New World, Old World, One World

POSTED ON 18/10/2012

Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, remember them? Ah yes, those were the days, as Kate Bush sang, the glory days of the holy trinity of French wine before which I used to genuflect in the days when I first started writing for The Independent.

Indeed at my very first job interview, the editor said he assumed that those were the wines I’d be mostly writing about. I of course nodded sagely in agreement.

It wasn’t just that they were his favourites (well, except Beaujolais perhaps) but because that’s what people drank. The late 1980s were the heyday of Europe, France in particular. Bordeaux had produced the great 1982 vintage that launched a thousand châteaux.

Burgundy was the classic but lesser-known alternative. And we were still innocent enough to enjoy the fun and the nubile charms of Beaujolais Nouveau. Or least before greed killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

The New World at that time was a far away place of which we knew very little. If it spoke English, so much the better. California was emerging in the UK thanks largely to the efforts the pioneering importer, Geoffrey Roberts.

By the end of the 1980s however, it was becoming clear that Australia with its unpretentious fruit-driven wine styles was going to be the Next Big Thing. And it was. Yet even then no-one realized just how Big that Thing was going to be.

If you’d said that Australia would overtake France to take the UK’s top spot by the early 2000s, the men in white coats would have carted you off and fed you pills till you calmed down. Soon after Australia announced its presence, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand piled in.

Argentina was late to the party, but it made up for lost time. With vintages six months earlier than Europe, we were lapping up a fresh influx of deliciously drinkable wines even before the European harvest had begun.

By the mid 2000s, it was starting to look as though the source of new winemaking countries had dried up. Argentina had closed the door behind it and that was that. Or so it seemed. But then something happened. Little by little, countries that had never really seemed to cut the mustard started to emerge with wines of interest and potential.

I remember Israel for instance winning a medal at a Vinexo in Bordeaux for one of its up-and-coming chardonnays. Lebanon, which until a decade ago had been all about one wine, Château Musar, showed that it in fact had much more than one string to its bow.

Not to be outdone, Turkey held a well-attended conference in London last year showing that not only was it the cradle of wine many moons ago, but that its young wine industry was moving towards pimply adolescence. Keen to get in on the act, Georgia today has become a focus for natural wines.

Perhaps the first country that almost shocked us into believing that anything was possible was Greece. In the mid-1990s a few wine merchants would stock the odd Greek wine, almost as if to demonstrate that there was a world beyond retsina.

Then one day, the dynamic high street wine merchant Oddbins showcased a range of Greek wines that its enterprising wine buyer, Steve Daniels, had uncovered on one of his Greek idylls.

It was almost shocking to learn that the Greeks possessed quality indigenous red and white varieties and that with a bit of help from European funds they were improving their winemaking techniques.

The wine press visited Greece and on our own odysseys discovered amazing growers such as Hatzidakis who was using the local assyrtiko, aidani and athiri grapes grown in the volcanic soils of Santorini to fashion extraordinary white wines.

If Austria hadn’t suffered so badly at the hands of the so-called diethylene glycol scandal, it too might have made more rapid progress. Nonetheless, the modern Austrian industry has been transformed to the extent that its signature variety, grüner veltliner, has become as commonplace on the shelf as the hitherto obscure albariños, verdejos and godellos of Spain.

Other fledgling central European wine industries have been held back for different reasons, most notably Croatia because it was embroiled in the long and bitter feud with neighbouring Serbia. After the break-up of the old Yugoslavia however, Slovenia was first to grab our attention for superb whites that resembled in some ways its Italian neighbour across the border, Friuli.

More recently Croatia has shown us that with its malvazija istarka and teran from Istria, its graševina from Slavonia and the plavac mali reds grown on beautiful islands in the Adriatic and the Peljesac peninsula, it too is capable of making world-class wines.

In South America we had rather thought that after Chile, Argentina had defined the limits of what that vast continent was capable of. But no, first Uruguay started to flex its muscles and show that with the commitment and the means, it could make palatable wines from the tannat grape in a relatively moderate climate.

Brazil, a giant in all but wine name, demonstrated that if you looked at its most southerly regions, conditions there too, while not exactly cool in European terms, were moderate enough for the production of good chardonnay and merlot.

In the frozen north, Canada drew our attention to its world-beating ice wines made from grapes that had frozen naturally on the vine. While this was happening, we noticed that winemakers in Yamanashi in Japan, were keen to convince us that the delicate dry white wines made from their native koshu grape were just what we wanted to drink with our sushi and sashimi.

And China, albeit largely focused on its own domestic market, started to raise its game with small winery projects of premium quality often in conjunction with experienced European partners.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all has been the coming of age of the English wine industry. A couple of decades ago, English wine was smirked at with a nudge and a wink. We had neither the climate nor the grape varieties for making serious wine. Or so it seemed.

We poked fun at the small band of hardy, some would say foolhardy, hobbyists and stiff-upper-lip retired colonels who thought otherwise. Then, in 1984, a businessman, Adrian White, bought the Denbies Estate in Dorking from the fourth Lord Ashcombe , and planted a large vineyard.

White was soon followed by a couple from Chicago, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who bought the Nyetimber Estate an, hey presto, planted the champagne grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir with excellent results. The English wine industry mushroomed, sparkling wines won plaudits and gold medals. Soon the French were sniffing around for a piece of our green and pleasant land.

This summer’s celebrations surrounding the Jubilee and The Olympics have cemented English wine’s place in the global wine world, sparkling wine in particular. It’s yet another illustration of the fact that the distinctions between New World and Old World no longer seem relevant now that we’re all part of One Wine World.

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