It’s getting towards that time of year again, the grape harvest is approaching in Europe. After last year’s incredible success in Southern France, fine wine prices have not only gone through the roof, but through what’s left of the Ozone layer as well. So what can we expect from 2006? It is a little too early to tell, but with the hot dry summer we have had, followed by some rain to freshen things up, the indications are certainly good. Indeed it seems from talking to our very own Denbies estate, 2006 is looking like one of the biggest vintages on record for the UK and also one of the finest.
Vines are strange plants, unlike humans they really quite like stress if they are to produce good quality offspring and the lack of rainfall will have forced the plants to put their roots deeper into the soil, drawing up more nutrients. The unusual degree of sunshine will have helped photosynthesis, so producing a large, healthy and flavoursome crop. But all is not yet certain. Many English vineyards do not pick until late September or even October, to ensure sufficient sugars and if we have constant rain between now and then it could all go to pot.
This is a slow time of year for the wine trade, with one of our biggest trading partners, France, being pretty much on holiday for the whole of August. This means good things for the consumer as there usually develops a fight or two among the retailers to capture what business is left while everyone is abroad. Incidentally, if you are going on holiday please make sure that you try the local wine, wherever you may be going. Winery visits are a fantastic way to spend a day and depending which part of the world you are in, they can be a great way to spend the evening as well.
I recently visited La Mare vineyards on Jersey, situated to the North of the Island. Whilst it was not cheap to enter, the setting was lovely and the tour informative to the public and done in an informal and non-threatening style. The wines were OK, nothing special but when I was chatting to the staff they told me the vineyards were planted on drained marshland so that doesn’t surprise me. These guys were geared up for tourists with an excellent lunch restaurant and various wine-related activities like barrel-making.
If you are farther afield then you can really have a great time dropping in on vineyards. Winemakers, contrary to popular belief, are not all either looneys who sing to their vines and use only the dung of selected donkeys for fertiliser, nor are they all snooty, self-obsessed toffs who send their squire to run you off the property (although I have come across examples of both). Most are simply people who really, really want you to enjoy their wines. It is always best to phone ahead or write before you turn up, if you want to go somewhere that is not a big tourist operation, but most places will gladly accommodate you. Many wineries in the US, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have restaurants attached where you can recover after your tasting session. Either that or as in the case of Jordan’s estate in South Africa, they’ll phone a good local restaurant and sort you out a table there.
It is certainly true that once you have seen one winery, you have pretty much seen them all. Modern techniques mean that an abundance of stainless steel pipes, and huge stainless steel vats are ever-present and the wooden barrels so synonymous with winemaking are usually all stored together at the end of the production line. The landscape however varies enormously as does the architecture. The ultra-modern buildings of new-world countries and modern producers in Europe are in stark contrast to the classical Chateaux of Bordeaux and Loire and the Bodegas of Spain.
Top places to visit? Stellenbosch, South Africa. A wonderful region just 40 minutes from Cape Town with a wide array of wineries open for visits and some superb restaurants next to the river. Stunning views from the vine-covered hillsides. Napa Valley, California. This is the home of countless boutique wineries, many with superb restaurants, beware as they are not cheap!. The Douro Valley, Portugal. A favourite destination for short breaks and tours, a trip up the Douro is well worth it for the amazing scenery if nothing else. The terraced vineyards are incredible and the untouched feel of the place leaves a lasting impression. The Port that you should not have touched can also leave a lasting hangover!
Loire Valley, France. Chateau country. Home to the finest Sauvignon Blancs in the world, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, but also to some of the most stunning French buildings you will see. Almost anywhere in Australia, but beware, they will not let you leave sober, but of particular note are the beautiful surroundings of Margaret River, in Western Australia. In Italy the vineyards of Tuscany are superb, in other regions you might need a certain amount of the local language to get anywhere. Throughout France expect to have a warm welcome at vineyards, especially if you have a car with a big boot, but be aware, many French producers do not speak English. It’s not that they don’t want to (like Parisian waiters) but they simply cannot, so take the phrase book.