Once the dominant force in the world wine trade and still the biggest producer in volume terms, changing attitudes have knocked France into third place for British consumers, behind Australia and the United States. Those who favour the laying down of the great names from Bordeaux and Burgundy are diminishing for cultural, economic and generational reasons, and a lot of indifferent wine has been produced under what were once reliable labels. Meanwhile, the new wave of British wine drinkers, led by women, have shunned the arcane labels and difficult blends of the French for the easy-to-drink varietals of Australia, New Zealand and South America. But ... champagne is possibly more popular than ever and it will surely be a long time before the allure of the great clarets and Rhone wines vanishes.
What to drink: Once the producer of the huge quantities of undistinguished table wines, the large Languedoc-Roussillon area in the south has got its act together and now produces some terrific value blended reds, redolent of sun-drenched and herb-scented Mediterranean hillsides. And don't forget the wonderful Loire white wines.
Italy, the second-biggest producer in the world, with a wide variety of wine regions, remains the fourth-biggest source of wine for British drinkers, but has suffered a fall in sales, alongside France, because of the uncomplicated appeal of the New World wines. Unlike France, its great red labels – those of Tuscany and Piedmont in particular – remain wines for the connoisseur and are untainted by overproduction or diminished quality. However, there are still a lot of cheaper dull red wines around under seemingly familiar labels, so remember to make sure your Chianti bears the trademark black cockerel on the bottle. After decades of rather bland and overfamiliar Soaves and Pinot Grigios, Italy's white wines have improved hugely in recent years.
What to drink: A great Barolo or super Tuscan may test a budget, but there are some good value reds emerging from Sicily and Puglia, currently Italy's two most exciting regions. Also worth seeking out are whites, such as the vibrant, light-as-air Verdicchio, the lesser-known but more full-bodied Pecorino (not the cheese) and bargain proseccos for celebrations.
The sleeping giant of European wine, with diverse wine regions scattered around the country and the biggest amount of hectacres under cultivation than anywhere else in the world, giving it huge potential. Spanish winemakers have only recently begun to stop making over-oaked, tannic, red wines – those bearing the Reserva and Gran Reserva labels – in favour of more modern, fruiter New World-influenced styles. But there is still much average Rioja around (as in average claret or Chianti) and care must to taken. However the most exciting wines are now coming from the thriving Ribera de Duero region in the central north – mainly Tempranillo, the Jumilla and Yecla areas to the south-east, where the spicy Monastrell (Mourvèdre in France) produces full bodied, juicy reds and the expensive, elite wines from the Priorat, near Tarragona, made mainly from the Cariñena and Garnacha grapes. In Portugal, the mostly English-owned port producers from the Douro valley are now switching to producing excellent, full-bodied reds from the same grapes, such as Touriga Nacional. The formerly dull, tannic reds from the Dao region have also been transformed.
What to drink: Some excellent, character-filled reds from the aforementioned areas are now easily available in the UK. Unfortunately, the delicious and unique Basque white, Txakoli, is more difficult to find, but look for it when on holiday in northern Spain.
For several successive years, Australia has overtaken France as the biggest exporter of wine to the United Kingdom. Although their vines were planted by German immigrants in the 19th century, their industry has achieved its aims of global prominence in less than 20 years, mainly through accessible oaky, tropical fruit-flavoured chardonnay and big, silky, chocolatey shiraz, made from vines grown on irrigated former bush. While some bemoan unsubtle, sugary and over-fruity Aussie wines, their value for money and reliability, which has led to the dominance of our supermarket shelves by their brands, cannot be denied. Single varietal Aussie wines usually do what they say on the tin, in contrast to the often obscure European labels. At the same time, their super-efficient methods of production have set a global benchmark.
What to drink: The familiar brands need no introduction, but also look for the more distinctive bone-dry Riesling from Clare Valley south of Adelaide or really big Cabernet Sauvignon reds from the Margaret River area of western Australia.
The two most exciting wine-producing areas in the Southern Hemisphere have begun to make big inroads on the British market in the last decade as a source of great value, big red wines. In Chile, now sixth in the league table of wine drunk here, production is mainly centered around the central valley, between the Andes and the coastal mountains, in unpolluted air and from phylloxera louse-free vines. Most reds are made from Mediterranean-style blends of Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, created in a climate similar to which they thrive north of the equator. Their biggest and most commercially-minded company, Concha Y Toro, is now familiar on British supermarket shelves. Argentina, which has become the world's fifth-biggest wine producer, is becoming renowned for its ripe red wines made from the fashionable and food-friendly Malbec grape – once the dominant variety in Bordeaux – although many wines are insufficiently aged for many British palates before being released.
