Unexpected Winemaking Countries | 4 Nations Of Wine, You May Not Have Tried

Harry Lambourne
28th June 2023

We all know the wines of Bordeaux. Everyone has tried Rioja. Even those nations which may be lesser known like Chile are still globally famous, but it should come as no shock that winemaking is practiced across almost the whole world. So, we’re going to delve into some of the world’s more unexpected winemaking countries.

Viticulture has been a core part of human culture for thousands of years and people have been making wine for a long time. We could write an almost endless article, picking up different winemaking nations. However, we thought we’d pick a few that really stand out. This being due to their rise in popularity within the export market, or their rich and interesting history as it pertains to our favourite drink.

So, we might not be able to offer you a wine from the Savage Vines cellar for all of these burgeoning, yet unexpected winemaking nations. However, if you come across them on a wine list, or at a specialist retailer – don’t baulk! Give them a go. You might just discover a new favourite of the unexpected winemaking countries.

Let’s dive into the viticultural history behind four unexpected winemaking countries. You’ll get to learn a bit about their winemaking history, as well as the wines which they produce. These unexpected winemaking countries are Georgia, Slovenia, Mexico and China. Let’s do this!

Unexpected WineMAking Countries – Georgia

Georgia is first on our list of unexpected winemaking countries, partly because it really is beginning to make a name for itself in the export market.

Georgia is a small nation nestled between Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea. Yet, it is a nation whose wines are gradually becoming more and more well known beyond its borders.

This is a fairly recent change, despite its long history. Due to political turmoil in the 20th century, when Georgia was part of the USSR, the wine industry suffered and production regressed. However, they became independent in 1991 and the road to reestablishing themselves was underway.

This one of the unexpected winemaking countries aren’t new to the winemaking game though. Wine has been made here for over eight thousand years, with Georgia being known as one of the earliest sites of winemaking. Their ancient winemaking processes, known formally as the ‘Ancient Georgian Traditional Qvevri Winemaking Method‘ were added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013, (MacNeil 643).

But what is a Qvevri, (pronounced ‘kev-ree’)? Qvevri are large, egg-shaped vessels which are lined and sealed with beeswax and buried underground for up to 6 months, while being fermented with wild yeast. This keeps them cool. At their smallest, they can fit a grown man. The largest can fit around 10 tons.

The white wines will generally be from two native grape varieties. Rkatsiteli, (pronounced are-cats-i-tell-ee), which is a high acid, hardy grape with green apple notes. Then, Mtsvane, (pronounced mets-vah-neh), a fruity and aromatic variety often blended with the above. The red wine is often Saperavi, (pronounced sah-per-rav-ee). Saperavi is deeply coloured with wild berry, pepper and gamey notes. It’s a lot like Syrah, (MacNeil 643).

The end result of this incredibly unique process is an equally unique wine. What is most striking about Qvevri wines is the orange colour. With the red wines, this is an orange flash in a deep purple colour. However, white wine it is an unmistakably dark orange hue. The nuanced flavours of bittersweet resin, wild herbs, dried orange peel, walnuts, fruit and honey will really jump out at you.

Georgian Orange Wine - Unexpected Winemaking Countries
Georgian Orange Wine – Key Export Of One Of Our Unexpected Winemaking Countries

This combination of wild yeast fermented orange wine from unknown grape varieties helps to explain the resurgence of Georgian wine. It is no longer remaining one of the unexpected winemaking countries. Georgia has been making wine this way for thousands of years, but it happens to be right on trend with the natural wine craze.

Georgia won’t be one of the unexpected winemaking countries for much longer, if the orange wine fascination persists.

Unexpected WineMAking Countries – Slovenia

Next, on our list of unexpected winemaking countries is Slovenia. In many respects, their viticultural history is not dissimilar to Georgia. Winemaking dates back to 500BC when grapes were planted by Celtic and Illyrian tribes, (MacNeil 423).

Viticulture persisted right up until the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. From this point, it entered a state of flux. From independence, to joining Yugoslavia, then World War 2, folding into the Eastern Bloc and once more, revolution and independence. It’s unsurprising that during this period of turmoil, it was hard to establish a functioning wine industry. Wine was made and sold in bulk to coops, but very little fine wine was produced.

However, this entry on our list of unexpected winemaking countries is also having a resurgence. Since joining the EU in 2004, wine standards rose and today they produce some outstanding wines.

