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1–2 July 2024
Olympia London

Under the Radar Wine Regions

While certain wine regions are traditionally considered to be more prestigious than others – regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc – it pays to think outside of the box, for a number of reasons. At Imbibe Live this year, wine writer, judge and presenter Aleesha Hansel made a case for exploring wine regions that are under the radar.

If you’re responsible for your venue’s wine list, or have a say in which wines are listed, there are numerous benefits to going beyond the expected, and there’s never been a better time for it.

Wine drinkers have never been more interested and educated, and they’re willing to spend more if you introduce them to something new. They’re looking for authenticity, and want to discover something when they go out. Meanwhile, you’re likely to find better value for money from lesser known wine regions too.

Historical context behind popular wines

To understand why certain wine regions have become so highly thought of in the first place, it helps to look to the past. As Hansel explained, when we think of fine wine regions, these are often tied to historical and political alliances.

As an example, she pointed out that England owned the Bordeaux region for 300 years, making it inevitable that these would be wines commonly drunk here. She added that at its height in the 14th century, there were enough Bordeaux wines imported into the UK every year for every man, woman and child to have six bottles a year. Also in the 14th century, King Edward II is said to have ordered the equivalent of one million bottles of Bordeaux for his wedding.

Burgundy, she added, was an ally of England’s during the Hundred Years’ War, which, to some extent, accounts for the high regard the region’s wines are held in today.

Conversely, she explained, many of the wine regions we might consider to be new are actually well established, with rich wine-producing history, sometimes spanning hundreds of years. Often, factors such as trade, colonisation and climate change led to these regions not achieving the recognition they deserve.

Food pairing potential

Another benefit of thinking outside the box when it comes to wine regions is the greater potential for food pairing, Hansel explained. Making a case for moving beyond Eurocentric thinking, she explained that too often “exotic”, spicy foods are paired by default with sweet white wines. There are regions, however, with indigenous grape varieties that have flavour profiles to match these dishes. 

Under the radar regions

As part of her presentation at Imbibe Live, Hansel highlighted four different lesser-known wine regions, taking in everywhere from Japan to the Canary Islands, and featuring female winemakers in each region.

The four wine producing regions each represented an array of climates and conditions, not to mention their own indigenous grapes, and a wealth of winemaking history too.

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Wines from Tenerife

Boasting the highest elevation vineyards in Europe, Tenerife, part of the Canary Islands, is located off the coast of Morocco. While its latitude might not suggest the best wine growing conditions, the island’s 12,200 foot volcano offers significant elevation. It also means that the diverse island has volcanic soils.

In addition to its centuries-old vines, the island has no shortage of winemaking history either. Hansel pointed out its importance as a stop on trade routes, given its location between Europe and the New World, as well as a reference to a “cup of Canary” in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. George Washington, meanwhile, expressed a preference for Tenerife wine over beer for his troops in the American civil war.

Wines from Japan

While Japan isn’t a large country, geographically, it spans more than 20 degrees of latitude, which, together with its range of altitudes, contributes towards it having a variety of climates for winegrowing. Giving the example of parts of Hokkaido where more than a metre of snow falls in the winter, to the high temperatures of Kyushu, often exceeding 30 degrees celsius, Hansel explained that Japan’s winemakers have had to adapt and innovate. This includes planting vines on steep hillsides to maximise sunlight and protect them from snow, to elevated hedging to allow ventilation.

While grape growing goes back to the 8th century in Japan, winemaking came much later, in the 1850s when Western missionaries travelled to the country, and when two ex-samurai went to France to study winemaking.

Koshu, Japan’s most well-known indigenous grape, is thought to have its origins in the Caucasus, where Georgia is today, and was carried along the silk road where it crossbred with other grapes.

Wines from Poland

A country with no shortage of winemaking history, Poland’s viticulture dates back to the year 966, when Christianity was introduced to the region, and was first the preserve of monks, and later the Polish nobility. But a number of factors in later years hampered the country’s winemaking, including a Little Ice Age in the 18th century, as well as imports from countries such as Hungary and the Ukraine.

More recently, in the 1980s, the country’s winemaking has been revived, when Roman Myśliwiec planted an experimental vineyard, and later a nursery. Myśliwiec had success with hybrid varieties.

Hansel highlighted a Polish variety, Roter Riesling, a pink-skinned mutation of Riesling. Its flavours and texture make it particularly of interest when it comes to food pairing, she added.

Wines from Uruguay

Located between Argentina and Brazil, and with its maritime climate, Uruguay has centuries of winemaking history, dating back to the 1720s when Jesuits made wine in the country’s eastern region. Later, Tannat vines were brought to the country from France by French-Basque immigrant Don Pascual Harriague.

As an example of the kind of innovation found in under the radar wine regions, Hansel spoke of a Nebbiolo Pet Nat. “I love that they're not bogged down by dogma, into thinking they can only make Nebbiolo in one style,” she said. “That's what I love about these under the radar regions, is that they're open to experimentation.”

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