Wednesday, 7 July 2010

World Cup Wine. The Winners: Greece. Portugal. And Slovenia?

It's over. The advent of the 2010 Football World Cup was a great excuse for any number of wine enthusiasts to introduce ourselves to products and producers we may never have otherwise discovered. 

Of the 32 competing nations, some 25 are at least close to being conventional wine producers, and I found that there was at least something called wine produced in every World Cup country. Bar one*.

Over the course of the fortnight I had cause to investigate Communion Wine from Nigeria, made from pineapples and with a somewhat unsurprising bouquet of pineapple, and the Palm Wine traditions of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, alcoholic drinks that virtually make themselves and have a shelf life of just 24 hours. 

But Africa's greatest contribution to winemaking may be the celebrated pied-noirs from Algeria; experienced and expert emigrant winemakers whose skills are now as widespread as winemaking itself, from Corsica to California.

Exploring Asia introduced me to the Chinese Plum Wines from Korea, North and South, made from the Japanese apricot, and to Japanese white wine wines made in Japan from the delicate pale violet Japanese Koshu grape.

I researched the history of winemaking in Brazil, surprisingly more influenced by an Englishman, a Spaniard, the French, Germans and Italians, than the colonial Portuguese. And I discovered that in Paraguay they drink their red wine with cola and call it Par. Ugh.

From Europe my view was reinforced that the future of English winemaking lies in Traditional Method sparkling wine and specifically in the layers of chalk that lie beneath southern England and stretch all the way to Champagne. 

I marvelled at Denmark's determination to develop Don's Cuvée, its own, singular sparkling wine from Skærsøgaard Vin. Along the way, the campsite wines of the Netherlands were uncovered, as unexpected and typically Dutch as Holland's re-emergence as World Cup finalists.

Who knew that Serbia's Prokupac is known by 30 other names? Or that in Tokay, Slovakia has contributed to one of the world's great dessert wines. Meanwhile Switzerland's secrets were revealed as flavoursome white wines made from unusual and local grape varieties like Amigne, Arvine and Humagne Blanc.

Coincidentally, in common with the majority of the finalists my top three are all Europeans, but not Holland, Germany or Spain.

In third place, Greece. 

Although the renowned Château Carras vineyard was planted to the design of the man known as the forefather of modern oenology, the late Professor Émile Peynaud, with native Bordeaux varieties, and has over the past forty-plus years acquired a worldwide reputation for its quality, indigenous Greek grape varieties, like Greek footballers, are mostly unknown outside Greece: Limnio, Xynomavro, Korinthiaki, Agiorgitiko, Vertzami, Mandilaria, Savatiano, Rhoditis, Assyritiko, Moschophilero and Robola are hardly household names. 

Which is why initially I was drawn to recommend readers re-visit Retsina, in its modern, much lighter style as exemplified by Ino Retsina, made from 100% Savatiano grapes. 

Then independent specialist merchant and Greek wine importer Nick Kontarines of Yamas Wines intervened. Rightly describing Retsina as 'the Marmite of the wine world', in that you either love it or you hate it, he introduced me to the aforesaid Agiorgitiko, also known as St. George.

The Agiorgitiko grape often offers little acidity and tannin so produces wines that are best young; light to medium bodied, soft in the mouth with spiced plum fruit and dark berries, and a short finish, typically midweight alcohol.

Gaia Wines' Notios 2008 is a 100% Agiorgitiko from the premium Nemea vineyards. You get a blast of young red fruit aromas then immediate green plums, with supersoft tannins and a lovely warm feel on the palate, as the 13.5% alcohol settles on the tongue. 

Deliciously different and a most welcome introduction to an alternative wine choice, especially to partner Mediterranean foods. Of all the wines new to me that I drank during the world cup, only two were enjoyed more.

In a close second place, Portugal.

As with Greece, it is the abundant indigenous grape varieties that make the country's wines so intriguing, including the likes of Baga, Aragonêz (Tempranillo) and the principal Port grape, Touriga Nacional, whose full body can be enhanced with the perfume and finesse of Touriga Franca.

Iberian winemaking has built its quality reputation on barrel-aged red wines and I'm indebted again to a specialist importer, Casa Leal, for an introduction to the indigenous style. Sanguinhal Cabernet Sauvignon Aragonêz 2004 blends the great grapes of Rioja and Bordeaux into a soft, smooth, well-structured, mature and punchy representative red, with all the ageing maturity of flavour that Miguel Leal suggests for an introduction to contemporary Portuguese wine-making.

The wine that I enjoyed most though, the one that surprised me and will hopefully surprise you too, is from Slovenia.

My World Cup Wine 2010 is Contesse Bagueri Sparkling Rebula from Goriška Brda, in a Magnum.

Slovenia has been making wine since the time of the Romans. Nowadays something like 75% of it is white and like near-neighbours Switzerland, almost all locally-produced wine is consumed locally too.

Primorska is Slovenia's primary vineyard region and the co-operative Goriška Brda, eponymously named after the district bordering Italy to the west, is Slovenia's biggest wine cellar and an exception within this centuries-old local winemaking tradition in that its wines can be found as far afield as the USA as well as across Europe including here in the UK.

Over a quarter of the vineyard acreage is given over to Zlata Rebula, known in Italy as Ribolla and it is these hand-picked grapes, blended with 15% Chardonnay, that give Contesse Bagueri its varietal green apples and stone fruit flavours. 

Made using the Charmat Method whereby the secondary fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, Contesse Bagueri spends 10 months on its lees - the remnants of the fermentation yeast - and it is this method that immediately presents on pouring, when small and fresh 'perlage' bubbles burst with those bready scents. 

On the palate it immediately has a fine fullsome feel despite relatively light alcohol of 12.5%, and it offers a delicious and lasting creamy finish. 

Contesse Bagueri comes in a striking Magnum bottle and is just great fun; a super choice for weddings, picnics - and World Cup parties.

Greek wines available from:Yamas Wines

Portuguese wines available from: Casa Leal

Slovenian wines available from: Late Vintage

*In Honduras they only drink beer.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

July 4th. One Nation. One Wine?

The really great thing about wine is that virtually every country, nation, region, state, appellation, has its own style. 

The United States of America now offers wine grown from grapes drawn from virtually every corner of the world, in styles that range from cheap and cheerful Chateau Cardboard, through innovative blends of grapes from different continents, to exclusive low-volume high ticket premium wines made with all the care and craftsmanship that the great melting pot of winemaking skills can muster.

But the USA also offers one wine that has become as synonymous with America as hamburgers, hot dogs and, especially, pizza. It's as American as basketball, baseball and gridiron. 

It's Zinfandel.

As with the development of the pizza, America has taken something distinctly Italian - in this case the Primitivo grape - and moulded and re-moulded it to fit the needs of, at just 234 years of age - a comparatively youthful nation, experimenting continually - not always successfully - to create and recreate something now distinctly American.

And as with pizza there have been hiccups along the way - Blush still outsells red Zinfandel by six to one in the US. 

Outside the States, American Zinfandel has established a significant niche for itself and the range on offer meets everybody's needs. 

Just as you can grab a basic cheese and tomato calzone from a sidewalk vendor, so you can find boxed Blush on the shelves of cornershops in London and can see Ridge Zinfandel on the shelves of quality wine merchants right around the globe.

In England the Ravenswood range is a massive seller. The style to which winemaker Joel Peterson adheres gives his red Zinfandel as distinctive a sense of terroir as any Old World wine and his uncompromising loyalty to the essence of the grape makes his wines the stand out choice for barbecues on July 4th. 

You can't go far wrong with the Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel. 

Deep ruby red with the weight of alcohol at 13.5% sticking it to the glass, thick with black cherry aromas and hints of liquorice pepper and vanilla, medium to fullish bodied with flavours of blueberries and raspberries, cherries and oak spice in a fruit laden red. Supple and balanced, eminently drinkable. 

Happy Independence Day.

World Cup Wines. Précis: The wines of Holland, Germany, Spain and Uruguay

It comes down to just four teams left in the World Cup and they are all winemaking nations; three Old World Europeans, one New World South American, yet it is one of the Europeans that is least-known for its wine.

No wonder really. The Netherlands is actually best known for tulips. Holland exports two-thirds of the world's total cut-flowers and bulbs. The country also exports one third of all world cucumber exports and a quarter of all tomatoes. So agricultural land is both available and productive. But not for wine. It's very flat you know. 

A lot of Dutch wine is what I call campsite wine. It's variable in quality, although some is of a high standard, and is produced in significant volumes by hobbyists whose livelihoods are derived from tourism, through small family-run leisure parks, campsites and Bed & Breakfast businesses. 

But it's in the actual winemaking that the Dutch their most significant challenge. Being so northerly the nation's winemakers have little choice but to add sugar to their wine. The grapes simply don't produce enough sugar themselves to create the level of alcohol required. This has previously thrown them into conflict with the European Union, which has previously proposed to ban the addition of sugar.

About 60 winemakers are supplied some 80 differing grape varieties from 130 commercial vineyards cultivated by some 160 professional grape growers in Holland. Total production is circa one million bottles. These Dutch wineries, probably as you'd expect, make mostly light wines. The Dutch market itself is very big on rosé too.

Award winning winemaker Marius van Stokkom of eponymous  Domein van Stokkom is a former brewer who since 1977 has brought his expertise in fermentation of wheat and barley to bear on the Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc grapes of his own small De Linie vineyard.  His leading wine made it onto the KLM (Dutch airline) business class wine list. Before it was taken over by Air France. Look out for this De Linie range. 

In contrast, German wine history is as old as the nation, viticulture having been established by the Romans.

Riesling is king in Germany. It is the great white grape. Riesling is offered in several great wine styles, ranging from just dry to cloyingly sweet Trockenbeerenauslese, and they vary in strength from just 9% ABV. Prices start competitively, but rare and ancient top quality vintages fetch thousands. 

Nowadays lots of authentic German Rieslings offer heady floral scents and flavours and can be quaffed all day long. 

You'll also find that many Rieslings aren't dry. Rather, they are off-dry, or even sweet, so just check for the word 'Trocken' on the label, as it means dry.  NB. 'Halbtrocken' literally means half dry i.e. off-dry. So for easy daytime drinking, I recommend you have your Riesling young and fresh in a crisp and elegant Kabinett. 

Just as Germany is renowned for its Riesling, so every country - indeed many an individual region within the Old World winemaking countries - has its own wine style. For Spain, this is mature red wine. Red wine that has been allowed to age in its own time in serried ranks of oak barrels beneath the winery. Wine that is made and then left. For years. 

Yes, I know about modern Spain and the modern trend for modern young juicy fruitful easy-gluggers, but to me that's just not Spain. 

Traditionally and historically Spanish winemakers have used regional grape varieties to create a number of variations on a age-old theme. A theme exemplified by traditional Rioja. Rioja with vanilla, with leather, with dark and spicy overripe red fruit. Red wine that is really quite brown. At the top of the quality tree Rioja Gran Reserva is aged four years or more in oak, Ribera del Duero gets better with the passing years and even cultish young pretender Priorat shouldn't be touched until it's had five years ageing.

But you can find everyday, affordable representations of this brown red style in wine merchants and on supermarkets shelves - even in corner shops - across the UK. You'll recognise the bottles, they're wrapped in a gold wire cage. 

Nowadays it's an affectation, something to attract your attention, a nice bit of nice window dressing. Historically it was actually a quality guarantee, the proof that the contents were as the bottle left the winery, to stop crafty restaurateurs refilling expensive Rioja bottles with cheaper stuff and then passing it off as Gran Reserva.

Today you'll even see the golden cages on wines from supposed lesser regions like Valdepeñas on the central plain of La Mancha or Calatayud in Aragón - but the wines are still typical. 

Names like Anciano, Vina Albali, Castillo de Montearagon, Palacio del Conde and Conde Galiana spring to mind but the key is the combination of age, six or seven years plus, and wire, and brown red wine. Like Rioja, many are also based around the Tempranillo, the grape Spain calls its own.

Uruguay also has a grape to call its own of course. Tannat. 

The nation's winemakers have taken a mostly unregarded variety from Madiran in the South of France and established it as Uruguay's national wine with a quality and style that none of its competitors have found easy to match.

Put this somewhat rough, tannin-thick grape into the hands of the best Uruguayan wine producers and you will see and taste something truly marvellous. The country's winemakers have taken this varietal to their hearts and now produce definitive versions of the eponymous wine that stand comparison with anything the rest of the wine world has to offer. 

Look for the names of Casa Filgueira, De Lucca  and Marichal to discover luscious premium Tannat bursting with cherry and plum fruit, filled with blackfruit flavours and with sufficient tannic bite to allow them to improve over time. Glasses of deep dark red wine that with some age on it - five years or more? - brings a maturity that balances the tannins to give a lasting but still fruit-dominated finish. I love Tannat. It's always £10 a bottle and I've never had a bad one. Not from Uruguay.

The Uruguayans' reputation for physical football is second to none. They will literally kick you off the park if they have to. As Luis Suarez's goal-line handball showed, their players will do anything to succeed.

It is for that singularity of intent - one grape, one wine - that I predict Uruguay as my winner in the World Cup of wines

Saturday, 3 July 2010

World Cup Wines. Précis: The wines of Argentina vs Germany

Malbec is the wine Argentina does best of all. It's meaty, even beefy, like their famous steaks; it's muscular like Javier Mascherano. 

It can be lush, highly scented, packed with dark damson fruit. 

Stick to the 100% varietal too - no need to dilute or soften it with cheap Bonarda or Touriga Nacional as you can find 100% Malbecs at lower price levels anyway. That said, regulations allow up to 30% of blending grapes and you will find that the top quality premium versions often contain less than 100% Malbec - and at fine wine prices too. 

It's a terrific gluggable red. Malbec really is delicious. And it is so consistent. It's often deep purple red, intense, highly aromatic and plummy fruitful.  

Despite it's powerful pack of alcohol, frequently up to 14%, it's much too temptingly drinkable, especially with barbecue charred and blackened red meat. Watch out. 

Malbec maintains the standard set in 1978 when Argentina ran out winners thanks to the genius of Mario Kempes, and saw them champions again in 1986 and runners-up in 1990. Argento and Graffigna each create reliable versions in several ranges at prices to suit most pockets.

If you prefer to drink white, and given the alcoholic strength of typical Malbecs, you might think daytime matches probably demand it, Torrontes is the often equally punchy peachy white alternative.

Torrontés is the white wine grape most closely associated with white wine made in Argentina, and Argentina is the New World winemaking country most closely associated with Torrontés. So it makes sense that to accompany any event with an Argentinian theme, Torrontés would be the only white wine of choice.

It's distinctly aromatic, typically heavy with fruits such as apricots and even lychees on the nose, sometimes with scents of roses, soft and smooth on the palate with low acidity but a weighty and flavoursome finish, often with quite an alcoholic kick.

Argento Reserva is as good a representative as many, born of grapes grown at over 5,500 feet in the premium Cafayate Valley of the prime Torrontés region of Salta, it's  floral, spicy with menthol, peach and lemon zest and punchy with alcohol at well over 13%.

While the first vine cuttings arrived in Argentina around 1557, German wine history is as old as the nation, viticulture having been established by the Romans.

Riesling is king in Germany. It is the great white grape. Riesling is offered in several great wine styles, ranging from just dry to cloyingly sweet Trockenbeerenauslese, and they vary in strength from just 9% ABV. Prices start competitively, but rare and ancient top quality vintages fetch thousands. 

