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Swimming in the Olympic Wine Lake (March 5, 2004)

We Canadians are not pulling our weight internationally. On the league table of wine consumption we're way down there at Number 35 – just below Bulgaria, Lebanon and Uzbekistan, for heaven's sake.

Luxembourg, at number one (63.3 litres per capita), is doing its bit; so too are France, Italy and Portugal. Slovenia, Switzerland, Croatia, Argentina, Spain and Uruguay make up the rest of the top ten wine-imbibing nations.

Those prodigious drinkers the Russians aren't doing much to lower the level of the rising wine lake. Consumption has dropped to 5 litres per head (during the Soviet regime it was 20 litres). Today, in Russia, a bottle of vodka is half the price of the cheapest bottle of wine.

The British, on the other hand, have been holding up their end; consumption in Blighty has risen from 7.7 litres in 1981 to 22 litres last year (this is roughly twice the amount Canadians consume annually and has much to do with the availability of wine in supermarkets).

Why am I exercised by national consumption figures? Well, I keep getting reports of record grape harvests everywhere. According to one study, by next year the production of wine around the world will reach a palate-numbing 282 million hectolitres. At last year's Vinexpo, experts warned that, given global consumption patterns, by 2005 there could be a surplus of 100 million hectolitres of wine. That's 26,400,000 US gallons.

Who's making all this wine? Australia, North America and South Africa are the major culprits – all up 40 to 50 per cent in production between 1994 and 1999. Even Europe, where the EU has tried to contain the problem, mainly by prohibiting the planting of new vineyards, production is up over 17 per cent. To put this in perspective, a study by an Australian economist states that his country aims for an annual 8 per cent increase in exports. But global consumption is growing by a mere 2 per cent annually. And Australia is just one of many wine-producing countries that are aggressively trying to export products from saturated home markets.

But if you think this means the price of a bottle of Montrachet or Mouton-Rothschild will come down, you're dreaming in technicolour. The price of plonk will drop as the glut of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon hits the shelves, but the wines of pedigree will get even more expensive.

One major reason is the Beijing Olympics in 2008. China will be welcoming the world, and they will want to show Westerners particularly that their hotels and restaurants are as fine as any in New York, London or Paris. To this end, they will need wine lists that could win a Wine Spectator award. So over the next few years China's sommeliers will be busy augmenting their cellars with those collectible wines prized by connoisseurs.

Cities such as Chongqing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Harbin, Tianjin and Guangzhou will want to emulate the capital and offer their visitors – as well as their local clientele of the nouveaux riches – the Mondavi Reserves, DRCs, Lafites, Sassicaias and Granges.

Beijing is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and with the number of newly-minted millionaires in China the demand for icon and super-premium wines will grow exponentially. The most recent stats show that China consumed 390 million litres of wine in 2001. That's about a glass per person a year. But more and more Chinese are drinking wine, thanks to rapid economic development and a rise in people's living standards.

According to figures released by Vinexpo Asia-Pacific in Tokyo two years ago, wine consumption in China "soared 61.8 per cent between 1994 and 2000." (Maybe the US should think in terms of wine when exporting democracy.)

Wine trade predications are that wine consumption in Asia as a whole will grow by 16.4 per cent by 2006. Now add India to the equation with its one billion population and you have a huge potential market for world wines. Currently Indians consume a meager .006 bottles per capita. (The global average is five bottles annually.)

So if the major wine producing regions can weather the next five to ten years, the outlook could be rosy. But will we have to win the lottery to afford to replenish the wines that we have been ageing patiently in our cellars for the last decade? Aye, there's the rub.




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