Diversity, value and quality: Why you've never had it so good
- Monday 20 October 2008
I’ve made the assertion, as have others: there is less bad wine than there used to be. I can’t think who would do the research. Not me. But it’s fair to say we
see less bad wine, and very fair to say we see more good, which is what matters.
We can kid ourselves that certain fashionable wines are better than they are (North and South American reds, for example, are often overrated), but the choice of beauties at bargain prices expands before our eyes – almost too fast to keep up with what’s on offer.
Take Greece. Ten years ago, no one in this country even considered Greek wines. Now I see them as a reliable resource, different but not too different, marvellously food-friendly.
How did it happen? I suspect we paid for it, via Brussels, in a magnanimous gesture that turned out better than anyone expected. The same for Portugal, Spain, Sicily… it’s no miracle they are making not just decent but actually prestigious wines we have to pay premiums for.
Let’s not think about the cost; it is money well spent. The new Old World, as I see it, has one enormous advantage over the old New World: its vines. Greece can make good Cabernet, but that’s not what’s exciting: it’s Greece’s unpronounceable ancient grape varieties.
The census is still being taken, there and in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Already Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko and Roditis are becoming familiar. From Italy we now accept (and look forward to) Primitivo, Nero d’Avola, Taurasi, Fiano… from Spain, besides Tempranillo, Monastrell and Mencía; from Portugal Arinto, Baga, Touriga Nacional…
These are all new tastes, springing from the cultures of regions that history had virtually dismissed. The almost universal know-how of modern winemaking can make respectable or better debut wines of them with no problem at all. Imagine what treats are round the corner when more of their secrets are known.
If Greece and Sicily can get over the challenge of high alcohol (Planeta, for example, makes perfectly balanced wines already), the future is very bright indeed.
The current view that global warming is about to change all this, making temperatures too high for quality around the Mediterranean, is bound to make us apprehensive for the future (the worst threat I have heard is that Sauvignon Blanc will invade northern Europe). The upside of warmer summers is already well known in Germany: scarcely a duff vintage for Riesling in the past 20 years.
The list of regions focusing on the indigenous qualities they can bring to the table is exhilarating. How to choose between Roussillon (Monty Waldin has a good spot), Navarra and the Pyrenean foothills, good old Languedoc (have you tried Picpoul de Pinet?), Salento and its smooth reds, ditto from the Douro, South Africa’s Chenins Blancs or the steadily improving wines of old friend Gascony. Sometimes you find what you are looking for right under you nose.
Just as Harold Macmillan used his famous quote to compare the prosperity of the average 1950s’ Briton to life in the 1930s, it’s necessary to reflect on how things were a generation ago. It’s startling to look at the changes between the 1970s and now.
Wine styles and qualities accepted when I was in Paris in 1970 were already queried by the early ’80s, and gone a decade later. Today, France is drinking half what it did then, but far better. The rest of the world is the winner.
A generation ago, the French market was dominated by producers of litre bottles of vins de table – the higher in alcohol, the more expensive. Then, in 1973, the French government created VdP (vins de pays), a concept of regionality unfettered by the strict rules of the AC (appellation contrôlée), giving a lease of life to the southern vineyards.
For the consumer looking for varietal characteristics allied to a sense of place at a modest price, this was a boon. Absence of competition made life easy for producers, lack of criticism protected them and while money was easy to come by, there was no need to collaborate, even exchange views, with neighbours, and little need, since the wine sold anyway, to invest in the vineyards or cellar.
Everywhere, especially in Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône, production was dominated by big négociants and co-ops. Abuses of appellation laws were rife: yields, especially in Alsace and Beaujolais, were excessive, the wines needing massive chaptalisation to reach the required alcohol level; Champagne was so acidic it was heavily overdosed after disgorging; Burgundy still looked to southern Rhône for colour and body, Emile Peynaud was
seen as a revolutionary when he insisted on clean cellars at châteaux; Loire whites had the fruit sulphured out of them; and the Midi was known for its heavy reds.
Global warming has helped, of course, but it is the mindset of the authorities and producers that has changed out of all recognition: all that matters now is quality, regionality and value, and France provides this better than ever before. The following five wines represent modern France at friendly prices. All were selected from Majestic, another revolutionary wine merchant.
One of the reasons to celebrate our wine world is that change is written into its constitution. No vintage unfolds identically; no vineyard duplicates another; no winemaker ever makes the same wine twice.
My 20 years observing this carnival have brought an evolutionary flurry. I’ve seen bad wines abolished; good wines multiplied; and great wines refined. The only price we have paid has been the arrival of a tide of boring wines, and no one is obliged to drink those.
The first wine region I visited professionally was Portugal’s Douro Valley. I remember the meals served. Nothing much mattered until they were almost over, at which point everything got very serious: cheese, some tawny ‘mouthwash’, then (cue drumroll) the vintage Port.
