Five Emerging Regions for Fine Wine
In January 2014, a young Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Ancelot embarked on an ambitious quest to explore all the wine-producing regions in the world. For the next three years, he and his team of Wine Explorers will be poking around the vineyards of countries the average person would never connect with wine and wine-making, and where the Next Great Vintages will likely come from: China. Southeast Asia. Africa. The Middle East. 92 countries, 250 wine regions, and a heck of a lot of wine.
It’s a massive undertaking. But this only goes to show that when it comes to wine and wine-making, all a budding vintner needs is a lot of money, a lot of luck, and a good terroir to steer them by. Look out France, Italy, Germany, Australia, and the United States, for these five regions are nipping at your heels:
China is obsessed with wine. The rapid growth of the Chinese economy within the last twenty years has also resulted in many Chinese with a lot of disposable income and a desire to spend it on the good things in life. Which includes wine—lots of wine, and the best of it. In fact, as of 2013 China surpassed France as the world’s biggest market for red wine.
In recent years, Hong Kong and Shanghai have become centres of wine culture and trading in the Far East Asia-Pacific region. Shanghai’s Free Trade Zone economic status has enabled the duty-free importation of foreign wines into the country, and Hong Kong has been building a reputation as one of the world’s great wine cities, thanks in no small part to the annual Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival, the most prestigious wine event in Asia.
Recent austerity measures implemented by the Chinese government may have stemmed the tide a bit, but have certainly not stopped the demand. While Chinese millionaires have been snapping up million-dollar superlots of premier grand cru Burgundy and wine estates in the heart of Bordeaux country, focus has turned onto the production of cheaper wines and the development of wine regions in mainland China itself.
Given China’s size and diversity of its terrain and climate, it’s not surprising to learn that the country’s wine regions are scattered throughout the mainland. However, it is the regions of Ningxia in the north and Shanxi in the east that are known for producing high-quality fine wine, thanks to their continental climate which is particularly suited to the growth of the European grape vine. While foreign wine producers such as Château Lafite Rothschild and Moet & Chandon have been steadily moving into the country, taking advantage of the new customer base and inexpensive labor, the recent success of local wine producers such as Dynasty, Grace Vineyard, and Helan Qing Xue (whose 2009 Cabernet won top honors at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards) puts China on the path to becoming the world’s next wine superpower.
Slovenia and Eastern Europe
The Caucasus and the Balkans may have been the birthplace of wine, but decades of Communist rule had transformed a centuries-old tradition of producing fine wine into an industry more focused on quantity over quality. Twenty years after the fall of Communism, that is changing, as wines from the former Soviet bloc are taking back their rightful place in the ranks of the world’s finest. It’s Slovenia, though, that comes out ahead of the pack.
Food & Wine describes Slovenia as “home to an extraordinarily innovative winemaking community” and a wine lifestyle to rival the cities of Western Europe. The country has the good fortune not only to be surrounded by the wine regions of Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary, but also to be situated at the same latitude as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone—thus sharing similar terroirs. Slovenia produces mainly white wines made from grapes like Reisling, Pinot Grigio and Ribolla, and the country’s three main wine regions—Podravje, Primorska, and Posavje—exhibit a cosmopolitan flavor to their wine-making, thanks to the stylistic influences of Italy, Hungary, and France.
Slovenian vintages have as of late been winning numerous awards at wine festivals, and Movia has contributed greatly to the international profile of the country, with Movia wines gaining popularity in the United States. Movia was also the only Slovenian winery to take part in the Great Wines of the World at the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival last October 30 to November 1, 2014.
Unlike its neighbors Chile and Argentina, Brazil had a bit of a rough start when it came to wine production. Its size, terrain, and climate made it difficult for wine grapes to grow properly; only the southern regions of the country had the cool climate for the grapes to flourish. Wine logistics were also a nightmare until sufficient roads were built through the rainforests to connect Brazil’s wine country to the nation’s population centres.
