Monday, August 30, 2010

Top Ten Up & Coming Wine Regions

From Latvia to Peru most countries around the world make some variation of what they call wine. While many consumers are familiar with major regions like Napa, Chianti and Bordeaux there are hundreds more that don't have the same reputation or market presence. After looking around the world, and taking into account that plenty of farmers with shovels are trying to grow grapes, I came up with a list the top ten quality up-and-coming wine regions. Some of these regions have been making wine for thousands of years, but recently have seen a change for the better in the production of their wines.

1. Douro, Portugal
The Douro region of Portugal is famous for their fortified dessert wines called Port. While some would argue they have been making quality wine for last four centuries it's not the dessert wine I'm referring to, it's their still red wines. Many don't realize that the region makes as much still table wine as they do Port.

Ten years ago visitors to Portugal would choke down the table wines from the region to hurry up and get to the world famous Ports. Over the last decade, however, the region has stepped up its game and has been producing not only palatable juice, but good quality wines. Producers like Barca Velha have taken Portuguese table wines to a new level showing depth, structure and age-ability. The reds from the region, when done well, can prove to be remarkable values.

2. Toro, Spain
The wines from the Toro region of Spain, located only about 60 miles from the Portuguese border, were famous in the Middle Ages. But many of the region's vines were ripped out in the 14th and 15th century to plant other crops. In 1987 it was given DO status (Spanish quality wine status) and in the last decade it has become a promising wine area. The region is best known for its big powerful reds made from Tempranillo, called Tinto de Toro in Toro. Its recent popularity and quality surge stems from a number of high profile producers who set up shop there in the past ten years. Today the wines from Toro are big and bold and compete with the quality wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

3. Eger, Hungary
Hungary has seen vast improvements in still wine production since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, but is still has a ways to go. The country is best known for its dessert wine called Tokaji, which is made from Botrytis infected grapes. The country's spike in quality reds has come about in the last decade, impressive considering only 30 percent of its vines are planted to red grapes. Regions like Villany, Hajos-Baja, Szekszard and Sopron are all promising regions but I chose to highlight Eger because it's a bit larger than the others and has more presence in the US market.

Eger, located half way between Budapest and Tokaj (the region), is famous for the legend of Egri Bikaver or the "Bulls Blood of Eger." The story dates back to a battle in the mid 16th century where the Hungarian army was defending the fortress of Eger from the superior Turkish army. The story goes that the Hungarian army drank copious amounts of the region's wines, turning their beards red. When the Turks saw them they ran in terror thinking that the Hungarian army had gained strength by consuming the blood of bulls. The name stuck, and today the region makes a wine called Egri Bikaver, which is a red wine made from a blend of Kékfrankos (also called Blaufränkisch), Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a few others. Eger has begun making quality wines from grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, and a number of large investors have entered the region assisting in the rise in quality.

4. Nashik, India
Like many of the regions on this top ten list, it's tough to say "up-and-coming" with a country like India because they have been producing wine for the last 6000 or so years. But like the other regions highlighted in this article, India's quality has surged in the last decade showing promise and excitement. The shift in quality began in the early 1980's when self-made Bombay millionaire Sham Chougule asked the Champagne powerhouse Piper-Heidseck to consult on a mission to create world-class sparkling wines in India. Today we see examples of still and sparkling wines in the market, with the most readily available being Sula, a venture started in the early 90's by a Stanford-educated engineer.

Sula, located in Nashik, produces red wines from Shiraz, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as well as whites from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Sula also makes a blush from the Zinfandel grape, a dessert wine from late harvest Chenin Blanc, and a sparkling wine made in the same manner as Champagne from France (Traditional Method). Production methods and an emphasis on site selection and quality fruit have improved resulting in good juice being made throughout the country. The most successful wines from the region are still sparkling wines however.

5. Tasmania, Australia
Australia has emerged as a wine giant in the last ten years, with big brand names like Rosemount Estate, Yellowtail and Lindemans accounting for a large percentage of wine we see on the retail shelves. The country/continent is currently suffering from a wine glut caused by an identity crisis. Commercial bulk wine producers like Yellowtail are making generic, robot wines that lack regional identities and structure, while winemakers like Max Schubert (1930-1994) chose a different path for the country's wines with his conception of the world-class Penfolds Grange Shiraz. Today wines from Australia vary from producer to producer and region to region but one thing is clear, Tasmanian wine quality is on the rise.

