Which country is best for wine tasting, which is the most unexpected place to grow and taste wine, and where are some cool spots in Europe, the US and beyond for wine lovers? We answer these questions and more
The variety and quality of wines offered in the supermarket today is increasing, and the rise and facilitation of international trade means that countries or regions that were previously hidden are being discovered. Heard about it through the rumor mill, if you will. We don’t necessarily look at the most famous wine destinations, but at those that are underestimated or less well-known.
South America has been known for the quality of its wines for several decades, but most people will only know varieties from Argentina or Chile. And that’s good; rich reds and crisp, vibrant whites are what it’s all about. What is more interesting, however, is that Uruguay has a grape variety called Tannat that has taken the position of the “national grape”. Native to south-west France and imported when European settlers arrived, it produces a smoky, almost spicy wine, often blended with Cabernet to make it less aggressive. However, Uruguayans are very proud of their love affair with this relatively rare grape.
India? For real? Oh well. Strange as it may seem, the region around the ancient city of Nashik is known as the “Wine Capital of India,” with 22 wineries — about half the country’s total — and hosts a number of autumn wine festivals. The story begins very recently. In 1996, Silicon Valley employee Rajeev Samant quit his job and took a California winemaker with him (voluntarily, it is believed) to repurpose his family’s land in the region. The potential he saw in the area was realized and now the Sula Vineyards are the father of them all. Due to the altitude at which the grapes are grown, the wines can be quite acidic, but the Sula sun design label is becoming more well known around the world.
Viticulture has been practiced in the Thracian lowlands (on the Greek border, on the banks of the Mariza River) for 7,000 years. The members of the cult of Dionysos were all about the wine, and production continues – albeit in a less cultic way – to this day. A 1960 decree actually divided Bulgaria into five distinct regions, which due to the country’s location meant that a number of different grape varieties could be grown. From the long, gentle falls near the Black Sea coast to the Mediterranean climate of the Struma Valley region in the southwest of the country, it’s ripe for growing a variety of varietals, including the very local Misket Cherven, a pink-red grape that produces a dry, slightly greenish white wine.
The beautiful island of Krk, off the north coast of Croatia, is home to the only place in the world that produces Vrbnička žlahtina wine; It’s a light, fresh white wine that goes very well with sheep’s cheese, another Croatian delicacy. Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century AD that Krk’s medicinal wines were the best in the entire Roman Empire, and for centuries the island was not only a reserve of exclusive wines, but also the last remnants of Venetian and Dalmatian languages.
The rest of the country, the north and interior between Hungary and Bosnia to the Serbian border, specializes in fruity white wines, while further south along the coast, the vineyards give way to bold reds. Due to the extremely harsh growing conditions in much of the country, there are a number of cultivars found only in Croatia, including Plavac Mali – a small, bluish grape that can produce wines with up to 17% alcohol.
Canary Islands, Spain
Next we visit another outlier, as the Spanish-owned archipelago, which lies some 60km from the Moroccan coast, has been known as a producer of fine wines for centuries. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly could have joked that “You’ve been drinking too many canaries”, and the audience would have known that this referred to a very expensive wine reserved for the upper class. Thomas Jefferson, after retiring to Monticello, commissioned Canarian wine for Entertaining Contemporary Records, who believed it to be “the richest, firmest, full-bodied and lasting wine”.
Today you can tour the Canary Islands vineyards and see how vines are grown in a surreal, almost lunar-like landscape of black volcanic rock. Planted in ash and often hidden in natural craters to protect them from the harsh Atlantic winds, the high tannic qualities of many wines mean they may not be immediately welcome, but are a wonderful discovery nonetheless.
