Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Wine Rules: 1: Drink local, act global.

All over the world people drink the best of their national and local wines - some places every day. For this, the wine drinkers of Britain owe the rest of the world an expression of gratitude. 

We will forever be in your debt, literally, and not just as a result of the global recession. We will be forever in your carbon debt.

Ten years ago my local supermarket in France used to be called Stock. Then it changed its name to Champion. Next - and still - Carrefour. 

In order to boost sales they regularly move products around the aisles so that one week the first thing you encounter on arrival is the bread, the next it's local fruit and vegetables and a month later cooked meats and dairy. 

But throughout the last decade some things never changed. The wine shelves. They're arranged by colour and by region, including a section dedicated solely to Champagne. 

Here are the reds, with 60% of the red shelf space devoted to Bordeaux - over half of which are simply Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior. 

The 'other' great French red, Burgundy, claims about 30% of the red wine shop window,  and, as with so much Burgundy, much of it is of disappointing quality, although in this case it's more to do with the labels - the store's chosen winemakers - rather than the usual problem of the contents not living up to the name of the bottle. 

The rest of the reds sit under wooden signs indicating Rhône or Sud (south), which bizarrely includes a few from supposedly lesser red appellations such as Beaujolais and mostly lightweight reds of the Loire and Alsace.

It's a similar story on the opposite side of the aisle, where the whites hold sway. Chablis, Burgundy and the Loire - including a couple of stray rosés - dominate here, with a positive display too from Alsace and a minor showing from the Rhône. No Sud, but the end of the row carries quite a selection of better-positioned rosés from Provence.

That's almost it. I haven't mentioned local wines - because the nearest AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) is Saint Pourçain, which probably doesn't strike much of a chord with many wine drinkers and in truth carries little resonance locally either. Shame.

But what's this - in the corner over there - a corner shelf devoted to, what? Is that really a Rioja? It is, a Faustina.  Presumably smuggled in through Andorra. In fact, there's a couple of Riojas on the shelf. Plus some Chianti and Barolo. Most odd of all, there's a Chilean Merlot. And they're all gathering dust because hardly anybody buys them.

Nearly all the wine on display has travelled for less than 12 hours and under 1,000 kilometres.

It's thanks to this parochial approach that Britain's wine drinkers - myself included - can sample the wares not only of our near neighbours in Europe but of our remotest exporters, without conscience. 

Few winemaking countries are exceptions to this local-drinking rule. In Italy the nationalism is reinforced by historical 'differences' between north and south. In Spain the Spaniards drink Spanish wine; Rioja, Ribera del Duero - and they drink local too. Similar internal divisions mean the Catalans prefer their own - Priorat and Penedès. The restaurants on the hills overlooking Barcelona serve jugs of local amber wine that's rarely, if ever, bottled and sold straight from the barrel.

Indeed some countries are so selfish, even greedy, in their local consumption - and my eyes are cast in a south-easterly direction here, towards the alps where Germany, Austria and Switzerland fall into my line of sight - that few if any of their best wines make it into general circulation and many wine drinkers may never encounter them.

This means that most wine drinkers' buying habits mitigate some of the damaging effects of the worldwide expansion in wine-making that has led to New Zealand's second-largest export travelling as far from its vineyards of origin as it's possible to go without actually commencing the journey back. 

Because New Zealand's biggest wine market isn't New Zealand. With a population 14 times that of New Zealand, it's the UK. 

And there's the rub. Because the UK's wine drinkers, finding their own local produce of insufficient quality or incompatible price opt for the wines of the New World to such an extent instead that we're effectively racking up more global wine miles than any other nation. 

So thank you. Thank you for mitigating our carbon footprint. 

Thank you to all those Americans drinking Californian wines - although your reluctance to drink at lunchtime is holding you back. 

Gratitude too to the Germans lapping up all that wonderful Riesling, and the Spätburgunder we never even see. 

Thanks to the French, the Italians, The Spaniards - and Catalans - and all the major wine-drinking populations that unthinkingly act global by drinking local. Cheers.


  1. Yeah, and let's not forget those wonderfully selfish Canadians who keep 90% of their wonderful B.C. wine in B.C.

    I usually don't drink Californian, though. The last two bottles we finished were from our home state of Georgia. :)


  2. When you go to a wine bar in Berlin, New York, London or Paris, you will be amazed how different the wine lists are. I have contributed to this discussion on October 21, 2009 on

    Cheers and all the best


  3. Interesting point! The same applies here in Madrid - if you go for lunch and have a 'Menú del Día' for €10 more or less, the wine you get is almost certainly from La Mancha or Valdepeñas, ie no more than say 150 km away.
    I have to add though, that this wine is usually so 'ordinaire' so table, so awful that it has to be mixed with "Gaseosa", a fizzy lemonade-like soft drink - but I don't mind, I'm glad to suffer for the cause of mitigating your carbon footprint in the UK!!! :)

  4. Amazingly short sighted and experience limiting initiative! Any Australian who signs up for this and deprives themselves of enjoying a good French Champagne on a special occasion, a brilliant Barolo with their favourite Italian meal or exquisite Albariño (a real one) from one of the great Spanish vineyards is just plan dumb!

  5. This last comment refers to the story that an Australian winemaker is urging his countrymen and women to drink only Australian wine for a month. See:



Publication of comments may be delayed due to moderation. Of comments. Not alcohol intake. Which is up to you of course.

© 2011 John Alexander