This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
In the space of six months, wine will have taken me to Brazil, China, Korea, Slovenia and a desert in New Mexico – places I never dreamt would be on the itinerary of even the most curious wine writer.
In place of the bordeaux and burgundy of 30 years ago, today’s wine drinker can choose a Chinese wine made with help from an Austrian who used to represent Robert Mondavi’s California wines in Europe or an Indian one fashioned by Bordeaux’s most famous oenologist. “Almost anywhere in the world you think doesn’t make wine, does now,” says Simon Farr, deputy chairman and wine strategist at Bibendum Wine in London. Already involved in several wine ventures that are global in scope, he is just about to go to Mexico to work on a new project with a Mexican industrialist who recently bought vineyards in the Agly Valley in French Catalonia.
And all this is without even mentioning Australia. As a wine producer it was hardly countenanced in the 1970s, shot to international fame and fortune in the 1990s and is now desperately trying to develop a strategy for survival in the drought-prone 21st century.
The world of wine is so different from, and so much bigger than, it was in 1971 when my co-author Hugh Johnson launched the first edition of The World Atlas of Wine. Then this, the most handsome volume on wine ever to have been published, had a mere 236 pages devoted to the wines of the world (with a total of two on South America). The sixth edition published on Thursday groans under the weight of 400.
It has been six years since we launched the last edition, in the eerie atmosphere that prevailed on September 13, 2001 when wine seemed so desperately irrelevant and frivolous. Since then, the world of wine has increasingly established itself as an important generator and, perhaps even more importantly, indicator of wealth. All over the world now, a wine collection is regarded as a desirable, even expected, accoutrement to financial success, just like membership of the right golf club or investment in significant real estate. New interest from Asia, Russia and, increasingly, Latin America has put extraordinary pressure on prices of the traditional trophy wines, the Bordeaux first growths and most sought-after Grand Cru burgundies. At thousands of dollars a bottle rather than a case nowadays, they can now be regarded as part of the luxury goods market, with the additional pressure, hardly a factor in the handbag business, of the investment funds that have been established to benefit from their status as a trading commodity.
But what has changed recently for those of us who savour wine’s more democratic appeal is that wine has become such a popular leisure interest, especially in the world’s biggest consumer market of all, the United States. At long last wine seems to have thrown off its damaging associations with hard liquor and beer in the US to emerge as a wholesome, intellectually and socially nourishing pursuit. This year the US became the world’s biggest consumer of wine, albeit still with a per capita consumption less than half that of the British and a puny fraction of average intakes in the major European wine producing countries.
But even in countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Portugal where at the end of the last century wine was still typically taken thoroughly for granted and mainly drunk, in quantity, by the elderly and impoverished, wine has acquired a new glamour. Wine publications, wine bars and wine clubs all thrive on mainland Europe where previously wine was seen as a strictly agricultural product rather than cultural pursuit. The London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust taught wine courses to more than 20,000 wine lovers in 39 countries and nine languages last academic year. I meet eager WSET students almost wherever I go in the world.
It is hardly surprising then that more and more people, often with no background whatsoever in the wine business, want to produce wine. Owning a vineyard or winery has become almost a lifestyle statement. Many who have earned a fortune in a quite different field where every penny was presumably counted seem happy to fritter away their fortune on a vanity project that gives them some sort of bibulous connection to the earth, or least a wine label with their name on it. Meanwhile there is still a glut of much more ordinary wine, particularly in Europe, so that the world is still producing far more wine than it consumes. This, together with the buying muscle of the big retailers worldwide, means that the price of the most basic wine has remained remarkably static over the last 20 years. But while the price gap between the top and bottom of the wine market is wider than it has ever been, the difference in quality between top and bottom is arguably narrower than ever before, thanks to much more efficient application of technology in everyday wine production. Today it is extremely rare to come across a bad wine – even if an army of bottles of boring wine is to be found on many a shelf, [and there is still an embarrassingly deep lake of surplus wine in the traditional wine-producing countries of Europe].
But what has made updating the World Atlas of Wine so fascinating has been the necessary redrawing of the map of the wine world. I well remember in my early days of wine study memorising the Atlas’s two neat bands around globe, one in the temperate zone of each hemisphere, roughly 30 to 50 degrees from the equator, which we all thought then defined the only territory open to the grapevine. How wrong we were.
