Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Wines from Madagascar and 9 Other Exotic Wine Regions and Countries

Pictures: Ile Sainte Marie off the East Coast of the Grand Ile de Madagascar and Christian G.E. Schiller with Patrick Rajaonary at Cafe de la Gare in Antananarivo

Exotic wine is a wine that is foreign in origin or character, not native, from abroad, to try an attempt of a description. This posting provides an overview of 10 exotic wine countries and regions that I have visited and/or written about.

Africa: Madagascar
United States: Finger Lakes, Missouri, Virginia
Eastern Europe: Czeck Republic, Poland, Russia, Serbia
China
Germany: Saale Unstrut

Weinrallye #59 Exotic Wines

This posting is being published as part of the Weinrallye, a monthly blog event in Germany. Participating wine bloggers - mainly in Germany - are all releasing postings today under the heading “Exotic Wines”. This month's wine rally is organized by the Institute of Drinks Blog of Peter Ladinig - "Das Onlinemagazin von Peter Ladinig mit News & Stories aus der Welt des Weines und der Gastronomie".

Madagascar

Off the eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar in the Indian Ocean is the 4th largest island in the world. Long known for vanilla beans and peppers, you can dine in its capital Antananarivo like in Paris, but at much, much lower prices. Not well known in the rest of the world, Madagascar produces wine. Typically, Malagasy wine tends to be of good table wine quality, not more. Traditionally, the main grape varieties are Petit Bouchet, Villardin, Chambourcin and Varousset for vins rouge and the Couderc Blanc for vins blanc. These are all so called French American hybrid grape varieties. Generally speaking, French-American hybrid grape varieties have the advantage of being robust, but do not match the so-called European grape varieties (vitis vinifera) in terms of elegance and refinement.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Jean Allimant with Marie Nomena Allimant and their Clos Nomena Wines in Antananarivo

However, a brand-new development, there is now one winery in Madagascar  - Clos Nomena - that is radically different as it makes wines exclusively on the basis of the European grape varieties: Vitis vinifera grapes are without any doubt the best in the world for fine wine. My wife Annette and I have known the Clos Nomena owners Pâquerette and Jean Allimant for many years through joint Betsileo friends.

See more:
The Wines of Madagascar - Good and Interesting Table Wines
Fine Wine and Fine Oysters in Madagascar: Oysters from Fort Dauphin and Wine from Clos Nomena
Clos Nomena: Taking the Wine of Madagascar to New Heights

Finger Lakes Wine Region

The Finger Lakes AVA in upstate New York encompasses seven glacial lakes, although the majority of plantings are around Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes. Most vineyards are planted on hillsides overlooking the lakes. These deep lakes help to moderate the climate, as stored heat is released from the lakes during the winter, keeping the weather mild during summer extends the growing season. This cool-climate region is often compared to the wine-growing region of Germany, and like Germany, has had special success with Riesling.

Pictures: The Finger Lakes and their Wines

The Finger Lakes include 4,452 hectares of vineyards, making it New York State's largest wine growing region. New York State is with Washington State the second largest wine producer in the US, with a bit more than 10.000 hectares. Of this, 400 hectares are accounted for by Riesling.

There are over 100 wineries, mostly family owned and operated small producers, bottling over 100,000 cases per year. While the region does an excellent job with other grapes like Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and even Pinot Noir, Riesling is the star, with each producer making an average of two to three different styles from dry to sweet each vintage.

At President Obama's Inauguration Luncheon a few days ago, a Finger Lakes Riesling was served.

See more:
Celebrating the Release of the Finger Lakes 2011 Riesling in Washington DC, USA
The Wines and the Food at President Obama’s Inauguration Luncheon, January 21, 2013, USA


Missouri

Missouri’s wine history dates to the 1830s, when German immigrants established Hermann and the Missouri River as one of the main viticulture areas in the US, growing the American grapes that they found there when they arrived. 50 years later, more wine was produced in Missouri than in any other State in the US. In the 1880s, Stone Hill Winery in Hermann was the second largest winery in the US and the third largest in the world. Its wines won awards at the world fairs in Vienna in 1873 and Philadelphia in 1876.

