Every two weeks, the wine critics of Toronto gather at an old warehouse by the expressway. One by one they trickle into the foyer, squeezing past deliverymen and other people who work for a living. They sign in at one security desk, and then another, and then they wander down a corridor into a brightly lit room simply called “the lab.” There are no beakers or Bunsen burners in this laboratory. Instead, you will find stemware and spittoons. This is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s tasting clinic, where the media come to review wines. At any given session, there are about 140 open bottles on the lab’s counter, arranged in a long queue that begins promisingly with sparkling wines and ends in an uphill slog of non-vintage port and grappa.
I like arriving late. You can learn a lot about what’s there by examining how much is left in the bottle after the other writers have picked their way through. As you would suspect, Barolo and fine Burgundies attract scrutiny. By way of contrast, there are always some wines whose waterline barely slips below the neck: Moroccan wine, Moldovan wine, Macedonian wine, just to name the M’s. In other words, bottles from the margins of the international market. The critics may sample these wines, but no one I know dilly-dallies with them. No one except me.
I love bottles from the neglected corners of the wine world. Strange, indigenous grapes and new, experimental terroir is the best cure for the palate fatigue caused by too much Australian Chardonnay. Not that all marginal wines are superstars. They are usually table wines — and usually rough table wines at that — but for all their rusticity, they offer something that even the best Meursault cannot give: a picture of the vast plenitude of Earth’s viniculture. Like the dark matter of astrophysics, this wine is the unseen, unsung mass that makes up most of what the world drinks.
For instance, I recently sampled Cotnari’s 2008 Tamâiosa Româneasca ($13.95) from Romania. Although almost unheard of in North America, the sweet whites of Cotnari (it is a winery and also an appellation) have a long history of excellence, and now provide some of the best bargains for dessert wines in the world; they’re balanced, agile and fragrant with notes of poached pear and dried apricots. Another great discovery is Mildiani’s 2004 Kindzmarauli ($12.95) from Georgia. This is a semi-sweet red with incredibly complex flavours of persimmon, aloe and lemongrass. It’s a unique product but very compelling, especially when matched with soft, gooey cheese.
Too much handwringing about the frailty of Pinot Noir has given us the mistaken impression that vines are hard to grow — in actual fact, they have the dashing versatility of a cockroach. “Grapes are indeed very adaptable to climatic extremes,” Dr Andrew Reynolds explained to me. He’s a Professor of Viticulture at the Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute at Brock University. “Through evolution, several biotypes have developed that have superior winter hardiness … others with adaptability to hot regions.” As a result, wine grapes are grown just about everywhere, from Ethiopia to Peru to Thailand.
Some of the oddest wine that I’ve ever had came from Thailand. Monsoon Valley’s 2009 “White” ($12.75) springs to mind; it’s blended from the indigenous Malaga Blanc and Colombard grapes with the hopeless ambition of creating a wine that can pair with the sweet/sour/spicy flavours of Tom Yum soup. The resulting beverage is remarkably viscous and chewy for something with only a dab of residual sugar. The melon-like flavours are flat and bitter, but the most striking quality is a bouquet of overgrown vegetation and composting fruit.
I was curious about why anyone would want to start a winery in a place like South Asia — so I asked Tony Lima, a Wine Economist at California State University. As countries in Asia get richer and develop solid middle classes, the demand for wine naturally swells. But because of local pride and preferences, Professor Lima says that these customers are more likely to shift away from imported wines to domestic vintages, especially if the local price is lower. As wealth increases, Asian tastes become somewhat westernized, but in the process, they create a uniquely Asian interpretation of wine.
I recently stumbled upon such a cultural hybrid in my local wine store: Great Wall’s 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.95) from China (see review). Normally, finding any wine that’s 14 years old on a store shelf is exciting, but when the price is 14 bucks, it seems eerie. This bottle begins to make more sense, however, if you keep in mind that well-aged Bordeaux has an especially high cachet in China as a symbol of luxury and status. By marketing a table wine with serious bottle maturity, Great Wall is trying to romance the market.
The diversity of wine increases as wealth spreads from North America and Europe to the rest of the world. “People plant vineyards and build wineries for the same reasons they climb mountains,” says Mike Veseth, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound with an excellent blog. “Some people do it for the challenge, some for the prestige, and some to make money.”
Dr Veseth points to the Indian entrepreneur Rajeev Samant as a good example of how these factors can come together. “He was obviously inspired by the wineries near Silicon Valley where he worked, and so he wanted to start one back home in India. Now he is motivated both by the challenge and by the opportunity to help build an industry and create jobs in his native land.” Ten years ago, Mr Samant started Sula Vineyards in Nashik north of Mumbai, a project that has ballooned from a 30-acre family estate to over 1400 acres. His success ignited other locals, and now there are 35 wineries in Nashik and a renewed tourist trade.
