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The wine route 2005  
What's hot in the world of wine, and how to experience it  

(this article was originally published in My Travel in flight magazine)

If you like wine, here’s some good news. Wine quality worldwide is better than it’s ever been. In recent years even the previously slumbering wine producers of Europe have woken up and are starting to produce good cheap wine of consistent quality. Added to this, tasty and affordable wines are now flowing from the ‘new world’—a term encompassing the wine industries of countries such as the USA, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

Those of you who were of drinking age 15 years ago will remember that buying wine used to be a complete lottery. Lots of cheap wine was downright nasty. Now a trawl through the bargain basement selections in the supermarket may yield some rather neutral, anonymous wines but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything undrinkable, and you might even get some nice surprises. What changed? It’s largely the fault of the Australians. They started making inexpensive wines that tasted ripe, fruity and frankly rather delicious, and drinkers in the UK took them to heart. The success of the Australians spurred on the likes of Chile and Argentina to target export markets with well made affordable wines. The result? This caused the producers in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and other traditional wine nations to take a long, hard look at their industries – worried about losing market share, they’ve tried hard to modernize and improve the quality of their more basic wines, with some success. In the end, it’s we, the consumers, who have benefited from this increased competition.

Another big change has been the way that wine is marketed. There are two ways to sell wine. The traditional way has been to stick the name of the place of origin on the label. Indeed, wine is remarkable in that its flavour often reflects a sense of place. But this makes life very difficult for consumers, who have to know a awful lot about wine to realize the differences between, for example, a Pouilly Fumé (a crisp Sauvignon from the Loire) and a Pouilly Fuissé (a full flavoured Chardonnay from the south of Burgundy), plus details of the many hundreds of other appellations in France alone. The second way is to stick the name of the grape variety on the label. This suddenly makes wine a lot easier to understand, because each grape variety has a distinctive flavour profile, and it’s a lot easier to become familiar with perhaps a dozen grape varieties than it is to learn hundreds of place names. The success of new world wines has partly been because of this shift in marketing, making wine more accessible. Of course, regional differences are still important in wine, and it’s likely that the sorts of wines prized by wine buffs will still be sold this way. But for the rest of us, having the grape variety (or varieties, when these are blended together) on the label is a useful aid to understanding what the wine will actually taste like.  

So who’s hot in 2005? Which are the wines to look out for? Here’s my selection of six of the current over-performing regions.

Australia has been the great success story in the global wine market. A combination of Aussie pragmatism and the clever appliance of technological innovation has led to the emergence of an Australian wine industry that produces affordable, easy-to-drink red and whites that taste of sunshine. Of course, Australia makes some serious wines, too, from regions such as the Barossa, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Margaret River, but it is the way that they’ve been able to make cheap wine taste nice that has enabled them to grab the attention of wine lovers worldwide.

France’s Languedoc
The Langeudoc has traditionally been the region that made the largest contribution to the European wine lake, churning out millions of litres of inexpensive table wine. Over the last couple of decades, things have begun to change, and many producers have begun to shift their focus from quantity to quality. The best wines tend to be made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes, although the once second-rate Carignan is making a comeback. Sub-regions such as Faugères, Pic St Loup, Montpeyroux, Minervois, St Chinian and Corbières are leading the field in terms of quality. The best producers make robust, full-flavoured earthy red wines that offer good value for money, and the varietal whites, made from Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier are also pretty smart.

Surprising fact: Spain has a greater area under vine than any other country, although because the yields from these vineyards are generally low, it only ranks third in the list of wine producers. In the north west, the cool damp region of Galicia produces some stunningly aromatic but expensive whites from the Albariño grape, and Rueda is beginning to produce tasty, modern whites from Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc. Otherwise, Spain is largely known for its red wines. Rioja, with its attractive, sweetly fruited reds (aged in American oak), is probably the most famous region, but not the hippest. This accolade is currently being fought over by Ribera del Duero (rich Tempranillo-based reds) and Priorato (dense wines from low yielding Grenache and Carignan planted on steep terraces). Other regions that deserve a mention are Navarra (easy drinking rosé and full flavoured reds), Penedés (the home of Champagne-substitute Cava), Somontano (modern varietal wines from the foothills of the Pyrenees), Jumilla (chunky Mourvèdre-based reds) and La Mancha (the vast central plain that produces largely plonk, but these days increasingly competent and worthy plonk).

