Some wines are justifiably famous and sought after. There is some kind of magic that happens to Pinot Noir grapes grown on Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits for example or Nebbiolo on the slopes of Barolo. The wines made from them can be truly extraordinary and deserving of a place on any wine lovers desert island wine list. The traditional classification systems of Europe and elsewhere are all about this, identifying those places and practices that have the potential to make exceptional wines.
It isn’t unique to wine of course. From Wye Valley asparagus, artisan Cheshire cheese (shout out to local heroes Appleby’s) to Cornish pasties, there is sometimes a combination of place and people that creates especially fabulous and unique results.
What can be most rewarding though is finding those places ‘in between’ or the people who aren’t following the crowd. While the dark winter months make us look for comfort in the familiar, the lengthening days of spring and the promise of summer to come make me at least get itchy feet and want to start to explore more.
The reasons why some places and what they produce have never hit the limelight or were once famous but have fallen out of fashion can be mysterious and fascinating.
Sometimes it is just about scale. If there is very limited production, especially now with the dominance of multiple retail and global brands, a wine that is only produced in limited quantities may just never get enough distribution to become known, especially if there is a local market who realise how good they are. For example the wines of some of the small appellations of South West France; Madiran, Cahors, Pecharmant, overshadowed by the power and scale of their neighbours in Bordeaux.
In some cases it is about demographics. Priorat in Catalunya is now getting more attention but it very nearly died out as a region. Working the land is such a physically tough life compared to working in cities on the nearby coast that only a very few winemakers were left until recently. It is still only a small player on the Spanish wine scene however compared to the behemoth of Rioja, which accounts for around 80% of Spanish wine sold in the UK.
The abandonment of difficult terrain is a story often told. Some of these vineyards are having a new lease of life but many are not. When they are rediscovered it is often on a much smaller scale than once was the case.
Economics plays a role too. Languedoc, in southern France, used to be home to multiple different grape varieties, many produced in tiny quantities and very localised. But the growth of trade with northern cities and the power of co-operatives meant that many of these varieties were abandoned in favour of easier to grow grapes which gave bigger yields and sweeter fruit. The co-ops paid more for higher potential alcohol levels - more grams of sugar in your grapes, more Francs in your pocket. Some of these lost grapes are being rediscovered, sometimes found outside France where they were taken by immigrants wanting a taste of home, and repatriated. Oeillades for example makes some beautiful, lighter bodied red wines but there are only perhaps 20 hectares in existence out of 300,000 ha of vineyard in the region as a whole.
And in Burgundy, the home of some of the most delicious (and expensive) wines on the planet, Aligoté used to be a much more commonly planted grape variety but the higher prices achieved by white wines made from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir meant it was relegated to less favourable sites. And so, it gained a reputation for making thin, acidic wines only worth drinking when made into a Kir, helped along by a healthy dose of Creme de Cassis. It has found new champions however who are rebuilding its fan base.
So strike out, get off the beaten path, be adventurous and look out for wines made in familiar regions but made from less familiar grape varieties, or those from parts of the world where you were perhaps unaware there were even vines. The pioneers and renegades are often making the most exciting and best value wines, making magic outside the mainstream.
Two to try:
Red - Terroir al Limit, Terroir Historic, Priorat, Catalunya, Spain - In 2001 a food and wine obsessed German, Dominik Huber, and South African winemaker Eben Sadie, who recognised the potential of the stark and difficult terrain of Priorat to make great wine, made a single wine in a rented cellar space. Over the last 20 years Dominik has developed the project and now makes a range of wines along the Burgundian model, from trans-regional wines which express Priorat as a whole to single vineyard wines which reflect the diverse micro-climates and soil types. In contrast to the rather clunky, high alcohol wines that were the norm among those who were actually still making any at all, Dominik uses gentler techniques to produce wines that are lithe and elegant but still rewardingly expansive.
White - Guilhem et Jean-Hugues Goisot, Aligoté, Burgundy, France - History dealt the Goisot family a less fortunate hand. They could have been making Chablis but the land they farm, a few km to the east, was pushed out of that appellation at the end of the 19th century for obscure political reasons, so their Chardonnay, Aligoté & Pinot Noir can only be labelled Bourgogne Côtes d'Auxerre & their Sauvignon Blanc, though as good as many Sancerre, is 'just' Saint Bris. Jean-Hugues was one of the earliest adopters of biodynamic viticulture which is carried on by his son Guilhem, bringing life and biodiversity to the deep, chalky soils of their vineyards. Their Aligoté has a lovely richness and weight with a fine thread of acidity which makes it glorious with oysters and fish.