Wine’s war on terroir
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“Globalisation” tends to be a dirty word in food and drink, associated with broken food systems, spiralling carbon footprints and a flattening of difference. But it’s not for Travis Braithwaite, the South African wine entrepreneur behind Pangaea, a new luxury wine that recreates the classic Bordeaux red blend using grapes grown in five countries across four continents.
“The ‘Bordeaux blend’ is so revered – winemakers reproduce it all over the world,” he says. “But you often find that not all the five grape varieties that are traditionally used in it grow well in the local soils. It made me wonder: what would a Bordeaux blend taste like if each variety had the chance to ripen in the correct terroir for the variety itself?”
It’s an audacious concept and, in some respects, out of step with the times, which have seen the influence of Burgundy lead to the fetishisation of ever-more localised wines (a trend satirised by the movie The Menu, in which the snooty sommelier proposes a Chassagne-Montrachet made “from a single row of vines”). But it caught the imagination of “flying winemaker” Michel Rolland, a consultant who is no stranger to air miles thanks to a roster of clients, including Ornellaia and Screaming Eagle, in more than a dozen countries worldwide.
The pair started drawing up a wishlist of the world’s best grape-growing sites. They chose Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Napa Valley (“power with strong and silky tannins”, says Rolland); and Merlot from Bordeaux’s Right Bank (“dense, round and supple”); Cabernet Franc from Helderberg, South Africa (“aromas, finesse and elegance”); Malbec from Argentina’s Valle de Uco (“very fruity, black and dense – nowhere better!”); and Petit Verdot from the top Spanish vineyard Dehesa del Carrizal (“intense… the salt and pepper”). Pangaea doesn’t own any vineyards, but some fruit comes from Rolland’s Bordeaux and Argentinian estates.
Each variety is vinified on its home turf before being shipped to Napa for blending. The blend is weighted differently each year to reflect the best of the vintage. Rolland is known for making supple, ripe Bordeaux reds with the emphasis on pleasure (though he has been criticised, in the words of The Oxford Companion to Wine, “for a uniformity of style”).
The rather grandiose packaging led me to expect something ostentatious – so I was pleasantly surprised by the restraint of the Cabernet Sauvignon-led Pangaea 2015. The oak is applied with a light touch, revealing plush red/black fruit, a hint of meatiness and a touch of black mint. The Merlot-dominated 2016 – out this autumn – is delicious, with fresh damson notes and velvety tannin. The yet-to-be-released 2018, a Malbec big-hitter, needs time to soften up. But all three are extremely harmonious, beautifully composed snapshots.
“We are working the best way we can to minimise our carbon footprint,” says Brathwaite. “We ship or fly the wine in bulk, in recyclable 50l-410l stainless-steel containers rather than plastic. We are looking
at tree-planting projects.”
Panagaea 2016 weighs in at $500 a bottle – and only 2,570 bottles will be released, so it’s an expensive curiosity. In the future, Braithwaite hopes to blend grape varieties “that have never been blended before” – a global project that might ultimately prove to be the most interesting of all.
Another high-profile red wine that spans hemispheres is Penfolds II, a multi-vintage blend from Penfolds’ vineyards in Australia and Dourthe plots in Bordeaux. “You can call it future-proofing, climate-change risk management, whatever,” says Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker. Above all, it’s creatively interesting, he says.
The Bordeaux fruit is vinified on its home turf before it’s shipped to Oz, “but importantly it’s made our way”, says Gago. “We ferment in the way we do in Australia, we manage tannins the way we do, manage extraction. It’s not just off the peg.”
The second edition, out in the UK this autumn, is an almost 50/50 blend of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux Merlot. It splices drier, more mineral/herbal/spicy characters with a fruity, almost tomato-like juiciness. Gago attributes the savoury lead pencil/forest floor notes to France. Australia is more “plum stone, dark cherry streusel cake”. I get an inkling Gago might be planning a new blend with a French region other than Bordeaux. He says he would also “love to do a blend with Italian Sangiovese or Nebbiolo or Spanish Tempranillo”.
Whiskies with multiple countries of origin are also on the rise. The Suntory blend Ao is a fusion of whiskies from Scotland, Canada, America, Japan and Ireland. In fact, cross-border blending has long been practised in Japan. But as it was often for reasons of quantity, rather than quality, it was a bit of a guilty secret. Perhaps the tide is now turning; drinks producers of the future will cast their net wide and make a virtue of it.