Wine has become such a universal interest that I’m no longer surprised when I hear of yet another country’s first commercial vineyard or winery. In fact, a common phenomenon in more exotic locations for wine production is for someone to plant a few vines, build a cellar door (often without much of a cellar) and set up shop selling wine labelled as though it were local, but which depends heavily on bulk imports from wherever is cheapest at the time (often Chile, sometimes Spain or Italy).
Yet there are one or two countries emerging as genuine wine producers that are still capable of inflicting shock. I must say I did a double take recently when I read that some Syrian wines were being launched in the UK. Is this really the right moment? On the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, I picked an Argentine bargain – Viñalba Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Mendoza – as my website wine of the week. I wonder what the correspondent who challenged my choice would make of Domaine Bargylus in northern Syria?
It was in an attempt to recreate the vineyards established in the hinterland of the port of Latakia in the Greco-Roman era that the Beirut-based Saadé brothers, Sandro and Karim, began to plant Bargylus’s 50 hectares of international vine varieties back in 2003. They could hardly have predicted that Syria would now be hogging the headlines in such an undesirable way. Asked by Decanter.com about the impact of current events, Johnny Modawar, the Saadés’ head of communications, maintained bravely, “day-to-day operations are not affected by the situation. It is not risky, as all the conflict is taking place close to Damascus and Homs [a hundred kilometres south]”, although he did admit that the technical team, based at the Saadés’ Lebanese vineyard in the Bekaa Valley, is unable to cross in to Syria and is having to make wine by conference call.
I tasted their current offerings and was particularly impressed by the 2007 Bargylus red, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with real savour and depth of flavour. Stéphane Derenoncourt of Bordeaux is consultant. The price is ambitious but not ridiculous.
As the best Lebanese and, increasingly, Israeli wines demonstrate, the Middle East is capable of producing very good reds – especially at higher elevations where temperatures fall at night.
I was amazed last year to be introduced to the wines of Zumot in Jordan, whose star products, I thought, were white, made in the image of Alsace’s best. At 15.5 per cent alcohol, Zumot, Saint George Gewürztraminer 2010 was a heavyweight, but it was quite recognisably made from this headily scented grape variety, even if I would be inclined to drink it within a year of release. Bulos Zumot started out as a vintner as long ago as 1954, with, reportedly, “a dream to give Jordan its niche on the map of world-class, quality wine”.
I have already written at length here about the exciting progress in winemaking in Turkey. Greece has been making world-class modern wine for several decades. I am assured that Cyprus is at last making table wines to be proud of, although I am yet to taste the evidence.
Further east, Georgia has one of the longest continuous and most glorious viticultural traditions of all and has been making tentative attempts at exporting to the west for many years – ever more necessary since 2006 when it lost its most important export market, Russia. But it is only now that fine wine is emerging westwards from Armenia. Zorah is a project financed by a Milan-based member of the Armenian diaspora who originally planned yet another winery in Tuscany but realised that the country of his forefathers has its own highly distinctive grape variety, Areni, and that the time had come for amphora-aged wine. Italian Alberto Antonini is the consultant on this particular project.
Vineyards behind what was the Iron Curtain are fertile ground for the seeds of oenological wisdom sown by western wine consultants. The developing Russian vignoble has called on foreign expertise, and many of the projects mushrooming in eastern Europe have some input from a western European country, often Germany.
The relatively conservative Wine Society in the UK has just taken on a pair of very impressive Romanian wines, determinedly made from local not international grape varieties, from the Prince Stirbey estate revived by Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu, German granddaughter of Princess Maria Stirbey. The wines have improved considerably over the past few years, with the fragrant dry white particularly distinctive.
Romania has a long tradition of wine production, nurtured by its longstanding links with France. Much more exotic, in a sense, was the collection of surprisingly convincing Dutch wines I was shown the summer before last by some visitors from the Netherlands. Since then I have tasted the competent, if not exactly thrilling, Danish wine served at the famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, and have read about the Riesling vines planted in Norway by Klaus Peter Keller of the Rheinhessen. Is there no limit to the poleward spread of viticulture?
Thanks to much more skilful techniques such as deliberately tricking the vine into dormancy by cunningly timed pruning and leaf plucking, viticulture has been spreading towards the equator too. The Ecuadoreans even claim to have a vineyard that is actually on the equator, while a Napa Valley vintner has just been hired to oversee Costa Rica’s first wine venture.
Sometimes it seems that there is no Asian country without its own wine industry. China is now a major wine producer. Thai and Vietnamese wine are old hat. We came across a vineyard when visiting Cambodia last year, and friends just back from a holiday in Myanmar report drinking, and quite enjoying, the local Red Mountain Sauvignon Blanc. The third International Symposium on Tropical Viticulture was held last November in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, with 43 papers given on various aspects of wine production specific to the tropics.
I tasted a pair of wines from Kosovo the other day. “War-torn” seemed a suitable description.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Jancis’s exotic picks
• Zumot, Saint George Gewürztraminer 2010 Jordan (www.zumot-wines.com)
• Zorah, Karasi Areni 2010 Armenia (£19.80, Slurp, 020 8993 7722)
• Prince Stirbey, Sec Tămâioasă Românească 2010 Romania (£9.50, The Wine Society, 01438 741177)
• de Kleine Schorre, Schouwen-Druiveland Pinot Blanc/Auxerrois 2009 Netherlands (www.dekleineschorre.nl)
Bargylus 2007 (£33.50, Philglas & Swiggot, 020 7402 0002; Wine Story, 07921 770691) is a really serious red blend of international grape varieties by any measure. This may not be the ideal time to launch a Syrian wine, however.