One of the more interesting wine regions to have developed this century has been in northern Brazil just eight degrees south of the equator in what is basically tropical desert in which vines would be expected to stand no chance but, thanks to cunningly timed irrigation from the nearby São Francisco river, they are tricked into going through two full growing seasons a year, thereby halving production costs per bottle. This is far from the only example of successful modern tropical viticulture. I can personally attest to the fact that perfectly drinkable wine is also now made in Thailand, Vietnam and on the island of Bali. What might be called New Latitude viniculture also now takes place in such unlikely locations as Bolivia, Ecuador, Kenya, Namibia, and Sri Lanka.
The world map of wine regions is hardly recognisable from the 1971 version. Not only have vineyards crept much closer to the equator, the extent of viticulture has moved polewards – arguably one of the more benign effects of climate change. One of the British media’s favourite themes in recent years has been the theory (and it is still entirely theoretical) that global warming will force producers in the Champagne region in north east France to invest in the similarly chalky downs of southern England. Sussex Sparkling is a fair way from supplanting champagne but its quality, and even that of England’s still wines, has increased noticeably over recent years since grapes are reaching much higher natural ripeness levels than they used to.
This phenomenon is nowhere more marked than in Germany which is experiencing unparalleled demand for its Rieslings, especially from the US, now that this nervy wine can be relied upon to have enough genuine fruit ripeness of its own, without having to rely on sweetness to make it palatable. It helps of course that there is a new generation of ambitious German winemakers whose produce bears no relation whatever to the mass market sugarwater that used to make up such a high proportion of Germany’s wine exports.
Global warming has also added some new countries to the global list at the northern limit of viticulture - even if their vineyards are still far too small to merit a map of their own in the World Atlas of Wine. Vine growers in Belgium, Holland, Denmark and even Poland are now much more confident than they would have been even 10 years ago of producing wine every year, and Luxembourg’s well-established wine industry no longer has to depend so heavily on grape varieties chosen specifically to ripen in a hurry.
Similarly, Canada’s two principal and very different wine-producing provinces, Ontario in the east and British Columbia in the west, at the northern limit of vine cultivation in the Americas, have been experiencing some very unusual vintages. In the past Canada’s Icewine made from frozen grapes was its pride and joy, but sub-zero temperatures arrive very much later than they used to – while thanks to global warming, Canadians can now be proud of some of their red wines. (And in my experience, no-one is prouder of their own wines than the Canadians.)
If there was one constant theme that ran through the work that my assistant Julia Harding and I put into this revision over the last two or three years it was the effect of climate change – for better or worse - virtually everywhere.
Water and sunlight are the two essential ingredients in grape growing and while there has been no shortage of the latter – indeed some vignerons are having rapidly to re-think their vine training systems so as to keep the grapes shaded from the sun where it is most merciless – water is becoming the single most important issue for a significant proportion of wine producers worldwide.
Australia’s daring and almost incredibly successful plan to become the world’s most energetic wine exporter was predicated on her ability to produce vast quantities of inexpensive, virtually machine-made wine in the heavily-irrigated Murray Darling basin. Now hundreds of growers there have been told that the tap is being switched off for good and, although some government help is promised, in prospect is hardship on a scale unknown among their counterparts in southern France and Italy who have for decades been systematically cushioned from economic and market reality by generous EU subsidies. Wine Australia’s long-term plan is rapidly being revised – towards greater reliance on cooler, wetter parts of the country. Green, brisk Tasmania and the grey state of Victoria suddenly seem a lot more appealing to the vineyard investors so courted by the Australian government in the 1990s.
After such an extraordinary performance, the Australian wine industry seems to be being punished particularly severely by nature (and has not been helped in recent years by a series of corporate raids making its dominant companies mere components in global corporations). Some climatologists predict that South Africa, which has been producing wine for well over 300 years, will remain relatively unaffected by climate change. And it is also thought by some that the coastal wine regions of California, traditionally cooled by Pacific influence pulled in by the heat of the San Joaquin Valley in the interior, may actually become cooler and damper as temperatures rise inland.
Within Europe Spain has been the most obvious 21st century beneficiary of the impact of New World wines on wine drinkers everywhere. As more and more consumers came to accept the full-bodied, warm climate ferments from the likes of Australia, California and South America as the norm, French wines from cooler climes started to look a little thin. But the more robust wines made under the Spanish sun, so much more sophisticated now that Spain has developed a thriving wine culture, seemed just the job. (And Spain has been sprouting official wine regions so fast and so widely that this is the country that presents a wine atlas author with the greatest challenge in keeping up to date.) But with warm climate wines come warm climate problems. Being the European country most at risk from drought is likely to have a shrinking effect on the amount of wine produced in Spain, and very possibly a tasteable effect on the quality of that made in the worst-affected regions.
