ONE NORMALLY WOULDN’T think that airplane manufacturing and winemaking would have much in common, but thanks to the intricacies of international trade, the two industries have recently become inextricably linked.
This issue dates back to 2004, when the United States filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization alleging that European Union countries were giving illegal government subsidies to the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, creating an unfair economic advantage against the U.S.’s own Boeing corporation. The EU and Airbus quickly filed a countercomplaint, and the WTO launched a pair of investigations that would, after numerous appeals, find both the United States and the European Union guilty of providing illegal subsidies.
As you can imagine, neither government was happy with this ruling, and in 2019, both sides announced extensive lists of proposed tariffs on imported goods if a deal couldn’t be brokered. Finally, last October, after both sides walked away from the bargaining table, the United States implemented a 25 percent tariff on European wine (specifically wine under 14 percent alcohol, excluding Champagne, sparkling wine, Italian wine and, oddly enough, Hungarian dessert wine). Scotch and other whiskeys, as well as liqueurs, were also targeted.
The tariff has been somewhat slow to affect your local wine shop’s shelves, largely due to the fact that Arkansas’s wine consumption is lower than many other states, so it takes longer for newly tariffed wines to arrive here. Many players along the supply chain— wineries, importers, and wholesale distributors—have all taken cuts to their profit margins before the bottles ever arrive at your local wine shop. But these efforts to keep the wine-buying public in a relatively wine-buying mood are only short-term solutions, especially during the time economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 virus, and you’re likely to notice rising prices in the coming months.The tariffs have, however, resulted in steep declines in the amount of wine being brought into the country. Wine imports from Spain, Germany and France have plummeted, risking thousands of wine-related jobs and dealing a major blow to the wine industry across Europe. This was the goal—to hit Europeans where it would hurt most: in an industry that was not only financially important but also serves as a key piece of national identity for many countries. The tariffs worked so well that the United States used the threat of a 100 percent tariff on all European wines to stave off the implementation of a European tax on the digital services of American tech companies in January. Thankfully, eleventh-hour negotiations and a concerted effort by the global wine industry staved off this final order.
But in the event that calmer heads don’t always prevail and European wines are eventually priced outside our budget, what are we supposed to drink? Well, friends, this is where we’ve got you covered.
Used to drinking Bordeaux? Look to South America.
In the late 1800s, a tiny vine-eating louse named phylloxera decimated the vineyards of Europe, almost wiping out the continent’s wine industry. European winemakers, seeing their careers literally withering on the vine, quickly moved to set up shop in a phylloxera-free country and soon saw that Chile and Argentina fit the bill just fine. Literally half a world away, these countries were isolated enough to ward off fears of phylloxera’s spread and already had a fledgling wine industry. Prominent European wine families quickly set up vineyards and wineries and planted the grapes they were most familiar with: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot—the classic varieties of Bordeaux.
Today, Chile produces some of the world’s best and most expensive examples of cabernet sauvignon, but the bottling from Maquis winery ($20) shows that the nation’s talent isn’t reserved for the bottles with the highest price tag. This wine’s top note of fresh-from-the-vine bell pepper (a hallmark of Chilean cabernet) soars over darker plum and blackberry and a powdery cocoa finish. On the opposite side of the Andes, malbec is living its best life as the nation’s shining-star red grape, where it’s made into everything from classic big-flavored wines to lively rosés and even some surprisingly palatable sparkling wine. Look for producers such as Kaiken and its Ultra Malbec ($20) as an example that wrangles malbec’s diva attitude into a wine that’s more Judy Garland than Liza Minnelli.
Burgundy no longer in the budget? Find a bottle from New Zealand.
Yes, most people think of grapefruit and grass-scented sauvignon blanc when they think of New Zealand, but the nation’s South Island (officially named Te Waipounamu) is also home to some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay on Earth. Geographically, it makes sense—both countries are at roughly the same latitude and are profoundly affected by their proximity to bodies of water—but even more than that, one need only watch The Lord of the Rings to see that New Zealand, acting as a Middle Earth stand-in, looks just like those enchanted rolling hills of Burgundy.
Chardonnay reigns supreme in the South Island’s northern half, where producers such as Kumeu River make wines that are haunting in their clarity. Kumeu River’s Estate Chardonnay ($35) is awash in green-apple and bright pear notes that, with just a hint of age, turn creamy and toasty, like the perfect French patisserie. Even farther south in Central Otago, Burgundy’s famous red wines are being given a run for their money. Pinot noir, generally considered one of the ficklest grapes to grow, flourishes in the cool mountain air. The bottling from Mud House Wines ($22), with its Mrs. Robinson-esque palate of seductive, earthy cherries, holds up against most Burgundian wines that are $10 to $15 above its price point.
Have your Champagne dreams turned into nightmares? Sip on a Cap Classique.
Let’s be honest. There’s nothing quite like Champagne, and that might be why the original wine tariffs clearly ignored Champagne and all other European sparkling wines. But of course, there’s always the what-if of future tensions and future tariffs. While Champagne holds my heart, it’s far from the only sparkling wine worth drinking. In the event that European sparklers become unavailable, we’ll still have incredible wines from California, South America and Australia to choose from. But recently, the magical and miraculously affordable sparkling wines from South Africa have me captivated.
Labeled Méthode Cap Classique (or sometimes MCC), South Africa’s sparklers are made using the same méthode as their classic French cousins, meaning that the secondary fermentation—the one that causes all those lovely bubbles—happens once the wine is already in the bottle, a seemingly small, but incredibly important, detail. Examples such as the 2017 Backsberg Brut Méthode Cap Classique ($21), portray that debonair, James Bond-in-abread-roll yeastiness that we all love in Champagne and balance it with the raciness of fresh green apples and pears. Pricewise, it’s a Wednesday-night wine with Friday-night flavor.
Looking to try some of the best wine in Arkansas? O’Looney’s Wine & Liquor and Colonial Wine & Spirits are home-delivering in Little Rock. Up in NWA, Rogers’ Angkor Wine And Liquor, and Bentonville’s King James Wine School are both offering curbside pickup.