We had been served table wines with the cabbage soup and the chicken, but they were light and inconsequential, either unremarked or served apologetically.
This now seems astonishing. Those vineyards quietly resting outside in the moonlight were capable, all along, of making red wines to rival the best of the Rhône, Piedmont or Rioja. Back then, of course, no one had asked them to, or at least not for 230 years. Now they have asked them to.
There is, naturally, a long evolutionary road ahead. Port needs to have the cockles hammered (or trodden) out of it as quickly as possible, whereas if you do that to a table wine, you will end up making gangland bottles, more Molotov than Musigny.
But the best wines from this region which I’ve tasted in the past three years are like nothing else on earth (perhaps Priorat, also almost unknown 20 years ago, comes closest). They have the intrinsic concentration, beauty and mineral depth of great wine.
I expect them to reveal that other hallmark of great wine, too: the ability not just to age, but to change and modulate with age, becoming more beautiful. No modern cellar should be without them.
These words are dedicated to those who, even in difficult times, have the wherewithal and desire to keep drinking decent wine at a reasonable price. Since 2005, global production has grown out of all proportion. Good wines are fighting for a share of the market.
For once, one could say that competition is healthy for the producer and trade, but advantageous for the customer. There are so many good wines, and competition is intense between £7 and £10. Take advantage of this. Moreover, if your sights are higher, there are splendid wines between £20 and £30.
Frankly, and not just at a time like this, extremes are best avoided. At the bottom of the pile are the big commercial brands less than £5 which, when taking into account the cost of the bottle, label, shipping, duty, VAT and margins must contain only 2p of wine. At the opposite end, are the overpriced top growths (albeit of excellent quality) to satisfy the egos of the super rich. There is so much in between.
But where do you look? First, in the New World, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, most Chilean reds and the Argentinians making serious inroads. South Africa has excellent Cabernets.
Regarding Australia, I avoid the big brands. I also have mixed feelings about California. Expensive. Many wineries are making fashionably deep reds – oaky and fruit-laden with high alcohol; even their Chardonnays are the strength of Sherry.
In France, look to Alsace, the refreshingly dry and sweet whites of the Loire, and Rhône for reds (but avoid the fashionable and overpriced). Bordeaux of course. Best value are the crus bourgeois and reds from Graves, the hinterland of St-Emilion and elsewhere.
In Burgundy I recommend lesser-known districts such as the Haut-Côtes de Beaune, the Côtes Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais for whites. And don’t forget Beaujolais. Best of all for value, the Midi Corbières, and my favourite, Vin de Pays d’Oc.
There’s much to explore in Italy but bypass the fashionable superTuscans. I still favour classic Chianti and Barolos. Austria has excellent but pricey dry whites; Hungary is trying hard beyond its famed Tokaji.
Next Portugal. Seriously good now, my favourite being Douro reds and refreshing, low-alcohol Vinho Verde. Mature vintage Port is seriously undervalued. As for Spain, one is spoilt for choice: Rioja, Navarra, Penedes and elsewhere. But the best value of all classic wines is Sherry.
In the 1980s I spent a lot of time in Vienna, where I bought litre bottles of Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s most widely planted grape, from a small grower. The wine wasn’t great but it was fresh, crisp, and light.
In the 1990s it became apparent that GV was more than a workhorse grape. Like Barbera in Italy or Shiraz in Australia, it works well as a cheap and cheerful wine, but from old vines cropped at low yields on the right soil, it can give a wine of real character and power.
Then in 1998, I participated in a blind tasting which pitted Burgundy’s finest (Lafon’s Meursault, DRC Montrachet, etc) against Austria’s top GVs. Austria took the top three places. What I found discomfiting was how hard it often was to tell the two styles apart, even though they were from different grapes and, moreover, the Austrian wines were usually unoaked.
Merits of the tasting apart, it showed that it was no longer possible to dismiss GV as a simple country wine. What is still admirable about this grape is that it remains enjoyable at all quality levels.
In the hands of a good winemaker, even basic expressions are zesty and charming. Single-vineyard wines have much more structure, while never losing the intrinsic dash of white pepper and zestiness that unites all GVs.
There was a tendency in the late ’90s to aim for power. I recall wines from Schloss Gobelsburg, an otherwise exemplary estate, that weighed in at 15.5%abv. Austrians loved them at first, but soon realised they were undrinkable.
Today, everyone makes far more balanced wines. Sometimes, when choosing a wine for dinner, I don’t fancy the complexity of a fine Burgundy, nor the strapping raciness of a good Riesling or Sauvignon. But there, sitting in the middle, is Grüner Veltliner, always tasty, always invigorating, and except at the very top level, rarely too expensive.
A tasting in London took me back to the sort of French wines I tasted in the 1980s. Those were the days: crus classés clarets and grands crus Burgundies at prices we could afford. If only.
