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Regions to Watch in 2008
By Michael Franz
Jan 22, 2008
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As the very happy occupant of The World's Best Job, I am exceedingly fortunate to be able to taste thousands of wonderful wines each year.  I've been at it for 15 years now, and I feel as lucky today as I did when I was first able to weasel my way into wine writing.  I'm sure that it would be no surprise to anyone that I love the job.  However, you might be a bit surprised to learn that my greatest pleasure in the job is an intellectual one rather than a gustatory one, namely, discovering wine producing regions that are on the rise or making a new leap in quality.

You may not believe that I enjoy thinking more than drinking among the aspects of my job, but I swear that I get more excited by regions and wines on the rise than by ones that are already established on exalted perches.  Don't get me wrong; I love Bordeaux as much as the next guy, and that applies to visiting and tasting alike.  However, I get an even bigger charge out of seeing what's being accomplished with a grape like Xynomavro in northern Greece or with Mencia in northwestern Spain.

Perhaps it is a personal peculiarity, but I find it inherently more exciting to learn about wines and regions in their boost phase, when they are largely unknown and almost always under-priced, than when they've become objects of universal envy on the stuffy auction scene.

I'd like to think that writing about wines and regions on the rise is likewise more useful to more readers than tracking the narrow annual fluctuations of the Sacred Cows of the wine world--but I suppose that isn't really for me to say.  In any case, here are thumbnail sketches of four places in the wine world that I've visited during the past year that I believe merit close attention on your part during 2008:

Abruzzo:

I've been lucky enough to travel to Italy four times during the past year, and could choose any one of several spots as exemplary Italian places on the rise.  That is a testament to how dynamic Italian wine remains these days, especially in central and southern regions.  Most wine lovers know that northern Italy made huge strides in the 1980s and 1990s, but not everyone is aware that the country has something like 2,000 indigenous grapes at its disposal (far more than any other country), and that superb wines are now being made in cooler spots at altitude or near cooling waters in more southerly regions.

Abruzzo is a great case in point.  It is a mountainous region on the central section of Italy's Adriatic coast.  Like Sicily and Puglia, it produces a lot of ordinary wines but also an increasing number of really excellent ones.  The best are whites made from Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and reds from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and the reds from the relatively new DOCG (the loftiest category in the Italian classification system) sub-region, Colline Teramane, are clearly the best of the best.

In quantitative terms, Abruzzo is now Italy's fifth most productive wine region, having surpassed both Piedmont and Tuscany and trailing only Veneto, Sicily, Puglia and Emilia Romagna.  Much of the volume is cranked out by cooperatives and would be unworthy of mention if not for the sad facts that it depresses the reputation of the region and its grape varieties, and likewise limits the selling prices that can be demanded by those vintners trying to achieve something more lofty.

Montepulciano d'Abruzzo reds have suffered from confusion with Tuscany's Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, to which they are totally unrelated.  The Tuscan wines are based on Sangiovese and named after a town, whereas Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is a grape identified in the context of its region.  And as if this weren't bad enough, there's confusion on the white side as well.  True Trebbiano d'Abruzzo is not made from the grape known elsewhere in Italy as Trebbiano but rather from the Bombino.  Many examples are merely pleasant and refreshing, but a few--especially the extraordinary bottlings from Valentini--are astonishingly complex and long-lived.

On the whole, however, reds made from Montepulciano are this region's future.  The grape is also grown in the Marches region to the north of Abruzzo (where it makes the reasonably well-known Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno), to the south in Puglia, and in several other spots in central and southern Italy.  It ripens too late to make fine wines reliably in Italy's north, but is very well attuned to growing conditions in Abruzzo, which are warm in general but only moderately so in the best sites thanks to altitudes of over 1,000 feet.

When cropped at reasonably low levels in a prime site and treated to high-quality wood in reasonable doses, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo can show a delightful combination of serious concentration and intensity with fresh, pure fruit notes recalling dark cherries and black plums.  Generously fruity and openly expressive in both aroma and flavor, they can be enjoyed very easily even when young if paired with food, but more structured versions can also develop very nicely when cellared.

The excellence of Montepulciano d'Abruzzos crafted in the Colline Teramane district was recognized with the granting of DOCG status in 2003, and the first wines bearing this designation appeared on our shores last year.  They aren't yet particularly easy to find, and some fine estates are still seeking U.S. importers, but the best wines are certainly worth a search.  Most are priced between $25 and $35, and there are some excellent values available in that range.  If you are searching for everyday wines at lower prices, you will find some real gems at the level below Colline Teramane DOCG in straight DOC Montepulciano d'Abruzzos.

Producers of Special Merit:  Castellum Ventus; Cataldi Madonna; Cerulli Spinozzi; Fratelli Barba; Gentile; Illuminati; Masciarelli; Monti; Orlandi Contucci Ponno; Nicodemi; Stefania Pepe; Valentini; Valle Reale; Villa Medoro.

