A World of Wines
They come from every corner of the earth
Vitis vinefera – the simple grape – started out as pretty much a product of the Mediterranean region and central Europe. That’s why when one thinks of wine, some famous wine regions that spring to mind include Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, Chianti. Eventually humankind carried the vines to far-flung places like Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Napa Valley and Sonoma, to name but a few, which have produced their own bounty of world class wines.
Yet more wine is being produced today than ever before – from unexpected regions all over the map – mirroring the nearly endless variety of viticulture to be found everywhere on the planet. There are so many choices, and they’re coming from places that might surprise you. Part of what I do is sample wines from around the world; sometimes it’s trying a bottle at home, or if I’m lucky, I get to travel to wherever these wines are produced.
First of all, it may surprise you to know where all this wine is coming from. According to the US-based Wine Institute, as of 2013, the countries that produce the most wine are, in order, Italy, Spain, France, the United States, Chile and China. These countries are followed by South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Germany, and 11th place Portugal.
China in particular has been planting vineyards at a prodigious rate. Some argue that China has now jumped up to the number two spot on the list of wine producing nations, though there’s plenty of debate about exact numbers. But as in all things these days, what China wants, China gets. So don’t be surprised to find Chinese wines coming to a big box store near you.
The new China Wine Associations Alliance (CWAA) has just been established to unite the country’s 17 different wine regions and Chinese wine trade groups into one unified body.
“It would be foolish to dispute that most of the world’s finest wines are to be found in its historically notable European wine regions,”says David Furer, a wine consultant for various wine organizations in Europe and the Americas.“However, the advent of better and less costly knowledge learned, techniques applied, and equipment used throughout wine growing areas new and old ensures that delicious discoveries are to be found in many US states and previously unheralded areas in other countries.”
Grapes have an ancient history. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah is credited post-flood with not only being the first person to plant grapes for winemaking but also being the first guy to get drunk on the output.
Grapes made into wine traveled from the Fertile Crescent east and west across the world, so that places where you wouldn’t think had any connection to alcohol today may have produced wines long ago.
Turkey claims to have traces of winemaking going back some 7,000 years with the Hittite and other peoples consuming and offering wine to the gods. From Anatolia the Phrygian people brought wine to the Greeks who later exported wines westward. Suvla Winery is one of the most renowned Turkish wineries today, producing award-winning wines on the Gallipoli Peninsula. (Since 2013, the government has forbidden wineries to advertise or market their products in any way within the country.)
In 2011 an archeological dig in Armenia’sYeghefnadzor Mountain discovered wine relics and wine residue suggesting a massive wine production facility. These finds date back to approximately 4100 BC.
Today, Armenia is again producing some very good wines with the company Zorah leading the way. Their Karasi wine is one of the first to get noticed by the Western press. The indigenous Areni Noir grapes have evolved to produce thick skins to protect the fruit from the harsh climate, yet the flavors are bold and pleasing. Curiously, and perhaps with a little irony, Mount Ararat, where Noah supposedly parked his stranded boat, is nearby.
A number of years ago I visited the Clos de Gat Winery in Israel. Located in the Judean Hills, not far from Jerusalem, Clos de Gat farms about 35 acres of beautifully manicured vineyards. This area was a historic wine making area, and ancient stone wine presses – some dating back over 3,000 years – can be seen on their property. It’s pretty impressive to recognize this level of wine history beneath your feet. Clos De Gat is an example of an Israeli premium winery, worthy of international recognition.
Macedonia and Bulgaria have also had long and ancient histories with wine production. In fact, Homer mentioned wines from the Bulgarian region in his Iliad. More recently vineyards were harvested but the grapes were of poor quality. However, these producers are slowly regaining momentum, post-Communism. With investment and care, both countries’wines are on the rise.
Vranec and Stanusina Crna are important local red grape varieties in Macedonia, and starting to get noticed on a wider stage. Serbia is another Balkan country with a bright wine future. Already it has more than 173,000 acres planted with grapevines, mostly around the Belgrade area. The most popular red grape is Prokupac; it’s often blended with other varietals but is also available on it own. Big and bold, this is a Serbian wine to seek out.
I recently sampled a bottle from Ouled Thaleb, out of Morocco. This winery is located only 10 miles northeast of Casablanca. Established in 1923 in the Zenata grape growing region, this red blend is a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. This is an enjoyable wine that exudes the essence of the desert; a bit raw, a little wild and mysterious.
India has been getting into the wine game with more and more producers, local customers and ex-pats enjoying Indian produced wines. The largest growing region is the Deccan Plateau, making up most of the southern part of the country. Grape vines were brought to India by Persian conquerors nearly 2500 years ago.
Most Indian vineyards grow international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, though there are some older varieties like Bangalore Blue which enjoy a following. Sula Vineyards is one of the most well known of the Indian wine producers, and their products are now available in the United States.
Shifting continents, Chile and Argentina have long been known for producing high quality wines, but I just tried my first Brazilian wine. Produced by Salton, a large and popular brand, the wines were quite respectable and pleasing. There are today over 1,100 wineries in Brazil and the country, known more for its beaches and the Amazon, has been producing wines for more than 120 years. As befits a country renowned for its celebratory spirit, 35 percent of Brazilian wines are of the sparkling variety.
Though small, Uruguay also has a strong winemaking tradition mostly with the Tannat grape, which came from southwestern France near the Pyrenees. Imported by Basque settlers in the 19th century, today Tannat is considered Uruguay’s“national grape.”
The United States of Wine
In 2015, every state in the Union – including Alaska and Hawaii – has at least one working winery producing wine. Some, of course, are better than others. California accounts for about 90 percent of all US wine produced, followed by Washington, New NewYork, York, Oregon and Texas. Still many other states are pushing the envelope.
“Arizona presents extremely diverse options for grape growing,” says, M. J. Keenan, winemaker for Cadceus Cellars.“Northern Arizona resembles Piedmont, Spain, Rhone, even Portugal. South Eastern Arizona resembles Mendoza, South Western Arizona looks like a flflatter flatter version of the rolling hills of the Rhone.”
Most of Arizona’s vineyards are at elevation, some 3,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level.“We generally have more issues with cold than with heat, as our overall temps are lower than those in growing regions similar to Paso Robles, CA. Summer diurnal swings are anywhere from 20 to 35 degrees. This blesses us with Italian style low pH, bright, elegant red fruit food-friendly structured wines,” says Keenen. Arizona wines have been gaining in popularity with locals, plus picking up notice in Southern California wine shops and beyond.
Another state growing by leap and bounds is Michigan, accounting for over one million cases according to the latest data. Nathaniel Rose is the winemaker at Brengman Brothers Winery in Traverse City.
“The biggest thing about our location is the enormous effect of temperature buffering we get from Lake Michigan allowing us to grow in an area that would otherwise have too cold a winter to support vinifera,”he says.“This same buffering allows our season to extend long into the fall – it is common for us to pick reds and Riesling in November – and keeps mid-summer temperatures from spiking to levels that could cook out some of the more nuanced aromatics.” Winemakers have figured out how the lake affects Michigan’s viticulture and learned to work with, not against nature.
I recently conducted a Rose Wine Competition and we received wines from 20 states. Wineries from Pennsylvania, Iowa, Indiana and even Maine won awards. So the next time you‘re in a wine shop, try something really new.You may be surprised. BT
Top: Clos de Gat Winery in Israel Bottom: Peso da Regua (Portugal)