A lot of those French wines were dire. They didn’t seem good wines then – sulphurous whites lacking regional and varietal character; thin, green, tannic reds – but they seem much worse today, which is why the recent tasting was so depressing.
Yet, in a perverse way, it was also uplifting. It reminded me how far quality and choice have come in the past few decades. (I knew you’d ask: it was at Oddbins just before French owner Castel sold the chain, which put an immediate stop to the way the French wines were being bought. Thank goodness.)
France didn’t have a monopoly on poor wines, of course. Over-sulphuring and excessive yields that resulted in dilution and unripeness were widespread, but everyone looked to France as the market leader.
New World producers naturally copied French wines. I use the verb advisedly: they used the same varieties, but in warmer climates and with an understanding of winemaking science, they made bigger, riper, friendlier wines.
No wonder we liked them. Reluctantly, lessons were learned in Europe. With much improved winemaking and better vineyard care, new areas have been opened up to quality – Puglia in Italy and Montsant in Spain to name but two.
Once-famous name such as Cahors have been rejuvenated. Lessons have been learned by New World producers, too: Chardonnays have become more elegant and varied in style; high alcohol levels are being tackled; and cooler vineyards – at higher altitudes and closer to seas – are being planted.
There is another development, arguably even more dynamic: the revival of indigenous grapes. It’s true throughout Europe, but nowhere more so than in Italy. Perhaps the most exciting discoveries are the whites, simply because white wines were so rarely taken seriously in Italy before. As a muted overture to the important business of reds, neutral Trebbiano and Pinot Grigio sufficed. Not any more. Fiano, Falanghina, Favorita, Arneis, Nosiola, Pecorino and many others are on a wine list near you.
There’s no question that the work the New World did 10 to 15 years ago has spread across Europe; it shows itself magnificently across Iberia, Italy, southern France and Bordeaux and so on.
If there’s one thing the New World has taught the Old World, it’s respect for old vines and vineyards. These guys aren’t just gallumping, foulmouthed Australians trampling over tradition – they love the stuff. What’s happening in those older vineyards is that people are beginning to respect both the terroirs and why certain grapes were planted there in the first place.
In the Coteaux du Languedoc, from Narbonne to Beziers to Montpelier, you go up into the hills, and there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on. Syrah is almost the newcomer grape there: new-clone Syrahs with that very perfumed style work really well.
In the classic areas, some remarkable things have been happening. Look at the so-called ‘tough’ Bordeaux vintages of the 1990s: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1997, and compare them with the ‘tough’ ones of the 2000s: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, I reckon there’s a 500% increase in decent wine from those years.
There’s more: Calatayud and Campo de Borja – bringing out the sheer joy of old Garnacha in central Spain. And in Ribatejo and Alentejo in Portugal they’re making hugely attractive, commercially affordable wines of real interest.
Ten years ago in Italy, I wouldn’t have looked further south than Rome for a white wine. You could have carried on to the Algiers before someone offered you a decent glass. Campania was bandit land. Whites were an area of ridicule for so long, largely because Italians treated them as something to wash their mouths out while eating frito misto.
Now look at them. There are some tremendous flavours coming from warm-climate grapes, and they’re not just Chardonnays or Sauvignons. You have Vermentinos, Fianos, Grillos, Falanghinas – wines made with New World knowledge, but not New World in style. Bring it on!
Until a decade ago, a French kiss with a vins de pays frog was not an exercise to be carried out without lots of mouthwash. The quality of appellation contrôlées’s country cousins varied from indifferent to mediocre.
France’s VdPs were, and are, table wines with a regional designation. Their origin might be as large as the sprawling Vins de Pays d’Oc, covering the Languedoc-Roussillon, or as small and obscure as the Pythonesque-sounding Vin de Pays des Côtes du Brian.
No expectations were made of them, but they did have untapped potential. At a time when, thanks to the New World, variety was becoming the spice of life, VdPs started to raise their game by asserting their regional, varietal and quality credentials.
Maybe the wake-up call also came partly because their AC counterparts were seen not as great value. But thanks to efforts by pioneering individual domaines, forward-looking négociants and go-ahead cooperatives, VdP producers took advantage of the flexibility of the rules. They planted interesting grapes in their vineyards, sold them under varietal names and came closer to the needs of consumers for good value and interesting, relatively restrained flavours.
At a time of tough competition from the New World, VdPs made out a good case for demonstrating that, next to their often overblown AC colleagues, they could offer very good value. Surveying VdPs on the shelves is a chance to look at the growing number of new varietals coming from a sector that’s not hidebound by so-called classic grapes.
In addition to Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, there’s Sauvignon Gris, Vermentino, Gros Manseng and among the reds Braucol and Carignan. But it’s not just a growing varietal palette or good value alone that singles out today’s VdPs.
Blends and quality wines, too, play an increasingly important role in this diverse area. The fact that two in every five bottles of French wine sold in the UK last year were VdPs is evidence of our respect for and enjoyment of these wines.