Wine's brave new(ish) world


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The more I taste seriously mature wines from California and Australia, wines made in the mid twentieth century, the more amazed I am that it took so long for the world’s wine drinkers to realise that Europe didn’t have a monopoly on fine-wine production. 

It was so blindingly obvious in wines such as Maurice O’Shea’s 1942 Mount Pleasant ‘T Y Hermitage’ so selflessly brought to a dinner in the Adelaide Hills chez Croser by Michael Hill Smith MW last March, and a host of mid-twentieth-century Australian greats that the late Len Evans made sure that I tasted on my many visits to Australia and at one memorable tasting for the London wine press (not ‘media’ then) in the 1990s when he suspected Australian wine might be starting to lose its shine in the UK market.

In the mid 20th century, California was also proving just how great its wines could be. Inglenook 1964, Beaulieu’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1960 and Charles Krug 1965 just happen to be the examples I have tasted most recently – not to mention another 17 California Cabernets from the 1970s in the tasting notes database of that I see I scored over 18.

Then there was the massive and delightful surprise of GS Cabernet 1966 that South African wine merchant Roland Peens was kind enough to share with us at a lunch at Cape Town’s emblematic Test Kitchen a couple of years ago. Having tasted that marvel – a worthy match for Ch Margaux 1966, apparently – how could anyone doubt the potential of the Cape vineyards that were first planted long over three centuries ago?

This has been the year of the fortieth anniversary of the so-called Judgment of Paris tasting that is held to have marked a turning point in the reputation of California wine. Steven Spurrier pitted some of the best California wines against the best of France and invited top French tasters to compare them blind. The results were unequivocal, and yet it took months before they seeped out and years (and several re-runs) before it was at all widely accepted that California could make truly fine wine. And it was only because at the last minute Spurrier and his team thought of inviting a wine-loving journalist that anyone reported on this seminal event at all. (George M Taber eventually wrote an excellent book about it all called The Judgment of Paris.)

Imagine what would have happened had the Paris tasting taken place today. There would have been photographs of the winning bottles on Instagram and Vivino before the room had been cleared. #JudgmentofParis would have been trending on Twitter in a trice, with the results broadcast to wine lovers around the planet immediately.

Nowadays if a wine lover comes across an impressive wine from a previously unknown region, their followers know about it almost instantly. One of the most unexpected sources of a ground-breaking wine that has come my way is Yunnan in southern China on the border with Tibet. As far as I know, LVMH have not organised an official launch of their intense Ao Yun Cabernet from these mountain vineyards. But they may well feel they don’t have to; the world knows about it already, thanks to the wide range of pictures, tasting notes and impressions posted by me and other visitors to this unlikely corner of the wine world.

And who would have thought of Kazakhstan as a source of interesting wine? When I edited the first edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine published in 1994, I was hard pushed to find any source of information on the state of viticulture and oenology in the Central Asian republics at all. Yet only a very few months ago a range of Kazakh wines was launched in the UK and proudly boasts tasting notes on six of them made by the Arba winery in its database. To my amazement, the publishers of my latest book The 24-Hour Wine Expert tell me there will be a Kazakh edition.

As for Myanmar, I can’t tell you how many friends among some of the first tourists there reported back to me on the wines of this country once called Burma. Are any secrets left in the world of wine?

But perhaps the difference now is not just how widely we travel coupled with the ease with which we can all communicate and broadcast our discoveries. It’s in our openmindedness. Now that it has been proved to us that there are no sacred cows in the world of wine, and that the world of wine is so very much bigger than France, we are prepared to welcome a much broader range of fine wines into our consciousness and on to our palates.

Even I find myself posting pictures of the most unexpected bottles I come across: a German Chenin Blanc Beerenauslese from Stigler in Baden, for instance, or a Vernaccia aged under flor in western Sardinia that tasted like a particularly glorious nutty oloroso.

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is ‘Where is the next new wine region?’ Today’s wine consumers seem predisposed to seek novelty and the unusual. Hence the popularity of various sommeliers’ reports of ‘unicorn wines’, particularly unusual finds, wines – admittedly mainly from established regions – that are in particularly short supply.

I have a (very short) list of wine regions I have not yet visited but would like to and believe, on the basis of what I have read and tasted, that they show interesting potential. (This not counting the far-too-many parts of Italy and Greece I am yet to visit – but they are hardly unexplored by others.) Baja California in north-west Mexico is one of these and I’m hoping to visit there in February, on the way back from another developing wine region, the far south of Chile. I’m also rather intrigued by the sound of what may eventually come out of Bolivia and possibly Peru once the right areas are planted. Then there are all sorts of corners of South Africa that have recently been planted with vines, often with a lone pioneer winery or vineyard hinting at what could eventually become an exciting wine region in time. And how about the undoubted potential of the Crimea, as proven so eloquently in the nineteenth century? But I’m not going there until Putin and the Ukraine have established more of an entente.

You can be sure that whenever I do get to these far-flung outposts of the vine, it will not take me years to report on any excitements in a bottle that I find there. 

My amateur snap shows three mid twentieth century wine classics from, left to right, California, Australia and Australia.