If you were to draw a map of European wine excitement showing where the good stuff comes from, it would look quite different today from a similar sketch done a decade or two ago.
Grand old regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, Rioja and Tuscany would still be there, of course, coloured in a regal shade of purple. Others that have been advancing for ages would feature in a ruby hue – the Loire and the Languedoc, Italy’s Veneto, Portugal’s Douro, Spain’s Priorat and Ribera del Duero, to name just a few. Then, dotted here and there especially on Europe’s outer fringes, you’d have areas of vivid pink. The new attention-seekers.
In much the same way that edgy Dublin restaurants are opening away from the city centre, spending less on rent and more on ingredients and staff to end up with first-class food that doesn’t cost the earth, savvy winemakers are applying their talents to what traditional wine snobs might regard as insignificant parts of Europe. Those snooty drinkers should watch out. Many of the wines we’re seeing from these regions now are finely tuned, distinctively different and far too good to miss.
To me, Greece leads the charge. A dozen years ago the British wine magazine Decanter sent me off to assess some leading estates in Macedonia and Crete. Stunning bottles were uncorked every single day. At the time only a handful had reached the Irish market but now we can choose from an array of sleek Greeks. I especially like Naoussa reds made from the Xinomavro grape, and the fantastic Assyrtiko-based whites which are a speciality of Crete and Santorini.
These aren’t the only islands to attain new importance. Fascinating wines are arriving into Ireland from outposts like Majorca, Tenerife and even the Azores. Whether they’re resurrecting old vineyards or planting new ones, serious producers are selecting coolish sites so that, despite global warming, their wines retain elegance and freshness. Some choose islands with sea breezes. Others move up into the hills.
Other European countries adding polish to their production include Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Since the fall of communism and EU accession, all three are revitalising a wine history that stretches back beyond Roman times. They have an abundance of indigenous grapes – more on-trend these days than international varieties – and in some cases favour traditional techniques associated with fashionable “natural” wines – wild yeasts, skin contact, fermentation in amphorae and so on. The results can be intriguing. Even entrancing.
3 wines to try
GAIA WILD FERMENT ASSYRTIKO, SANTORINI 2016. A simple dish of fish, chicken or pork will highlight the marriage of richness with freshness in this thrilling Greek island white coaxed from the fruit of 80-year-old vines. Alcohol: 13%. From O’Briens outlets, usually €24.95, on special offer at €22.95 during May.
MAGMA, ADEGA DOS BISCOITOS 2016. My first taste of the Azores – exotic! This main course white from lava-carpeted vineyards gives notes of lemon, marzipan and spice a salty edge. Alcohol: 12.5%. From Redmonds, Dublin 6; First Draft Coffee, Dublin 8; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock; 64 Wine, Glasthule, €30-31.
ROKA BLAUFRÄNKISCH, STAJERSKA 2016. From the Slovenian vineyard of Irish winemakers Liam and Sinéad Cabot, this exuberant, fruity red fermented with natural yeasts is a pure delight. Food optional. Alcohol: 12.5%. From Grapevine, Dalkey; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Cabot & Co, Westport; Poppy Seed, Galway; No 1 Pery Square, Limerick; about €20.
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