Wine is one important means by which we can begin to understand other cultures. Or, to put it another way, wine is one important facet of any country’s culture, and a way to declare its place in the world.
Of course, the cultural touchstones of the Old Guard of the Old World—France, Italy, Spain, Germany and some others—are vivid, accessible, practically a part of our DNA: the music, art, architecture, films, plays and cuisines. When you think of Greece, for example, any number of associations leap to the fore: You hear the bouzouki music, you taste the moussaka, you picture the ruins. And now, as Greek wines become more familiar on these shores, you will think of their wines.
Wine is a delicious and accessible entry point to a culture. The intricacies of Spanish cuisine are becoming more known to us because the wines lead us to be curious. Uruguay is one example of a country that is trying to elbow its way onto the world wine stage, via its robust reds made from Tannat. No doubt they hope that their travel industry will also benefit, drawing the spotlight to their cuisine and other facets of their culture.
If you’ve ever wondered where Santiago or Margaret River are, these destinations in Chile and Australia respectively—as well as many others—are brought to life when a bottle of wine is placed on the table. The label speaks of international locales, to the culture of a region and its people. The style of what is both in the bottle and on it may be iconic of the way a culture thinks and lives.
One great example of a country for which wine has become not just an important industry, but an essential element in defining the culture, is Australia. Certainly there was a wave of Australian films 10 or more years ago that captured the world’s imagination, and traveling there is always an adventure. But any Aussie who has grown weary of the “g’day-kangaroo-Crocodile Dundee” image of their country can point with pride to the explosion of quality wines on the international market. It is an emblem of their new cultural identification and sophistication.
Tasting Director Joe Czerwinski recently visited the Barossa Valley, the most productive of Australia’s wine regions. The title of his story (see page 36) refers to the big, bold, fruit-forward wines of the region as well as the outsized reputations of the region’s winemakers. The wines—Shirazes, Cabernet Sauvignons and GSM blends primarily— definitely reflect the brash style we’ve come to associate with Australia. They are of a place, and I’m not just referring to terroir.
Elsewhere in this issue, Michael Schachner focuses on the wines of Bierzo, Spain. It’s a little-known, cool-climate region, with slopes so steep in places they rival those found in the Rhône. Their primary grape, Mencía, is a little-known variety outside their country, but as Michael affirms, the wines are starting to gain the attention of the world.
Exhibiting dark fruit, spice, minerality and muscular use of oak, they cut across all price points, they run the gamut in style from rustic to structured and posh.
If the last time you visited wine country you spent most of your time in a traffic jam or in line rather than enjoying wine or the vineyards, then Steve Heimoff’s story might inspire some thoughts of alternative ways to see wine country. Visit Napa or Sonoma in the off season and you’ll be happy to discover that tasting rooms are wide open and tables available at the famed restaurants. And if you venture outside those fabled regions, you’ll be glad to know wine culture doesn’t fall off the map. On the Central Coast, further east in Yosemite, north at Tahoe and elsewhere in the state, there are always wine festivals and other special events that celebrate the grape.
I guess if you’ve been reading the magazine carefully over the past six months, you’ve noticed we’ve been paying a lot of attention to Riesling, both dry styles and off-dry. It’s just because these versatile whites are so perfectly matched with food and refreshing in themselves. When people think of these off-dry wines, they automatically think in terms of spicy foods, whether Thai, Chinese, Mexican or Indian. But there are other dishes that these wines match up with, and our Pairings story offers recipes and suggestions to get the most out of your off-dry whites.
By exploring new varieties and new ways of pairing them with fine cuisine, you make a declaration of your own, personal culture.