Thursday, 8 January 2009

Who is top dog in the wine production stakes?

I caught a snippet of wine news in the national media last week. It was announced that Italy, for the first time since 1998, was set to overtake France as the world’s largest producer of wine in 2008. A further sign of France’s inexorable decline as the former gargantuan superpower of the wine world? As usual, when statistics get into the public domain, there’s a bit more to it when you look more closely.

France and Italy are generally pretty neck and neck in terms of wine production, occupying the top two spots and competing for first place on a regular basis. 2008 has been a poor year, with resulting lower yields in France; whereas conditions were more favourable in Italy, allowing them to nudge ahead this year.

Behind the front two comes Spain; but with a mere 36 million hectolitres, to France’s 52 million and Italy’s 54 million, they are never going to be a serious challenger for the top spot. A hectolitre is a Euro-harmonised measure of volume, by the way, equal to 100 litres: basically we are talking a lot of wine here.

So far so unsurprising, but this got me thinking about who we assume makes the most wine in the world. If you look down the aisles of major supermarkets in this country, which country would you imagine is snapping at the heels of the top three? Australia perhaps?

In fact Australia is down in sixth place, behind the US (ah yes of course) and, er, Argentina. Argentina?

We may be relative newcomers to the idea of buying Argentinian wines, but they’ve been making them for a long time – and clearly drinking most of them themselves, thank you. It’s interesting to compare Argentina with Chile – two countries that we tend to lump together in wine terms. While Argentina has long had a successful wine industry, mostly making wine for domestic consumption, Chile has not.

Chile now sits in tenth place in world wine production terms, but is undisputed world champion in terms of wine exporting: of the 7.9 million hectolitres of wine they make in a year, close to 50% of it (4.2 million hectolitres) is exported. Chile historically had no tradition of wine drinking or wine-making. However, in one of the most remarkable success stories of the wine world, they built a wine-making industry based on, and still dominated by, exports.

It’s worth looking at another unusual name, for us in Europe at any rate, which figures highly in the wine production statistics: China. China is now the world’s seventh largest producer of wine in the world, just behind Australia. We don’t (yet) see Chinese wines on the High Street, as most of their production is for domestic consumption. But, given the Chinese determination to succeed when they set their minds to it, I wouldn’t be surprised if that all changes in the next five years.

Where do you reckon New Zealand comes in the world rankings? Maybe somewhere close to Chile? Not only are they nowhere near Chile, producing just over 1 million hectolitres of wine a year to Chile’s 7.9 million, they don’t even make the top twenty. Such wine-making luminaries as Greece, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine and Moldavia all make more wine than New Zealand. We in the UK are by far New Zealand’s biggest export market.

It’s also instructive to look at the absolute volumes being produced by each country, as well as their relative importance. Italy, with its 54 million hectolitres, produces over three times as much wine as Australia. In fact just two regions, Sicily and Puglia (the “heel” of Italy) produce more wine than the whole of Australia each year. Of France’s 52 million hectolitres of wine, 10% or so of that total is produced by just one region: Bordeaux, France’s single biggest wine region, by some margin.

There’s no big story here, just a timely reminder that statistics always have a story to tell, if you look behind the headline.

- Organisation International de la vigne et du vin (OIV), Situation Report for the World Vitivinicultural Sector in 2005 (the most recent available)
- Istituto Statistica Mercati Agro-Alimentari (ISMEA), Rome
- Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux (CIVB)

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