DRINK / Wines made to travel as well: Flying winemakers from Australia are having a big influence on European vineyards, says Anthony Rose

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Fasten seatbelt, fly in, buy chardonnay grapes, ferment at 15C for eight days, adjust for sugar and acidity, season with oak chips, then bottle. Refasten seatbelt, fly out. Is this a parody of the 'flying winemaker'? Only up to a point.

Critics of flying winemakers accuse them of producing a technically sound but mechanically commercial product, usually made from hugely popular chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon grapes. There is often an element of formula winemaking. 'It's a bit like building a model aeroplane from a kit,' says Guy Anderson of International Wine Services.

Most flying winemakers are Australian. Their harvest ends as our summer starts and they find it difficult to resist the seasonal opportunities in the northern hemisphere. Wanderlust seems not to afflict Europeans in the same way; but there are notable exceptions. France's Jacques Lurton has no sooner unfastened his seatbelt on a flight from Moldova than he is heading off again to Argentina. His compatriot Thierry Boudinaud works two vintages a year in different countries.

Emilio Pedron, the head of Gruppo Italio Vin (GIV), last year hired the Australian Geoff Merrill for a 100,000- case project with Sainsbury's. However, he is sceptical of the flying- winemaker concept. 'Geoff Merrill is not a flying winemaker,' he says. 'To build a stable and valid project, such as this venture, you need the backing of a company that provides the raw material to work with.'

Why take on Mr Merrill? 'Australia has a clearly defined, professional approach to winemaking,' he explains. 'It's very technical. In Italy, everyone makes wine. There's a bit of tradition here, another little bit there, all rather haphazard and arbitrary.'

Australian winemakers have the greatest opportunity to influence wine style and quality where grapes are cheap and installations primitive. In the cash-starved wine countries of Eastern Europe they have made a big impact. Australians Kym Milne, Adrian Wing, Nick Butler, Graham Dixon and Warren Gibson have made some of the most popular Eastern European wines sold in Britain.

Recently, flying winemakers have been developing the potential of native grape varieties - as with the GIV/Merrill/Sainsbury's joint venture. These do not have the instant marketing appeal of the chardonnay or cabernet varieties. Their unfamiliar names hardy trip off the tongue: treixadura and trincadeira (Spain), fernao pires and castelao frances (Portugal), rkatsiteli and kiralyleanyka (Eastern Europe). But a lot of energy is going into preserving their distinctive flavours.

Peter Bright, another Australian, has long championed the cause of Portugal's native grape varieties. He arrived in Portugal in 1981 and stayed on, working for Joao Pires. Last year he branched out on his own to produce, among others, a clean, lemon- fresh white, Do Campo Branco, made chiefly from the fernao pires grape, and a red, Do Campo Tinto, a deliciously juicy answer to beaujolais, from the periquita grape.

'I think there is a long-term future for native grape varieties,' he says. 'The important thing is to figure out where the variety fits, then work out the style. Is it an aromatic, herbaceous or stone-fruity chardonnay style that can adapt to oak?' Initially, though, he accepts it will be hard to get consumers excited about little-known grape varieties with quaint names.

In a joint venture in Spain, Australia's Mitchelton Wines and Spain's Bodegas y Bebidas have got round the problem by calling both their new wines simply Solana. Mitchelton winemakers Don Lewis and Wayne Dutschke flew to Spain for the 1993 vintage: a red and a white from native varieties. For the white, they went to Bodegas Alanis in Spain's mountainous north-west, where the local grape varieties (torrontes and treixadura) bear similarities to Australian rhine riesling. The red was made from the cencibel grape in Valdepenas.

This sort of venture represents a return to the roots. As modern viticulture and cellar techniques reveal the potential of native varieties, expect many more such partnerships.

WINES OF THE WEEK

1993 Solana, Ribeiro, pounds 3.99, Oddbins, Morrisons. Zesty, citrusy modern white fattened with tropical-fruit richness.

Sainsbury's Do Campo Branco, VR Terras do Sado, Peter Bright, pounds 2.99. Refreshingly lemony white.

1993 Bright Brothers, Trincadeira das Pratas, Ribatejo, pounds 3.29, Sainsbury's. Crisp dry white from native trincadeira grape.

1993 Bright Brothers, Chardonnay, Ribatejo, pounds 3.65, Sainsbury's. Buttery, tangy, rich white.

1993 Bianco di Custoza, GIV, Geoff Merrill, pounds 3.39, Sainsbury's. Ultra- fresh, pear-like dry white.

1993 Sainsbury's Grechetto dell'Umbria, Geoff Merrill, pounds 3.69. Stylish white with Italianate bite.

1993 Sainsbury's Frascati Secco Superiore, Geoff Merrill, pounds 3.75. Excellent, spicy, intensely flavoured Roman white.

Sainsbury's Chardonnay delle Tre Venezie, Geoff Merrill, pounds 3.59. Soft, buttery, sweet fruit and savoury oak. The most Australian of Merrill's Italian whites.

Sainsbury's Do Campo Tinto, pounds 2.99. Juicy, soft 'beaujolais'.

1993 Solana, pounds 3.99, Oddbins, Morrisons. Vibrantly juicy cherry- and-blackcurrant red.

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