Thursday, May 31, 2007

Regions to be cheerful.

We have quite a classically organised list here. After all the Arkle is supposed to be a classical french style menu, with a modern english twist. But with over 600 bins it makes more sense to have then organised by origin. I like it like that because at the moment a lot of people seem to make their choices by country of origin more than anything else. South America and South Africa are quite popular at the moment, and if I get my way they will expand considerably on our list.

Now for all out quality I dont think that you can beat the old world. Especially France and Spain, but also Italy and Germany. Nowhere in the world is there such complexity of flavour and such defined structure in the wines. But with few exceptions they are terrible value for money. Bordeaux prices are verging on the ridiculous, and Burgundy is going the same way. Spain is starting to get more expensive too, but at the moment there is a lot of value for money to be found in the lesser known regions - Ribera del Duero, Priorato, Toro, and many others if you can find them. In the new world you have the two heavyweights of USA (California) and Australia. California represents shockingly bad value for money. With the exchange rate working in our favour at last, the wines ought to be cheaper, but incredibly they are still rising in price. Now this is mostly due to market economics - there is such a strong domestic market for the wines at home, they have no reason or need to export, and consequently they can charge whatever they want. For me Californias big problem in the UK market is the two extremes of wine. At the bottom of the market you have the floods of Gallo, Sutter Home, Blossom Hill and other mass produced "bottom-feeders". At the other end of the market you have blockbusters - cult names like Harlan Estate, Opus One, Screaming Eagle, Peter Micheal, all three figure wines. But like a donut theres nothing in the middle. It might surprise you to know there is much more to the American wine market. Oregon, Washington State, New York, in fact just about every single state (Alaska is, I think, the only state that doesnt produce wine) makes wine. But again, due to small volume production and strong domestic consumption, these wines dont make it over the pond. Canada has a booming wine industry, mostly around two provinces - British Columbia and Ontario. The problem with sourcing them is more to do with State monopoly of supply I think than anything else, but again low volume, high domestic demand will prevent them being exported in any great quantity.

Down under you have Australia and New Zealand. I love their wines, the diversity, the quality, the funky names, the intensity of flavours, whats not to love. But Im getting a little bit bored. Australia has the same situation as California regarding the two polar extremes of wines available, but their position is slightly better than Californias. I must say its getting harder to find the new boutique wines from Aus. The wines that I started out with, used to be boutique, they used to be quite limited and exclusive, but over time their fame has spread, their volumes have increased and now they are a bit more widespread than they used to be. New Zealand conversely is suffering from the reverse. Due to two consecutive low harvests quantities of many wines are seriously depleted and many of the better wines are becoming more limited. This is great, if you are lucky enough to secure an allocation. Although the other side effect of this is making the prices jump up, and lets face it New Zealand was never cheap in the first place.

So where does that leave? Well I reckon it leaves the best till last. South Africa and South America. Starting with South Africa, theres been a huge amount of change over the last five years. For me, looking through merchants wine lists, its great to finally see many of them listing more South African wines. And better wines - not that mass produced co-operative wine that the supermarkets are all knocking out. There is still a long way to go, but as many of the farmer realise that they have more to gain by turning their own fruit into wine than selling it to the co-ops, then we will start to see many more wines appearing. Of course that isnt to say that they will all be blockbusters, but from little acorns mighty oaks grow, and given the right materials, development, marketing and listings, the opportunities are there. There is a huge amount of investment into developing wine regions - and not just financial investment. Old world winemakers are turning their sights to the potential of countries like South Africa, Chile, Argentina, where the resources are available, but they lack the knowledge, skills or equipment to do the job properly. Pichon-Lalande have recently released their new South African venture Glenelly Hills to good reviews from Jancis et all. And the convenient timing of the southern hemisphere harvest allows the winemakers to complete two vintages per year - Nico van Der Merwe from Saxenburg has been doing this for a number of years at Capion in the south of France and Saxenburg, not to mention his own range of wines - Mas Nicholas and Robert Alexander.

For Value for Money, undoubtably the best place to look just now is Chile and Argentina. Two countries with a long viticultural history, it is really the last twenty years that have seen their wine industry explode onto our shelves. (Helped in no small measure, Im sure, by exploiting the weak currency of the region). As they have become better at correctly identifying the grape varieties we are starting to see two grape varieties gaining dominance in the region - Malbec and Carmenere. Malbec has almost been written off in France, relegated to a bulking out grape in Bordeaux and producing the inky black Cahors, otherwise a neglected variety. In Argentina it has found its new glory. Densely packed fruit flavours with a rich floral violet character and an almost feral gameyness about it. You can almost imagine the Gauchos swigging it from the bottle as they grill a huge chunk of blood red meat over an open fire. Carmenere is another neglected Bordeaux variety (odd isnt it that the two now dominant varieties originated in Bordeaux, yet grapes were introduced into South America by the Spanish!!), now flourishing in Chile where it produces a minty cassis flavoured red, tannic but quite elegant. I think we are only just beginning to see what they have to offer us in terms of style and quality, and as long as they continue to offer great value for money, these countries will remain high on our shopping lists.

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