Raise a glass to the best vineyards in the world
Oz Clarke has travelled from Bordeaux to Barossa to taste his favourite vintages. To get what a wine is about you've got to visit the place where it's made, he says
Sunday 12 October 2008
Pop into the supermarket on the way home. Buy yourself a nice bottle of red. Crack it open and enjoy a pleasant evening with a plate of ribs in front of the telly. Yes. Not a bad way to enjoy wine.
But take a different view. Where did the wine come from? Which country, which corner of that country, which valley, which bank of the tumbling river was coated with sun-soaked vines, and which lay in gloomy shade?
And who made the wine? Sergio? Pierre? Brunhilde or Bruce? Married, mad, happy or sad? Did you taste wine flooding purple from the barrel in a hidden cave, did you swap stories from home over chilled and thrilling whites gazing into an ocean sunset from the flame-gold mountainside? Or did you have that most special of wine experiences as the winemaker keeps disappearing into his cobwebby cellar and bringing out "just one more" bottle of something ancient and divine?
Picking up a nice bottle on the way home is fine. But to really get what wine's all about, you've got to go there. There's not a single vineyard area in the world that I don't like. Even the vast agro-industrial swathes of hinterland Australia, or the bleak, parched Central Valley of California give me some sort of buzz and allow me to make a bit more sense of the flat, bland discount grog they spew out in such vast volumes.
But here are a few of my special places: patches of vineyard and clusters of people producing beautiful wines, and offering indelible memories. When you know the place, and the people, a wine will never taste the same again. It can only taste better.
I've loved Bordeaux as a wine region since I was a student. But that's because my first tastes of great wines were red bordeaux begged and blagged from college tutors. My first wine trip was a jaunt to France's south-western coast with a bright-eyed girl called Sarah in my ancient custard-yellow Mini Countryman. But I never thought of the city then as beautiful. It seemed grim and worn. And I never thought of the vineyards as beautiful. They were simply the fountainhead of this gorgeous happy-juice I had just discovered called wine.
How that's changed. The city of Bordeaux has undergone a 10-year plan of revival that has been so successful that Unesco accorded it World Heritage Site status in 2007. It's a pedestrian's delight, and it now shimmers with vitality, architectural splendour and open-air grandeur spread languidly along the banks of the Garonne.
But what about the vineyards that I camped in, caroused and played in, the rough rub of their shingle earth, the cool green shade of their vines? To the north of the city is the Médoc, flat and broad but home to world-famous, muscular majestic reds. Across the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers, Saint-Emilion is another Unesco World Heritage Site, and stretching up the right bank from Castillon to Royan are slopes and hills carpeted with vines, hemmed in by forest.
But if you want to visit the site of Bordeaux's original vineyards – you're probably standing on them in the city centre. Vineyards encircled the old medieval city. As housing spread, vineyards simply moved further and further out into the surrounding forest. They're still there in the Pessac-Léognan region to the south-west of the city. But you may be standing on what was once the best vineyard land as you wait for a tram outside the city's handsome, 18th-century Grand Théâtre.
Pack your best sunglasses. Pack your strongest suntan lotion. Prepare for your eyes to be fried and your cheekbones baked as you head for Spain's far south-west, the Jerez region of Andalucia, as it tips into the growling Atlantic surf just north of Africa. You're going into the vineyards that produce sherry, once Britain's most popular wine, but now struggling to reassert some sort of claim on our palates.
You'll never have seen such white soil. Even the white cliffs of Dover seem dull in the face of Jerez's porcelain brilliance. These soils are known as albariza – virtually pure chalk – a soil that revels in producing fresh acid juice in the grapes.
Reel back from the broiling sunlight and head for a sherry bodega or cellar in Jerez de la Frontera or Sanlucar de Barrameda. From dazzling light to darkness, from the hum of heat and human activity to silence. Sherry needs to be aged before it can be drunk, and it's in these vast, silent cathedrals that great butts and piles of barrels stretch away into the dusty, still gloom.
Hungry and thirsty, sit at one of the rickety beachfront tables at Sanlucar, devouring a plate of clams as the sea breeze riffles your hair and you'll swear the tart, dry manzanilla sherry tastes of salt – and perhaps it does.