In terms of terroir and climate, Slovenia is not far from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy. This is evident in the grape varieties which are used. You’ll see Italian grapes with their Slovenian names. Pinot Grigio, (Sivi Pinot), Ribola Gialla, (Rebula) and Refosco, (Refosko) are all used, as well as international varieties which are used throughout Northern Italy, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

It also has the same latitude as regions such as Bordeaux, Napa and Piedmont. This means it’s great for winemaking, but famous similar challenges such as frost, drought and hail.

In terms of areas of production, three key regions dominate Slovenia winemaking. They are Primorska, Posavge and Podravje, (MacNeil 425).

Primorska hugs the Italian border and produces around 40% of all Slovenian wine. Often, with the grape varieties mentioned above. You’ll also see the local varieties of Pinela and Zelen utilised in the prestigious sub-region of the Vipava Valley.

Vipava Valley - Unexpected Winemaking Countries
Vipava Valley – A Hub Of Fine Wine Production In Slovenia (One Of Our Unexpected Winemaking Countries)

Then, Posavge is the smallest of the key regions but it is the only region which produces more red wine than white. A particular variety which excels here is Blaufränkisch, which you’ll see labelled as Fankinja.

Finally, is Podravje. This region is located in the North-Eastern portion of the country and can serve as a point of difference to the Italian influence white wines of Primorska. Furmint and Riesling excel here, (called Šipon and Renski Rizling respectively). There’s also a particularly interesting vine which has achieved global fame.

Podravje is home to the oldest grape vine in the world. The vine is estimated to be around 450 years old and is made up of the local grape variety Žametovka. Sadly, this is more of an interesting tidbit than something you can get your hands on. It produces roughly one gallon of wine per year and is reserved exclusively for the world’s most famous and influential figures.

So, if you’d like a taste of Northern Italy, with a different spin, or some interesting local varieties then Slovenia could be the one for you. Much like Georgia, Slovenia’s reputation is on the up and it won’t remain one of the unexpected winemaking countries.

Unexpected WineMAking Countries – Mexico

Next, on our list of unexpected winemaking countries, we’re moving across the Atlantic. Mexico is most definitely not a winemaking nation whose produce you’ll find in every supermarket. However, it may interest you to know that this was actually the original producer of wine in the Americas and one of the most new-world wine nations, (MacNeil 805).

So, it deserves a place on the list of unexpected winemaking countries, despite having wineries that date back to 1597. That’s right! Casa Madero, which continues to produce wine today, was established over 400 years ago in the town of Santa Maria de las Parras, (MacNeil 805).

There are around 7660 acres of vineyards across Mexico and production is centred around three areas. One is the North Central states of Cahuila, Durango and Chihuahua just south of Texas. Then, there’s the Central Mexico states of Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Queretaro. However, the Baja Peninsula is the key area in this entry on our list of unexpected winemaking countries.

The Baja Peninsula stretches for 1012 miles and is set into the mineral rich Sierra da Baja mountain range which serves to create a clear divide in the climate of this peninsula. Viticulture is largely concentrated in the valleys to the west of these mountains. Here, the Mediterranean style climate is moderated by cold air brought in from the Pacific Ocean which helps to cool the grapes in the inescapable Mexican heat.

There are specific key valleys within this area, such as the Guadalupe Valley, San Antonio Valley and Santo Tomás Valley. The Guadalupe Valley has the greatest reputation, sometimes being referred to as ‘Mexico’s Napa’, (MacNeil 806). The Guadalupe Valley is a really considerable size, almost the same size as Chianti Classico in Tuscany. Along this Ruta de Vino, (Wine Route), there are 70 smaller wineries that look to produce high-end wines.

Interestingly, many wineries won’t grow the grapes themselves. Rather, they buy from elsewhere. ‘La Escuelita’, (‘The Little School’), is part trade school and part wine training boot camp. Here, locals are trained to make artisanal wines, (MacNeil 806).

Indeed, another reason that Mexico has been included in our article on unexpected winemaking countries is the frankly unexpected blends of wines which are found here. The grape varieties are classically European. Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon are the primary red grapes, with grapes such as Merlot, Syrah and Grenache also playing a part. Then, for white wine you’ll find Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Viognier.

