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.

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© 2011 John Alexander