This past summer I received an e-mail from Zoltán Demeter, a winegrower in Hungary's Tokaj region whose wines I admire unreservedly. I met with him last year in Tokaj and we tasted carefully through his wines, the discussion extending well beyond the usual technical jabber.
We talked about the fitful progress of Hungarian wine, and I commented, "You cannot go beyond your culture."
This statement apparently struck Mr. Demeter, enough so that months later he asked my permission to use it as a quotation on the label of his 2011 Tokaji "Veres" Dry Furmint, a single-vineyard dry white wine of exceptional quality. I was happy to give my consent.
What does "You cannot go beyond your culture" mean? It reflects, I believe, what might be called 21st-century wine sense.
Previously, the division between ordinary and fine wine was a matter of money and technical competence. Until very recently, the wine world was classically divided between the Haves and the Have-Nots.
The Haves were famous districts that commanded high prices and worldwide distribution, and had long-standing technical competence. They ruled.
The Have-Nots were the many wine zones around the world whose wines fetched derisory prices, had little or no distribution beyond their home countries or even localities, and whose winemakers often had little scientific training or modern equipment. They languished. And their often-rustic wines hardly encouraged a following.
All that has been swept aside in the 21st century. Winemakers everywhere are now well-trained. Modern equipment is commonplace. Wines from everywhere reach our shelves. Prices for many once-obscure wines are higher than ever before, with local capital investment (often derived from industries other than wine) flowing into new or revived wine districts.
You see this in pretty much every wine country you can think of: Argentina, Chile, Hungary, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Canada, Romania, Italy and many others. Technical wine competence is now universal.
So what, then, holds some back while others rapidly progress? Sure, it might be climate or soil or inappropriate grape varieties. But mostly it's culture. Wines improve in lockstep with the culture—local or national—that creates them. Put another way: You cannot go beyond your culture.
I saw this in Hungary, which remains hobbled not only by the devastating effects of decades of communism (which collectivized vineyards and required the production of low-quality bulk wines for export to the former Soviet Union), but by its still-transitioning free-market modern economy.
Put simply, many Hungarian wine drinkers are less than conversant with the world's best wines, as they are too expensive. Decades of low-quality wines have also left a residual tolerance of, and affection for, less-than-stellar wines, many of them sweet and banal (white wines) or rustic and coarse (reds).
In Argentina, where we lived for several wonderful months, you can easily see the effect of economics in hobbling the local wine culture. There, it's a protectionist economic culture that prevents local wine drinkers from sampling the world's wines by imposing prohibitive tariffs on imports. No prizes for guessing what everyone drinks as a result.
And it's not just "emerging" countries that see economic policy as a vehicle of enforced provincialism. Both Canada and Sweden, for example, are monopolistic in controlling both the availability and variety of wines in both countries.
While Canada is slowly emerging from its self-imposed cultural straightjacket, the fact is that Canadians still see only a fraction of the world's wines that they can easily afford. (It was only this past summer, for example, that it became legal for Canadian wine producers to ship their wines outside of their home province to other Canadians.)
Of course, the United States is in no position to point fingers at ridiculous laws and regulations governing alcohol. If anything, we're the world leader in such lunacy. But we have gotten better, if spottily so. Our markets are collectively more open than ever before.
But legalities and economics, however powerful (and they are), do not tell the entire tale. Culture is the key. What a culture prizes, values, pursues and endorses is what really determines and shapes both wine quality and style.
California wines have changed, and often improved, in direct reflection to the many changes in our culture. And you can certainly say the same about Australian wines. Both are emerging from a longstanding and still powerful culture that prized power over finesse, strength over subtlety. Is this changing? You bet it is—and faster than some might imagine or care to credit.
Think of the changes in American cars, as a parallel. Have American cars improved because of our consumer embrace of the "cultures" of Japanese and European automobiles, with their emphasis on quality construction, engineering and sophisticated performance? They sure have. Our culture changed and so have our cars.
As a culture begins to both value and pay for nuance, refinement and subtlety—which are, after all, features of fine wines everywhere, never mind the grape variety—wines change too.
We're seeing this in a growing interest in, and celebration of, wines made from grapes picked at lower ripeness levels (which consequently means lower alcohol levels, as well). Do such wines dominate? Not yet. But are they, however slowly, beginning to transform the wine culture? Count on it.
Anyone who visits California's or Oregon's best wine producers cannot help but notice that discussion about just these sorts of wines—and the vineyard and winery techniques that help create them—now is universal. The same is true in Australia, by the way.
This is not to say that every winemaker or wine lover is in favor of such wines, but rather, this change is in the air and, increasingly, it translates to what's in your glass, too. Most importantly, it's not just fashion, but rather a genuine cultural shift.
Wine success and wine appreciation today is now vibrantly—even vitally—a matter of culture. If you want to make 21st-century sense of wine, look to your culture (both personal and national). It's the springboard—or the obstacle.