Knowing the name of the grape inside a bottle has completely changed the face of wine and how we drink it. Before my time and possibly yours, too, wine names like Chablis, Bordeaux, Sancerre, Rioja and Chianti were flung about with such carefree ease it gave wine completely the wrong image.
That was turned on its head about 25—30 years ago, largely by people in the southern hemisphere and North America; places we call the New World. These guys started to make serious wine and had the confidence to slap the grape variety boldly on the front of a bottle. This change to labelling wine opened the floodgates for wine appreciation. Wine became exciting, aspirational and easier to understand. Fast–track to today, and now there’s just as much global interest in the names Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, as there ever was in the Old World names of the regions in which these grape varieties were — and still are — made.
The New Old World
It’s great news for us that countries like Italy, Spain, France and Portugal have raised their game in the face of stiff competition from New World winemakers. These countries are blessed with high–quality local grape varieties, each suited to its own special environment; and together with a general improvement in technology the world over, there’s an endless source of delicious European wines now at our fingertips.
The tiny Jura region is now a haven of delicious characterful white wines made with local grapes Chardonnay and Savagnin with a nutty, salty flavour that’s gorgeously unique and moreish. While the Jura is doing a great job with white wines it is also making hedonistically beautiful light, bright and sappy red wines from local grapes Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard.
All across the north of the country, from Piedmont to Friuli, Italy is a melting pot of zingy and refreshing whites made from local grapes with personality and attitude, such as floral Arneis, zesty Friulano or the appley Ribolla Gialla. The days of southern Italy churning out masses of bulk red wine are changing. Instead, carefully crafted, inky–dark, spicy reds are being made from local grapes, such as the dark and brooding Aglianico in Campania, or the meaty grape Negroamaro from Puglia, or the peppery Nerello Mascalese from Sicily.
Although Albariño is delicious and perfect with seafood, look out for crisp and fruity white wines made from Verdejo in Rueda, Godello in Valdeorras and the modern take on white Rioja, which is less oaky. In north–west Spain, a local grape called Mencía has come of age in the region of Bierzo. It’s full of black fruits with a spicy fl avour — as is another Spanish grape, Monastrell. Both are great alternatives if you’re stuck in a red Rioja rut.
The New New World
As the New World wine countries evolve, they’re branching out from the wines and grapes that initially made them famous. This evolution is happening because, as the regions age, the locals have a better understanding of their land’s potential with other grapes, plus they’re determined to prove to the world they can perfect more than just one style or grape!
Australians are now using ‘other’ European grapes partly to boost their sophistication credentials. In warmer regions like McLaren Vale, you’ll find varieties such as Sicily’s Nero d’Avola and Spain’s Tempranillo, while the Adelaide Hills region makes Austria’s Grüner Veltliner well.
New Zealand is working hard to show it’s more than a one–trick (Sauvignon Blanc) or even two–trick (Pinot Noir) pony. With red wine, Syrah/Shiraz is the most exciting grape, especially in Waiheke Island and Hawke’s Bay. Meanwhile, many regions are making fantastic Chardonnay and Riesling.
One of the most exciting and fast-changing wine scenes these days is California. In the cooler north of Sonoma, elegant cool climate wines, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, are gaining a serious reputation, especially from excellent smaller producers like Arnot-Roberts, but in truth there are gems popping up all over the place from Monterey to Santa Barbara.
Originally, New World wines traded on their easy-to-understand credentials. This included championing wines made from a single grape variety (varietal wines), which was proudly splashed across the wine bottle’s front label. This pushed grape varieties into the limelight, but no one, not even the New World guys, ever claimed these varietal wines were superior to blended wines, and yet the world started to think they were. Some of the most prized, expensive and serious wines in the world are actually blends, so don’t dismiss them.
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