A wine-growing region dating back around 2,000 years before Alexander the Great, Lebanese winemakers now mainly work with French grapes, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot being among the favourites. Add to this autochthonous varietals – including Musar – and wineries like Ixsir have mastered the challenges of growing vines in the country’s mountainous regions (at altitudes over a kilometer above sea level) with flying colours. In fact, in 2009 the company received the Revelation Award at the annual Semaine des Primeurs in Bordeaux, a world-renowned wine tasting and evaluation fair. The Bekaa Valley is becoming known for its red and rosé wines, while the Lebanese industry is going from strength to strength, with over 7 million bottles being produced every year.
German ingenuity is giving Ontario winemakers their magic trick – using the low temperatures to their advantage to make “Eiswein”. Germany has been doing this since the 1700s, but since the late 1970s Canada has taken over the mantle of large-scale cultivation and production. The technique is this: when you harvest completely frozen grapes, the small amount of liquid you extract means the wine is actually very sweet, and it proves it with these Canadian dessert wines, so be prepared. Also, ice wine production costs are relatively high (e.g. presses need to be reinforced to crush the thousands of frozen grapes) and since only about 20% of the juice can be used because it’s so sweet, the bottles are usually smaller .
Because of this, a good bottle of Canadian Icewine can cost anywhere from $30 to $50. There’s such a thing as “ice wine,” but the Extra D is a giveaway. For example, if the grapes are frozen indoors in industrial quantities, the product must legally be labeled as ‘iced’ rather than ‘ice’ and is therefore cheaper and of inferior quality. Since the early 21st century, Canada has been the world’s leading producer of true ice wine. So now you know.
Texas, United States
It’s probably not the image you have of the Lone Star State — a hardy cowboy sipping a good glass of Chenin Blanc after a hard day of ranching, but the Texas Hill Country Wineries are becoming the most-visited — after California’s Napa Valley Territory of Vineyards in the USA. Over 5 million people move to the limestone hills west of Austin each year, where the warm climate makes it perfect for growing Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo and Malbec. Texas also has a very important claim to wine-based fame, as it was here in the 19th century that Thomas Volney Munson discovered what would become the cure for the phylloxera epidemic that nearly wiped out much of the European wine industry, particularly in France.
The problem could be solved by grafting American vines (which were phylloxera resistant) onto European vines. Many French winemakers were appalled by the idea, but ultimately had no choice. European vineyards slowly recovered and are in great shape today, while Munson was awarded the Order of Agricultural Merit by the French government. The town he lived in – Denison, Texas – later became twinned with the French town of Cognac. Thank you Texas
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Producing around 27 million gallons of wine a year, of which just 10 percent is exported, means Slovenians a) know exactly what they’re doing and b) don’t want the rest of the world to notice. With a total area of just 7,800 square miles but with 14 wine regions producing 52 varieties, Slovenia is a well-kept secret. Nevertheless, wine tourism is booming. For such a small country, the extremes in its geography play to its advantage. Mountains, plateaus and coastal regions mean there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Even away from the vineyards, the capital Ljubljana hosts one of the oldest wine fairs in Europe. To the east, around the banks of the Drava River, lies one of the most well-balanced wine-growing regions in the world. Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are all grown here, while the city of Maribor boasts the oldest vine in the world (apparently) as well as almost two miles of tunnels under the city itself, all of which are wine cellars.
All right, we’ve saved the most unusual for last. Myanmar only reopened as a tourist country in 2011 after decades of sanctions and has only two wineries: Aythaya and Red Mountain. Both opened in the last decade and Myanmar’s climate is their biggest problem; It’s hot enough to burn the grapes, the humidity causes fungal growth, and the monsoons can wash away the vines completely.
Nevertheless, the two estates are doing well. High up in the hills, away from the stuffy conditions of most of the country, both offer tastings, tours and the chance to taste traditional foods while watching the sunset over the Inle Valley with a glass of Moscato or Shiraz. The vines themselves have been imported from either the Loire Valley in France or regions in Italy and Spain and therefore have a familiar flavor despite their unfamiliar surroundings. Also, not a single bottle is exported, so you can say you’ve had a real once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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