Although, it’s worth noting that Nebbiolo in Mexico is not Piedmont’s Nebbiolo. It’s thought that cuttings of similar styles of grapes were bought over by Italian immigrants after World War 2, but the proper identification of those grape varieties has been lost, so now this variety is referred to as ‘Nebbiolo’.

Nebbiolo Grapes - Used in Barolo Wine Production
Nebbiolo Grapes – Not The Same In Mexico As They Are In Italy

Another interesting nuance is the lack of regulation in the wine labelling. This is particularly evident in the labelling of blends. There’s no stipulation that the varieties must be listed in the order they dominate the blend. So, that ‘Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Syrah’ blend you find could in fact by 70% Syrah, (MacNeil 807)!

Unexpected WineMAking Countries – China

Last, on our list of unexpected winemaking countries is China. Perhaps, the most unexpected entry of all. However, China’s obsession with wine is growing and their relationship with the good grape juice is an incredibly interesting and quickly evolving one.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, as of 2016, China are the leading consumers of wine by volume. After all, they make up a significant portion of the global population. However, their interest in this ‘traditionally’ western beverage has had a real boom of late.

While interested has been renewed, there is actually evidence to suggest that winemaking in China dates back to 2500BC. The Shandong Province has records of around two hundred clay vessels which contained residues of wines made from grape. There was also records of wine made from rice and honey, (sake and mead), (MacNeil 908).

However, the interest in these beverages dropped off and wine made from grains, or fruit like lychee and plum took precedence. Indeed, up until recent times beer and spirits were the Chinese tipple of choice. In the 1970s, they represented 99% of the alcohol consumed in the country, (MacNeil 909).

However, a key turning point came in the 21st century when increased modernisation shifted dramatically and a large number of people saw an increase in both living standards and disposable income. With this, came a shift towards elements of western culture, lifestyle and goods. Wine is one of the commodities that benefited from this.

A number of staggering deals have begun to happen in the Chinese wine market. Wine consumption doubled between 2008 and 2013. In 2011, buyers in China paid an eye-watering $541,000 for 25 cases of Château Lafite-Rothschild. Then, in 2013 Hong Kong auction houses set 483 world records for purchases of wine. Almost all of which pertain to Burgundy and Bordeaux wines, (MacNeil 909).

The desire for these wines were so great that counterfeit scandals arose rapidly and with increasing frequency. Some estimate that, as of 2013, around 50% of foreign premium wines sold in China may have been fake. People would attend large group tastings and pay hundreds of dollars for empty bottles of Château Petrus, knowing they could be sold for thousands, (if not more), at auction. This has led to a trend in these events. Now, bottles are regularly smashed once they’re finished to minimise the risks of this happening. (MacNeil 915).

The love obsession with these two wine regions in China has persisted today. It has in fact informed much of the production of Chinese wine. Wine production within China doubled between 2002 and 2012. One key area of development was small bespoke producers who looked to recreate the premium wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy on their own soil.

French wine is so desired that you’ll see Chinese producers labelling their wineries as Château. For example, Château Hansen, which is based on the edge of the Gobi Desert, released their first vintage of Bordeaux style Cabernet Sauvignon for $700 a bottle, (MacNeil 910).

Gobi Desert - Unexpected Winemaking Countries
Gobi Desert – An Unexpected Source Of Cabernet Sauvignon From One Of Our Unexpected Winemaking Countries

Beyond that, French producers have seen the demand and looked to throw their hat into the ring. Château Laifte-Rothschild combined with Citic Group, (China’s largest state-owned investment company). The end goal was to produce wine in Shandong Province. Then, Moët and Chandon combined with SOE Nongken creating a $5.5 million sparkling wine facility, which has created some high-quality sparkling wine in Ningxia.

So, while the Chinese have an undeniable thirst for wine, the production had been lagging behind. However, French winemakers are sensing the desire for wine in this region. They see sizeable investment as a guaranteed return. Not only that, it will only increase the interest in their wines.

Maybe China is the most unexpected of our unexpected winemaking countries. However, if you’ve got deep pockets and want a taste from Bordeaux that comes from a bit further afield, then China may be the place to do it!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look into some of the more unexpected winemaking countries. The resurgence of winemaking in these nations as well as a heap of others speaks to one of our favourite aspects of wine. Step out of your comfort zone. Try new grapes, try new regions. Winemakers are making truly exciting stuff out there and you never know what your new favourite style will be. Anyone for a Chinese Cab Sav?

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Works Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company, 2015.

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