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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
19 Aug 2002

The world, we are told, is now a global village. But in the world of wine, some of our village stores are better stocked than others.

Like many northern Europeans and east-coast Americans, we Brits can choose our wines from a dazzling array of countries, a roster that seems to be lengthening every year. Britain's biggest and extremely mass-market supermarket Tesco, for example, prides itself on offering wines from 20 different countries, and that is after dropping their disappointingly feeble efforts from Brazil and Uruguay.

The chill wind of fashion blows through the world of wine though, and I am only too aware of how rapidly the image of a wine-producing country can change. I'm not saying all of the following glib summaries are 100 per cent accurate or bang up to date, but this is how I reckon the world's major wine exporters are viewed in at least one of their most important markets. A few key words first.

Argentina - Malbec, beef, tango, plastic surgery for the beach (or is that Brazil?), shame about the peso. Even more of a shame that all invoices are in US dollars. But even Argentina's economic woes have failed to knock the shine off this Andean producer, mainly because it has made such rapid progress in terms of quality recently. Even Chardonnay can excel in the new, higher vineyards of Mendoza.

Australia - Success, technology, Chardonnay, Shiraz, sporting prowess. Australia is currently suffering from its very own tall poppy syndrome. It has just done too well for everyone to love the country's big, bold, often unsubtle wines and there's also a bit of a backlash against the bigger and bigger companies that dominate those all-important exports. But Aussies are nothing if not resourceful and are expected to react swiftly. Hair shirts will be worn by exporters to the UK this year - on the top layer anyway, although Australian wine is on a roll in the US.

Austria - Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Trockenbeerenauslese, expensive. Some highly successful exporting of top quality, food-friendly dry whites is backed round the Neusiedlersee by more nobly rotten grapes than are seen anywhere else in the world.

Bulgaria - Cheap, Cabernet Sauvignon, impoverished. Once a source of great value, poor old Bulgaria has suffered terribly from neglect and under-investment. Money has been pouring in recently from the West but image is still a problem.

Chile - Not Quite so Cheap, Cabernet and Merlot, no phylloxera, ideal climate. Chile's problem is hardly a problem: an excess of homogeneity, few troughs but few peaks. Many producers are trying their hand at luxury-priced bottlings, with mixed results. Hopes pinned on the newly discovered Carmenère grape, Chile's answer to Argentina's trump card Malbec.

Cyprus - Ersatz sherry, Commandaria, early and late season holidays. On the up, supposedly. cf Greece.

France - Tradition, tradition, tradition, and terroir. For all its world domination as a wine producer and the multiplicity of wines it produces, France has a surprisingly strong and cohesive image. In fact it is perfectly illustrated by an nth generation peasant farmer making wine just like his grandfather did sitting at the end of a lane waiting, vainly, for customers to roll up it. He will not have tasted much wine other than his own, hardly any outside his region and certainly none made outside France, but he knows, as all Frenchmen do, that New World wine is an entirely technical confection palmed off on undiscriminating Anglo-Saxons thanks to the dark arts of marketing. No one makes better wine than French wine at its best. But partly because of that, no one is less aware of his place in the world than the typical French wine producer. There are glimmerings of a fight-back though.

Germany - Hopelessly out of date, sweetish anodyne whites, Riesling. German wine's image abroad has been irreparably damaged by the insouciant exporting of sugarwater labelled Liebfraumilch and the like. A new regime is pinning its hopes on marketing midpriced dry wine 'concepts', a strategy that may well backfire. Meanwhile the top estates make incomparably delicate whites.

Greece - Dynamic blend of indigenous varieties with modern knowhow. Those who have tasted the new Greek wines are impressed. Those that haven't dismiss Greece as a retsina bath.

Hungary - Tokay, Tokaj or is it Tokaji? Great white wine country that hasn't quite cracked it yet.

Italy - Stylish source of expensive reds. But Italy's whites have been sneakily improving enormously too, and really well made bargains of both colours have been emerging from all points south of Tuscany. Italy may have infuriatingly opaque labels but is never short of style.

New Zealand - Sauvignon Blanc, clean, green. Brits adore the crystalline acidity of Kiwi whites and Americans are now being exposed to them too. Pinots so far more admired at home than abroad.

Portugal - Port, complicated indigenous varietals. As its wines become increasingly sophisticated, Portugal is struggling to counter its history as a source of cheap reds and Mateus rosé.

Romania - Hopelessly unrealised potential.

South Africa - Cheap Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, struggle. If Chile has been a reliable source of bargain-basement reds, South Africa has provided the whites. Professionals see increasingly interesting (and generally still great value) wines of both hues coming out of Africa, but know how hampered growers are by poor quality vine material.

Spain - Yo-yo pricing, Rioja, confusion. Spain is making waves all right, but too often as a result of ineffectual splashing. There are some great wines being made, by no means all of them at great prices (in fact it has one of the least sure correlations between price and quality) but there is such a jumble of styles it is difficult to project a single image. Sherry continues to be a steal.

USA - Expensive, varietal, Gallo. If Spanish wine can seem either incredibly over- or under-priced, most American wine strikes most non-Americans as the former. Even the cheapest Californian wine can fail to deliver the sort of fruit and interest that its southern hemisphere counterparts manage. And as for wines in higher price brackets... the best two or three dozen producers sell great wines and the rest seem to be offering great chimeras of ego and marketing in a bottle. Oregon battles on in a Burgundian way against unpredictable weather while Washington goes from strength to strength but with a pricing policy uncomfortably close to California's.

Up and coming: Israel, Lebanon, Mexico, Uruguay.