Even now, the average Italian is not very aware of New World wines. Many casual consumers probably did not even tried one in their life and I can’t say I blame them: with such wealth of wines, both local and national, fit to every palate, there are not may reason to watch abroad, let alone to the other side of the World.
Of course the press talks about them from time to time, though it is not exactly the highest topic in the news.
But what did Italian wine experts thought about American wine more than 120 years ago? Giornale Vinicolo vol. 21, collecting the issues from 1895 draws an interesting and contrasting picture toward the issue. The entire text (in Italian) can be found here.
Number 4 of the year starts with a special issue by director Edoardo Ottavi: “Will America compete against us in wine as well?”
Considering the USA, the author acknowledges its enormous potential for quantitative production, due to the extent of land available for grape growing. The most promising states would be California (of course), Georgia, Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Massachusetts.
However at the end of the 19th century a definitive solution to phylloxera was still to be found. For this reason Ottavi also adds that no European vine can grow in North America, and that the only possible wine to be made here is the one from local hybrid, not fit for quality production. Furthermore American market is so big that local wines will never be able to “satiate” its thirst.
He concludes that “There will be no possible competition from North America to european wines, thus the issue won’t be further considered”. Ah the ingenuity! And to think that Cesare Mondavi will emigrate to America only 11 years later!
Then South America wines are considered: here the phylloxera was still to be seen (and in some area never arrived), so the author shows much more concern.(1) We discover that the power of Chile is not a modern development: the Country was already the most productive in South America in 1895, with vineyards covering 100,000 ha (more fragmented in the south around Bio Bio, with the biggest producers located in central Chile) and already exporting its produce. The wines have good quality and are made advanced techniques, the best from French varieties. The biggest problem was the logistics: the Andes barrier was at the time still a big obstacle and even with the development of a trans-Andean railway the length and difficulty of the trip will reverberate their cost to the final price. For this reason the author, with admirable foresight, states that “for now and for not just a few years, this American viticultural region does not need to worry us.”
The issue on American wines continues in Number 6, dated February 10th 1895. Other South American Countries are considerered: Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Argentina surface under vine is estimated at 22,500 hectares, with a production of 600,000 hectoliters a year. We notice that the main production areas has remain unchanged for more than 120 year: Mendoza (9,000 ha), San Juan (7,500 ha) and Catamarca. La Rioja and Salta were minor regions at this time, still less planted than Buenos Aires and Entre Rios (near the Uruguay Border, not much heard today).
The author concedes a good potential to this Country thanks to propitious climate and soil, but he adds that the road is long and the industry needs to focus on instruction and rationalization both in the vineyard and in the winery. Furthermore, here too vignerons were battling against phylloxera.
In 1895 local wine only satisfied 1/5 of the total demand, so there was not much to worry about. On the contrary fake european wines and imitations were widespread and that was a more serious concern.
For now they tend to replace european wine with liquid that is wine in name only, and that is produced in Buenos Aires.
Few words are spent for Uruguay: the Country is very small and had only 2,595 ha of vines in the departments of Montevideo and Paysandu, some of them still not in production. Phylloxera had landed here as well, thus all considered Uruguay would have remained and importer of european wines for a long time.
Paraguayan and Brazilian wines are a niche even today. The article reports some attempts in Paraguay, but winemaking is practically non-existent and the market very small (13-15,000 hl). Consumption is much higher in Brazil, but viticulture here is still in an embryonic phase. Bolivia, Venezuela and the other South American Countries do not grow grapes for wine.
Edoardo Ottavi concludes that Chile is the most advanced Country for wine production in the area, but even it can’t satisfy the demand of its neighbours. South America would have remained a profitable market for european wines for many decades to come, the only concern being that of falsification and imitations.
The author states that fake wines are the only way these Countries can compete with the Old World. Of course he was wrong, maybe he could not have imagined the technical advancements that would have take place decades after and the “defeat” of phylloxera which would have allowed Argentinian wine as well to become a serious competitor in the world of wine. Now USA, Chile and Argentina makes nice wines and export much, in Europe and in the rest of the World as well.
Anyway he was right in considering these three countries the most promising for wine production, to this I pay tribute.
What about the World of wine in 120 years? Will we see the rise of Asia, maybe Chinese or Japanese wines? For now it seems very difficult, but so it seemed to Edoardo Ottavi the success of American wines back in his days.
(1) Notice Edoardo Ottavi only possesses second hand sources, the words of a friend who visited Chile and the relation of Buenos Aires based Pompeo Trentin for the government.
Corriere vinicolo volume 21