Tasmania is considered a new region even though vines were first planted in the early 1800's. The region's wine production is relatively small, but they are quickly becoming recognized worldwide for quality sparkling wines. Tasmania is the most southern region in Australia, which makes it a great environment for producing cool climate grape varieties. Producers continue to improve winemaking practices, and are now focusing on red varietals like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as whites like Chardonnay and Riesling. When buying from Tasmania, go for their sparkling wines or Pinot Noir; they are the most consistent, best quality examples from the region.

6. Bio-Bio, Chile
There is no question that Chilean wines have a strong presence in the United States wine market. Much of the quality wine from the country comes from the Central Valley. However, innovative producers like Cono Sur have ventured further south to Bio-Bio to make some remarkable wines.

Bio-Bio is one of the most southern wine producing regions in the world. Its location, a similar latitude to that of Otago region of New Zealand, provides a cool climate. Varieties like Pinot Noir and Riesling are producing some fresh, balanced, delicious wines. As Bio-Bio's quality and fame continue to rise, we will see more producers planting vines in the region.

7. Rio Grande do Sol, Brazil
Brazil is the fifth largest producer of wine in the Southern Hemisphere behind Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and Chile. The country has been making some variation of wine for centuries, but only in the last twenty years have we seen quality turn a corner. In the 1970's, large producers like Moet & Chandon, Seagram, Domecq, Martini & Rossi and many others established wineries in the area. Like many young regions the best wines were sparkling, however today many quality reds are being made with grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot.

Brazil, along with many regions across the globe, is benefiting from the concept of the "Flying Winemaker,” basically a winemaker who travels to the Southern Hemisphere in his off season to consult. With popularity and interest from quality winemakers comes investment, better equipment and more education. We will see more Brazilian wines in the domestic market in the next 5 years, much of it good quality.

8. Salta, Argentina
Salta has seen a surge in production in the last few years. Many producers in Argentina focus on one grape from one region: Malbec from Mendoza. But Mendoza is cool and won't ripen all grape varieties. To expand their portfolios, many producers have sourced fruit from the warmer northern Salta region. The wines produced here are usually whites like Torrontes, but more varieties are being experimented with including Cabernet Sauvignon, which is known for its ability to thrive in warm climates. If you’ve ever tried a Torrontes, you may have had a wine from Salta and not even realized it. It’s my prediction that we will see more variety and an increase in quality from Salta in the next four or five years.

9. Okanagan Valley, Canada
The Okanagan Valley is the oldest and most important wine region in British Columbia. It's also one of the world's most northerly wine growing areas. The region is Canada's best chance at producing world-class varietal wines from grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.

A recent dam break caused over a million gallons of water (enough to fill 8 Olympic sized swimming pools) to rush down the mountainside into the Okanagan Valley. The water took with it boulders, trees and plenty of mud burring some vineyards up to 25 feet. Only 40 total acres of vines were affected, but experts say the new soil deposited is better than the existing, so I guess there's a silver lining. This region produces wines of good quality, but you have to pay for them. Not the most value packed, but certainly an up-and-comer.

10. Long Island AVA, United States of America
The Long Island AVA (American Viticulture Area) is located in New York. Its climate and position to the ocean make it a great place to grow cool-climate grapes like Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Recently, producers have been experimenting with grapes like Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (only in the sunniest spots).

Producers like Bedell on Long Island have begun to receive international attention. Their flagship wine, Musee, is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. The wine received a 90-point rating (out of 100) from Wine Spectator for their 2005 vintage. The region is gaining recognition, but it's hard to find wines from the area. Many of the producers make small amounts and only sell their juice at the winery. If you are in a state that allows direct-to-consumer shipping, look up a few wineries and order a bottle. Like the wines of the Okanagan, they are not cheap, but they make some damn fine examples of Riesling.

There you have it, a list of the top ten up-and-coming wine regions in the world. While there are certainly many that one could argue would fit into this category, especially ones from Italy, this list looks at some of the lesser known places and their promising future. I wanted to put this together to help promote wines from these lesser known regions. Without a market to sell its juice, a producer has no drive to increase its quality. With awareness comes buying power, when we support these regions we encourage growth and ultimately more variety in our market.

I hope you have a chance to try wines from a few of these regions, and please let me know if there are any "up-and-coming" regions you like by emailing me, posting a comment on the blog here or contacting me on Facebook.

Until next week, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

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