The old world's gentler drop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2003, 12:00am

SOME OF MY friends are die-hard advocates of bold, gutsy and powerful wines such as Australian shiraz and Californian zinfandels. Indeed, in their eyes, a top night out is a non-starter without a Barossa shiraz from Lehmann, Saltram or Elderton. Any other style or varietal will not suffice. These 'mates' rarely talk about white wines, unless they need to buy a last-minute gift for their wives or girlfriends. The thought of rose wines will have their cheeks turning a similar colour with embarrassment at the prospect of being seen in possession of such a wimpish drop.

I've often thought about how my pals miss out on the delights of the vast array of different wines the world beyond the Barossa has to offer. I'd love to wean their palates away from the jammy, in-your-face, high alcohol wines they consume and show them the complexity of flavours that some Old World reds can provide.

What better place to start than the Northern Hemisphere region where shiraz grows and shows so well: the Cotes du Rhone of Southern France. To be correct, I should choose hermitage, the original home of syrah/shiraz, but it is both too rare and too expensive to serve my purpose.

The Cotes du Rhone appellation was created in 1937 with its key grapes grenache, shiraz and mourvedre more than capable of churning out bold, memorable wines. The area under vine covers a whopping 40,500 hectares so there's no shortage of supply. Equally, there's no shortage of good-quality examples available in Hong Kong from about $80 a bottle. Producers such as Bichot, Louis Bernard, Salavert, Guigal and its subsidiary Vidal Fleury, are all widely available here. Typically full-bodied, these wines offer fruit-driven styles backed by ample acidity and high alcohol levels.

Next I would try to tempt my friends with a good rioja reserva. The reserva level nestles in the quality pecking order between crianza and gran reserva. Riojas have been made from the tempranillo grape for hundreds of years in this northern part of Spain. Tempranillo can withstand the summer heat of the Spanish interior and ripens to result in complex, medium- to full-bodied wines.

Reserva wines must have been aged in oak for a minimum of 18 months followed by another two years in the bottle before they are released. Brands available in Hong Kong such as Campo Viejo, Lagunilla, Marques de Grinon, Marques de Caceres and Faustino all age their wines beyond the required minimum to create excellent quality wines. Some producers use costly new oak rather than maintaining the traditional approach of re-using barrels. Rioja reserva can be found in Hong Kong, costing from $100 to more than $200 per bottle.

Much Barossa shiraz is released while still young and the cheek-puckering tannins are all too evident. Rioja reserva has been deliberately aged prior to release and is usually ready for drinking as soon as you have unpacked the shopping.

If rioja is Spain's most famous wine, then chianti arguably holds the mantle across the Mediterranean in Italy. As with rioja, chianti offers different styles. My no-fail approach here will be to first introduce my friends to a bottle of chianti classico. 'Classico' signifies that the wine comes from the best of the Chianti region.

Officials first earmarked Chianti as a wine-producing region back in 1716. These days the government oversees strict yield limitations and has reduced the permitted amounts of lesser grapes in favour of the highly regarded sangiovese. Respected producers are anxious to erase the image of chianti as a peasant wine in a straw-wrapped bottle. These experts understand the power, complexity and overall quality this exciting varietal can deliver. Chianti is not usually oaked so wine lovers can enjoy an upfront, fruity, spicy style made by such greats as Antinori, Frescobaldi, Mazzei Fonterutoli, Ruffino and Ricasoli. Their wines are available in Hong Kong from around $100 a bottle. It's easy to spot wines that hail from the Classico region because they carry the distinctive 'Black Cockerel' logo on the bottleneck.

Meanwhile, I haven't quite decided how and when I can begin this 'weaning' process. These grown men will take some convincing. Hopefully the promise of some cash savings along with the masking effects of aluminium foil at a blind tasting will do the trick.