Marlborough, New Zealand
What do you think of when the first gulp of New Zealand sauvignon blanc splashes on to your tongue and its sharp, exhilarating, crunchy green fruit sends startled stabs of delight zinging around your mouth and up to your brain? Crisp weather, cool beaches, rolling surf, snow-dusted mountain tops? Certainly not endless sun and waves of heat beating down and sapping the life out of you.
Well, the brilliance of New Zealand, and especially Sauvignon Central – Marlborough, in the South Island – is that you get all the sunshine you could possible want, yet it's rarely hotter than a decent summer's day at the Devon seaside. The trouble with Devon is that you might only get a couple of decent days a month, but in Marlborough the sun shines every day. Marlborough is in a rain shadow, protected from rain by the peaks of the Southern Alps, yet so far down towards the icy world of the Antarctic that the weather stays balmy, bright and crisp all summer long.
You can fly across Cook Strait from Wellington to Blenheim's tiny airport, and it'll be the bumpiest flight you've ever had. I prefer to take the ferry across to Picton, buffeted by the gales in the open sea before gliding serenely between islands and peninsulas up to the little port.
You're now just half an hour from the vines spread thickly across Wairau River Valley. I'd take the right turn up the Rapaura Road – and keep an eye on the vineyard soil. What soil? You're right. It's just great mounds of stones, so dense that sometimes there's no soil in sight. Vines love poor soil; the more stones the better. And if you love that crisp sauvignon attack, thank the stones, thank that crisp cool breeze. And thank the rain shadow.
Barossa, South Australia
The older the vine, the better the wine, that's the general rule. So it's not a bad idea to go and cop some old vines, to see what all the fuss is about. Your first concern is probably – how do I get a visa for Syria/Iraq/Georgia/Iran? – presuming the world's oldest vines are in one of the countries that claim to have invented wine. And your second concern might be, what if they don't speak English?
Well, these old vines are in Australia, and they don't speak English.
No, honestly, I've got nothing against Strine as a bizarre variant of good English usage, but quite a few of the people who own the world's oldest vines do not speak English. They're the descendants of the German settlers who arrived in the Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide in South Australia, in the early 1840s. They prefer to speak Barossa Deutsch – a bronchitically guttural form of German.
But they love their vines. They cherished them and nourished them long past the time any modern commercial grower would have let them survive. These Barossa Deutsch, proud Australians that they may be, still dream wistfully of their Old Country, and while these vines live, the bloodline isn't cut.
Now, for my last wine region, you won't need a passport. You won't need a dictionary. Forget your euros. All you need is a decent, old-fashioned road map and some sturdy, mud-proof shoes. Europe is full of old, classic wine areas. But if you want to see the newest of the "New" classic wine areas, head for Petworth in West Sussex.
The champagne vineyards of northern France are heating up uncomfortably fast with global warming. Yet they are only two hours' drive from Calais, and they're on the same crumbly cretaceous chalk soil as the South and North Downs that stretch like twin girdles from Kent to Portland Bill in Dorset. The smart money – and that includes smart French money – says that England's climate will soon resemble Champagne's – if it doesn't already.
So get to Petworth. Take the A272 towards Midhurst, and, about a mile past Tillington, sprawled across the downland slope to the north, you'll see 150 acres of brand new vineyard, all planted to champagne's pinot and chardonnay grape varieties by Nyetimber, England's most famous fizz producer.
Back to Petworth and take the A283 towards Chichester. As you descend from the top of the Downs into the village of Halnaker, pull up in the car park of the Anglesey Arms. Walk to the line of trees, cross the ditch, and a vast expanse of new vines appears. Pinot and chardonnay, planted by Ridgeview, another excellent fizz producer. They're planting 30 acres a year. There's room for at least 200. And, in 10 years' time, some experts might be calling these the best sparkling wines of Europe.
'Oz Clarke 250 Best Wines: Wine Buying Guide 2009' (Pavilion, £6.99) is out now. To order this book, with free p&p to UK mainland addresses, call 0870 079 8897 or go to independent booksdirect .co.uk.
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