Lesser-known wine regions worth getting to know
August 18, 2017
Ever tried a Tasmanian sparkling white or a Lebanese Cabernet Sauvignon? Some of the most exciting opportunities in wine might be the ones you’ve never heard of, says Zeren Wilson
Lebanon boasts one of the oldest sites for wine production on the planet. Photo: Alamy
It’s part of the fascination of drinking wine when the added appetite of exploration is part of the mix. Yes, we all have our favourite styles or regions, but our palates can become jaded and complacent by chugging down the same old juice every week.
There’s always another wine region to discover, another clutch of grape varieties to explore, another part of the wine-producing world where we stop and think, ‘Oh, I’ve never tried that before.’
Going down under
I still remember my own wide-eyed surprise while working for Oddbins, when tasting the first Tasmanian sparkling I had ever tried, which happened to be one that I still enjoy and admire – the sparkling wines from Jansz.
The first to be made on the island with the méthode champenoise – the very same method used in the production of Champagne – uses the same varietals, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The quality of the wines can absolutely be compared to the top sparkling wines produced anywhere in the world.
With a relatively cool climate compared to the rest of Australia, the vineyards are ideally located for slow ripening while maintaining acidity. The temperature is moderated by the proximity of the stretch of sea that separates Tasmania from the Australian mainland, the Bass Strait.
‘It’s much cooler and wetter than the rest of Australia, and therefore great for fizz, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,’ explains Phil Weeks, sales director for independent merchant Lea and Sandeman.
Old wines and new tastes
A country that has an almost unrivalled reputation in terms of its history, but which perhaps doesn’t have the wider profile of the ‘classic’ regions of France, Italy and Spain, for example, is Lebanon. It can boast one of the oldest sites for wine production on the planet.
Michael Karam is a leading expert on the wines of Lebanon, and for him there is one grape variety that is the calling card and point of difference for the region: ‘The reds are concentrated and powerful, with the Cinsault varietal currently in the spotlight as the standout red grape.’
Certainly, the Bordeaux grape Cabernet Sauvignon fares very well in Lebanon, and plays a part in the blends of Château Musar, which is regarded as the top wine estate in the country and was established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar.
The fact that Lebanon has produced a wine in all but two of the years since its inception in 1920 ensures that the older wines are sought after and collectable. A case of six bottles of the 1961 is currently listed at £3,960-4,700 on Wine Searcher, showing that the potential for investment is there.
‘Château Musar’s back catalogue is well known, but Château Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest winery, will soon be releasing select vintages including some sweet wines, some of which date back to the 1920s,’ says Karam.
The reds age well and have the robustness to stick around for many years, as long as they are carefully stored, and can age as gracefully and effortlessly as fine Bordeaux. Karam also believes that there is merit in the white wines, albeit these are not to be thought of so much in terms of investment.
‘The whites are surprisingly fresh and fragrant, but we do grow our vines as high as 1800 metres above sea level, the highest in the northern hemisphere. The Obeideh, our indigenous white grape, is garnering a lot of attention and can do for Lebanon what Assyrtiko did for Greece.’
Lava deposits over thousands of years are said to affect the vines in Etna, Sicily. Photo: Alamy
While Assyrtiko as a grape varietal has done much to shine a light on the lesser explored wines of the Greek island of Santorini, much of that wine’s distinctiveness has been attributed to the ash-rich volcanic soil of the island, and the term ‘volcanic wines’ has almost become a brand in itself.
Parts of Sicily have the honour of being mentioned in this clutch of wines, in particular the DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) of Etna, with the influence of Mount Etna (still an active volcano) calling the shots. Lava deposits over thousands of years are said to affect the vines, mixing with the soil to add mineral nutrients such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, all of which translate into the character of the wine in the glass.
‘Minerality’ is a term often used to describe the effect on the palate, or in simpler terms, ‘like licking a wet stone’. Sounds bonkers, but this somehow nails the sensory experience.
‘Sicily is dominated by Etna and its volcanic influences, and its finest wines are made from old vine Carricante (whites) and Nerello Mascalese (reds),’ explains Weeks from Lea and Sandeman, which specialises in Italian wines.
According to Weeks, top producers to look for are Occhipinti, Pietradolce and Cos, ‘whose wines are defined by a purity and drive on the palate’. There we have it, the elusive mineral influence of the soil on the final product.
Two parts of the world that are perhaps more surprising for many wine drinkers, for having much of a notable wine output, are North Africa and Israel. While Morocco has a long history of winemaking, it’s only in the last couple of decades that vines have been planted in earnest after much of it was grubbed up in the 1950s.
The Israeli wine industry has been dominated in the modern era by the output of kosher wines, few of which have been made with any emphasis on quality, but rather bulk production from high-yielding vineyards to supply a specific market. Since the early 1990s, however, a succession of boutique wineries began to buck that trend.
Names such as Yarden, Margalit and Domaine du Castel have done much for the emerging reputation of Israeli wines. Again, with a relatively low profile in the UK, both in retail and within restaurants, it’s still premature to think about viable investment opportunities.
In the spirit of adventure, let’s all make the effort to drink outside of our vinous comfort zone – there’s a wealth of unexplored wine out there to perk up the most jaded of palates.
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Zeren Wilson is a writer and wine consultant whose work has appeared in the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Noble Rot and Completely London. He runs Bitten & Written