Vintage 2003 showed how. The severity of the 2003 heatwave stunned Europe’s wine producers, delivering a small crop of often shrivelled, sometimes heat-damaged grapes with thick skins and therefore a high level of often dry-tasting tannins in the wine. In 2003 the truly successful crème de la crème of European wine represented an even thinner layer than usual, on top of a puddle of rather troubled milk. Breaking all records, it had vignerons hiring refrigerated trucks, carting their beds into their cellars to escape the hot, troubled nights and seeking advice on how to handle these strange conditions from winemakers well outside Europe.
It seems unlikely that 2003 will prove a one-off and already some of southern Germany’s growers have installed irrigation systems on some of their faster-draining soils. But while so many of the great majority of winemakers outside Europe who depend on irrigation anxiously watch the water levels in their bore-holes, dams and lakes fall, many grape growers in Europe have been coping with exceptionally heavy rainfall at unaccustomed times. As though in retribution for the 2005 vintage in which in so much of Europe everything went absolutely right, both the 2006 and 2007 vintages have severely tested vignerons with their sporadic and often heavy rain and resulting vine maladies (the vine is particularly prone to fungal diseases) and rotten grapes. The only way to survive in today’s competitive wine market is to discard any substandard grapes to make the best wine possible.
It is this spirit of ambition and competition that characterises the world of wine today. More and more producers from a wider array of countries than anyone would have thought possible 30 years ago clamour for attention. As temperatures rise, newer, cooler wine regions such as those on the Pacific coast of the Americas and ever higher up mountain slopes emerge. The seventh edition of the Atlas will doubtless need just as vigorous a revision as the sixth.
Here are some delicious bottles from relatively unexpected corners of the globe, at least four of them previous wines of the week here.
Belgium - Clos d’Opleeuw Chardonnay 2001 Haspengouw
A wine that I and another Master of Wine took for a particularly fine Puligny-Montrachet when it was served to us blind ealier this year. It ripens this far from the equator thanks to the vines’ position in a walled vineyard – a ploy used by medieval vine growers.
Georgia – Orovela Saperavi 2004 Kakheti
The most exciting post-Soviet wine to emerge from a country widely regarded as the cradle of viticulture. It is the brainchild of a Georgian who used to work for Pernod Ricard’s optimistic Georgian wine venture and was made by a young Georgian with experience of making wine in both Australia and the Languedoc. There is still huge, under-realised potential throughout eastern Europe.
China – Grace, Chairman’s Reserve Merlot/Cabernet 2004
The finest wine so far made in the country that is already the world’s sixth most important grower of grapevines even though eastern China tends to be a bit too damp and western China a bit too cold for viticulture. This one comes from the middle, south of Beijing, but its Hong Kong owners are prospecting elsewhere.
India– Grover Vineyards, La Reserve Cabernet/Merlot Bangalore
No vintage given for this dependable attempt at copying red bordeaux in the Nandi hills. Michel Rolland the ubiquitous Pomerol oenologist consults and LVMH have invested in this producer, through Veuve Clicquot. Sula is the finest producer of whites, a company set up in California mode by a returnee from Silicon Valley.
Brazil – Rio Sol Cabernet/Shiraz 2006 Valle de São Francisco
The label features the latitude heavily. Just eight, it is worthy of note. This tropical valley is home to several vineyard projects, closer to the equator than anywhere else on the wine map, thanks to carefully timed irrigation. Two harvests a year keep the retail price below a fiver. You can actually taste the Shiraz.
Canada - Le Clos Jordanne, Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 Niagara Peninsula
A joint venture between Boisset of Burgundy and Canada’s dominant wine company Vincor, now part of Constellation, the world’s largest wine company. Very respectable, and fully ripe, answer to red burgundy.
New Mexico – Gruet Brut NV New Mexico
Miraculously good value fizz from the desert south of Albuquerque (nearest town: Truth or Consequences). Again, irrigation from a worryingly shrinking dam many miles away, plus an altitude of 4.300 feet, make this possible. Made by refugees from Champagne.