The world of wine in brief

(The following is an article by Peter published in the Times Online. It’s a whistle-stop tour of the principal wine producing countries.)

DirectionsIt’s fair to say that things rarely move fast in the world of wine. Seasons come, seasons go; the vines give up their annual fruit then hunker down for the next year. It’s hardly hedge fund management or Formula One racing.

Nevertheless, change is a constant in wine just as in any other aspect of human life. I was reminded of this fact just the other day when I found myself at a glamorous wine tasting that focused exclusively on wines from the North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. (Quote of the day: “This wine may not play in London, but it sure plays in Tennessee!”)

OK, so with the odd exception the wines were not much to write home about, but it’s sobering to think that as recently as the 1980s the same kind of thing was being said about Australia. A country that, lest we need reminding, now accounts for nearly one in four bottles of wine purchased on the UK high street, having deposed France from its top spot some time ago.

Keeping up to date with the latest trends in wine is therefore something of a must if you want to say ahead of the game.

The main players

The giants of world wine production remain France, Italy and Spain. In all these countries, wine is not just a pleasant drink but a fundamental part of the social, cultural and economic fabric, even if its weight of tradition and history can also prove a burden.

No country is more aware of this than France. The charmed life of being the default choice for most wine drinkers is no longer; fierce competition has eroded Gallic market share considerably.

Chevalier-MontrachetAnd yet France is far from beaten. It remains for many the nation that produces the finest, most elegant wines on the planet. Producers are starting to realise that being proactive and communicative is not a blasphemy. With an excellent 2005 vintage under its belt, areas like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are revelling in their position as some of the most highly regarded wine regions on the planet. Meanwhile, ever more consistent and characterful wines are emerging from the south of the country.

In short, the French fight-back is good news for wine drinkers the world over.

Italian wine remains, to a large extent, a law unto itself. At times brilliant, at others dire, its inconsistency is an inherent part of its charm. Its one commercial success story of late has been Pinot Grigio – there’s even talk of a shortage – which seems to have taken over from Chardonnay as the new in-thing for the noughties.

Catch it on a good day, though, and Italy is one of the most exciting wine countries around. In this sense, it is rewarding to look beyond the big names – the south of the country is currently offering some of the best value wines on the market, with varieties like Fiano, Grechetto, Primitivo and Nero d’Avola providing plenty of personality for the price.

Harvest in ZamoraSpain offers the wine drinker immense diversity, from cava to Rioja to sherry. While the first two of these categories are buoyant, sherry’s decline remains ongoing despite the quality and value being better than ever. By contrast, it’s heartening to see some superb value reds being offered at the lower end of the spectrum from up-and-coming regions like Calatayud, Jumilla and La Mancha.

Another proud European wine producer, Germany, seems to be starting to claw its way back into wine drinkers’ good books. Demand for its greatest wine grape, Riesling, is on the up (perhaps fuelled by those looking for wines low in alcohol but without scrimping on flavour), though its image still needs improving.

The New World

It is the New World, however, that has been providing much of the wine world’s dynamism and excitement over the last 20 years.

Australia has come from nowhere to be a real player on the world wine scene, the result of hard work, careful planning and a real desire to democratise wine. However, its momentum is currently faltering, the result of natural setbacks (frosts, severe drought) which could put an end to the discounts that have been a major factor behind its phenomenal growth. At the top end, however, its wines are better than ever.

MauleTwo countries that could be well placed to take advantage of this are Chile and Argentina. Chile has massive potential, currently doing an excellent job of extending its value-for-money reputation into more pricey territory by providing ever more diverse, complex and food-friendly styles of wine. Argentina is a sizeable producer – sixth in world stakes – but is starting to shift its focus from a thirsty domestic market to sell its often gutsy reds and aromatic whites further afield.

South Africa appears to be going through growing pains though the quality of its top reds and whites (think Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc) is consistently impressive. New Zealand continues to be one of the wine world’s success stories, churning out a style of Sauvignon Blanc that drinkers can’t seem to get enough of, whilst also starting to do great things with Pinot Noir. It is a small country with big ambitions, and definitely one to watch.

The USA remains the source of some top quality reds and whites akin to those that knocked the French off their pedestal at the famous Judgement of Paris tasting in the 1970s. However, it would be good to see more mid-range wines broadening the country’s repertoire.

As for the future of wine, it’s highly likely that countries like China, India, Brazil, Georgia, Israel, Mexico and the UK may have something to add to this overview in the years to come.