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The 45th Parallel: A World of Change in Winemaking

The 45th Parallel: A World of Change in Winemaking

Vineyards from Bordeaux to Croatia to China to Michigan adjust to a market revolution

Bill Daley | Chicago Tribune

New competitors

For centuries, Bordeaux epitomized the glamour of the wine life along the 45th parallel. No more. There’s too much competition. In this new world, Russian tycoons pour money into Black Sea wineries, Croatia hustles to get its wine groove back after years of war and communism and Oregon’s Willamette Valley gains worldwide attention for its Burgundian-like pinot noir. Like the preachers riding the circuit of old, expert winemakers travel from continent to continent, winery to winery, working to build wines that can win reputation-making scores from influential critics and magazines. Their stylistic impact goes beyond pricey collector bottlings to affect even the affordable wines so many of us buy in supermarkets every day.

What makes the 45th parallel so special? In the Northern Hemisphere, wine grapes grow best within a defined geographical band stretching from about 30 to 50 degrees north latitude. That’s roughly from southern Canada to Southern California. Sounds like a lot of room, but not every locale will work with every grape variety, especially if you want to make quality wine people will buy.

It’s a Goldilocks scenario: Go too far north or too high in elevation and it’s often too cold for the grapes to ripen successfully and predictably. Too far south or too close to sea level and it’s often too hot; grapes can ripen so quickly that quality suffers. But there are locales between 30 and 50 degrees latitude, notably along the 45th parallel, that tend to be just right for various wine grape varieties; you just need to know which works best where.

“I love the idea of the 45th parallel,” said Clara Orban, a languages professor at DePaul University, who teaches a popular geography course called The World of Wine. “Really, right in the middle of this larger band you can have the ideal balance between temperature, humidity and soil.”

Where magic begins

Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales for Binny’s Beverage Depot, said the 45th parallel is just the starting point for good wine.

“To me, where the real magic comes into play is when this and all the other elements meet to create that special synergy needed to produce a magical wine,” he said. “Other critical factors are varietal and clone selection, terroir and, maybe most important, the winemaker’s expertise.”

Jeffirs said the line has little impact on consumers until someone tries to sell a bottle from an up-and-coming region like Oregon or Michigan. Then making that link from one place to another is important.“In wine, there’s a lot of name recognition,” said Brian J. Sommers, author of “The Geography of Wine: How Landscapes, Cultures, Terroir and the Weather Make a Good Drop.”

“If that’s lacking, you’ve got to make yourself a recognizable entity.

“If people don’t know your product, it’s good marketing to say, ‘We may not be Bordeaux, but we’re Bordeaux in the quality of our location and what we can achieve,’ " added Sommers, a geography professor at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn.