Sunday, 4 July 2010

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

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