, but she was more doubtful about the 2004. All except the cherry wine were made with Sauternes yeast, so that the result is fairly sweet; and these wines are best consumed with a non-sweet dessert (such as fresh fruit and cream). The cherry wine was made dry; and can be had as a pre-dinner drink, or with certain appetizers.

It is, indeed, true that if you ferment apple juice then it is usually referred to as “cider”, and if you ferment honey then it is called “mead”; and fermented rice has many local names throughout Asia.** But there are not many exceptions to simply calling the product of fermented sugars “wine”, unless it is beer (This craft brewing star is making high-end Napa wine but treating it like beer). I am ignoring here, for the moment, the idea of brewing cane sugar, to produce the alcohol used for hard seltzers.***

Low- and no-alcohol wines

Alcohol in wine is sometimes seen as a taboo topic, mostly because the relationship of Wine and health is never a simple topic. In turn, this complexity arises because alcohol has potential health effects of many various sorts (Wine and health — why is there so much argument, pro and con?). Perhaps the biggest issue is that it is entirely possible to be an alcoholic — after all, we can over-indulge in anything, from alcohol to sugar to transportation speed — and over-indulgence often leads to an early death (that is how over-indulgence is defined, medically). ****

Now, we are never likely to resolve this topic (Why we are never going to know whether wine is good for us, or not), but we can at least address the issue thoughtfully (Alcohol consumption carries significant health risks and no benefits for young people; some older adults may benefit from drinking a small amount of alcohol). One obvious thoughtful response is to be careful about the amount of alcohol in our wines; and hence the widespread interest in low- and no-alcohol versions.

No-alcohol (and low-alcohol) wine is made in a straightforward way. First you make perfectly normal wine; and then you remove some of the alcohol. The resulting beverage will not taste exactly the same (Are alcohol-free wines drinkable, by wine drinkers?), but its health effect will certainly be different, and probably much better for you.

This removal can be done by the use of technology, most commonly spinning cones (How Bob Trinchero unwittingly transformed the Italian wine industry when he released his first alcohol-removed wine) or reverse osmosis (Top advances in wine technology and what they mean to us). In either case, the end product is still a wine, in the sense that a wine is made, and then modified. The modification does not stop it from being a wine, any more than removing a set of (cancerous) ovaries stops a person from being a woman. Modifications are used for a reason!

Mind you, not all low- or non-alcohol wines are necessarily alike. Low-alcohol wine is usually defined as having alcohol by volume (ABV) of 12% or less, with anything below 10% considered very low (What is low alcohol wine?). In this sense, some wines are naturally low in alcohol, while others have had their alcohol removed.

From the point of wine commentators, the issue seems to be one of technology versus nature (Does technology trump terroir in the vineyard?):

Over the past two decades, the use of technology in both the vineyard and the cellar has exploded — though what does this mean for the transparency of wines as a whole? Are technological developments robbing wine of its authenticity?
This is a reasonable point of view; but I doubt that it will ever trump health as a criterion for choosing a beverage.

According to Wine Intelligence, “purchasing a wine that states it is lower in alcohol” is of interest to around a quarter of drinkers in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. Moreover, a recent IWSR study forecast the no- and low-alcohol wine category to grow at least 31% by 2024. So, we might as well get used to it. However, this trend is in apparent contrast to the ready-to-drink (RTD) category, which continues to grow, but with more brands introducing products with higher ABV (Half of all new ready-to-drink beverages have an ABV of 5% or higher).


Alcohol can be made from any source of sugar at all. If the source is a fruit, then the product is wine; it is a simple as that. If the wine made has more alcohol than the consumer wants, then some or all of it can be removed. One might have a fine philosophical discussion about whether this stops it being a wine, but this would not be a practical discussion. There is, after all, the old saying: “I used to think drinking was bad for me … so I gave up thinking.”

* Or “supervise”, as my wife-of-25-years prefers to describe it — those of you with husbands will know what she means!

** Note: non-fermented apple juice is sometimes also called “cider”.

*** The first commercial example of this style was Two Dogs, brewed in Australia in 1993, and widely claimed to be the “world’s first brewed alcoholic lemonade”.

