In the world of wine, what’s old has a good chance of becoming new again. That adage applies to several of the world’s emerging wine regions, many of which have battled back against decades of decline to capture the spotlight on lists across the country. At the same time, some of the world’s youngest wine-growing regions are finding their way to center stage as well.
Wine took a beating at restaurants and bars last year, with on-premise wine sales down nearly five percent as consumers increasingly stayed home to drink, according to preliminary statistics from Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group. This has motivated operators to seek greater value for their dollar in an attempt entice back guests. Not only are their discoveries in far-flung regions proving fruitful, they are bringing to light a wealth of little-known varietals and appealing expressions of more familiar ones.
Value may be the key factor driving the exploration of emerging regions in the short term, but the star power of the wines discovered is sure to captivate Millennials, the next wave of budding wine enthusiasts. As this generation of consumers moves beyond the bulk wines that now make up the volume of domestic consumption, their attention increasingly will turn to the high quality and inherent value of wines in these emerging regions.
Portugal: The Land of 250 Varietals
It is believed that wine has been cultivated in Portugal for more than four millennia, and for a country that primarily has been known in modern times for its sweet, fortified Port wines, the dry table wines of Portugal still are somewhat of a novelty. The wine turnaround began in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union and an infusion of cash reduced the powerful role of the cooperatives, thus allowing smaller producers to thrive.
Sales of Portuguese wine in the U.S. has shot up by 40 percent over the past three years, according to reports by the industry’s trade organization, ViniPortugal. While the vinho verde white wine segment still dominates, accounting for 56 percent of imports from Portugal, the biggest gains have been made in the premium red wine segment, which more than doubled to reach 35 percent of imports from the country. Production in Portugal has remained relatively steady across each quality category since 2003—appellation defined and government certified D.O.C. wines (similar to French A.O.C.), regional wines and table wine—and accounts for four percent of the world’s total, according to ViniPortugal.
The Spanish Basque-inspired Gitane, which opened in San Francisco earlier this year and menus the wines of Spain, Portugal and France, currently has fourteen Portuguese wines on its wine list, priced from $28 to $120 a bottle. “Portugal produces some very solid country wines that are an easy fit with the bistro fare at Gitane,” says Sean Diggins, wine director at Gitane and Café Claude, also in San Francisco. “I also have a few crossover wines like the 2005 Colheita de Ideias “Esboço” from the Douro, which is mainly tinta roriz—known as tempranillo in Spain—and Touriga Franca, 40 percent of which is aged in French oak. [It menus] at $40 for customers who like a bigger, more extracted international style.”
Diggins chose to navigate his list by D.O. region, and eschews listing wines by varietal. “Many Portuguese red wines are by nature regional blends of two or as many as five different varieties, which work to build layers of complexity in the wine; whites are most often produced as a single varietal.” Gitane’s top-selling wine, offered by the glass, carafe or the bottle, is a crowd-pleasing 2006 Herdade dos Grous Alentejano, priced at $48 a bottle, a fruit-forward blend of primarily indigenous red grapes.
Pairing these wines with Gitane’s food seems almost effortless, notes Diggins, who says he likes the vinho verdes on his list with briny seafood and the smoky reds with the restaurant’s signature Portuguese fish stew, Cataplana. When it comes to mixing Portuguese wine with dissimilar cuisines, Diggins favors pairing the wines of the north central Dão region with Vietnamese dishes.
“Dão wines like the 2007 Quinta de Cabriz from Biera—which we offer at $9 a glass, $25 a carafe and $36 a bottle—are higher in acid and have a greener spice that works well with the fish sauce and fresh herbs used in almost every Vietnamese dish,” says Diggins.
The user-friendly wine list at Gitane illustrates the potential for emerging Portuguese wines to perform alongside better-known regions in a wide variety of operations.
Sicily: Ancient Grapes, Many Styles
According to Geralyn Brostrom, Certified Wine Educator and vice president of wine education at Winebow, an Italian wine importer, “Indigenous Sicilian grape varieties—and Southern Italian varieties in general—have seen steady growth in sales in the last 10 to 15 years in the U.S. Just in the last four years alone, we at Winebow have seen an average annual growth rate of 40 percent in the sales of Nero d’Avola—thought by many to be Sicily’s great red grape varietal—with only a moderate slowdown as the economy began to falter.”
