There have been a few notable omissions in my pieces on vineyards – the most obvious being New Zealand and South Africa.
This was deliberate, as both countries are quite limited in their offerings on the UK market – in the case of NZ with around a 40% of production Sauvignon Blanc and the rest is made up of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and others.
The rise of NZ Sauvignon is unprecedented in the world of wine. In 1960 there was only about 1000 acres under vines in total, it’s now around 33,000 hectares. It was in the eighties that NZ Sauvignon came to the world’s notice with a bang, winning plaudits from all over the world and declared by many to be the best available anywhere, in terms of reliable high quality at an affordable price.
That assumption was almost without doubt correct. If there is a problem it’s the demand – many supermarket offerings are no longer of that standard so steer away from the cheap discounted and made for the supermarket lines, as they do not live up to the reputation.
The wine that started it all was Cloudy Bay, when it won major awards in Europe with its first vintage, everyone wanted it, I managed to get a few bottles and it was indeed every bit as good as the reviews said. I also got hold of several subsequent vintages with the price going up all the time and it was never as good, whilst still being excellent.
In short, many other wineries have caught up and surpassed Cloudy Bay and whilst it was for years only available on allocation, it is now being seen on supermarket shelves, still at a high price because of its cult status, but NZ Sauvignon is good and very high class for the price.
Marlborough in the South Island is the centre for nearly all of the good Sauvignon with the grape accounting for well over 50% of the vines planted.
It is Pinot Noir that is now making its mark, this most difficult of grapes has to a large extent been mastered in NZ and some very fine Pinots are now coming out of there, a relief for all of us who can longer afford Burgundy. The gene pool of grapes to use is increasing so expect more variety in the future.
Names to look out for that are readily available in the UK and are outside of the few (in NZ) international brands such as Montana and Villa Maria, and they’re not bad themselves, are Te Mata, Martinborough, Mt Difficulty, Craggy Range, Esk Valley, Neudorf. There are others but not easily found.
South Africa is a different animal. As early as the 18th century, the legendary Constantia wines were being demanded in Europe, politics has played a big part in the ups and downs of the SA wine industry, thriving under Dutch control in the early days.
The second governor planted the Constantia vineyard and gave the name to the premier wine growing area in Stellenbosch, but under British and independent rule, the industry stagnated and then was let loose without controls.
Only the 80s saw a start to a more stable industry.
Unlike anywhere else the industry is made up of grape growers who sell to any one of about 70 big co-operatives, this makes it possible because of their size to supply supermarkets with a reliable supply of decent everyday wine at prices Europe finds difficult to match.
This was made obvious to me on my recent trip to the Loire where I was told that SA has severely damaged exports of the everyday Chenin Blanc, the major white wine to come out of SA.
This is not anything more than everyday drinking but they export an awful lot of it.
Like NZ there has been a huge expansion in recent years and the country is still finding its feet and getting away from the days of crude over-alcoholic Pinotage, a love or hate wine for many.
Still, quality is rising and better wines are increasingly coming on the market. The quality names to look for are Vergelegen, Beyerskloof, Kanonkop, Klein Constantia, Boschendal, Hamilton Russell – these are the only ones I have seen at non-pecialist outlets.
In Europe, it’s the old eastern block countries that have a history of wine production. Many lost their way under Soviet rule and are finding it difficult to get back in the market.
One that was not in that block is Austria. – there are some superb white wines being made in Austria. Those from the Gruner Veltliner grape the most obvious and the one that is available fairly easily and accounts for a third of Austria’s wine acreage. The wine has a big variation in style and alcoholic content but all styles can be superb, the Wachau region on the Danube being its number one area.
The other grapes grown in Austria are hardly worth a mention, not because of quality but because you hardly ever see any of them for sale, so comment from someone like me is pointless, and I still have an inner feeling that tells me never to buy any Austrian wines after the appalling scandal of 25+ years ago when a large number of growers and middlemen were lacing the wines with ethylene glycol to boost ordinary wines up to a higher level and compete with the naturally sweet wines that fetched a lot more money.
Although people were prosecuted, it leaves a feeling of should I bother ? Though I have so that makes me a hypocrite.
The countries of Hungary, Bulgaria are known. After all, who hasn’t drunk the staple of the sixties and seventies – Bulls Blood – along with Slovenia and Slovakia they’re all old wine growing countries and reputedly the oldest of all – Georgia – has suffered under Soviet rule but all have quality growing areas on latitudes similar to western Europe and there is no reason, with investment, that the quality level cannot rise and the wines start to become available.
It is, as they say, a sleeping giant.
Greece is interesting, being one of the oldest producers of wine in the world but although they do make some very good reds they have struggled to make any inroads regarding sales, hampered I think by the perennial vision of Retsina by which all Greek wine is judged and that is a shame.
I have had several bottles of Greek wine, all red, that stood comparison with their peers in the mainland Europe but they seem to have disappeared from the shelves again.
One thing for sure – 30 to 40 years ago, we could not have envisaged the range and quality of wine on offer. We have come from a restaurant wine list of Mateus rose, a few “clarets” some dubious Riojas and Liebfraumilch plus the ever present Chianti in a wicker holder, to a pallette of the world’s wines, the New World South Africa, South America and California were not even on the horizon; even the Rhone southern France Spain regions, southern Italy and others just didn’t exist in a buying sense and nothing was known of them.
The advent of the professional oenologist, led by the late Prof Emile Peynaud, starting as early as the fifties and his successors such as Michel Rolland in France and worldwide and others such as Renzo Cotarella in Italy, have transformed the way wine is made in nearly every property they have been involved with.