**** Back when I was younger, a dinner party was arranged so that males and females alternated around the table (with partners definitely not next to each other). The idea was that the male on one side of each female engaged her in conversation, while the male on the other side filled up her wine glass. This way, she never knew how much wine she had drunk. Meals were no just about food, you know!

The women were in on this, too, of course. After all, they couldn't just bang their glass on the table, yelling “Fill ’er up. I didn't come here just for the conversation, you know.” No, they had to get their fair share while maintaining some decorum; and playing along was the simplest way to do that.

This may explain why younger generations don't drink as much wine as their elders. How is a young woman going to get a decent amount of wine, these days, while keeping her dignity? If the young males are not playing a suitable social game (and they do not seem to be doing the same as their parents), then either the decorum or the wine has to be sacrificed. Sadly for the wine industry, a decision seems to have been made.

Monday, July 11, 2022

How has the vineyard area of the US states changed over the past century?

It is of interest to think about how the world has changed within one’s own lifetime, which becomes especially true the older one gets. However, we can also think about longerterm changes; and this especially applies to the wine industry, which has been around for a very long time (even in the so-called New World).

Recently, the AAWE presented vineyard acreage data for the states of the USA way back in 1880, based on Department of Agriculture Special Report no. 36 (1881). It occurred to me that it would be interesting to compare this to the same data for today. I report on the result here.

Wine map of the United States

Unfortunately, this turned out to be much harder than I thought. There are plenty of web data on the number of wineries per US state, and also for wine production per state. However, no-one seems to care much about the source of the wine — the vineyards themselves. This same issue has been reported by Wine Folly, so I am not alone.

I managed to find some census data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for 2017 (and also for 2002, 2007 and 2012). Sadly, the USDA has the most primitive datasearch system that I have seen in the past couple of decades (and I have been dealing with this sort of thing professionally for 45 years), with very little in the way of user guidance. I eventually had to search for each state individually (data listed as “Acres bearing” in their database). So, I can only hope that I got it right. (This is one area where I am happy with the way the world has changed in my lifetime!)

The comparison data are plotted in the first graph, with the vineyard area in 1880 plotted horizontally and that in 2017 plotted vertically (note the exponential scale in both cases). Each point represents one state, with a few key ones labeled. The pink line represents equality, so that any state above the line has gained vineyard area over the 137 years, while those below the line have lost area. Those states plotted along the vertical axis had no area recorded in 1880 (13 states). There are also two states missing from the USDA dataset (Alaska and Wyoming): “withheld to avoid disclosing data for individual operations” (ie. there was only one vineyard in each state).

US state vineyard areas 1880 vs 2017

Note that California is still the top vineyard state, with New York also still near the top. However, back in 1880 Ohio and Missouri had the next two largest areas, but they have now dropped away seriously. In their place, Washington and Oregon have boomed. These changes, of course, reflect the pattern of changes in Europeanstyle cultural settlement, along with a recognition of which climates are best suited to winegrape production (The forces behind Washington wine’s rise). For the rest of the states, there is very little correlation between the two sets of data (R-square < 2%) — that is, these changes in state vineyard areas have been pretty much random!

Note that the fourth point from the top of the left axis is the upcoming Colorado region, which has recently made it into the industry news: Colorado rising: behind the world’s first high desert hybrid wine region; Colorado’s wine industry is bringing economic growth to a state known for fun. So, changes are continuing.

While on this particular topic, we can also take a quick look at the change in the national vineyard area through recent times (ie. the sum of the state areas). The USDA does have this information for all years from 2007 to 2021, plus 2002. These data are plotted in the next graph.

US vineyard area through time

Note that the vineyard area has been consistently decreasing since 2013, so that the current area is the smallest it has been this century. This is usually attributed to official attempts to deal with a grape over supply problem (aka. “vine-pull” schemes). US wine sales are reported to have barely increased in the last four years (Wine treading water in US market), so that no new vineyards are needed (not even in Colorado).   [World wine consumption is not much different.]

Therefore, for every new vineyard acre, the USA now needs to lose an old one, even if these are in different states.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Putting the wine industry in its place!

People in the wine industry naturally see wine as an important beverage. At the same time, we should all remember where wine sits, in the big scheme of things. I say this as a wine drinker — I prefer wine to beer, and both of them to spirits; I don't generally drink tea or coffee; and sugary carbonated drinks do me no good at all. None of this stops me, however, from seeing the data for what they are.

