When the package tour operator Goldtrail Travel collapsed last week, cancelling the summer holidays of some 50,000 customers, bar owners in Greece and Turkey must have had mixed feelings. Goldtrail’s rowdier punters were famously enthusiastic consumers of most forms of alcohol, from raki to retsina, Mythos to muscat, but they weren’t exactly model tourists.
If it’s true that, as the Greek historian Thucydides claimed in the 5th century BC, “the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine”, then barbarism of a more modern kind can still be imported. Just ask anyone who’s spent time in Bodrum, Torremolinos or Corfu.
For most Brits, even the better behaved ones, the Mediterranean is first and foremost a holiday destination. When it comes to the wines we consume on our travels, I suspect that quantity is generally more important than quality. I’m sure I’m not the only person who suspends his critical faculties the minute I see a sun lounger.
It’s a shame we don’t pay more attention to what we drink abroad, because the shores of the Mediterranean are home to some of the most interesting wines in the world. Think about it: there are vineyards within close proximity of the sea in Spain, France, Sardinia, Sicily, Tuscany, Corsica, Croatia, Greece, Campania, Puglia, the Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus and Morocco.
The Mediterranean may not be the cradle of vinous civilisation — Georgia, Armenia and Anatolia dispute that title — but it created the world of wine we know today. Over the centuries, Greeks, Phoenecians, Romans, crusaders and pilgrims traded or travelled with cuttings, moving native Vitis vinifera grapes from the Caucasus across Europe. Without them, there would be no rioja, no chianti, no Aussie shiraz
DNA analysis of the most important grapes is still in is infancy, but future research will surely make explicit links between what are currently assumed to be different varieties masquerading under synonyms. Hugh Johnson argues in his seminal work, “The Story of Wine”, that the genealogy of grape varieties is a “Sisyphean labour” and “the confident tracing of their remote history an impossible one”, but science, patience and serendipity may prove him wrong.
Just as Italy’s primitivo was discovered to be identical to America’s zinfandel a few years ago, so there will surely be matches between, say, Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, German and Spanish grapes. The varieties may mutate as they go native, but their essence is immutable. The possibilities are intriguing. Could Beaujolais’ gamay be the same thing as Turkey’s kalecik karasi? Are greco and aglianico really Greek in origin, as their Italian names suggest? Is albariño related to riesling?
Grape vine genetics are not the sort of thing most people want to think about on holiday. Even I am more interested in drinking a decent glass of local wine, preferably made from such quintessentially Mediterranean grapes as vermentino (rolle), grenache, carignan, assyrtiko, fiano, aglianico, greco, negro amaro and muscat.
If you’re heading to southern Europe yourself over the next few weeks, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to savour a wine made nearby. If you’re staying at home, stranded by the demise of Goldtrail Travel or just enjoying summer in the UK, here are six wines to remind you of the Med.
Asda Tempranillo, Bodegas Murviedro, Valencia (£3.29, 12.5%)
A bargain non-vintage blend from Spain’s Mediterranean coast, with 15% bobal adding some structure to the soft, juicy, strawberryish flavours of tempranillo.
2005 Salice Salentino Riserva, I Sistri, Candido (£6.79 each for two, 13.5%, Majestic)
Mature negro amaro is Puglia’s most distinctive wine style: ripe, smoky and slightly pruney, with notes of fresh tobacco, figs and dark chocolate.
2008 Hatzidakis Assyrtiko, Santorini (£9.99, 13.5%, Waitrose)
One of my favourite Mediterranean whites, this tangy, citrus-fruity, bracingly refreshing Greek number is perfect for long summer days by the sea.
2008 Domaine de Belouvé Bandol Rosé (£11.99, 13%, Tesco Fine Wine stores or www.tesco.com/wine)
Not the cheapest rosé on the market, but delicious none the less. Pale, elegant and bone dry, with flavours of rosehip, raspberry and red cherry.
2008 Kleos Aglianico. Luigi Maffini, Campania (£14.50, or £12.95 by the case, 14%, Lea & Sandeman, 0207 244 0522, www.londonfinewine.co.uk)
Aglianico is southern Italy’s best red grape variety. This is rich, savoury and structured with firm tannins and bags of ripe black fruits.
2009 Greco di Tufo, Feudi di San Gregorio (£15.75, 13%, www.slurp.co.uk)
A Neapolitan white that combines nutmeg spice, honeyed depth, crisp acidity and a pleasantly bitter twist in one amazing wine.
Originally published in The Times