When you think of fine wine regions, the first places that come to mind are probably Napa, Bordeaux, and Chianti. While these places deserve their international reputation, other wine regions are beginning to emerge on the world stage, some of which have been producing wine for thousands of years. Thanks to more sophisticated marketing efforts and improved winemaking and vineyard practices in these burgeoning areas, you soon might find yourself saying to your dining companion, “Care for some more Mavrodaphne?”
For more than 2,000 years, the Greeks have been producing wine. Ancient Greek poets and artists present wine as an essential part of life. This wine culture persists, although frequent invasions and internal strife have frustrated attempts to bring Greek wine to a global audience. In the 1960s, when Greece decided to begin preparations to enter the European Union, the government began to address the issues preventing the country from developing a world-class wine industry. Greece now has more than 400 wineries, and many of their wines are finding their way to the United States.
Greece has a Mediterranean climate, perfect for growing high-quality grapes. Most Greek wines are still made from indigenous grapes varieties, many of which are not known outside of the country. This is changing, however, as growers are finding that international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc do well in certain areas. Of the 350 grapes varieties grown in Greece, six account for 90 percent of Greece’s dry wine production:
- Assyrtiko — native to Santorini and other Aegean islands
- Roditis — mainly grown in Peloponnese in the south
- Savatiano — largely found around Athens
The Savatiano grape deserves special recognition, because it is the staple grape of most retsina, Greece’s most famous style of wine. To make retsina, vintners add small amounts of resin from the Aleppo pine tree to Savatiano grape juice during fermentation, giving the wine its characteristic “piney” flavor. Retsina is adored especially in rural areas of Greece but has failed to win the hearts of international wine lovers.
- Agiorgitiko — grown largely in southern Greece
- Xynomavro — present in Macedonia, northern Greece)
- Mandelari — tannic grape found in Crete and the Aegean islands.
Not to be forgotten is the Mavrodaphne grape, which is used to make a decadent fortified dessert wine of the same name. The wine is akin to port. This grape is most widely planted in Peloponnese.
Greek Wine Laws
As many European nations had done before them, Greece eventually adopted the Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC) laws of France as a way of setting quality standards in its wine industry. Sweet wines produced in defined areas according to approved techniques get the Controlled Appellation of Origin designation, while dry wines get the label Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality. Wines that fall outside this system can be labeled topikos oenos (regional wines) or epitrapezios oenos (table wines). The latter are mainly bulk wines consumed locally, whereas the former have more international appeal since they are often blends of indigenous Greek grapes and varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Quite simply, the scourge of Communism is the main reason why Hungarian wines are not adored and treasured in the Western world. When Hungary was freed from Communist control in 1989, the country’s indigenous wine culture, which has been traced to Roman times, immediately reasserted itself. Today the most famous wines of Hungary are sweet, but demand is rising for the country’s dry table wines.
The Land and the Grapes
Hungary possesses a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. Without hot summers, grapes fail to ripen properly. The best growing regions in Hungary, such as the area around the town of Eger, northeast of Budapest, have well-draining volcanic soils which help concentrate grape flavor.
Hungarian winemakers have experience growing and producing wine from international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but many take pride in working with native varieties such as Harslevelu (white), Kadarka (red) and Kekoporto (red). The most famous Hungarian grape variety by far is Furmint (white), which has the acidity to make solid dry table wines but also the country’s most prized sweet wines.
One of Hungary’s best known red wines is playfully called Bull’s Blood. In the mid-1500s, outnumbered defenders of the town of Eger drank copious amounts of red wine as they fought invading Turks, so that their beards became stained. When the Turks saw this, they fled in fear, thinking their opponents’ ferocity came from drinking the blood of bulls!