The graph below lists the top 14 beverages globally, in terms of volume consumed during 2016 (taken from Euromonitor International). As you can see, wine comes 9th, way behind beer and a little bit ahead of spirits. Should we be happy that wine is in the top 10, or sad that it is 9th out of 14?

That tea is number 1, ahead of bottled water, might surprise you; but it has long been known to be The world’s top drink. The list of the top countries by overall tea-consuming volume is pretty much what you would expect (Ranked: top 15 tea-drinking countries), with the two biggest countries on Earth out in front (China and India), but Russia is right behind, and then Pakistan. The latter is actually the world’s biggest tea importer, and that has become problematic recently (Pakistanis told to drink less tea as nation grapples with economic crisis).

However, the situation changes pretty dramatically when looking at tea consumption per person (List of countries by tea consumption per capita), with Turkey and Ireland out in front, and Russia relegated to 5th place, China to 20th and India to 28th. Even Australia and Germany drink more tea per person than do China or India! Indian tea-growing is, of course, also having trouble with climate change, just like everyone else (Why climate change is bad news for India tea producers).

Moving on, the fact that wine is also behind other non-alcoholic beverages such as coffee and fruit juices is also not much of a surprise. This is in spite of the fact that coffee is the most labor-intensive beverage to produce, and coffee plants are among the thirstiest (These California farmers want you to think about coffee the way you do wine).

That wine should be behind beer is no surprise, either, as it has long been behind in most parts of the world. Beer is usually treated as a lower alcohol beverage, which can thus be drunk on any occasion. However, we should remember that beer making and drinking can be just as esoteric as for wines (Why modern brewers are embracing centuries-old technology).

Beverages ranked globally

The position of wine relative to other drinks is not expected to improve in the near future, either. It has been endlessly reported (e.g. the State of the Wine Industry Report 2022) that younger generations, particularly Millennials (now aged 25–40), who are currently setting the tends for the alcohol industries, are far less interested in wine than were older generations (such as Baby Boomers like myself). Wine has therefore been losing significant share among these younger drinkers to other choices, including spirits, seltzers, and RTDs. Indeed, as drinking habits adjusted during the current Covid-19 pandemic, RTDs have apparently been the stand-out category for at-home consumption (Soft drink giants cosy up to spirits brands as canned cocktails soar).

Even worse, abstainers have apparently increased in number during the pandemic, along with a reduction in the general frequency of wine drinking (Survey further confirms market fight). Indeed, it has also been noted that beer drinkers prefer spirits (not wine) as their alternative drink, and that spirits drinkers prefer beer (not wine) as their alternative drink (A silver lining beneath wine’s dark cloud). Even more depressing: Alcohol-free wine presents challenges in filtration and quality assurance, so that this will not be a simple way forward for the wine industry.

On the other hand, we are also told that Americans are drinking less but better. That is, Millennials, in particular, tend to purchase more premium products than did their predecessors, but less often (Global alcoholic drinks value growth significantly outpaces volume growth). They are also reported to be amongst the highest spenders on wine in markets such as Australia, Sweden, the USA, and the UK. So, all is not lost (see my post: The wine industry is asking the wrong question).

Anyway, the wine industry is the XS size compared to the XXL of most other beverage categories; so that being in the wine industry currently requires a lot of optimism. One has to be in it because one likes it, not because the public see wine as a highly valued beverage. As the economist John Maynard Keynes once put it (The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money):
If human nature felt no temptation to take a chance, no satisfaction (profit apart) in constructing a factory, a railway, a mine or a farm, there might not be much investment merely as a result of cold calculation.
Money isn’t everything. *

* I have been reading the book Angel Customers and Demon Customers, which starts with the basic (unquestioned) assumption that the principal objective of any company is to raise it's stock price for it's shareholders, rather than do anything productive (due, I guess, to Milton Friedman). The authors arrive at the conclusion that the way to do this is to be customer—centered, which means that they arrive at a good conclusion but in completely the wrong way. Similarly, there are literally hundreds of Youtube videos telling poker players "what they are doing wrong" by not making money when they play, which misses the point that the players are there to have fun, first, not make a profit. They can't all make a profit, now can they, since all they are doing is taking money from each other.