But then came Prohibition and brought Missouri’s wine industry to a halt. However, Missouri’s wine industry came back, starting in the 1960s, in particular after French American hybrid grapes became available. Indeed, the Augusta AVA (American Viticultural Area, the American equivalent of the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée - AOC) in Missouri is the first federally approved AVA (gaining the status on June 20, 1980, eight months before the Napa Valley AVA).

Christian G.E.Schiller with winemaker/owner Tony Kooyumjian (Montelle Winery and Augusta Winery) in Missouri and the Gateway Arch of St. Louis

Today, Missouri has more than 1,400 acres planted in grapes and more than 100 wineries. Missouri is again a serious wine producer, relying heavily on French American hybrid grapes and native American grapes like Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, and Norton - the latter one being the most prominent Missouri-grown variety. The State’s climate is harsh and humid and vinifera grapes – like Chardonnay and Merlot - have a hard time to thrive under these conditions, although recently there has been more interest in planting vinifera grape varieties.

However, overall, Missouri is a small player now, accounting for less than 0.5% of total wine production in the US.

See more:
Wine Producer Missouri – Once a Major Force in the US Wine Market, then Non-existant and now on a Rebound with French American Hybrid Grapes

Virginia

Virginia is the 5th largest wine industry in the US, with about 200 wineries and 2,500 acres of vineyards.

In the original charter of the thirteen colonies was a royal commission to pursue three luxury items that England was unable to provide for itself: wine, silk, and olive oil. Every colony made attempts to satisfy the requirements of its charter. Despite many years of failure, the early Americans persisted in their efforts. A big step forward was made in 1740 when a natural cross pollination occurred between a native American grape and a European vitis vinifera. Other successful crossings followed.

Pictures: Rachel Martin of Boxwood Winery, Virginia


In 1762, John Carter, who had 1,800 vines growing at Cleve Plantation, sent 12 bottles to the Royal Society of Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce in London for their evaluation. Minutes of their meeting on the 20th of October 1762 declared Carter’s wines to be “excellent” and a decision was taken to reward Carter’s efforts with a gold medal for his wines. These were the first internationally recognized fine wines produced in America.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Jim Law at Linden Vineyards, Virginia

Over the past 30 years or so, Virginia wines have experienced a tremendous development - to elegant and balanced, mostly European vinifera-based wines. Recently, Donald Trump as well as AOL founder Steve Case bought a Virginia winery.

See more:
Jim Law and Linden Vineyards in Virginia – A Profile, USA
Book Review: "Beyond Jefferson's Vines - The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia" by Richard Leahy, USA
An Afternoon with Jordan Harris, Winemaker of Tarara, Virginia, USA
Boxwood Winery in Virginia: Lunch with Wine Makers Rachel Martin and Adam McTaggert in the Chai between the Tanks – TasteCamp 2012 East Kick-Off, USA
Northern Virginia Magazine October 2012: Wine Recs from Local Winos
Visiting Jennifer Breaux Blosser and Breaux Vineyards in Virginia, USA
Virginia Wines Shine in San Francisco - 2012 San Francisco International Wine Competition, USA

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is well known for its outstanding beers, but very much absent from the international market when it comes to wine. However, the Czech Republic produces good wines, which will eventually become internationally better known.

Pictures: Saint Wenceslas Square in Prague and a Glass of Czech Wine

More than 90 percent of the wine production is accounted for by the southern part of Moravia, particularly around the Danube tributaries Dyje, Svraka and Morava. The Moravian wine region is largely concentrated on the border with Austria. It is kind of a continuation of the Austrian “Weinviertel” region in the north-east of Austria.

