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El Vino: Is a search for the exotic worth it?


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There may be a good reason the range of wines on offers sometimes seems "limited".
There may be a good reason the range of wines on offers sometimes seems "limited".

Wine expert Richard Meadows explores the alternative to the same old, same old.

Have you ever wondered why all the grapes from Chile, Argentina, Australia and the USA are the same as the ones from France, Italy and Spain?

Is there life beyond the immigrant Cabernets, Chardonnays, Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs?

All wine we drink on a daily basis comes from one species of vine, Vitis Vinifera. This is native to Europe, northern Africa and as far east as Iran, and as such is completely intertwined with the history of wine here. It produces fruit perfect for fermentation and wines that are considered extremely palatable.

As the explorers, traders, invaders and missionaries spread out from Europe, they took their vines with them. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company planted the first vines in South Africa.

The Spanish Conquistadors and Jesuit missionaries brought vines for communion wine to Chile and Argentina in the mid-1500s.

In Australia, the governors of the penal colonies and other settlers first brought vines with them in the late-1700s.

In New Zealand, a Brit, James Busby, planted vines in 1836 to supply the local soldiers, closely followed by more French missionaries.

Most intriguing here, is the history of wine in the USA. The Vikings called it “Vinland” because of the sheer number of native vines they found, and in the 1560s the Huguenot settlers made their first wine from a local grape with the glorious name of Scuppernong. Why don’t we quaff gallons of this stuff, you ask? Well, the species of vine this belongs to is Vitis Labrusca, and as those poor settlers discovered, it produces wines that tastes weird to European palates, with flavours described as “foxy” ie a sweet, musky, earthy aroma. The clamour for the familiar flavours of home won the day.

Did the native population make wine?

There’s surprisingly little evidence for the tribes sitting down for a cheeky glass of Scuppernong to wash down a slow-roasted buffalo wing.

Alcohol was produced from grains and various berries, fruits and honey, but more for religious and ceremonial purposes rather than social.

There’s some evidence to suggest Argentina’s three types of Torrontes are somehow distinct from their European cousins, and jumping over to Japan, the Koshu white grape shares little DNA with European vines, but could be a cross between Vitis Vinifera and a wild Chinese vine, and tastes pretty citrussy and fresh.

To finish off, let me tell you about a US indigenous variety called Mustang which according to a local description is “bitter and highly acidic”. It has apparently been used to make Mustang wine since before the US Civil War but I’m going to stick to a safe glass of Vitis Vinifera tonight!


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