"It would be nice to get away from the normal countries and try something a bit more unusual" was the brief that "From the Grapevine" was invited to undertake for a private wine tasting party for a wedding anniversary.
Our wine tasting events are always based on the premise that wines are used that the participants can buy from shops locally, so I was worried that there wouldn't be enough choice. I needn't have fretted, I was in for a pleasant surprise!
Here is my shortlist for the party:
Wine One - Jewel of Nasik - Sauvignon Blanc from India. M&S £8.50
India? The first rule of winemaking is that vineyards are found between 30 and 50 degrees north and south of the equator. Everything in between is either going to be too hot or too cold to grow and ripen grapes. There will always be outliers that disprove this theory - the UK itself starts at 51 degrees, but thanks to climate change we are growing some very decent fruit and turning it into outstanding sparkling wine.
But India? The Sula vineyards in Nashik (just north of Mumbai) lie at 20 degrees north, which sounds an impossibility to grow grapes. However, the geography proves otherwise. At an altitude of 600 metres above sea level, Nashik's soil is of volcanic origin, and the vineyards proximity to hills and rivers create markedly different microclimates. The cool nights of Nashik ensure a high level of acid in the grapes, while warm days ensure optimum ripeness of the grapes, resulting in perfect growing conditions and terroirs for premium wine grapes.
80% of India's wine production comes from the Sula vineyards, earning them the nickname "India's Napa". The wine production is mostly for export due to the Indians not enjoying wine quite the way many other nations do. In fact the average wine consumption per head in India each year is just 20ml (just one tablespoon!) compared to spirits, which they guzzle 1.9 litres each per year.
So, to the wine itself. We are familiar with sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand and Europe, and on the nose the Indian wine had the herbaceous notes but lacked some of the pronounced floral qualities that are found in the familiar versions. It tasted pleasant and the guests found it "quaffable" but lacking the complexity of other sauvignon blancs they had tried.
Wine Two - Tbilvino Qvevris from Georgia. M&S £10
I knew Georgia was a State in the USA but I had to consult a map to find this country, which nestles between Turkey and the Russia border that used to engulf it. Marks and Spencer has been selling the Tbilvino Qvevris for a few years. This is an "orange wine" - not because of it's taste but because of the vibrant colour. The bright amber colour comes from the process of macerating both skins and juice together, and leaving it to ferment in a "Qvevri" - a bulbous clay pot that is buried to its neck in the ground. It's thought that qvevris have been used in this tradition for 8000 years, with the burial of the qvevri providing a steady temperature from the earth.
The grape variety of this wine is the rkatsiteli, a native grape to Georgia. Prior to the Gorbechev era (when he ordered a great deal of vines to be pulled up), the rkatsiteli was probably the world's widest planted grape variety.
At the tasting, the guests admired its colour and heavier body, but expected it to be sweeter with its honey coloured hues. Everyone agreed that the heavy tannin and quince flavour was unusual and not unpleasant, but not something they would rush out to buy. Which is just as well as since the tasting I have received confirmation from Marks and Spencer that "unfortunately our Tbilvino Qvevris has now been discontinued. We do have quite a sharp turnaround with our wines as we're always introducing new ones for customers to try and love, so it definitely sounds like this one did have a long run with it being available for such a long time."
Wine Three - Grand Selection Tokaji. Lidl £7.99
There are increasing amounts of Hungarian wines available now. Lidl has a furmint (a dry red), a pinot noir and a cabernet sauvignon, as well as the sweet wine to be featured here. Other supermarkets are recognising the demand - the Co-op stock a white and a red, and Marks and Spencer sell a sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio.
The sweet wines are best known in the geographical demarcation of the wine region of Tokaj, which dates back to 1730. The region is found in north east Hungary, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains close to the Slovak border. Sweet Tokaji is often made from the furmint grape and gets its sweetness from botrytis (otherwise known as noble rot) and / or the late harvesting of grapes.
For lovers of really sweet dessert wines, then look out for the Tokaji Aszú. The aszú berry is added to macerate with the base wine and then left to mature in barrels. The more berries that are used, the higher the sugar content (measured in puttonyos).