Secret Spain:  Galicia and Murcia

Maybe you wonder why Spain is accorded two of my four picks for regions on the rise.  But I'd guess that--if you tasted and traveled widely enough in Spain to get a full sense of the revolution in quality that is underway across that country--you might wonder why Spain only got two.

Galicia and Murcia are dramatically different from one another, and consequently they serve to show the astonishing range of what the Spanish wine revolution is now sending into world markets.  Galicia is in Spain's northwest; Murcia is in the southeast.  Galicia is relatively cool and wet; Murcia is hot and dry.  Galicia is culturally Celtic in background; Murcia is Moorish.  And in vinous terms, Galician wines are mostly white, and are relatively taut and reserved and fresh, whereas Murcia is all about reds that are ripe, rich fleshpots.

Galicia is stunningly beautiful both inland and along the coast, and the interior of the region is very rugged and unspoiled.  Of the five main wine producing regions (or D.O.s, short for Denominación de Origen, the Spanish equivalents of France's A.O.C.s), only Rias Baixas sits near the coast.  Rias Baixas is by far the most famous, thanks to the excellent quality and increasing fame of the white wines made there from the great Albariño grape.

Galicia's other D.O.s are nowhere near as developed as Rias Baixas, being far less commercialized, farther removed from major lines of transportation, and much earlier in their processes of replanting and modernization.  Monterrei and Ribeiro are best for white wines made predominantly from Godello, Treixadura and Dona Branca.  The D.O.s of Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras make both whites and reds, with the same white grapes taking the lead along with some Loureira in Ribera Sacra.  Their top reds are mostly made from Mencia, a potentially superb variety that is rapidly gaining in global fame based on renditions from Bierzo, which lies just to the east of Galicia. 

It seems clear to me that Albariño, Godello and Mencia will be recognized worldwide as three of the world's greatest wine grapes in another decade, so you'd be wise to start enjoying them before the rest of the world starts slurping up stocks and driving up prices.

Turning to Murcia brings to mind the old Monty Python segue, 'And now for something completely different.'  The three D.O.s that are within the orbit of the delightful city of Murcia are Bullas, Jumilla and Yecla, and the star grape in all three is Monastrell.  This variety is more widely known in North America by its French name, Mourvedre (or elsewhere as Mataro), but the grape is much more successful in sunny Spain than it is in France.

Some white wines of note are made in the area, and usually the grape sources are Viognier, Macabeo, or the lesser Airén.  Yet the most serious wines of Murcia are emphatically red, and most are made from old, head-pruned, dry-farmed, often un-grafted Monastrell vines.

These vines seem perfectly--even miraculously--suited to the growing conditions of the area.  Whether they are naturally suitable or whether they've mutated over time to deal with the dryness and the poor, rocky soils, these gnarly old Monastrell vines yield modest quantities of gorgeous fruit.  The resulting wines are very deep in color and flavor and wonderfully pure and balanced in character.  Cool nights in the region sustain acidity levels in the fruit, giving the wines surprising freshness and obviating the need to augment the natural acidity.  Good bottles from Bullas, Jumilla and Yecla offer an uncanny combination of depth and power with freshness and modest alcohol levels, and they typically offer that combination for well under $20.  For a fuller account of the region and its wines, follow this link to a recent column by my colleague Michael Apstein:

http://www.winereviewonline.com/Michael_Apstein_Jumilla_Yecla_Bullas.cfm
For my concurring opinion and reviews of 13 current releases, go to:
http://www.winereviewonline.com/michael_franz_on_reds_of_murcia.cfm

Western Australia

From the eastern portion of the USA, a trip to Perth requires the longest series of flights that one can possibly take.  Nevertheless, I found the wine regions of Western Australia so beautiful and fascinating and the wines so strikingly delicious that I would agree to another (seemingly endless) trip to the antipode in a heartbeat.

I may be crazy, but I am not alone.  During the past two years, almost all of my colleagues with Wine Review Online have made the trip, and each of us returned with exactly the same conclusion:  Western Australia produces marvelous wines that deliver the full flavor for which Aussie wines are famous, along with levels of finesse, elegance and complexity that are quite rare in wines from Down Under.

Thanks to the cooling influence of the Southern and Indian oceans, the wine regions of Western Australia enjoy superb climates that combine warm, sunny days that assure full ripeness with cool nights that preserve acidity and prolong the growing season.  WA's prime growing regions are Margaret River, Great Southern, Frankland River, Mount Barker, Geographe and Pemberton.  Taken together, these regions offer a remarkable range of wines extending from lean, lithe Rieslings to firm, age-worthy Cabernets.  We've reviewed many particular bottlings here on WRO during the past year, and I've got five more cases lined up on the runway in my tasting room, so you can look forward to many more recommendations during 2008.

Comments or questions?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com