In Bohemia, north of Prague, vines are planted along the river Labe (Elbe) and its tributaries, totaling 400 hectares of vineyards only. It is a small wine region, although Bohemia accounts for more than half of the Czech Republic. It is one of the most northerly wine regions in Europe. Prague sits on the 50° north latitude, the same as Wiesbaden in the Rheingau. The original instigator of vine-planting in Bohemia was the Emperor Charles IV, who gave it impetus with his decrees issued in the year 1358. The wine region Bohemia is divided into two sub-regions: Mělník and Litoměřice.

No wine is grown in Czech Silesia, the third of the three Czech regions, in the north-east.

See more:
Vinograf Winebar - Arguably the Best Place to Taste Czech Wines in Prague
A Great Selection of Czech Wines at the Villa Richter Outdoor Wine Bistro in Saint Wenceslas Vineyard in the Middle of Prague
The Exciting Wines of the Czech Republic 

Poland

It is very difficult to find Polish wine, when you visit Poland, though there is a rapidly growing wine industry. When EU accession was negotiated, Poland asked that 100.000 hectares of to land be approved for wine growing. If one day all this land is planted with grape vines, this would exceed Germany’s current wine growing area.

Poland lies at the northern limit for wine growing. But in Poland and elsewhere in this situation, this line is moving upwards, as I have recently also observed in the UK. Wine growing is now viable in a large part of Poland, although vineyards are still concentrated in the South. The main problem that the climate is cool is still there, but slowly losing its relevance.

There are about 500 winemakers now. Most are boutique wineries with less than 1 hectare of land. Most of the plantings took place in the last 20 years, after the fall of the iron curtain. Apart from the difficult, though improving, climate, the wine industry still suffers from lack of expertise and experience.

Throughout history, Poland has never been an important producer of wine. But the Polish aristocracy always had a taste for good wine and the European producers always had an eye on the Polish market.

See more:
Emerging Wine Country Poland: The Early Days of a Climate Change Gainer?

Russia

Wine making during the period of the Soviet Union was concentrated in the South, reflecting the climate conditions there: Crimea in the Ukraine, the valley of Ararat in Armenia, as well as the Republics of Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan. After the break down of the Soviet Union, most of these regions became foreign for Russia.

The founder of modern commercial wine-making in Russia is Prince Leo Galitzine, who established the first Russian sparkling wine estate in the Crimea. In 1889 his sparkling wine won the Gold Medal in Paris. Until today, Russian Sekt remains very popular in Germany.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the French wine-savvy professionals fled Russia, but during the Soviet Union, wine growing and making came back. In general, priority was given to higher-yielding sorts of grapes, quantity over quality.

The wine growing areas of Russia are located between the Caspian and Black Seas. Until today, the wine market in Russia is almost entirely a table wine market.

See more:
Champagne in Russia
Emerging wine country: Russia --- After the break down of the Soviet Union, many important wine growing areas became foreign for Russia 

Serbia

Generally, Eastern European countries like Serbia have a history of winemaking that is as long – if not longer – than that of France, Spain or Italy. Yet, to find fine wines from these countries outside their borders is not easy. This is due to a combination of factors. These countries were behind the Iron Curtain until 20 years ago and are only now emerging on the world market. During the communist period, the wine industry suffered and fell behind, while the rest of the world was moving ahead rapidly. They are now trying to catch up and are doing this with uneven success. Some countries are advancing rapidly, such as Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, others are moving at a slower pace. Anyway, these are all highly interesting wine countries and I am glad to see their wines entering the world market.

Serbia is the former state of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that had to wait the longest time to find stability. It has arrived only now after the conflicts with Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Wine is being made all over the country, for hundreds of years, but overall the quality remains low. It is not yet easy to find Serbian wines that are up to international standards in these days, due to 50 years of Yugoslavian-style socialism and 15 years of war and political repression and unrest, although things are changing rapidly in this lovely country in the Eastern part of Europe. Serbia has a long wine making tradition and quality wine making is gaining momentum. There are now about 70,000 hectares of vineyards in Serbia.

