Monday, July 21, 2003

More on Argentinian wine

While there are a few Argentinian wines here to try, they still are not available in huge numbers, so I am simply trying all those I can find. My present bottle is A syrah, from Che Vineyards, once again in Mendoza. No, I don't think it is named after that Che. We have a little wine label crap written on the back, which explains nothing.

In my country of Argentina, we say "Che" to greet our friends. Che, ever had a taste of Argentina? When you drink this fruity, smooth, rich Syrah you get a sense of our lifestyle and energy. Understand what Che is all about and enjoy life

Okay, whatever. The sad thing is that although the Syrah cost about the same as each of the two malbecs it isn't nearly as good. It's a fairly ordinary red, and a little rough, rather lacking spiciness of a good Australian shiraz, or a French red from the Rhone. Which is a shame, because although I am not yet convinced that malbec is a noble grape variety, syrah definitely is.

Traditionall (ie prior to about 1800) the three most famous red wine making regions of France were Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast, Burgundy south of Paris, and the Rhone valley, stretching from just south of Lyon to the Mediterranean coast around Marseilles. Wines from the greatest Rhone appelations, Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Chateauneuf du Pape, were regarded as being amongst the finest wines in Europe. However, in the 19th century the Rhone valley became less fashionable than the other two regions, possibly because of the region's further distance from Paris. The principal grape used in the red wines of this region is syrah. This same grape has been grown in Australia since at least 1830, but in Australia it is known as shiraz. (Australians used to also frequently call it hermitage, but we stopped after signing a wine treaty with the French, as Hermitage is actually a place in the northern Rhone valley, and we promised to stop using French geographical names on our wines). Oddly enough, it may be that the Australian name is historically more accurate, as it seems that the grape variety may have originated in Iran near the town of Shiraz, where, ironically, wine is now illegal. (When the war against fundamentalist Islam is won, I hope one day to be able to have a glass of shiraz in Shiraz. But I digress).

In any event, shiraz was planted in Australia from the 1830s, and became the most widely planted grape for Australian red wine. When Max Schubert in 1951 produced the first vintage of Penfolds Grange Hermitage, which was to become by far the most famous Australian wine, he made it almost entirely out of shiraz.

However, Rhone wines remained less fashionable than Bordeaux and Burgundy wines in France. In the early 1970s, Australian winemakers concluded that they way to make classier wines was to adopt the grape varieties of Bordeaux and Burgundy. For red wines, this meant that they planted a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, the dominant grape of the Medoc region on the left bank of the Gironde river, just downstream from Bordeaux. To find space to plant all this Cabernet Sauvignon, they ripped out a lot of shiraz vines, some of them very old.

Today's winemakers consider this an act of terrible vandalism. Old vines produce lower grape yields than newer ones, and the grapes that do grow have higher sugar levels and can be used to make more intense, fruitier wines. Really old vines can make wine of a quality that younger ones can't, and Australia had a lot of them. And although Cabernet Sauvignon grows extremely well in Australia and makes fine wine (particularly in the Coonawarra region, about half way between Adelaide and Melbourne), the loss of these old vines is a great shame. Because, although it was unfashionable at the time, syrah/shiraz is a truly noble grape and winemakers and consumers in Australia, France, and elsewhere have really come to realise this in the decades since, and its wines have been largely restored to their former reputation. The best wines from the Rhone, and the best shiraz from Australia, are amongst the finest wine that can be had.

However, not this particular Argentinian wine.

And as it happens, due to the miracle of the deregulated European aviation market and the consequent extremely cheap airfares I shall be in the southern Rhone valley later this week and over the weekend. In particular, I shall be visiting Chateauneuf du Pape. Should be good.

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