The year 2011 was an interesting year for many northern and central European countries, as the weather was more than unpredictable in the spring and summer. However, in most countries, the climatic conditions thankfully settled down in the late summer and fall. The result of this slightly difficult year of weather in France was a set of surprisingly small yields, but overall, these yields were of a higher quality than those harvested in certain previous years. A fantastic set of wines was also made in Italy and Spain, and the Rioja wines - when released - are set to be very good indeed. Austria also had superb year in 2011, with almost fifty percent more grapes being grown and used for their distinctive Gruner Veltliner wines than in the year before. Possibly the European country which had the finest 2011, though, was Portugal, with wineries in the Douro region claiming this year to be one of the best in decades for the production of Port wine, and the bright, young Vinho Verdes wines.
In the New World, the Pacific Northwest saw some of the best weather of 2011, and Washington State and Oregon reportedly had a highly successful year, especially for the cultivation of high quality red wine grapes. Chile and Argentina had a relatively cool year, which certainly helped retain the character of many of their key grape varietals, and should make for some exciting drinking. South Africa had especially good weather for their white wine grape varietals, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and many South African wineries are reporting 2011 as one of their best years in recent memory.
There continues to be much debate surrounding the name of the Shiraz/Syrah grape varietal, with many experts still quite unsure which came first. Indeed, even the origins of this varietal are more or less unknown, despite it being most commonly associated with the Rhone Valley of France, and New World countries, most notably Australia. However, its popularity and unique characteristics have seen it planted all over the world, where it continues to impress with its powerful flavors and wonderfully spicy notes of pepper and clove. Shiraz/Syrah wines are renowned also for their versatility, and are regularly used in single variety still and sparkling wines, as well as blended and oak aged wines which demonstrate its ability to express its terroir and secondary flavors very well.
For hundreds of years, the beautiful alpine region of Piedmont in north-west Italy has been producing excellent quality red wines, and some of the most characterful sparkling white wines to have ever come out of the Old World. The region is dominated by the mighty Alps which form the border between Italy, France and Switzerland, and the Moscato grapes that are grown in the foothills of this mountain range carry much of the Alps' flavors in their fruit, and are fed by crystal clear mountain waters. However, it is the Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera grapes which are the real stars of this region, and the highly respected wineries which cover much of Piedmont have generations of experience when it comes to processing and aging these grape varietals to produce the superb wines which come out of appellations such as Barolo and Barberesco.
There are few countries in the world with a viticultural history as long or as illustrious as that claimed by Italy. Grapes were first being grown and cultivated on Italian soil several thousand years ago by the Greeks and the Pheonicians, who named Italy 'Oenotria' â€“ the land of wines â€“ so impressed were they with the climate and the suitability of the soil for wine production. Of course, it was the rise of the Roman Empire which had the most lasting influence on wine production in Italy, and their influence can still be felt today, as much of the riches of the empire came about through their enthusiasm for producing wines and exporting it to neighbouring countries. Since those times, a vast amount of Italian land has remained primarily for vine cultivation, and thousands of wineries can be found throughout the entire length and breadth of this beautiful country, drenched in Mediterranean sunshine and benefiting from the excellent fertile soils found there. Italy remains very much a 'land of wines', and one could not imagine this country, its landscape and culture, without it.