Vineyards will continue to spread across the world because — if done right — they help farmers and create new wealth. I spoke about this with Professor Peter Roberts at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University. He is involved in a project to create sustainable wineries in Ethiopia. “The aspiration with our project is to be attractive to the growing ‘socially-conscious wine consumer’ segment that is looking for accessible high-quality wines that come with interesting stories.”
“The efforts in Ethiopia are nascent and built on the unique topography surrounding Addis Ababa,” Prof Roberts says. “The climate conditions seem to offer a lot of potential. Addis sits at roughly 2500 meters above sea level and one gets the distinct feel of a wine region just waiting to happen as one drives north.” Prof Roberts isn’t the only one who’s optimistic. France’s largest winemaker, the Castel Group, is investing millions of dollars in Ethiopia — they hope to release their first bottles in 2011.
It isn’t just small-scale producers like Thailand and India that are hard to find in North American markets. According to statistics published by the Wine Institute, Romania and Russia each make about five million hectolitres per year, which is about four times more wine than the ubiquitous exporter New Zealand. Moldova, the Ukraine and Bulgaria are not too far behind Russia. Yet these wines are nearly invisible to Canadians.
This is partially because domestic consumption is high, but also because Eastern European countries have a long history of exporting to the Soviet Union — a regime that emphasized collectivization, mass production and quantity over quality. Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, not much has changed for countries like Romania and Moldova. “I believe both countries have the potential to make a splash in the world markets again, but they must make the transition from low quality exports to Russia, to high quality exports to Canada, Britain and the US,” says Prof Veseth.
There are hints that revolution may be in the air. The resurrection of fine Tokaji in Hungary demonstrates that Westerners will open their wallets for premium products. More ominously, it may be a matter of national security for some countries to let go of their attachment to Russia’s markets. The Russian government recently banned Moldovan wine after Moldova’s president called the Soviet rule of his country “an occupation.” Shortly afterward, Russia’s consumer safety watchdog announced that this wine should only be used “to paint fences.” The ban is especially vicious for Moldova because it is the most wine dependent country on earth, with more than a quarter of all workers employed in the industry.
When change comes to the wine industry, it can come quickly. Twenty-five years ago, Australia accounted for just 0.2 per cent of global exports, and now produces almost 10 per cent. Similarly, in the 1990’s, Argentina was seen as a mass producer of bad wine that was fit only for domestic consumption — now it dominates the Canadian market with the likes of Fuzion’s Shiraz/Malbec ($7.75). Canada has every reason to hope that there will be more such tectonic shifts in the future. After all, our own gross wine production hovers at the same level as Uzbekistan, Peru and Algeria. Doesn’t that make us dark matter too? In the tasting labs of London, Tokyo or Mumbai, does any wine critic dilly-dally with us?
87 Corten 2008 Pinot Grigio, Moldova ($7.80)
The profile of this excellent value is simple but well-composed, with the predominant flavour of mellow tangerine and a pleasant hint of peapod. It’s mid-bodied with a trilling acidity. The finish is long and oddly metallic.
86 Monte Cheval Vranac 2007, Montenegro ($8.35)
This is an unapologetically rough red that puts the rust back in rustic. It has flavours of white pepper and orange and an undercurrent of funk. It is a big-boned fellow that will provide the perfect pairing for a rich stew or a barfight.
82 Clos du Pacha Red 2007, Morocco ($11.95)
This Cabernet Sauvignon blend has a diluted nose with generic flavours of leather and raspberry. These unmemorable flavours re-echo on the palate. It’s amazing what you can do with water and food colouring.
81 Hepok Blatina “Mostar Bridge” 2006, Bosnia-Herzegovina ($9.95)
This is a non-descript red with no distracting faults or specific pleasures — to the extent that it can be described, I would suggest words like “waxy” if you are feeling ungenerous, or “tart cherry” if you want to stick to the facts.
81 Sula Sauvignon Blanc 2009, India ($12.95)
There is not much pop to this pale Sauvignon Blanc. It is cloying without being sweet, which is an unusually bad combination. The green melon fruit has a thick texture and vegetal undertone, but enough acidity to make it food friendly.
70 Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, China ($13.95)
I found little evidence of bottle maturity here, which makes me suspect that there’s a miscommunication between this wine and its label. In any case, enjoy a horsey and aggressive aroma with notes of diesel, black liquorice and vegetables.