Wine exotica

Grapes drying at Beykush winery in Ukraine

Wines from Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Finger Lakes, Ukraine, Cyprus and China. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Arsen Fedosenko took this picture of grapes drying at Beykush winery in Ukraine for their delicious Tempranillo/Saperavi blend Kara Kermen.

The most admired classic wines are great but, heavens, life would be boring if they were the only wines available. I love making new wine discoveries. Unfamiliar names that remind me just how miraculous it is that the fermented juice of a single fruit can provide such varied styles and stimulation. Every time I encounter a new wine-producing region or country, I see it as proof of how widely my wonder and excitement are shared.

I had heard that Ethiopia (along with at least another 11 African countries) produced wine but I had never tasted it, until someone who seemed to be a coffee trader, to judge from his email address, offered to send me some. Six bottles of Rift Valley wine eventually made their way through the obstacle course that wine samples have to navigate now that we have left the EU. They were all made from familiar international grape varieties, which diminished their exoticism somewhat, but the fact that two of them carried no vintage year while the rest were labelled 2018 and seemed rather younger than that was certainly unusual. As was the odour of dirty dishcloths I picked up on one or two of the reds.

But the two Ethiopian Chardonnays were excellent by any measure. They all come from an operation run by Castel of Bordeaux, who claim to be the third-biggest wine producer in the world. Castel is also an important distributor of beer and soft drinks in Africa, which is presumably how the prime minister of Ethiopia in 2007, Meles Zenawi, managed to persuade them to establish vineyards and a winery near Ziway, due south of Addis Ababa. An elevation of 1,600 m (5,250 ft) helps counteract the low latitude by guaranteeing cool nights. Were I to find myself in Ethiopia, I would head for Rift Valley Chardonnays, though I’m not sure that export markets desperately need them.

Another exotic wine producer to have come my way for the first time recently is Azerbaijan, thanks to an online tasting, organised by the country’s tourist board, entitled Secrets of the Silk Road. Wine, we were assured by the organiser, is ‘a driver of cultural and societal diplomacy’, and indeed diplomatic channels were used to avoid that dratted obstacle course. Azerbaijan, close to the area identified as the birthplace of wine production, lies between Armenia and the Caspian Sea and is quite a cultural crossroads.

(Unlike Azeri wines, Armenian wines can already be found abroad and I have encountered impressive evidence of the current wine revolution there, especially reds based on the indigenous Areni grape and aged in traditional clay karas.)

The three wines featured in the Azerbaijan tasting had been supplied by producer Chabiant in the Ismayilli region, overlooked by the snowy Caucasus in the north-east of the country. We were assured that, while winters are very cold, summers are warm enough here that grapes can be ripened as high as 800 m/2,625 ft (500 m/1,640 ft is the conventional limit for grape ripening in mainland Europe) and the vineyards benefit from cooling breezes off the Caspian.

Unlike Ethiopia, Azerbaijan can boast indigenous grape varieties: fairly neutral but crisp Bayanshira for whites and thick-skinned Madrasa for reds. There is clearly serious potential for Madrasa. Like the other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan was once an important source of wine, much of it sweet red, for the Soviet Union, but these wines seemed to constitute a serious attempt to put Azerbaijan on the international wine map – wine diplomacy replacing the ‘caviar diplomacy’ of which the country has previously been accused perhaps? 

Maybe not exotic if you live in Manhattan but certainly exotic for European wine drinkers are the wines of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, not all that far from the Canadian border. Lake Ontario to the north and these deep glacial lakes make viticulture possible by prolonging winter and delaying spring growth so as to minimise frost risk, and stretching grape ripening into autumn thanks to the summer warmth stored in the lakes. Riesling is so far clearly what Finger Lakes wine producers do best and in my experience Red Newt is one of the most skilful exponents.

Three Red Newt Rieslings are now imported into the UK. I tasted them immediately after Stefan Winter’s excellent dry German 2018 Rieslings from Rheinhessen and they stood up beautifully by comparison.

I tasted six wines from Ukraine very recently, hand-picked by Olga Pinevich, editor-in-chief of Kyiv-based Drinks+ magazine, as representative of that shrunken country’s current output. She was keen to point out that her country’s vintners, unlike those in Georgia and Moldova, receive no government support. Bordeaux wine consultant Olivier Dauga works with the Ukrainian winery Kolonist, which even has a UK representative, and apparently Kyiv is not short of wine bars championing local produce (see Kiev for wine lovers).

Much to my surprise, one of these modern Ukrainian wines was a Timorasso, the cult white wine grape grown to a very limited extent in northern Italy. But the star of the show was another light, dry white made from Telti Kuruk, a variety the Ukrainians claim as their own, while acknowledging its Turkish origins. But, with the exception of the family producer Beykush, these Ukrainian wine producers seem still to be in the dark ages of wine packaging, favouring unnecessarily heavy bottles, up to 900 g apiece, whereas wine bottles weighing as little as 350 g can do the job.

Modern Greek wine in all its glory is already far too well established to qualify as exotic but fine table wines from the vineyards of Cyprus are a relatively new phenomenon. Yet again, I was more impressed by the whites than the reds among the few I tasted most recently. Perhaps this is because oak is so often a factor in making red wine, and exotic destinations rarely attract the best-quality oak. The island’s characteristic white wine grape Xynisteri, the mainstay of the sticky, sweet, underpriced Commandaria that for years was Cyprus’s best-known wine, seems to have been persuaded to produce some really quite sophisticated dry whites. Yet again the most promising vineyard sites are the highest and coolest, with Kyperounda claiming to be the highest winery in Europe, at 1,140 m (3,740 ft) above the eastern Mediterranean.

Most wine lovers now know that wine in China is a major phenomenon, but not that much of it is exported. It is now possible for Europeans to see what all the fuss is about in Emma Gao’s bordeaux-inspired reds from her family’s Silver Heights winery in the wine province of Ningxia, thanks to the ambitious new Oeno operation, based in the City of London, which is determined that its portfolio should not be limited to the classics. They don’t yet feature wines from Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, New York state, Ukraine and Cyprus – but you never know.

Recommended exotica

Rift Valley Chardonnay 2018 Ethiopia 13%
About £13 M J Wine Cellars, not yet in stock

Rift Valley, Cuvee Prestige Chardonnay 2018 Ethiopia 13%
About £16 M J Wine Cellars, not yet in stock

Red Newt, Dry Riesling 2016 Finger Lakes 13%
£26.99 Handford Wines, £31.99 Museum Wines

Red Newt, Tango Oaks Vineyard Riesling 2013 Finger Lakes 10.6%
£36.99 Handford Wines

Red Newt, The Knoll Riesling 2016 Finger Lakes 13.2%
£46.99 Handford Wines

Shabo, Grande Reserve Saperavi 2015 Ukraine 13.3%*
£55.20 Hedonism

Zambartas Xynisteri 2020 Cyprus 13%
£12.95 M J Wine Cellars

Kyperounda, Petritis Xynisteri 2018 Cyprus 13.5%
£14.95–£17.95 various independents

Vlassides, Alátes Xynisteri 2018 Cyprus 13.5%
£19.95 (2019) M J Wine Cellars

Silver Heights, Emma’s Reserve 2017 China 14%
£96 Oeno

*NB I have not tasted this but it seems to be the only modern Ukrainian wine available retail in the UK, although Hedonism has previously stocked Beykush’s seriously good Ukrainian dried-grape blend of Saperavi and Tempranillo.

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Find out more about more wines from several of these locations in More wines from east of Vienna.