What to drink: Avoid the younger reds from both countries and buy those that have developed in the bottle for at least a year or so. Argentina's native Torrontés grape also produces amazing, smoky, aromatic whites of real distinction.
Wine was first made here in Roman times and the industry revived in the 1950s, but after several decades of earnest pursuit of respectable, floral off-dry wines designed to suit British palates weaned on the likes of Blue Nun, domestic wine makers have finally seen the light and begun concentrating on sparkling wines made from traditional Champagne grapes that have won many awards. Expect more winemakers to rip up German hybrids and varietals and plant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which flourish best on chalky soils in the south-east that mimic those of the Champagne region just across the Channel. Many see English sparkling wine as a prestige drink with huge export potential in the same manner as Scottish whisky and English gin. But with only 300,000 bottles produced a year, compared to around 40m bottles of Champagne we import each year, there is a long way to go.
What to drink: For your next celebration, seek out excellent fizz from sparkling wine estates such as Camel Valley in Cornwall and Ridgeview and Nyetimber on the South Downs.
7. New Zealand
A relative newcomer to the wine world – it still only produces 0.3 per cent of the global crop – serious cultivation dates only from the Eighties. New Zealand's reputation rests almost entirely on its remarkable white wines made from the Sauvignon grape, well beyond anything achieved in its French homeland, where it is the staple white grape of the Loire. Kiwi wine makers, mainly in the South Island's Marlborough region, produce wines full of stunningly clear flavours and astonishing crispness and acidity, helped by fertile soils and cool, bright climatic conditions. The expensive Cloudy Bay, produced only since 1985, is justly celebrated, but almost all Marlborough Sauvignons, many much cheaper, can be terrific, so long as you like those full-on flavours.
What to drink: The excellence of New Zealand whites is a given, but there are some terrific reds now being produced, particularly Pinot Noir, from the Martinborough area, and Merlot-based blends from Hawkes Bay/Esk Valley areas.
8. South Africa
Although vines were planted by the original Dutch settlers and the Cape was celebrated in the 18th century for its legendary Constantia dessert wine, the modern South African wine industry only really got going in the early Nineties after the ending of years of apartheid and economic isolation. Now it is the fifth most-popular source of wine in the UK and the fastest-growing sector of the market. This is mainly because of the appeal of some good value wines with a contemporary style akin to the rest of the New World. Once dominated by vineyards owned by the white minority, there is now a concerted drive to bring other ethnicites into the business. But is only later this year that one label, Thandi, is expected to become the first to be wholly owned by a black farmers' collective.
What to drink: Look for spicy reds made from the Pinotage grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault), complex whites made from old vine Chenin Blanc grapes and budget wines with a Fairtrade logo – which guarantees prices for small, usually black, growers.
9. United States
The United States is now the second-biggest producer of wine sold in the United Kingdom, after Australia. And like the rest of the New World, the rate of growth accelerated extraordinarily in the 1990s. Astonishingly, although vines are grown in every American state, including Alaska, it is the bulk budget wines from California, sold under familiar supermarket brand names like Blossom Hill and Gallo, that account for this figure – or "jug wines" as they are known locally. But there are extremely good, often bespoke, wines produced on the west coast, particularly, as the film Sideways demonstrated, from the Pinot Noir grape in the Central Coast area, Cabernet Sauvignon in the renowned Napa Valley, as well as outcrops of Zinfandel and Chardonnay elsewhere.
What to drink: Seek out red (not the rosé version sold in supermarkets) Zinfandel, particularly from the excellent Ravenswood label, and splash out on a good Pinot Noir for special occasions. And it would be great to see some wines from the up-and-coming Pacific North-West area making it over here.
China is already the sixth-biggest grower of grapes, although not all are used to produce wines. But wine drinking – the fastest-growing market in the world – and vine growing is expanding at an extraordinary rate in modern China, so it may not be long before Great Wall Syrah finds its way into our supermarket shelves. The main potential area for production of European-style wines, using familiar grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is around Beijing in the north-east, particular the Shandong peninsula with its maritime climate. Some French brands, such as Remy Martin, Pernod Ricard and the Italian group, Saronno, have been involved in joint ventures and more are likely to follow as China opens up the world.
What to drink: Dragon Seal, Great Wall and Grand Dragon are the labels to look for in Chinese supermarkets for a guaranteed ice-breaker at your next dinner party.Reuse content