Within the mountainous Serra Gaúcha (Gaucho Highlands) in the south of the country is the centre of Brazilian wine production, Vale dos Vinhedos (Valley of the Vineyard), where the city of Bento Gonçalves is the wine capital of Brazil and famous for its sparkling wines. The rather wet climate of the region has enabled viticulturists to grow European and hybrid vines, producing Chardonnays, Merlots, Muscats and Pinot Noirs to rival the wines of Europe. Vale dos Vinhedos has also been featured in Wine Enthusiast and The International Business Times as one of the best wine tourism destinations of 2013, with great expectations accompanying the growing interest in Brazilian wines thanks to the upcoming Rio Olympics in 2016.
Morocco and the Maghreb
The Maghreb is another name for North Africa, spanning the Atlas Mountains extending to the Atlantic coast. Within the Maghreb, the countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco have a shared history of French colonialism, and in the early 20th century produced fully two-thirds of the world’s supply of wine in international markets. French vineyards proliferated in these three countries, and it was only until independence and their subsequent takeover by Islamic rule that this region withered.
While the wine industries of Algeria and Tunisia are still very much a niche market, Morocco’s is thriving well, thanks to a relatively stable political climate and a concerted revival campaign by its late king, Hassan II. In the 1990s, state-owned vineyards were leased to wine producers from Bordeaux, and as a result the Moroccan wine industry leans on the red side—Grenache, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Its local offerings are also influenced heavily by the French. The Meknes region at the foot of the Atlas Mountains has the best terroir, and the country’s largest wineries, Les Celliers de Meknes and Thalvin-Domaine des Ouled Thaleb, are based there. Les Celliers and Ouled Thaleb have embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign in the United States, holding a “Napa Valley Meets Morocco” event in March of 2014, and Ouled Thaleb being awarded “Value Brand of the Year” by Wine & Spirits Magazine.
Given its tropical climate and susceptibility to monsoons, Southeast Asia looks like an unlikely candidate for wine production. Yet Vietnam and Thailand are making a name for themselves as emergent wine producers and Singapore is set on establishing itself as a major centre for wine culture in Asia.
Southeast Asia’s experiments with winemaking stem from a French colonial past (Vietnam) and a royal decree (Thailand). In Vietnam, it took some aggressive grape cultivation from Australian and British winemakers to enable the growth of international grape varieties like Cabernet and Chardonnay in the mid-1990s, giving local wine producers something else to work with other than Vietnamese native fruits like mulberries, lychees, and durian. Thailand also had a difficult time cultivating grapes suitable for international-standard wine, but achieved success earlier with the growth of Chenin Blanc and Syrah grapes in Loei province, enabling Château de Loei to export its first offerings outside the country by 1995. Results were mixed, but Thai wines have steadily improved from then on, giving rise to what are known as “New Latitude” wines—wines made out of grapes grown and cultivated outside the acceptable band between latitudes 30 and 50 across the globe. Siam Winery is Thailand’s largest and most successful wine facility.
It also follows that where there is wine production, there is also a wine culture. Southeast Asia, along with China and the rest of the Far East, comprise the bulk of the fast-growing Asian wine market, with the middle classes developing more sophisticated tastes as trade barriers are broken down and borders are shrinking. Singapore, as one of the world’s greatest centres for international trade, is home to a cosmopolitan population, some of the world’s best and finest hotels and restaurants, as well as the Singapore Wine Vault, the largest wine vault in Southeast Asia.
Singapore Wine Vault is a six-storey facility that houses 750,000 square feet of the most state-of-the-art wine storage and cellaring facilities in the region, capable of securing 10 million bottles in temperature-controlled conditions in either the main storage vault or in the Drôme—customised private wine cellars designed to meet a client’s most specific needs. The security of the vault is also top-of-the-line, requiring (among other things) client-employee dual-card verification and access restricted only to the vault’s senior wine butlers.
With the opening of the SGWV, Singapore is poised to become the next major hub of wine culture in Asia: an excellent vantage point to view the Next Great Wines of the Asian Century.