News from Bordeaux used to dominate this time of year. It’s the season when producers in the region host their equivalent of the Cannes film festival – the en primeur tastings. Samples of wines harvested the previous autumn are shown off to thousands of members of the wine trade and press, whose reactions help shape the wines’ release prices, which traditionally emerge, after much feverish speculation and debate, during the early summer.
In recent years the whole circus has begun to seem a little tired. Prices for the top few dozen chateaux have escalated, even for less impressive vintages – a 700% rise in three decades – meaning a generation has grown up without getting to know what are still among the finest wines around.
Of the 20 wine merchants I chatted to at an event in London just before en primeur week, only one was making the journey to the Gironde estuary this year. The rest scratched their heads trying to remember the last time they’d been and, as one master of wine who’d last made the journey for the much-hyped 2005 vintage, asked: “What is the point any more, for business or pleasure?”
Whatever sadness these refuseniks may feel about how the most famous wines of Bordeaux and, to perhaps an even greater extent, Burgundy have been turned into investment vehicles for the 1% is mitigated by the opportunities now available elsewhere in the world. Some of these regions – the biggest names of California, the Rhône and the Italian trio of Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino – have in fact already joined Bordeaux and Burgundy on the list of things that most wine lovers will never be able to buy.
Others, however, are still at that point in their development where prices have yet to catch up with sometimes exceptional quality. These may be wines from reinvigorated Old World regions: in France, the red wines of Beaujolais, and of Cahors and Madiran in the south-west; the white chenin blancs and red cabernet francs of the Loire; the red and white blends from hillside sites in the Languedoc and Roussillon; in Italy, the southern renaissance of Puglia, Sicily and Campania; in Spain, the new-wave of garnacha from the mountains of Madrid and the hills of Catalonia, and the red mencía and white godello and albariño of Galicia.
Or they might be the result of the newfound focus on the local and specific in the formerly somewhat homogenous New World. Argentina’s Uco Valley; Chile’s Itata; Australia’s Adelaide Hills; New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels; South Africa’s Swartland … these are just a handful of the names whose rise has made a mockery of the old obsession with Bordeaux. The en primeur king is dead! Long live wine’s new and future queens!
Zorzal Eggo Tinto de Tiza Malbec
Gualtallary, Argentina 2015 (from £15.49, strictlywine.co.uk; hic-winemerchants.com; greatwinesdirect.co.uk)
Argentine malbec has developed enormously in the past decade with producers looking to express specific vineyards and districts, such as this very fine silk-textured wild-flavoured rendition of Gualtallary high up in Tupungato in Mendoza’s Uco Valley.
El Hombre Bala Old Vine Garnacha
Madrid, Spain 2015 (from £18.90, thebottlebank.co.uk; prohibitionwines.com; theguildfordwinecompany.co.uk)
The reputation of the garnacha grape has been transformed in Spain in recent years, with the Gredos mountains near Madrid at the forefront of its restyling as a perfumed “pinot noir of the south” in wines such as this herby, red berry-scented gem.
Domaine Ratron Cuvée Tradition Clos des Cordeliers
Saumur-Champigny, France 2015 (£10.50, thewinesociety.com)
Thanks to improvements in both vineyard and winery, the Loire’s best cabernet franc red wines, such as this delightful example from Saumur-Champigny, are, in good vintages, a match for bordeaux in their mix of graphite and curranty freshness.
Mother Rock White
Swartland, South Africa 2016 (from £14.95, slurp.co.uk; hedonism.co.uk)
With its exotic cast of grape varieties built around chenin blanc, and with its arresting combination of taut, tangy acidity, apple and stone fruit, this is a fine example of a distinctive, bona fide 21st-century classic wine style: the South African white blend.
Le Soula Blanc
IGP Côte Catalanes, France 2010 (£28, Waitrose)
A key wine in the emergence of the Languedoc-Roussillon as a producer of fine wines in the past couple of decades, Le Soula Blanc is a gorgeously rich, evocative and age-worthy blend of varieties that sings of the wild, high-altitude Fenouillèdes region.
Craft 3 Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
Australia 2016 (£60 for case of six, Marks & Spencer)
This is excellent value for a wine that shows off so much of the elegant best of modern, cooler-climate Australian chardonnay, expressive and balanced, with clean lines, juicy apple and pear flavours, and peach-downy texture.