The sanitisation of wineries and the use of new equipment such as stainless steel and the better handling and selection of fruit has transformed the overall quality of what ends up in a bottle. Whilst there was some concern that the “flying winemaker” was homogenising styles with international varieties of grape e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, it proved unfounded and the serious winemaking taking place using the huge range of local grapes available is only just opening up. Italy alone has over a 1000 varieties and as an example from that country, wonderful reds from Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro, Aglianico, are the best known but there are dozens of other indigenous grapes from places like Sardinia that are already becoming available.
Mostly unheard of, the gene pool is enormous and is repeated throughout the old world.
The supermarket shelves are awash with wines from everywhere, the only problem as I have mentioned before is supply. The sheer scale of supermarket operations demands continuous supply and only the bigger more industrial wineries can guarantee that, making the finding of lesser known wines difficult.
By nature, the Jacobs Creek type brands dominate, not that they’re bad – just predictable and in many cases bland, but predictability is what many people want.
There are more specialist wine merchants than ever, most of them excellent. It’s the middle ground that is thin. Majestic do a good job but the loss of Oddbins has never been replaced and with the supermarket dominance in wine sales, the likelihood of another version of Oddbins emerging is small, but that is a small gripe in what is a an ever improving scene.
Just a small word of caution – many supermarkets are now including a “fine wine” section. This in principle is good news, more choice a better product or should be but my observation of what’s on offer shows a large number of lesser vintages.
This is not the problem it was in the past – a few will always be bad wines – but they will often be the vintages they have difficulty shifting, as the ever increasing number of good vintages means people are not forced into a no-choice position any more, so check before you buy.
Following on from that is how wines are stored – temperature is the killer for wines.
In small doses, all wines can stand temperature fluctuation and conscientious shippers will have refrigerated transport and wine merchants and brokers have temperature controlled warehouses, expensive and not expensive wine deserves to be looked after.
With supermarkets, I have no idea how wine is stored but it doubtful that the same care is taken and it follows that bottles on shelves for any time is not the best environment, so if spending money on a bottle, it pays to go out of your way and buy from a reputable merchant who will look after his wines and have a much larger choice plus will give advice.
Storage of wine is mainly a matter of common sense. Temperature is the problem. Few of us have cellars these days and a garage is far from ideal, as it bakes in the summer and freezes in the winter. All wines will stand a short period over 70 degrees but anything higher or longer accelerates the maturing process, often to the detriment of the wine.
The worst place to keep wine for any period is the designer kitchen wine rack, for obvious reasons. For everyday drinking, none of this is really a problem as all these wines are made to be drunk in the first year or so and in most cases don’t make it past the first weekend, so the fridge is as good a place as any. Just let it warm up if it’s red before drinking and even whites are inclined to drunk too cold straight from the fridge – those whites have little flavour.
There is an awful lot of cobblers spoken about the serving and drinking of wine, the leaving a bottle open to breath procedure only applies to a very small selection of wines such as certain Barolos. No wine takes kindly to extended contact with air – after all, it’s spent all its life being kept away from the stuff.
Decanters are fine for wines with sediment. Almost defunct in use, they are coming back into use as more fine wines are reverting to being made without fining or filtration and the decanter is a good way of serving summer whites, giving them a little air but of course you can create the same effect by pouring from a height straight into the glass.
Despite the ever increasing use of screw tops, many bottles, especially from Europe, adhere to the cork. The use of screw tops and synthetic and compound cork has helped the cork industry in a strange way as before the introduction of the alternatives, the cork industry – mainly all comes from Portugal – was struggling to supply and the stripping of bark that occurs after several years was being reduced in time to meet demand and the cork was becoming inferior, causing problems. So fortunately, the combination of closures has greatly reduced the chances of a “corked” or faulty bottle.
They still occur but rarely due to the closure – normally it’s some form of taint.
Other than that, there are clean glasses to consider (the various specialist glasses available will do little for your daily tipple) and a good corkscrew with a spiral is better for difficult corks as it has less likelihood of pulling out the center of the cork.
The sniffing of wine is really to confirm it’s OK and again you are unlikely to get much pleasure sniffing everyday wines but certain wines and for example a good fino sherry can give almost as much pleasure as the taste.
The hunt for good cheap wines is a never ending quest for me and it’s getting more difficult. A few years ago, you could seek out gold medal winning wines in the £5 bracket but they are now few and far between.
With so many wine competitions giving out endless medals at all levels, some I swear for just turning up, it normally is only worth bothering looking for those with a gold, and that alone is not a guarantee of future quality. Many cheap wines that come on the market and win gold medals never repeat the trick – it is a marketing ploy, a special effort maybe, at a loss the first year, to get a foothold in the market.
This has happened so many times it cant be just chance but that doesn’t mean the subsequent years are rubbish – far from it – but not as good. I will give a current example and it’s no slight on the retailer as this happens at all outlets.
Tescos introduced a cheap Portuguese red last year called Tagus Creek. It had won not only a gold medal but a trophy for best in its class, it was cheap and still is under a fiver.
I purchased a lot of it for everyday drinking and very good it was too. This year – no awards and a reduction in quality but still very good and a genuine bargain.
Luckily, I haven’t come across the other ruse used lately and that was to win awards, put the first batch on the market of the same quality as the award winning wine and then to reduce quality for subsequent releases.
A good example of this was an award winning own label Champagne from Sainsburys a few years back. After a while, people started to complain that the product was not up to the hype and it transpired the producer, having supplied several thousand cases, could not supply any more of that quality and substituted with an inferior one.
Somehow Sainsburys, who admitted what had happened, explained it away and kept the award on the bottle. [?]
This fortunately is quite rare but will happen as all things involving making money means that at some stage, people will try to take advantage of a situation, but this is a great time for buying and drinking wine nonetheless, as the choice and quality continues to rise.