Things change, Steve Daniel writes. Life changes. I think we have all being given a brutal taste of this in the last 18 months. We adapt, change and ultimately learn to live with it. The world of wine is less dramatic, but like everything else it is not immune to change.
What we take as an absolute given at this moment might not be the case in the future.
At the turn of the last century German wine was the most revered and expensive in the world, and Château Petrus was just another Bordeaux Château until the 1960s. If you did not have Muscadet on your wine list or on your shelves in 1990 you would have either been fired or declared clinically insane.
How many people still have Muscadet on their absolute must-have list? A small number, I imagine. But what happened to it? In 1991 there was a devastating frost, supply dried up, prices sky-rocketed and the industry had to find an alternative. New Zealand Sauvignon, and the New World in general, arrived to mop up the demand. And where is Muscadet now?
If 20 years ago I had said that one of the most popular red wines, and an absolute essential on any rack, would be Argentinean Malbec most be people would have laughed!
I remember tasting Picpoul de Pinet in the Languedoc in the 1990s and saying what a brilliant wine it was to a producer, and that I was going to buy it. The producer laughed at me and said: “you are crazy no one buys Picpoul”. Well, now everyone buys Picpoul.
So, things change. These changes are usually precipitated by an event or a series of events.
With crystal ball in hand, where are we today and what events might mark a change to our drinking habits?
Within the wine trade it usually starts with natural events such as drought or frost, or hail, or fire which has an impact on supply and ultimately has an economic impact. Or the impact could be more gradual due to changing tastes of consumers, or the changing style of a wine due to climatic changes.
So what are the areas of concern and interest right now? I am going to focus more on white wines here…
New Zealand Sauvignon – the current go to wine on every retailers’ shelf and every wine list in the country. Due to unprecedented demand and short vintages in succession we are now looking down the barrel of shortages and price hikes (sounds a little like Muscadet in 91!). So what should we be drinking instead? My money is on South Africa. For me the Cape produces world-class Sauvignon Blanc from its cooler coastal regions. Lots of the vibrant fruit, similar to what you get from Marlborough, but with a more classic steely back bone closer in style to Sancerre pre-global warming. It is great value and we should all be doing the beleaguered growers and the winemakers of the Cape a favour. They have had to deal with drought and a COVID crisis that is as bad as anywhere on the planet. So, make sure you add Cape Sauvignon to your list!
Burgundy has been decimated by frost and hail, and there will be shortages and price hikes particularly on the household names like Puligny and Meursault. If you are looking for absolute quality, have some cash in the bank but still want to save a few pounds, South Africa delivers once again. Some of the most impressive Chardonnay I have tasted recently from anywhere in the world – and at any price – have come from the Cape. Richard Kershaw and Sam O’Keefe make stellar examples that you simply have to try.
California can also make beautiful examples of Chardonnay, particularly in the cooler areas like the Santa Rita Hills. For a taste of what they can offer, try the iconic Sanford wines. Australia is also making beautifully elegant wines in cooler areas, such as in Mornington Peninsula and Western Australia. Names to look out for are Paringa, Oceans Eight and Larry Cherubino.
All these wineries also make spectacular Pinot Noir. If you are looking for value Pinot as an alternative to Burgundy, then Chile is the answer particularly, particularly those from the cool rolling hills of Leyda. The area reminds me of Santa Barbara, as do the wines.
With global warming some of the old, classic white wine growing areas are not making wines like they used to. I think the most obvious examples to me are Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and Chablis. The reason the world fell in love with these wines was their freshness and minerality. My personal opinion is that the wines are now much riper and have lost some of their “Va Va Voom” or Vif as the French say.
Rather than being safe and looking for alternative sources of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, I think it is far more interesting to look for wines that maybe share the original style you were looking for, rather than the grape.
Areas that make wonderful wines that have that life, minerality and acidity might not be totally obvious. The North West of Spain and Portugal is a treasure trove for fresh, vibrant whites. I believe most people have now tried Albarino but there are so many interesting wines being produced in the region; try a Treixadura from Ribeiro, an Avesso, or a Loureiro from Vinho Verde. Godello is an excellent alternative to Macon. The wines are amazing and offer real value.
My personal go-to for white wines is Greece. I believe Greece is making some of the freshest, most interesting white wines on the planet right now. They are never going to be at the house wine level or even first price varietal, but pound-for-pound and excitement per mouthful they can compete with anywhere in the world. If you haven’t already, you must try these grapes: Assyrtiko, Vidiano, Malagousia, Kidonitsa , Monemvasia – all of which show why Greece is the word.
I believe the coastal regions around the Mediterranean are making great wines – Vermentino from Sardinia is amazing, as is the same grape often called Rolle in the South of France. I don’t need to mention Picpoul which still offers great value and reliability, and is now a mainstay on shelves and wine lists. Croatia makes wonderful wine from Malvasia, Posip and Vugava and the first ever Assyrtiko is now being produced in Lebanon. It’s vibrant, fresh and amazing value you will soon see more of it in Lebanon and around the world. Lebanon also makes amazing wines from indigenous grapes, like Obeidy.
For me, islands make the best wines. I have already mentioned Greece and Sardinia, but Tenerife, Majorca and Cyprus also make world class examples of mineral-driven white wines. The cooling effect of the proximity to the sea with the salty tang it imparts, the amazing terroirs and local grapes all add up to an exciting package.
Talking of islands, Blighty is making some great bracing white wines. I have often heard Bacchus referred to as the UK’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc – why can’t this be the next world-beating white wine? Or, with global warming, will we soon have Marlborough Sauvignon from Wiltshire?
Oh and I almost forgot, I think Muscadet is well worth re-visiting. Fresh, Crisp, mineral and offering great value! Surely it’s time Muscadet made a comeback… It’s been over 30 years now!
There is a vinous treasure trove out there, and sometimes shortages and adversity make us reach out to try new things. There has never been a greater need to do this than now. Diversity is the key. It makes for more interesting and unique wine lists, more exciting wine shelves and happier customers.