Total annual wine production in Sicily is about 213 million gallons, with about 54 percent of its production in red and the remaining 46 percent in white, according to Italian wine monitor, WineCounty.it. The region’s 19 D.O.C. wines account for just two percent of production, though many of the most interesting wines are produced as I.G.T.—Indicazione Geografica Tipica—a somewhat recently created classification focusing on wines that fall outside of traditionally strict D.O.C. definitions.
Sommelier Jorge Mendoza of Cioppino, located in the 490-room The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne in Florida, part of the 75-location Maryland-based chain, is a fan of nerello mascalese, an outstanding, little-known Sicilian red varietal produced as an I.G.T. wine. Although not yet on his wine list, Mendoza has plans to list the wine soon, which retails below $32 a bottle.
Mendoza also sources the frappato varietal and truly Old World wines such as Pithos, a blend of nero d’avola and frappato that is fermented in a clay amphora from Azienda Agricola COS. “These ancient varieties and techniques create wines with individual character that are of very high quality and friendly with food,” he says, noting that they are well-balanced without the added oak element.
Winebow’s Brostrom says that a wide variety of southern Italian reds and whites can be found on wine lists for anywhere between $20 and $40—a steal in today’s economy. In addition to value, she attributes the flavor profiles as the reason for the popularity of Sicilian reds using nero d’avola and whites made from indigenous varietals such as grillo, catarratto and inzolia. “As winemakers have become more knowledgeable about working with these varieties, they are producing lush, fruit-forward styles. Nero d’avola’s hallmark flavors of black cherry, chocolate and walnut combine with refreshing acidity to make for flavorful, food-friendly alternatives on a wine list.”
Mendoza lists Sicilian white wines from Anthilia Donnafugata, including a blend of ansonica and cataratto that he menus for $11 a glass and pairs with seafood. By the bottle, he offers an insolia and viognier blend, “Ficiligno” from Baglio di Pianetto 2004, for $55. “I particularly like Anthilia with grilled Scampi, drizzled with olive oil,” he says.
Australia’s Margaret River: Young But Expressive
Commercial winegrowing in Australia’s Margaret River region began in 1967 with plantings of cabernet sauvignon at a winery called Vasse Felix. The region produces 3 percent of Australia’s total wine production today, according to the Margaret River Wine Association (MRWA), but makes up as much as twenty percent of the premium wine market.
International red varietals lead the charge, with cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and merlot the most widely planted grapes, followed by sémillon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for the whites. In a sign that the balance might be shifting a bit, however, MRWA statistics for the 2006 vintage, the latest available, show a 7 percent increase in production for white wines and an equal decline in reds. This probably stems from several factors, including shrinking margins for premium red wines and demand for the region’s signature classic dry white blends. Single varietal bottlings and blends from Margaret River are widely available in the U.S., and leading producers such as Leeuwin Estate, with its famed Art Series Chardonnay, rank as some of the best examples.
At Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, the Tampa-based chain with 64 locations across 28 states, director of wine Marian Jansen op de Haar has developed a progressive list of 100 by-the-glass offerings, one of which is the 2006 Vasse Felix Adams Road Chardonnay from Margaret River, priced at $10.75 to $13 a glass and $43 to $52 a bottle, depending on location.
The Vasse Felix Chardonnay goes well with the Lobster Tempura at Fleming’s, says op de Haar. “The wine is rich enough to pair with lobster, and it has a nice, citrusy acidity that complements the tempura batter.”
Margaret River chardonnay is noted for its concentration and complexity; the wines typically are fuller bodied and perfumed. Ultra premium whites commonly age in oak, and even the entry-level Vasse Felix wine selected by op de Haar spends ten months in French oak.
In defense of the stellar values that can be found among Margaret River reds, op de Haar notes that local wine managers at the chain can and do list additional Margaret River wines, with cabernet sauvignon-merlot blends being the most popular across the board. Op de Haar makes it easy for Fleming’s customers to track down a wine they have enjoyed at one of the restaurants; she lists all wines under grape headings, no matter where they’re from, and includes a short description of each wine as well as a picture of the label on the company’s website.
Whether wines from Portugal, Sicily, Australia’s Margaret River or elsewhere, the search for value and hidden wine gems is pushing operators to branch out and expand their wine search beyond the usual suspects, pleasing guests and boosting sales in the process.