I before E

I’m referring of course to ‘I before e, except after c’, the rhyme used to assist people with their spelling. Whilst a handy little mnemonic, it is largely ignored now as having too many exceptions to the rule to make it a useful learning tool (I’ve used one exception myself in my very first sentence). These ground rules are important though for establishing boundaries, and I came across one when progressing through my WSET Levels 2 and 3 (Intermediate and Advanced) that I thought I would share. In todays wine world it’s not a watertight rule by any means, and there are multiple exceptions, but for me it still plays a large visual part of how I structure the wine world, and certainly something I still use when helping others.

I’m talking about the 30-50 rule – that wine is produced in countries, and specifically limited to the areas of those countries, that lie between 30-50 degrees latitude in both the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere.

Wine Map   Map Source ThirtyFifty

When I’ve run tastings for small groups it’s been a particularly successful visual in helping people to work out where in the world they are drinking, as well as the what. I had maps printed on pages of A4 and laminated, and then set them out as placemats for each taster. They could use the blank side of the page to assess the appearance/colour of their wine, and then flip the page over to put it in context as to where it has come from. Is it cool climate or warm climate? Is the region near water or inland?

As you can see from the image above the majority of wine producing areas fall within these two bands, certainly all of the important historical ones. Two things are changing this though and may eventually consign the 30-50 rule to the bin.

Firstly is global warming, which is now allowing viticulture to take place in the outer limits of these boundaries. Only 50 years ago English wine was a dream away, and certainly not something that could ever be taken seriously. How times have changed, and just the rise of a degree or two has enabled winemaking to move north in to southern England (and also parts of northern Germany). There isn’t enough warmth yet to successfully ripen red grapes to any depth – some varietal wines exist but they are far outnumbered by their white counterparts, and the red grapes are better utilised in sparkling wine. Many of these red grapes won’t be familiar, being either hybrid or Germanic varieties, but the most famous red is Pinot Noir which, liking a longer cooler climate takes well here. It also thrives in northern France, being a key component in Champagne and the red grape of Burgundy.

Secondly, progressive winemaking is continually changing the production methods and vintners have an armoury of tools to use in a given circumstance. If you head back to the decades leading up to the 1980’s it wasn’t unusual to see a split of harvests something like 3 vintages per decade being rated as poor, 3 years rated as good, 2 as great and 2 as outstanding. These days you are unlikely ever to see wines rated below good. Technology allows such constant intervention in every step of the winemaking process that you can disperse storm clouds using iodine flares or utilise temperature controls in warmer climates. The younger breed of tenacious winemakers, producing in many countries (Chile, for example) where winemaking has no tradition handed down through generations, have no rules to bind or limit them. They’re continually taking winemaking further or higher, looking for that unique new mix of climate, soil and grape variety that will create a unique selling point (USP).

As things progress, I hope that the map visual with its two bands will continue to be used, even with its inaccuracies. For me, it limited what I viewed at the beginning of my wine studies as the unlimited number of wines that existed in the world. Sainsbury’s sold different wine to Tesco, who sold different wine to Marks & Spencer. Multiply that by the number of merchants, regions, producers and individual lines/brands, and you had something that was frankly un-fathomable.

Conversely, it was a map of the whole world that allowed me to put things in to perspective.

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