See more:
Winemaker Small Cellar Radovanovic in Serbia
Emerging Wine Country Serbia - Still in the early Stages after the Break-up of Yugoslavia
Wine Bar: Podrum Wine Art and Question Mark, Belgrade/Serbia
In the glass: Schiller from Serbia
In the Glass: 2006 Do Kraja Sveta from Serbia

China

The wine industry in China is developing at a remarkable pace.

China has a long tradition of producing all kinds of wine, but produced practically no vinifera wine before the economic reforms of the early 1980s. It now ranks 7th in terms of production, ahead of Germany, South Africa and Chile and almost at par with Australia and Argentina, and it is likely to overtake Australia soon. China already produces more wine than Spain and Portugal combined.

Much of the wine industry is run by the Chinese Government. The wine industry is dominated by three giants. Great Wall, Changyu and Dynasty Estates are the big players of China’s burgeoning wine industry.

The wine production area largely rests in the Yantai region. Located roughly 300 miles southeast of Beijing, the peninsula is part of Shandong province. Its proximity to the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea gives it a maritime climate, shielding it from the cold winters of northeastern China, not very different from Bordeaux in France. With some 10,000 hectares of vineyards, the area is home to many well-established wine companies producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

China’s first winery, the Changyu winery, was established in 1892. It won gold medals in the 1915 World Expo for their Roses and Rieslings. Its cellar is the largest wine cellar in Asia. Changyu puts out a million and a half bottles of wine annually. Dynasty Estates is a joint venture of the state and the French company Remy Cointreau.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild, partnering with CITIC, China's largest state-owned investment company, is in the process of setting up a winery in China to produce ultra premium wines there. The French wine maker plans to plant on 60 acres in the Shandong province. Chateau Lafite Rothschild has an extraordinary reputation in China.

Apart from the large wineries, the Chinese wine industry is also littered with smaller, privately owned wineries. Many people say it’s like being in Napa 35 years ago; there’s a buzz, the industry is still in its infancy but you know it is bound for greatness.

See more:
China's Wine Boom: Is Jeannie Cho Lee the New Robert Parker?
The Emerging Wine Giant China - Mouton Cadet Bar Opening
Emerging Wine Country: China's Wine Boom Since 2000

Saale Unstrut (Germany)

The Saale Unstrut wine region is Germany’s most northern wine region, in the valleys of the Saale and Unstrut rivers, around Freyburg and Naumburg. With 730 hectares of vineyard area, it is one of the smaller wine regions in Germany. The oldest record of viticulture dates back to the year 998 during the reign of Emperor Otto III.

Located in the area of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), Saale-Unstrut has become a thriving emerging wine region after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (as Sachsen, the other wine region in the area of the former GDR; Sachsen is half of the size of Saale Unstrut).

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Bernhard Pawis in Saale Unstrut, Germany

Basically, all of the wineries we visited have experienced rapid growth and large investments over the past years, following 50 years of communism that did not allow for private initiative. In a way, Saale Unstrut is an emerging wine region in an old world wine country. It is pretty much an emerging market situation there, but without any foreign investors.

Saale-Unstrut exports almost no wine and sells very little in the western part of Germany. Most of it is consumed in East Germany. The quality price ratio is not very favorable, so Saale Unstrut wines have a hard time to compete with the wines in West Germany. But the Saale Unstrut wine makers have no problems at all to sell their wine, as the Saale Unstrut wine is very popular with the locals and the tourists visiting East Germany, including the Baltic Sea. Of course, when you visit Weimar, Erfurth or Leipzig, to name a few of the many very historic towns of the eastern part of Germany, you want to drink local – either Saale Unstrut or Sachsen wines.

See more:
Weingut Pawis in Saale Unstrut, Germany
Weingut Lützkendorf in Saale Unstrut in Germany
Visiting Andre Gussek and his Weingut Winzerhof Gussek in Saale Unstrut, Germany

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