People ask me all the time: “Why does wine taste SO much better in Europe than it does at home?”
It’s a great question so let’s settle it once and for all. And I want to settle it without making you think that it’s all in your head and that you miraculously transform into a different person when you step off the plane and reach Europe. I’m going on record here – YES, wine does taste different when you have it in Europe.
I hope that’s unequivocal enough. I’ve got five answers for you: it could be one, it could be all five, but here are the top reasons wine just isn’t the same there and here.
Reason 1: The answer you’ve probably heard or read before: you’re in Europe! You’re relaxed. Everything is going to taste better.
There’s something to this in my experience. I don’t have scientific evidence, but I think when we’re relaxed we’re more able to experience everything more fully. We breathe more deeply. Our sense of smell is keener. We notice little details around us that we don’t normally observe. So it stands to reason that when we are on vacay, relaxed and sipping on wine while staring at beautifully dressed Parisians or the Arno lazily flowing below the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, we may more fully experience the wine and the take note of the entire experience as a wholly positive one. I always think of wine as an experience so environment, company, and food play a huge part in my enjoyment of it. I think it’s the case for everyone.
That said, I’ve heard a lot of wine people dismiss the notion that wine tastes different when you’re on vacation versus at home as purely experiential and I’m here to tell ya…not so much. Read on…
Reason 2: Much of wine in Europe is a local product, made by people in specific areas only for local consumption.
The brother of the restaurant proprietor or a local guy who has a vineyard in a close wine area may have been providing the restaurants in Lyon or Rome with wine for decades. It’s a local product, made nearby in small quantities and is for bistro consumption. The people behind it don’t have a bottling line or a label design, they ship their wine in vats or barrels and after a short trip on a truck it’s served to you. It’s delicious and memorable because it’s fresh, local, and made in a very old school, natural way. Next time you’re travelling, ask the waiter about the wine. They may have a great story for you…especially if you’re ordering the house wine, which can be phenomenal and is often made by locally.
Reason 3: Local wine often includes local grapes, which you may never have tasted.
There are thousands and thousands of grapes used for wine production. Many of them don’t ever make it to the export market or only make it in small quantities and are so esoteric they aren’t things you’d normally pick up for a Wednesday night. So if you’re in Trentino in Northern Italy and you try a Marzemino and love it and think it tastes unlike anything you’ve ever had (or come back and can’t find anything similar to buy) it’s because this plummy, yummy wine isn’t really exported and it IS unlike anything you ever had or can get in the US.
A pretty good reason why wine tastes different in Europe than the US, no?
Reason 4: The brass tacks of business: if you have a big brand that you know overseas and it’s better when you have it on its home soil, there’s a good reason. Wine sold in the U.S. is often changed to suit what marketers believe is “the American palate.”
There is a very large producer out of Burgundy, France, that I know. I’ve tasted a lot of their wines. From basic to the very high tier stuff. The basic wines (they sell for about $15 – $20) taste an awful lot like regular old red wine or regular old white wine. They don’t have any character or “sense of place,” which is what you want out of Burgundy, especially, where land is essential in the flavors of a wine. At the high end where the wines come from a smaller vineyard or plot of land, this producer is amazing. The wines are rich in flavor, taste earthy, and are so interesting.
When I worked for the big hulking winery in California, which did a brisk import business as well, I learned that all the products imported into the US from Europe where changed to exhibit more fruit and less earth, and to be more pleasant (READ: generic) tasting for the American palate. I had a sneaking suspicion about my experience with this Burgundian producer.
So the last time I went to a big tasting of these wines, I asked the brand representative for the truth and he told me: the lower tier wines are completely changed to suit the American palate. They are more bland and fruity and don’t have the character of the very same wines that they sell in France. There are two separate recipes for these wines – the domestic and the import batches – and never the two shall meet.
The lesson: if you think your brand tastes different when you have it on home soil, the reason could be because it really is. Marketing’s a drag on authenticity sometimes…
Reason 5: But Elizabeth, I packed the bottle and brought it home with me! I had it the entire time so these reasons don’t apply. Why does it still taste different when I open it at home?
Wine is a living, changing thing. And it’s a bunch of chemicals. When you agitate or shake up chemicals, you can change the structure of a liquid. All the little bumps and movements while you’re making your trip home can affect the wine in the bottle. Temperature changes, the wheels of your suitcase or your motion while walking with the bag could affect the wine. Sometimes this “bottle shock” can be temporary. If you hold on to the wine for a few months before opening it, it could come back around and be just as good as you remember it. But often the motion is just enough to knock the balance out of the wine. And once that happens it won’t taste the same ever again.
Just to be safe, I’d always wait two to three months, keeping the bottle on its side in a cool, slightly humid place, before trying it again. That maximizes your chances for a repeat experience of your European getaway. If it still doesn’t taste the same, it may be a combination of the vibration and Reason #1.
Have you had this experience with wine changing when you brought it home or tried to buy it at your local shop? I’d love to hear about it! Drop a comment below!
Photos © by Elizabeth (top two) and Margo