Ranking fifth in the list of global producers, Argentina produces a lot of wine, most of it destined for the thirsty locals. As the attention of producers has turned to the more fussy export markets, there has been an increased planting of better varieties and a general step-up in quality. Watch out for gutsy reds from the Malbec grape, which thrives in Argentina, and also aromatic whites from the indigenous Torrontés variety.

Are you looking for attractive, fruity wines with bags of fruit, but at budget prices? Chile could be the place for you. Chile's speciality is inexpensive but flavour-filled wines from the international varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and more recently Shiraz and Chile’s ‘own’ grape, Carmenere. These are now rapidly filling up the supermarket shelves in the wake of the Aussie wines that have recently moved to a higher price bracket. The key wine regions include Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, Maule and trendy cool-climate Casablanca.

South Africa
Now pretty much fully emerged from the shadow of Apartheid, South Africa is increasingly making better wines which usually represent good value for money at all levels on the quality scale. Although South Africa is classed as a 'new world' region, wines it produces are often nicely poised between the new world and old world styles. Look out for reds from South Africa's 'own' variety, Pinotage, which makes striking funky-tasting wines, often with a savoury, cheesy edge to them, and whites from the widely planted Chenin Blanc. But the hot tips in the Cape are reds from Shiraz and whites from Sauvignon Blanc, which are increasingly stealing the limelight. The most famous regions are Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia, although cooler regions such as Walker Bay and Elgin are beginning to attract attention.

Visiting vineyards
Part of the attraction of wine is that it is not only a drink, but also an expression of a region’s culture. And vineyards tend to be situated in the sorts of places we like to go on holdiday to. As a consequence, many people—not just wine buffs—find the prospect of visiting vineyards appealing, but some are put off because they don’t know what to do, or they simply feel that they don’t know enough about wine. But don’t let your own shyness or perceived ignorance put you off. Providing you follow some simple guidelines and bear a few pointers in mind, vineyard visiting is tremendous fun.

The first thing to remember is that some producers are more geared up to receiving visitors than others. Most vineyards in Australia, California and South Africa will almost always have a tasting room, shop and visitors centre (or some combination of these) where there are staff dedicated to receiving visitors. The same is true for many larger European operations these days, who will likely have a tasting room and English-speaking staff. This makes visiting easy. But in many traditional European regions, visiting a smaller producer will require an appointment, and the proprietor will have to take time out of their schedule to see you. This is a completely different ball game: potentially more rewarding, but only for the very keen.

The most famous producers in the celebrity wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux have no trouble selling out all their wine on release, and so don't expect them to be eager to meet casual visitors. For this reason, often the most rewarding visits are to the less famous producers who need to work to sell their wine.

In a typical tasting room the procedure should be pretty straightforward. There will be a list of wines available for tasting, and sometimes there may be a small charge (I'm not opposed to this practice: it dissuades people who aren't really interested in the wine, and takes away any moral compulsion people may feel to buy wine even if they don't like it). It is quite acceptable to taste through the whole range: don’t feel you have to choose just one or two.

Do you have to buy anything? In more modern wineries, the tasting room is seen both as a PR exercise as well as a sales pitch. It is generally acceptable to taste and not to buy. The staff are pleased if you display a genuine interest in the wines, but not distraught if you don't purchase. In France and other classic European regions, things are less clear. The tasting is most often seen as a prelude to a sale.

To get the best reception at a winery, be genuine, polite and take an interest. Try not to visit during busy hours, such as weekend afternoons: even with the best will in the world, the staff are unlikely to be able to give you the time or service you deserve. And don't forget that in France and many other European countries, lunch time (usually 12–2 pm) is sacred. Although the idea of taking a coach tour through a wine region can seem appealing, I’d advise against it unless you are sure that your fellow passengers share a similar level of interest in wine. Cellar door staff must groan at the sight of another bus load of tanked-up tourists coming through their doors.

How to taste wine
Tasting wine should be a fun procedure, but too often people are anxious about it. The idea is to decide whether you like the wine or not; there’s no right or wrong involved. Take the glass, swirl it and have a sniff. Do you like what you smell? Can you spot some of the aromas? Then take a slurp. Let the wine rest in the mouth a moment while you assess it. What does it taste like? Is it harmonious? Is it interesting? Then either swallow or spit (after a bit of practice you’ll realize you can get just as much information this way). I find it helps me focus if I’m writing notes on my experience, however brief and rudimentary, and with a bit of practice you begin to build a wine tasting vocabulary. The advantage with spitting is that you can visit several wineries in a day and not get slammed, but that’s a personal decision – some people are happy just to drink the stuff.

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