Here we go. Or rather ‘ere we go, ‘ere we go, ‘ere we go. Unless you’ve been in solitary confinement for the last year, you’ll be aware that the World Cup kicks off in Johannesburg tomorrow. Even my wife, who normally shows as much interest in football as I do in crown green bowling, has marked the key matches in her diary.
I realise that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the beautiful game. So for those of you who can’t wait for the last whistle, who regard football as a case of what a friend of mine calls “220HCBWAF” (22 over-paid haircuts chasing a bag of wind around a field), might I offer an alternative? My World Cup Wine Knockout is guaranteed to enliven even the dullest 0-0 stalemate.
The concept is simple. You just open a bottle of wine from the two competing countries and declare a winner, irrespective of what happens out on the park. Imagine how much more interesting the group game between, say, Chile and Switzerland will be if you have a carmenère and petite arvine to hand.
Not all of the nations competing in South Africa make wine, but a surprising number do. You’ll have to find something else to drink when South Korea, North Korea, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Honduras are playing, but that still leaves 25 wine-producing countries. No one would claim that Paraguayan, Dutch or Japanese wines are as good as the best stuff from France, Australia or Germany, but they do exist (try www.wine-searcher.com for stockists).
For wine lovers, this is the best World Cup ever. Not only is the competition being held in a producing country, much to the joy of the Cape’s wineries, but it includes nearly all of the most important winemaking nations: Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and Germany from the Old World; the USA, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia from the New. Only China won’t be there.
Whose wine will I be drinking watching the final on July 11th? Previous form suggests that the eventual winner will come from the short list of countries that have triumphed before, although the bookies give Spain and Holland a chance. Assuming you discount Uruguay (100 to 1 outsiders), that leaves half a dozen nations: Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, Argentina and, er, England.
If I were writing a form guide to their wines, as opposed to their football teams, which country would be my champion? Uruguay is the easiest to eliminate, dependent as it is on a single red grape variety (tannat) for its reputation. Like a squad that’s short of cover, it would struggle against more diverse wine-producing nations. Neighbouring Brazil would be next to go, despite its size (it makes more wine than Portugal) and the improving quality of its best wines, especially its merlots, chardonnays and fizzes, because most of its grapes are low-grade Vitis labrusca.
That would leave a semi-final line up of Argentina, Italy, France and England. Patriotism aside, England doesn’t belong on the same tasting table as the other three. Our sparkling wines are great, but production is small and our other wines are over-priced and short of real class. Sound familiar?
Argentina is like a bigger version of Uruguay, in that its star player is a red grape (malbec), but it has a strong squad too, featuring syrah, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and the near-native torrontés. Lack of subtlety — high alcohol and clumsy oak handling are persistent failings — would ultimately undermine its challenge.
My taste-off would feature the two nations that contested the 2006 final: France and Italy. Even without penalties or a spectacular head-butt, any contest between these two great wine-producing countries would be difficult to call. Barolo versus Burgundy? Bordeaux versus Brunello di Montalcino? Both teams have quality in depth. Where France would win, at least for me, is with its white and sparkling wines. There’s nothing as good as a top Puligny-Montrachet, Alsace Riesling, Sancerre, Sauternes or Champagne in Italy.
So there you have it. France would win my 2010 World Cup of Wine, which is ironic when you remember that they didn’t deserve to qualify for the real thing. If Ireland had eliminated them, as they so nearly did, we’d be drinking Guinness instead.
WINES FROM SEVEN PREVIOUS WINNERS
2008 Tesco Finest Malbec, Mendoza (£6.98, 13.5%)
Sourced from the excellent Catena winery, this violet-scented, deeply coloured, sweetly-oaked malbec from Mendoza is smoky, brambly and full of flavour. Great with a barbecue.
2007 Asda Extra Special Primitivo, Puglia (£6.98, 13.5%)
Primitivo is exactly the same grape as Zinfandel, which is planted in California, but this has an Italian twist: savoury, spicy and ripe, with notes of plums, figs and fresh tobacco.
2007 Côtes du Rhône, Clos de Mont-Olivet (£7.49 each for two, 14%, Majestic)
2007 was such a great vintage in the Rhône that you’d be mad not to buy this generic example: juicy, rich and unoaked with clove spice and plenty of blackberry fruit. Essence of the Rhône.
2009 De Lucca Tannat (£8, 12.3%, www.winesofuruguay.co.uk)
A bight, youthfully exuberant introduction to Uruguay’s signature grape, with juicy plum and black cherry fruit, assertive tannins and a hint of vanilla oak. Needs a lump of protein to show at its best.
2008 Dr Bassermann Jordan Riesling, Pfalz (£8.99, 10%, Waitrose)
Rieslings from the Pfalz region of southern Germany tend to be almost tropical in flavour. This complex, medium sweet example is peachy, pineappley and rich, with palate-cleansing acidity for balance.
2006 Miolo Millésime Brut, Vale dos Vinhedos (£11.40, 12.5%, Coe Vintners, 0208 551 4966)
This is the best sparkling wine I’ve had from South America: a stylishly labelled blend of pinot noir and chardonnay with pear and citrus fruit flavours, fine bubbles and some toasty bottle-aged characters.
2007 Ridgeview Cavendish (£19.99, or £15.99 by the case, 12%, Oddbins)
Comparatively inexpensive for an English fizz, especially from such a good producer, this pinot meunier-dominated blend is crisp, forward and refreshing.
Originally published in The Times