Our tasters loved the level of sweetness in this late harvest Tokaji. (The wine region doesn't carry the "i" incidentally, whilst its wines do). Gaining 90 points from Lidl in its independent testing, this wine is in the "outstanding" category. The aromas of honey come through, and matches the sweet, ripe tropical citrus fruits on the palette. Our tasters agreed that it wasn't sickly sweet, but light, and very elegant.
Wine Four - Romanian Pinot Noir. Waitrose £5.50
We went to Hungary's neighbour for our next wine. Romania is Europe's 6th largest wine producing country, but it's tricky to find much on the shelves in the UK. Romania enjoys the same latitude as France but its climate is more continental, so the vineyards enjoy greater temperature differences between the hot days and cool nights.
Most of Romania's wine production centres on the white grapes, many of them indigenous varieties. It's fair to say that Romania isn't abundantly rich and therefore suffers shortage of materials, equipment and skilled labour. However, Waitrose have managed to source a very decent pinot noir. This one is grown in the sunny Dealurile Munteniei region of Romania which is renowned for producing exceptionally good red wines.
The pinot noir grape is quite a fussy grape, preferring cooler climates and long growing days. For that reason, we grow it successfully here in the UK for our amazing sparkling wines.
This wine was light bodied as you'd expect from a pinot noir, and whilst not particularly complex, the fruit flavours of cherry, raspberry and wild strawberry were prominent. The tasters with a preference for lighter red wines were impressed with this example, and astounded at the bargain price tag. Others were eager to move on to a fuller bodied red, which we had in our next bottle...
Wine Five - Campos de Solana - Tannat Malbec from Bolivia. M&S £11
Looking on the world globe, nearly all of Bolivia, like India, lies outside the 30 to 50 degrees of latitude. However, its southern corner, near the border with Argentina and Paraguay, contains the Andes, within which the central valley of Tarija is home to the Campos de Solana (roughly translates as "sunny fields") vineyards. These vineyards are extremely high altitude (1850 metres above sea level) which provides the necessary cooling, but where the hot days allow the winemakers to cultivate the robust red grapes of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and tannat.
The tannat grape is not a well known grape. Originating in France, it's now mainly found in Uruguay, where it is considered to be their national grape. On its own, the grape is very high in tannin, and quite "austere" in its youth. However, it blends well with other grape varieties and in this example, Malbec has been used to soften the tannins.
The tasters found this to be pleasantly surprising. Fruity, but with some complex spice.
Wine Six - Mavrodaphne of Patras - Kourtaki. Sainsbury's £5.50
Another sweet wine on our tour of surprising wines. This is unusual not only because Greece barely features its wines on our supermarket shelves, but here was a sweet wine that had 15% alcohol, but it wasn't a port.
This wine comes from vineyards overlooking the gulf of Patras in Southern Greece. Like many vineyards, they are nestled in the foothills of a mountainous region; in this case Mount Panachaikon, giving cooler air and sea breezes in the perfect Mediterranean climate.
The Mavrodaphne (or sometimes spelt as Mavrodafni and Mavrodaphni) grape is indigenous to Greece and produces a dark, almost opaque wine with a dark purple color. It presents aromas and flavors of caramel, chocolate, coffee, raisins and plums. Its name literally means "black laurel". The name was chosen by Gustav Clauss, the founder of the Achaia Clauss winery, because of the berries' resemblance to those of the laurel, although there are various stories about a lover, fiancée, or wife of Gustav named Daphne, who had black eyes and who died prematurely.
To make it sweeter, the grapes of this variety are harvested in August and left to sun dry before pressing. The fermentation process turns sugars into alcohol, so the process is stopped before too much sweetness is lost. It's interrupted by the addition of pure grape spirit, which serves to kill the yeast and bring the alcohol content back up. The wine is then left to age in a barrel for a year.
The aroma and taste are definitely reminiscent of port, but this cannot be classed as a port wine, as brandy is added to "fortify" the wine in the port making process, not grape spirit. However, at £5.50, our tasters were impressed with the similarity, even though this wine was lighter in body and a touch more fruity. They agreed they would definitely serve it at Christmas with the cheese board.