The Romance of Tokay Aszu
Tokay is the English spelling of Tokaji, a region about one-third the size of Napa Valley located about 120 miles northeast of Budapest. Aszu is the word for shriveled grapes, which may not sound terribly appetizing when it comes to wine. Tokay Aszu is the name of a lusciously sweet wine made largely from Furmint grapes which have shriveled on the vine thanks to Botrytis cinerea, a fungus which dehydrates the grapes and leaves an incredibly concentrated, sugar-laden juice behind. Thanks to the high sugar content, fermentation of this juice proceeds very slowly, but the wines are worth the wait. Were it not for the Furmint grape’s naturally high acidity, drinking Tokay would be like drinking grape syrup, but instead the wine is well balanced and not cloying.
How was Tokay Aszu discovered?
According to legend, in the mid-1600s a priest named Mate Szepsi Laczko was experimenting with letting grapes raisinate on the vine. Then the Turks suddenly invaded, and everyone fled. When they returned, the grapes were rotten, but they were picked anyway. The sweet juice was added to other wine, and voila!
Tokay wines are among the world’s most hedonistic, and some sell for stratospherically high prices. In fact, in the late 1600s Czar Peter the Great of Russia began stationing troops in Tokay to make sure that plenty of the precious nectar made it to the royal court.
Uruguay is a small country on the Atlantic coast of South America, but it produces the most wine in South America after Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. Winemaking did not really begin in the country until the 1870s when Italian settlers along with Spanish and French Basques brought the grape with them from Europe. Today more than 20,000 acres of grapes are being cultivated by approximately 1,800 wine producers.
The Success of Tannat
The Tannat grape has come to define Uruguayan wine. Tannat is indigenous to southwest France, and it now represents approximately 40 percent of Uruguay’s wine production. It is also known as Harriague, the surname of the French Basque who first brought Tannat to the country. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon also have a foothold in Uruguay, the climate of which has been compared to Bordeaux, which makes some of the most highly coveted Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines in the world.
Tannat is a hardy grape, producing quite possibly the world’s darkest red wines. Due to Tannat’s firm tannins, which can make the wines somewhat astringent in their youth, wine producers often blend Merlot or Pinot Noir into the mix, tempering the tannins with softer fruit. This firm backbone of tannins, however, can make Uruguayan Tannats fine candidates for cellaring.
In the Western world, there is a strong link between wine and religion. This link is intense in Israel, where wine has been produced since biblical times. Wine plays a prominent role in the Jewish Passover Seder meal. The wine consumed at such events is kosher, and kosher wines historically have not been made to garner scores in the ’90s from wine critics such as Robert Parker. This stigma surrounding kosher wines has unfortunately tainted the reputation of Israeli wines as a whole, but this is rapidly changing.
Roots of the Modern Israeli Wine Industry
Archaeologists have dated cisterns for wine production and storage located in what is now Israel to 3000 BC. In 1848 Rabbi Shore in Jerusalem built the first winery for commercial kosher wine production. The most famous name to grace the early Israeli kosher wine industry was Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the legendary Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, who brought French expertise to the winemaking. His initial project exists today as the Carmel Winery.
By the 1980s, wines with international appeal began to complement kosher wines. Stainless steel fermentation tanks along with French and American aging barrels became commonplace at wineries. Today, while three wineries produce 80 percent of Israeli wine (Carmel, Barkan Wine Cellars and Golan Heights Winery), the boutique-winery phenomenon, which most connoisseurs associate with the Napa Valley, has taken hold. There are now no fewer than one hundred such wineries, producing anywhere from a few thousand to 20,000 bottles annually. Famous boutique wineries include Domaine du Castel, Margalit and Yatir.
The red 2003 Yatir Forest label from a subsidiary of Carmel Winery received a score of 93 points from American wine critic Robert Parker.
The Land and the Grapes
It is true that Israel has desert areas inhospitable to grapes, but most of Israel has a Mediterranean climate, perfect for local and international grape varieties. The area with the best reputation for high-quality wines is Galilee in the north, but modern irrigation techniques are helping turn previously barren areas into lush vineyards.
While Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are finding homes in Israeli wine regions, arguably the most popular grape is Emerald Riesling. This grape is not true Riesling; it is a cross between Muscadelle and true Riesling developed by a researcher at the University of California at Davis. Emerald Riesling produces table wines with an acidity that makes them a good food match, and wines such as this are rare in hot growing regions.
China is worth noting for two main reasons: Chinese wine consumption is exploding on an unprecedented scale, and internationally recognized wine companies are beginning to invest millions to plant vineyards in areas only locals know about. These companies are banking that wine connoisseurs around the world will soon think of Napa and Penglai in the same thought.
No Stranger to Fermented Beverage
Archeologists have discovered texts dating back to approximately 1122 BC that state that the Chinese upper classes drank alcoholic beverages. Were any of these beverages made from actual grapes? Your guess is as good as mine. Almost two thousand years passed before scholars learned about Mare’s Nipple. In AD 694 Emperor Tai-Tsung received a grape variety from people living in what is now Turkey, which the Chinese called Mare’s Nipple. This grape still has a home in China, and producers continue to ferment its juice. Most fermented beverages in ancient China, however, were made from rice and wheat.
By 1892 European white grape variety Welschriesling (not true Riesling) had found its way to China thanks to government officer Zhang Bishi, who also founded a winery called Chang Yu in Yantai, north of Shanghai.
One hundred years later, European companies such as Remy Martin and Pernod-Ricard had established brands in China. By the late 1990s wineries such as Grace Vineyards in Shanxi province, complete with a replica of a French chateau, had been established. Today China has no fewer than five hundred wineries.
Perhaps the most internationally recognized Chinese wine today is Dragon Seal, which has won medals in France and England for its Chardonnays, Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons. The vineyards are located about ninety-five miles north of Beijing, and the winemaker, Jérôme Sabaté, is French!
Does China Have Any Napa Valleys?
Vineyards occupy approximately 1.1 million acres in China. Virtually all are located north of the Yangtze River, with the greatest concentration of wineries in the extreme northwest part of the country. The most significant wine regions here, which roughly lie on the same latitude as California, are Hebei, Shangdong, Henan and Tianjin. The major headache to winemakers in these regions is the threat of monsoons, which can quickly strip vines of grapes or rot any grapes left behind.
No wine region has yet achieved the glamour and prestige of California’s Napa Valley, but a historic development in March 2009 bodes well for a peninsula 500 miles north of Shanghai called Penglai. The great Chateau Lafite agreed to develop approximately 60 acres of vines in an area already home to China’s most prominent producers of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
Western wine companies are also taking an interest in China because of the population’s increasing purchasing power. At the 2008 Napa Valley Wine Auction, Shanghai Internet entrepreneur David Li dropped $500,000 for six magnums of 1992 Screaming Eagle, one of California’s most coveted Cabernet Sauvignons.
Wine Consumption in China
The Chinese are consuming wine at a rate that would cause any Western wine company to salivate. According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, mainland China and Hong Kong together drink 60 percent of all wine consumed in Asia. According to the International Wine and Spirit Record in London, the Chinese are expected to be drinking more than 1.1 billion bottles of wine a year by 2011, double the number in 2007.
As mainland producers refine their winemaking techniques and as Western producers hone their marketing outreach, the future of wine in China is nothing but bright.
The consumption of fermented beverages in India has a somewhat uneven history due to a convergence of religious traditions — Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism — that have generally frowned upon such consumption. During the British occupation, wine drinking expanded, and vineyards were established in Kashmir, Baramati, Surat, and Goalkonda. Any possibility of establishing a modern industry was thwarted by phylloxera, which wiped just about everything out in the 1890s. When India declared independence from Great Britain in 1947, the industry grew very slowly, but more than sixty years later, Indian vineyards and wine consumption are expanding at breakneck speed.
