Ten unusual wine-producing areas
The world is full of strange fruit indeed. For the past two decades, the number of winemakers attempting to grow grapes for drinkable wine outside 32-52º and 28-46º latitude has only increased.
As the market for wine globalises, so too do the areas for producing it, and wine is now being produced in the likes of the tropics and Scandinavia.
Advances in technology and unfortunately, climate change have really pushed out wine-growing frontiers, spurred on by adventurous investors who see the potential to capitalise on emerging markets, for instance in China or India. And there’s always the novelty of pairing curry or sushi with the wine of the country.
But in some countries, such as Tunisia, it’s not a case of new frontiers, but rather unearthing an old and long-forgotten winemaking heritage.
The following is a whistlestop tour of some the more unusual wine suspects. New-New and New-Old, you could call them.
This country falls into the New-Old, with Portuguese Jesuit missionaries credited with starting wine production in Japan back in the 16th century. But since then, the dominant style of wine has tended to be one suited to local tastes and virtually undrinkable outside the country: sweet white wine made from a native, pink-skinned variety, Koshu. But with globalisation and changing palates, a small group of growers have produced wine that is garnering praise at international tastings. Yamanashi prefecture is the epicentre of Koshu production in Japan, and the grape can be used to produce delicate, mineral whites – some liken it to Muscadet – that marry perfectly with sushi.
2. The Netherlands
Despite being sandwiched between wine behemoths France and Germany, the Dutch, with their small corner of northern Europe, do not have the range of climates and soils to find a favourable place for growing vines, in other words, it’s just too cold and damp. That is until recently – in the last two decades, the number of wineries has grown to just over 100. Producers are having success with new cold- and mildew-resistant cross-bred cultivars from Austria and Germany such as Johanniter and Solaris. Despite modest medal success for some of the wines at European competitions, producers admit that their big hurdle is the cost of production.
Just over the other side of the Mediterranean, France for a long time considered this north African country as its vineyard extension. But before them, and the Romans for that matter, it was the Carthaginians who pioneered oenology here, some 2,000 years ago. Tunisia has always had the sun and soil for robust reds, and the French led production and import of its wine from the end of the 19th century until independence in the 1950s. But wineries went into state ownership after the French left. Indeed at this point, according to the World Atlas of Wine, Tunisia, along with fellow North African countries Algeria and Morocco, accounted for two-thirds of the entire international wine trade. Production and investment in wine is now picking up after decades of dormancy, and there is small, high-quality production ticking over, but the vast majority of it is consumed in the local tourist market.
4. Cape Verde
This archipelago off the west coast of north Africa is arguably the closest you’ll get to growing wine on the moon. Cape Verde’s island of Fogo is an (active!) volcano, and the old crater on the island is home to an appropriately grey, lunar landscape, and a tiny village of 1,000 people with no running water nor electricity. But two cooperatives on the plain inside the crater manage to produce a boutique amount – 160,000 bottles a year – of export-quality rosés and whites from Moscatel grapes and a fruity red from a traditional Portuguese variety. The volcanic soils, hot and dry days and cool, humid nights are ideal for the grapes, as alien as the landscape may look to visitors.
The oddest of the oddities, there’s no old tradition of winemaking to be re-awakened here, no old French, Portuguese or Carthaginian influence to be rediscovered. However the Irish have a long and influential history in winemaking – just not on their own soil. “Irish Wine Geese” was the name given to the thousands of Catholic soldiers who fled Ireland at the end of the 17th century to settle in Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Cognac – many of whom would go on to work in the wine trade. These days, a tiny handful of committed wineries are experimenting with Rondo in Lusk and Amur in Cork, for instance. But it’s tough going, and until the Irish weather becomes less wet and unpredictable (there have been a few washout summers in the past few years, and therefore no wine), the wines will remain relatively pricey rarities.
While next-door neighbour Thailand has been gaining a lot of press as a poster child for what have been dubbed “new latitude wines”, Burma is perhaps not so many miles behind. There are two main wineries, producing bottles against the climactic odds: Red Mountain Estate and Myanmar Vineyard. The wineries are led by French and German teams respectively. The limestone soils and microclimate of the higher altitude (1,000m) have helped yield what are said to be reasonable Sauvignon Blancs and Syrahs that could, in future, compete on an international stage. And it’s no surprise to hear that Myanmar Winery at least, has China as a market in its sights.
Several countries lay claim to the world’s most northerly vineyard, including Latvia and Germany, all just a few degrees over the magic 50-52ºN – the upper latitude past which wine-growing is considered unviable. But surely the distinction should go to Sweden, with a winery near Flen, 100km west of Stockholm, and located at a lofty 59º north. As is to be expected, new hardy cultivars Solaris for white, and Rondo for red, dominate. But as commercial production grows beyond the three or four larger wineries concentrated in the south of the country, producers will have to wait for laws to change – at present they can only serve wine through their own restaurants or struggle to get on the shelves of the state-controlled chain of liquor stores.
Wine production in this country epitomises the notion “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Growing grapes in a tropical region where the preferred tipple is white rum and there’s a limited market for wine – why not? The main player is a winery called Bodegas Pomar, which produces the majority of Venezuela’s 900,000-bottle wine output. The reason why is still anybody’s guess. Perhaps it’s because of the lack of winter, which means there are two bumper harvests per year. But of course it’s not all about quantity, and the bodega, a good 450km directly west of Caracas, produces what is said to be drinkable Petit Verdot, Syrah and Tempranillo, as well as a sparkling white.
Indian wine is at a crossroads of sorts. While the country is big enough to possess several regions where grapes can thrive, shielded against monsoons and tropical heat, the potentially large domestic market is remaining elusive. Local demand is still flatlining, quality has been very patchy, and high import taxes on foreign wine, which would help grow wine culture, are prohibitive. Perhaps the overseas market is more promising, as the country seems to have just now cracked the quality barrier. After all, a Syrah and Ritu Viognier from Zampa in Maharashtra state flew off the shelves of Waitrose in the UK when it was trialled this time last year. And the international reputation of nearby Sula Vineyards continues to grow.
10. Hawaii, USA
You’d expect to find the likes of sparkling wine made from pineapples in the 50th state, but surely not wine from grapes? Along with skiing, viticulture is another surprising activity in Hawaii. There are two wineries, one on Maui, the other on Oahu, mostly focusing on the Symphony grape – a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris. One of the wineries, Volcano, describes Symphony’s bouquet as possessing “peach, apricot and lychee” notes. There’s even a Pinot Noir in the works, ready to be released from oak in 2013.