The wines were judged 9–10 April in London by IWSC panel chairs Anne Jones, Richard Hemming MW, Eric Zwiebel MW, Ana Sapungiu MW, Igor Sotric, Dominique Vrigneau, Isa Bal MS, Christopher Horridge, Peter Nixson, Rebecca Palmer, Greg Sherwood MW, and members of the IWSC Wine Judging Committee John Hoskins MW and Dawn Davies MW.
‘Fine wine’ – like haute cuisine or modern art – is hard to define. Conventionally, fine wine refers to regions with long-established reputations for excellence, with Burgundy and Bordeaux at the forefront. But as the world of wine evolves, more and more regions are demonstrating their ability to challenge this definition.
These emerging regions are incredibly diverse. Some have been cultivating vines for centuries; others, for barely a decade. Some grow globetrotting grapes such as Chardonnay and Shiraz, while others celebrate indigenous locals such as Rkatsiteli and Koshu. But what unites them is their ambition to make wine that bears comparison with the finest wines from around the world.
Recent results from the IWSC show how wines from England, Canada, Croatia, Georgia, China and Japan can all win gold medals, earning them a place alongside the world’s greatest.
English sparkling wine has firmly established itself as an equal to Champagne. Not long ago, England was notorious for producing acidic wines from hybrid varieties that were more notable for their ability to ripen in a cold climate than for the attractiveness of their flavours. But as the climate has warmed and expertise has improved, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have become the first choice of growers, with pioneers such as Nyetimber becoming internationally renowned.
Nowadays, there are dozens of brands doing just as well. IWSC gold medals went to the 2014 Rosé Bella from Bride Valley, the Dorset estate established by the wine writer Steven Spurrier; a late-disgorged 2009 Chardonnay from Coates & Seely in Hampshire; and a great-value Non-Vintage blend from England’s largest producer Denbies.
Equally exciting are the non-sparkling reds and whites that are being produced. The medals won by Gusbourne’s Pinot Noir and Woodchester Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc prove that England can produce varietal wines that are able to stand alongside their rivals in New Zealand or France.
For years, Canada’s main calling card was icewine, the ultra-sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes. Today, it produces wine of every conceivable style: in Ontario, Domaine Queylus, Réserve du Domaine Cabernet Franc is the perfect example of a modern ripe, complex red that outranks many a St-Emilion.
On the opposite coast, in British Columbia, another Bordeaux-inspired red also won IWSC gold: Merriym 2016 from NK’Mip, the unusual name testifying to its ownership by the indigenous Osoyoos tribe of native Americans. Then Micro Cuvée Chardonnay from Meyer Family Vineyards and Mission Hill’s Reserve Shiraz show how Canada challenges Burgundy and the Rhône: by blending in 9% of white variety Viognier, the Shiraz pays specific homage to the great reds of Côte-Rôtie.
Georgia is one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, and its historic techniques are making a comeback. In the last century, Soviet control meant that the country’s winemaking capacity was focused on cheap high-volume plonk to sell into Russia. Today, Georgia’s vineyard area is significantly smaller than it was back then, but the quality being achieved is very exciting – especially with white wines made from the local Rkatsiteli variety, which are traditionally fermented in buried earthenware vessels called kvevri (or qvevri), a method recognised by UNESCO as having ‘intangible heritage’. Teliani Valley’s Glekhuri 2017 is a prime, medal-winning example.
Another country championing its own unique variety is Japan. Koshu makes a subtle but fragrant white wine, sometimes with a faint pink tinge, providing the perfect accompaniment to delicate Japanese cuisine such as sashimi – as Grande Polaire 2017 demonstrates. In China, however, heavyweight reds are generally more popular, with Cabernet Sauvignon the undisputed king of the ring. The 2014 from Helanshan Manor won IWSC gold thanks to its powerful, authentic expression of that variety. External investment from the likes of Bordeaux royalty Château Lafite and luxury conglomerate LVMH demonstrates how serious the wine world is about China’s fine wine prospects.
These wines can be hard to track down (except for the English wines none is available in the UK at the moment) but they are a snapshot of excellence. Whether it’s Lebanese Obeidi, Japanese Koshu or Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon, our perception of fine wine is being redefined – and the adventurous drinker has a whole new world to discover.