New Latitude wines

Frank Norel is a wine writer based in Thailand. For a talk he gave late last year at a conference in Bangkok on the expanding world of wine he coined a phrase which I suspect will become increasingly familiar to us: New Latitude Wines.

As someone who updated the classic of wine geography The World Atlas of Wine less than three years ago, I am fully aware of how the conventional map of the wine world looks. For years we have drawn two bands around the globe, roughly between latitudes 30 and 50, to denote those parts of it deemed suitable for viticulture.

But all this is changing fast, and not just because global warming has given new hope to those growing vines at high latitudes – the likes of my countrymen trying to ripen grapes in the English countryside, their counterparts in Holland, Denmark and Poland, and the man who is currently planting vines 950 kilometers south of Santiago de Chile.

Advances in refrigeration and irrigation techniques, not to mention much greater control over how and when vines grow, have opened up to the grapevine vast tracts of the world previously thought unsuitable for viticulture.

This was brought home to me forcibly during my first visit to Brazil last November. On my first night in Sao Paulo I was subjected to a heavy sales pitch for, and tasting of, a new wine from the San Francisco Valley in the far north of Brazil near Recife grown just eight or nine degrees south of the equator. This deep red wine, the result of a partnership between the wine distributor Expand, some local growers and the Portuguese wine producer Dao Sul, is based on Syrah and Cabernet grapes grown on pergolas in desert conditions alongside many other fruits watered from the nearby San Francisco river.

The result, as far as my jetlagged palate could tell, is a perfectly respectable, deliberately modern, mass market red. It is being targeted at the British supermarkets, probably to be called Rio Red. (A wine called simply 'River' would not work for Portuguese or Spanish speakers, but the word Rio has exotic and definitely Brazilian connotations for us British.)

Just a few days later, at a tasting organised of some of Brazil's best wines (it will be some time before they present a serious challenge to Châteaux Lafite and Latour) I came across another red from this subequatorial area, Terranova Shiraz (sic) 2002 from one of Brazil's best-known producers Miolo – another perfectly acceptable, ultra-modern, flashy red produced from yields reportedly about six tonnes per acre (more than 100 hl/ha).

What's so attractive to producers about these tropical wines of course is that the vine is completely subservient to man. Thanks to careful timing of irrigation, pruning and application of crop regulators in the form of special hormones, they can choose how often the plants will produce a crop. In the San Francisco Valley the producers seem to agree that more than two crops a year is too greedy and weakens the vine uneconomically early in its life. But even two crops a year of course halves (already low) production costs at a stroke.

Plant scientists today are convinced that all plants, not just the vine, are very much more 'plastic' than was previously thought. Put them in a new environment and they will respond with remarkable speed and efficiency. They have no choice after all. Unlike animals, they cannot move. An Indian-born Cambridge scientist told me recently with pride how successfully she was growing plants native to some of the hottest parts of her native land outdoors in Cambridge, one of England's most notoriously chilly towns. Plants quite naturally adopt coping mechanisms in changed environments.

The official plant science line is that a vine producing two or more crops a year may not express winter dormancy but it will almost certainly exhibit some other, possibly useful, characteristic in its stead. We already know, for example, that drought stress results in an impressive build-up of both anthocyanins and sugars – which helps to explain the deep colour and respectable alcohol levels of those two Brazilian reds.

In Thailand, the country that inspired the term New Latitude Wines, there are now no fewer than five wineries turning grapes into wine. One of the most ambitious, and one that uses exclusively Thai-grown grapes, is the Siam Winery, founded as recently as 1996 by the man who invented the energy drink Red Bull, Khun Chalerm Yoovidya. Perhaps to atone for inflicting Red Bull on the world's nervous systems, he is now trying to develop Thailand's wine culture.

The grapes, Malaga Blanc for white wines and the local dark- skinned Pok Dum with Shiraz and Black Muscat, are bought from farmers in the Chao Prayha Delta, an hour south west of Bangkok, where the vineyards effectively float on the river water. Plantings have apparently increased from 8,000 to 12,000 acres of floating vines since 1996 and, while the name they have chosen for their international brand, Monsoon Valley, is not guaranteed to inspire traditional wine lovers with confidence, they are very clear in their objective of promoting the wines specifically to partner Thai food in restaurants around the world. They are also developing experimental vineyards further north on higher ground in the Tap Gwang District, near Khao Yai, which is also the name of the wine subsidiary of the brewers of Thailand's leading beer Singha. The historic Chinese wine company Changyu recently announced it is planning a joint venture winery with its Thai importers, while Chateau de Loei has been producing red and white table wines in north east Thailand for a decade now. The latitude range of all these Thai vineyards is well under 18 degrees north of the equator.

Now that wine is such a popular interest in so many parts of the world, vineyards are springing up at equally low latitudes in such unlikely places as Vietnam, southern India, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Bolivia, Peru and doubtless several other countries currently harbouring an embryonic wine industry unknown to me.

I still find it hard to believe that New Latitude Wines will ever be seriously good, but then that's what was said about New World Wines not that long ago.