Monday, October 02, 2006

Discovering the earth to be round

The following article appeared in the Russian magazine Magnum and in a special Fine Wine supplement to the Guardian newspaper

I cannot remember the day I realised that the world – the world of wine – was round. But I do know that when I lived in Burgundy, like everybody else, I was fully convinced that it was flat. The Pinot Noir grape, it had been proven, only produced good wine in the soil and climate of a small region called the Cote d’Or. Of course attempts had been made to grow it elsewhere – in Sancerre, Alsace and Champagne, but in none of these places did it produce red wine that was remotely comparable to the efforts of Burgundian villages like Volnay and Vosne-Romanee. Much the same could be said for that other Burgundy grape Chardonnay, while Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc only performed at their best in the Loire. Challenging these beliefs by trying to mimic Burgundy or Sancerre elsewhere was like sailing over the edge of the world.

Then, of course, came the 1970s when a Pinot Noir from Eyrie vineyards in Oregon beat a set of red Burgundies, and Californian Cabernets and Chardonnays triumphed over their French counterparts in Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 “Judgement of Paris” tasting. For a while, it seemed as though this was the moment when the Old World had to acknowledge the curvature of the globe. But in fact all that happened was that the flat map was redrawn. The new credo was that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, for example, needed to be grown in places that were as similar as possible to Burgundy. In fact, of course, there were huge differences between the soils of Puligny Montrachet and Carneros in California, but the followers of the amended faith were happy to gloss over these anomalies. What mattered, above all they said, was the climate. Experts charted the “degree days” – average temperature during the growing season - of the classic regions of France and did their utmost to match these conditions when planting in the New World.

If you had asked any of the followers of the original or expanded flat earth beliefs (by which I mean 99.99% of the wine community) they would all have agreed on one absolute rule. Wine of any kind can only be produced between the latitudes of 30 and 50 in the northern or southern hemispheres. Anything closer to the North or South Pole is too cold, while grapevines simply don’t do well in the tropics because they need to rest over a cold winter.

But then news began to leak out of vineyards in Thailand, between the 14th and 18th parallels. Conditions here are tropical; indeed in the Siam vineyard which was founded by one of the men behind the energy-drink Red Bull, the grapes are grown on islands and harvested from boats. In another hillside vineyard, vineyard workers sit astride elephants and irrigate the fruit with water from the beast’s trunk. The very idea of trying to make wines in these conditions might seem to be eccentric to say the least, but the budding Thai wine industry (there are six wineries at present and others due to open soon) was not launched on a whim. The King of Thailand commissioned a study in the late 1970s that took a dozen years to decide that the project would be worthwhile.

Now the obvious question is “How good are the Thai wines?” and the honest answer is that they are not currently likely to cause the owners of chateaux Margaux or Cheval Blanc to lose any sleep. But the examples I have tasted (under the Monsoon Valley label) are a softer, more pleasant drink than most cheap Bordeaux. And, for those who judge by results, the Thais are still planting vineyards, while the Bordelais are currently uprooting theirs – and sending the equivalent of 44,000,000 unsold bottles of their wine this year to be turned into industrial alcohol.

But Thailand is only the most romantic example of a growing number of wine regions that are situated over the edge of the old flat earth. Last year, Decanter magazine tasted a range of wines from the New World and gave their highest marks to the La Reserve Cabernet Shiraz from Grover Vineyards, near Bangalore in India. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the fact that the wine was from the subcontinent, and produced with the help of the ubiquitous Michel Rolland, but no one pointed out that the vineyard is close to the 13th parallel, around 4,000 kilometres nearer to the equator than it ought to be. This is in fact India’s most southerly vineyard – most of the others are planted closer to Mumbai but, at the 18th parallel, they hardly conform to the old 30-50 degree rule.

India is going to be a country to watch – both in terms of production and consumption – but so is Brazil, and this is where you’ll find what is certainly the most commercially intensive effort at what Thai-based wine writer Frank Norel calls “New Latitude” winemaking. In the warm, dry Sao Francisco Valley, between the 9th and 10th parallel, a carpet of vines is being unrolled. The region barely existed 20 years ago, but it is already supplying 15% of Brazil’s needs and is expected to triple production over the next four years, by which time it will be the source of one glass in every two that are drunk here.

Yields per harvest are high here – by classical European standards – but the lack of a winter means that here, as elsewhere in the New Latitude, vines can produce two vintages per year. Actually, they could produce more, but producers prefer not to wear the plants out completely. The early releases from Sao Francisco are perfectly acceptable, and again considerably more drinkable than that unsaleable Bordeaux. So far, the Shiraz shows great promise (Miolo’s Terranova is a good example), but there is no reason to suppose that other varieties will not thrive as well.

The idea of picking wine grapes more than once a year is not as novel as one might imagine. Way back in 1578, Don Juan de Pimentel, the governor of Venezuela wrote a book in which he describes vineyards near Caracas being harvested three times a year. Today, the Pomar winery, which opened its doors in 1986, is the sole quality-conscious upholder of the Venezuelan vinous tradition, but the wines it produces close to the 11th parallel have won medals in international competitions such as the Challenge International du Vin in Bordeaux. By far the most surprising award-winner among the New Latitude wineries, however, has to be Chaupi Estancia Palomino which won a Commendation (the equivalent of a mark of at least 14/20) at the 2004 Decanter Awards in London. This winery, established 15 years ago, makes its wines from vineyards at 2,400 metres above sea level – and just 10km from the equator.

All of these wines beg the essential question: how is it possible to make wines in conditions that were once thought to be impossible? The simple answer is that we now know a lot more about plants and the way they grow than we used to. Like every other living thing, vines are programmed for survival and are a lot more adaptable than was previously imagined. But vinegrowers are also a lot more sophisticated than they were. Precise use of irrigation and careful pruning will significantly affect the way the vines grow, and the amount and ripeness of fruit they produce, but there is now a new piece of artillery in the grapegrower’s arsenal. Crop regulating hormones sound as though they could only have been produced by genetic manipulation, but in fact they occur naturally in all living things. The trick today lies in extracting them from the plants and then using them to influence the way the vines grow. Those who favour absolutely natural winemaking will quite reasonably balk at this kind of procedure, but they should be equally – if not more – concerned by the huge amounts of synthetic chemicals used by growers in Europe. My guess is that Brazil and India, in particular, will both help to ensure that New Latitude wines will begin to be taken at least as seriously within the next decade as New World wines were in the 1980s. So far, of course, very little notice has been taken of them at all. But when you believe that the world is flat, there is very little reason or temptation to go peering over the edge.

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