Obstacles and Opportunities
One of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of the development of a modern Indian wine industry is the fact that India is the world’s biggest whiskey market, and many locals look at wine as just another form of alcohol, not a beverage belonging at the dinner table. Another obstacle is that grape growers must often contend with a climate so humid that rot is a fact of life. Couple this with the threat of monsoons and many prospective vineyard owners abandon the idea altogether.
India does have indigenous grape varieties such as Arkavati, Arkashyam, and Anabeshahi, but these are mainly grown as table grapes, not wine grapes. The most commonly grown grape in India is Thompson Seedless, which is also found in most American grocery stores.
This is not to say that the situation is impossible. India has more than 1 billion people, and change tends to happen more slowly here. Changes in social mores are favoring wine consumption, especially among the young. In the last thirty years, three producers have come to exert the most influence in the burgeoning Indian wine industry. Grover Vineyards opened in 1988 near Bangalore and counts among its winemaking consultants Michel Rolland of Bordeaux. The vineyards are home to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc and are largely protected from monsoons. At about the same time, Chateau Indage began releasing sparkling wines made with French equipment. Stanford-educated Ranjeev Samant launched Sula Wines in 2000 and quickly developed the reputation as India’s finest white-wine producer, most notably of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Future of Indian Wine and Wine in India
At the time of this writing, the Indian wine industry produces about 1.2 million cases a year, with more imported from Europe, Australia, and the United States. Yet another famous French winemaker, Stephane Derenoncourt, has decided to consult for Alpine Winery, recently founded in the southern state of Karnakata. Derenoncourt has consulted for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola in Napa Valley. In addition, on April 1, 2010, India joined the Paris-based International Organization of Vine and Wine, an agency that helps uphold the most innovative winemaking and grape growing practices around the world.
As India grows more and more prosperous economically, wine consumption is forecast to rise 20 to 30 percent a year. Not bad for one of the youngest modern wine industries in the world.
Switzerland is surrounded by four of Europe’s preeminent wine-producing countries — France, Italy, Germany, and Austria — yet most wine connoisseurs think that Switzerland is too cold and mountainous to support any type of grapevine. Quite the opposite is true. So little Swiss wine makes it to the United States, that when Americans think of Switzerland they think of chocolate and cheese, and Swiss wine is barely an afterthought.
It’s Not Too Cold or Too High
Switzerland is more diverse than you might think, and climate is just the beginning. Switzerland has three distinct cultural regions divided by language, and, to some extent, by the grapes that thrive there. Each of these cultural regions is divided further into cantons, and each canton is permitted to regulate its wine industry on its own terms. This lack of central control allows for a huge diversity in wine styles, making Switzerland a wine connoisseur’s playground.
Isn’t Switzerland too mountainous for vineyards?
It is true that the country has forty-eight mountains over 13,000 feet high, but this reality hasn’t stopped vineyards! Many Swiss vineyards are grown on tablars (terraces) literally cut into mountainsides. All vineyard work must be done by hand.
Located in western Switzerland, French Switzerland makes the most wine and has the most rigorous appellation controllee-based system. The most planted Swiss grape variety, Chasselas, is largely planted here. Sylvaner and Pinot Gris are other popular white grapes, with Gamay and Pinot Noir comprising most of the red grapes.
Valais is the largest and most important canton in wine-producing French Switzerland. Some call it the most important canton in all of wine-producing Switzerland, as 40 percent of Swiss wine comes from Valais. It is sandwiched between France to the west and Italy to the east and is fascinating for its indigenous grape varieties, which include Amigne, Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanche, and Cornalin du Valais.
German Switzerland is the largest of the three Swiss cultural areas, and red wine production dominates. Pinot Noir, called Blauburgunder here, is the leading red grape.
Ticino is the main canton in Italian Switzerland, and Merlot accounts for a whopping 85 percent of its wine production. At higher elevations Pinot Noir and white grapes find a home, but Merlot is king. Ticino locals also routinely quaff a white Merlot (Merlot bianco), which is made by separating the red Merlot grape skins from the juice prior to fermentation.