Nowadays lots of authentic German Rieslings offer heady floral scents and flavours and start as low as 9% alcohol so can be quaffed all day long. You'll also find that many German Rieslings aren't dry. Rather, they are off-dry, or even sweet, so just check for the word 'Trocken' on the label, as it means dry. Which is how I find German football.  

NB. 'Halbtrocken' literally means half dry i.e. off-dry.

So for easy daytime drinking, I recommend you have your Riesling young and fresh in a crisp and elegant Kabinett. 

You could always opt for a German red of course, and while Argentina has its Malbec, the Germans have no muscular wine equivalent, however Teutonic Spätburgunder is Mesut Oezil to Argentina's silky smooth Lionel Messi, and is equally a delightful surprise package - highly prized and highly priced in its intense premium form.

But on the basis that power will prevail:

Malbec 2 Riesling 1

Friday, 2 July 2010

World Cup Wines. Précis: The wines of Brazil vs Holland

Unbeknownst to many, Brazil is a major wine producer. Given its 322 years as a colony of Portugal you would expect the country's winemaking industry to revolve around Portuguese grapes and wine styles. 

Or if not, then to at least reflect the winemaking traditions of Portugal ahead of all other countries. But it doesn't quite work like that because although in 1551 the Portuguese may have been the first to introduce vines for the production of wine, the grapes were planted in regions climatically unsuitable to viniculture. Rather, a whole host of Europeans from across the continent have contributed to Brazil's winemaking. 

Jesuit missionary Roque Gonzales, brought winemaking equipment and vines from Spain to try to establish Brazilian wineries. 

There was also an Englishman, Thomas Messiter, who introduced the vitis labrusca vines in 1814. Over the next 100 years the Portuguese themselves, the French, the Germans and the Italians too all brought their experience and skills to bear on the fledgling industry. But seemingly not the Dutch.

Today the diverse historical development of viticulture is reflected in the varietal red wines now on offer from Brazil, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah from France; Italian Barbera and Nebbiolo, plus Uruguayan speciality Tannat. Whites are just as diverse and include Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Some 78,000 hectares of land are now under vine in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Parana, Pernambuco, Santa Catarina and Sao Paulo.

Of the 16,000 producers, look for namess like Salton, who make well-regarded Chardonnay; Merlot from Valduga; Don Laurindo and Boscato both appear to focus on aged Reservas, and Lidio Carraro offers single varietals Merlot, Nebbiolo and Tannat.

Miolo is a reliable big name producer through brands such as Miolo, Fortaleza do Seival, RAR, Brazilwood and Los Nevados, which offer styles to suit all tastes including a sparkler.

Miolo Alisios do Seival Tempranillo/Touriga Campanha is a good introduction; lots of red berry aromas, easy on the palate with bags of fruit and soft tannins. 

Fortaleza do Seival Pinot Noir offers raspberry and strawberry fruit with spices and chocolate. They also do a Pinot Grigio packed with tropical fruit.

But what of Holland?

A lot of Dutch wine is what I would call campsite wine. It's wine, variable in quality but some of a high standard,  that is produced by hobbyists who also make their livings from leisure parks, campsites and Bed & Breakfasts. These are effectively tourist businesses that have grown from hobbies to such an extent that there are now some 160 professional grape growers.

Maybe you didn't even know the Dutch make wine? 

They do, but in some ways it's a real problem for them. Being so northerly the nations' winemakers have little choice but to add sugar to their wine. The grapes simply don't produce enough themselves to create the level of alcohol required. And the reason that's a problem is the European Union doesn't like it and has previously proposed to ban the addition of sugar.

That said, some 60 winemakers currently choose from some 80 differing grape varieties and deliver about a million bottles from a couple of hundred vineyards. These Dutch wineries, probably as you'd expect, make mostly light wines. The Dutch market itself is very big on rosé too.

Wijndomein de Vier Ambachten offers five reds, four whites, a rosé, and two dessert wines all on sale at the winery.

One winery, Domain van Stokkom, got its leading wine onto the KLM (Dutch airline) business class wine list. Before it was taken over by Air France. Look out for its De Linie range.

© 2011 John Alexander