The World’s Three Greatest Underrated Wines, 2015 Edition
July 22, 2015
by Matt Kramer
You would think that in our we’re-all-connected-now world that no wine of any real quality could go unnoticed or unappreciated. Yet it’s not so. A variety of reasons contribute to a lack of recognition.
This is worth exploring briefly, if only to underscore that although we feel like we’re deluged with wines from everywhere, the fact is that many of the world’s most interesting wines don’t reach our shores (or those other nations either).
Wines or wine districts often go unrecognized or are underrated because the wines simply aren’t exported or, more common yet, the best wines of the zone never get sent.
Many Europeans, for example, are puzzled by the hoopla over California, Oregon and Washington wines. Why? Because the best examples from those locales never reach European markets. Indeed, some of the very best wines never leave their home state or even, thanks to direct-to-consumer winery mailing lists, reach the conventional stream of commerce even locally.
Sometimes wines are underrated or unrecognized because of changing tastes. This is particularly true for sweet wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji and Loire Valley districts such as Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux.
Finally, there’s the element of fashion. In the same way that there’s no accounting for taste, neither is it easy to explain the vagaries of fashion either.
For example, Riesling was hugely popular among American wine drinkers in the 1970s—and not just the ones seeking a simple, cheap sweet swill, either. A decade later it plummeted out of fashion and has never recovered in either popular esteem or sales. There’s no rational explanation for this, except to point to fashion.
All that noted, allow me to nominate what I, anyway, consider the World’s Three Greatest Underrated Wines, 2015 edition. I emphasize the element of an annual submission because A) I’d like to revisit this topic regularly as there are a lot of worthy contenders and B) because, thankfully, the aforementioned fortunes of fashion do change. Wines that once went unrecognized or underrated are now the new darlings. Think Grüner Veltliner, cru Beaujolais or, most recently of all, Douro table wines, to name but three.
1. Hunter Valley Sémillon. I will happily declare that the world’s greatest unrecognized dry white wine today is Hunter Valley Sémillon.
How unrecognized is it? When I lived in Melbourne, it was next to impossible to find any. This was not because of limited supply but rather, because for reasons that are incomprehensible, Melbourne’s wine drinkers (they are both legion and thirsty) don’t care for it.
When I asked Hunter Valley producers why they don’t promote their extraordinary Sémillon in Melbourne their reply was, “We don’t bother any more with Melbourne. They don’t like our Sémillon.” The American in me was boggled. I mean, Australia only has two really big urban markets. And this is their home market, never mind trying to make inroads in the United States, Asia or Europe.
How unique is Hunter Valley Sémillon? Consider this: Hunter Valley is a very warm winegrowing zone that’s a three-hour drive north of Sydney. (Substitute a “three-hour drive south of Los Angeles” and you’ll get the idea.)
Yet Hunter Valley Sémillon is rarely more than 11 percent alcohol, delivers a wonderfully crisp natural acidity and yet, even though harvested very early—which explains the low alcohol and bright acidity—the grapes are fully ripe in flavor development. (The fancy term for this is phenologically ripe.) This makes no sense. Yet it’s so.
When young, Hunter Valley Sémillon is disappointing. It seems thin, acidic and flavorless. Yet after a decade of age it blossoms into an astounding dry white wine proffering an eye-pleasing pale green tint and a scent and taste suffused with minerality and resonant with a lemon curd note.
The greatest examples, such as Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Sémillon, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Lovedale Sémillon and Brokenwood ILR Reserve Sémillon, are comparable to grand cru Chablis—and that’s not a name I take lightly or in vain. Yet the world sails serenely by, missing out on this singular dry white wine.