Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Easyjet and the Gentleman's Club

Easyjet and the gentleman’s club: modernity versus tradition in Spanish wines

There was a neat illustration of the clash of tradition and modernity at a seminar at last week’s annual Wines from Spain tasting. Telmo Rodriguez, an arch moderniser unafraid to explore new wine regions and wine-making techniques, was very nearly late for his speech because his Easyjet flight was delayed. At the other end of the table, Javier Hidalgo, whose family has been making sherry in pretty much the same way since the time of Napoleon, was going to be making his way to his gentleman’s club in London that evening, to dine on beef cheek.

Spain, for many UK wine drinkers, is synonymous with a single classic wine region: Rioja. Rioja’s wines are traditionally made of a blend of grapes, dominated by Tempranillo, which is then aged in oak barrels and in bottle for an amount of time prior to release. The longer a wine spends in oak and bottle before it is sold determines its rung on the quality ladder of Rioja: Joven (or young wines) have no oak and little time in bottle; a Rioja Crianza must spend a year in oak and a year in bottle; Reserva a year in oak and two years in bottle; at the top of the ladder is Gran Reserva, which must spend two years in oak and three years in bottle. In the UK we are most likely to see Crianza and Reserva wines. Don’t worry too much about the details: even Telmo Rodriguez, who has been making wine in Rioja all his adult life, says he can’t recall exactly what all the regulations are!

This illustrates one of the complexities of Rioja: not all Riojas abide by the rules and a growing number of winemakers are ignoring the Reserva/Gran Reserva framework and simply making their wine in the way they wish, with just the word “Rioja” on the label. Even within the traditional quality labels winemakers are striving to make a different style of Rioja: using 100% Tempranillo instead of the traditional blend, using 100% new oak barrels to give a more intense vanilla gloss to the younger wines. To further complicate matters, the Spanish wine authorities are planning to allow an additional three grape varieties to be added to the traditional blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo. You probably haven’t heard of those last two varieties – and I can guarantee you won’t have come across any of the new varieties either. In today’s environment, it’s getting harder and harder to predict the style of wine you’re going to find in the bottle when you see the name Rioja on the label. Is Spain in danger of over-complicating its most famous wine and in the process driving away wine-drinkers?

In the past Rioja was one of the most distinctive and easily understood wine styles. The blend of grapes, coupled with barrel and bottle ageing give a soft and harmonious wine with distinctive strawberryish fruit and a vanilla edge from the oak. Progressing from the younger, more fruity, Crianza styles, the vanilla, leather and spice flavours come to the fore as you move onto the Reserva and Gran Reservas. You can still find Riojas in this style if this is what you’re looking for: Marques de Murrieta is probably the best known of the traditionalists: their Reserva is around £13 and up, depending on the vintage, while Marques de Riscal’s Reserva 2002/3 is at Majestic for £13.99. Cune is also a reliable name to watch out for: their Crianza 2004/5 is stocked by Majestic for £6.99, or £4.99 if you buy two. Waitrose have the consistently enjoyable Vina Herminia Crianza 2003 at £7.49.

If you’d like to have a try of the more “modern” styles of Rioja out there have a look for Muga’s Rioja Seleccion Especial 2003, £18.99 at Majestic. Telmo Rodriguez’ Riojas are available at Adnams (www.adnams.co.uk) starting at £6.99.

So why has Rioja become more complex to buy and, arguably, more interesting to drink? Humans are curious creatures, prone to experimentation and competition – it’s only natural that winemakers should feel the urge to push the boundaries of their wines and not simply slavishly copy the practices of their fathers and grandfathers (not many female winemakers in Rioja) simply because they are “traditional”. If a winemaker feels they can make a better wine by using more new oak, or ageing for less time in barrel, wine laws alone are not going to stop them.

Friday, 7 March 2008

The end of cheap Aussie wine?

When you think of Australian wines, what comes to mind? Big, beefy reds, mostly made from Shiraz and rich, tropical fruit whites, probably Chardonnay – right? And what about price: around £5 or less?

The bad news
Well, we may have to rethink our ideas of what Australian wines are, as things are about to change for the world’s most successful exporter of wines. For the past fifteen years or so we have relied on Australia to provide large quantities of bargain-priced, competently-made wines. We’ve looked to them for easy-to-like, ripe, alchoholic wines, without worrying too much about where exactly in Australia they come from. You know, Australia is about the same size as Western Europe and yet we’re perfectly happy to pick up a bottle of wine that says its origin is simply “South East Australia”. Have a look for that in the atlas – you won’t find it on any map of Australia, because the term has been coined to cover wines made from grapes from any or all of: New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. We’re happy with that, yet most of us would turn our noses up at a wine labelled: “Produce of more than one EC country”.

Australia has managed to produce huge quantities of cheap wine because it has traditionally harvested huge crops of grapes produced in irrigated areas such as Riverina, Mudgee Irrigation Area and Riverland – don’t see those names on the label do you? These areas have been highly productive, producing a glut of cheap grapes to make into cheap wine. As the climate is hot, the grapes get very ripe very quickly, maybe too ripe – but, no worries, as the Aussies say, acidity levels, even tannin levels, can be adjusted in the winery. In the past 3-4 years, though, Australian grape harvests have been hit by the effect of severe drought – and when supply drops, prices increase. Australia’s big winemakers are going to struggle to keep their big name brands at current retail prices. Fosters, which owns Lindeman’s, has even been using Chilean wine to provide some of the Lindeman’s blend here in the UK since 2006.

The droughts which have caused the immediate supply problems look set to continue. In any case, it is becoming clear that an industry (and it is an industry at this scale) which relies on producing a crop by using precious river water for irrigation, thereby causing environmental damage to surrounding land, is far from sustainable. To cap it all, the wine trade has received warnings from the Treasury of above-inflation rises in duty on alcohol in the March budget. The days of bargain-basement Aussie wines look well and truly numbered.

So what’s the good news?
We are going to get used to seeing real Australian wine regions on our wine labels: weird and wonderful names like Gippsland, Tumbarumba and Geelong. Wine production will, in general, move out of the hotter central irrigation areas and out towards the coast, as well as up into the hills, where the cooler temperatures will produce wines with the right balance of acid, fruit and tannin – without over-reliance on irrigation and winemakers’ adjustments.

If you’re a fan of heavy-weight Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale Shiraz – don’t worry, these wines are not going to disappear. But the range of wine styles we will see from Australia will be broader: we’ll see more crisp, mineral Sauvignon Blancs, and elegant, scented Pinot Noirs. More choice and greater regionality, coupled with more sustainable winemaking have all got to be good news.

But the new Australians are just not going to be as cheap as they once were – and we are a nation of bargain hunters when it comes to wine. So maybe one effect is that we’ll find more shelf space devoted to other countries, while the Australian section shrinks. Wines from France and Spain, who can still produce wine relatively cheaply in some regions, may be the ultimate beneficiaries.