The surprising wine-producing regions you’ve never heard of

A camel at the Val d'Argan vineyard in the village of Ounara near Essaouira, Morocco
A camel at the Val d'Argan vineyard in the village of Ounara near Essaouira, Morocco - Getty

About a decade ago, I accompanied a doughty group of English wine producers to a huge wine fair in Germany, where they were exhibiting their wines for the first time to buyers and sommeliers from all over the world.

People laughed. People responded with incredulity. One sommelier asked, and I don’t think he was joking, if the grapes were grown in greenhouses.

But the wine map changes. Now English wine is accepted and recognised around the world (thanks to its sparklers but increasingly its still wines, too), and grape growers in Finland have announced their intention to apply to the EU for recognition as a wine-producing country.

But where else in the world is wine made where you might not expect it?

Yamanashi, Japan

Japan is known for its sake, made by fermenting polished rice, but it does also make wine from grapes. The best-known grape wines outside Japan are light, delicate whites made from the koshu grape.

Koshu’s origin is something of a mystery. “Considered to be indigenous to Japan,” according to Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz), research suggests that it is a hybrid, the offspring of a still-unidentified European vitis vinifera and a wild Chinese species, probably vitis davidii.

Most of Japan’s koshu is planted in central Honshu, Japan’s main island, to the west of Tokyo in the prefecture of Yamanashi, which is overlooked by Mount Fuji.

What do they taste like?

The wines are subtle and pure with gentle notes of cooked rice, lemon and yuzu. Unsurprisingly, they go very well with sushi.

A buddhist monk surveys grapes in Yamanashi, Japan
A buddhist monk surveys grapes in Yamanashi, Japan - Getty

Tenerife

The distinctive wines from the rugged Canary Island of Tenerife have become a sommelier favourite, but there isn’t much of them to go round. Situated in the Atlantic Ocean, about 180 miles off the coast of Africa and even further south than Madeira, Tenerife has about 6,500ha of vines. It is home to Mount Teide, an active volcano that last erupted in 1909 and, at 12,190ft, the third-highest volcanic structure in the world, and volcanic soils dominate the island.

Grapes include listán blanco (aka palomino, used in mainland Spain to make sherry), listán prieto (aka país) and listán negro. The producer everyone pilgrimages to see is Envínate, a collective of four friends, who met while studying wine at university in Alicante. Their wines are available from thesourcingtable.com.

What to drink?

I’d go for the Benje Tinto 2022 (12%, £33.50), a light red with notes of sour cherries and white pepper that’s made with no added sulphur.

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Distinctive wines from Tenerife have become a sommelier favourite - getty

Uruguay

Its neighbour, Argentina, took the tannic malbec grape from Bordeaux and created a style that is luminous, perfumed and juicy – and, most importantly, can be drunk without waiting 20 years for the wine to mature. Uruguay has pulled off a similar trick with the tannat grape, though without the stratospheric export success. Tannat is grown in south-west France where it makes Madiran, all too often an almost punitively acidic and tannic red. Ripened under Uruguay’s South American sun, tannat becomes richer and plumper and can be drunk when it is still young.

Most of Uruguay’s vineyards are in coastal regions, starting at the estuary of the River Plata, which Uruguay shares with Argentina (Buenos Aires is located on the other bank) and curving round towards Brasil.

Where to buy?

If you want to try it, The Wine Society sells three Uruguayan reds, priced at £9.95, £29 and £49.

The tannat grape is Uruguay's answer to Malbec
The tannat grape is Uruguay's answer to Malbec - Getty

Finland

Finland made headlines this summer with the news that it plans to seek EU recognition as a wine-producing country. That is quite something for a country whose head is in the Arctic Circle and whose capital, Helsinki, lies on its southern coast on the 60th parallel – the same latitude as Siberia. Finland currently produces wine only in small quantities. A 2022 survey by the country’s wine producers’ association found that the average harvest was a very modest 146kg while the median harvest was just 30kg. Only five of the survey’s respondents expressed an interest in producing wine on a commercial scale.

What do they make?

Berry (such as lingonberry) and fruit wines are much more common in Finland than those made from grapes, but there are plantings of grapes that are more suited to cold climates. These include solaris (an early-ripening German hybrid), madeleine angevine and gewürztraminer.

Finland plans to seek EU recognition as a wine-producing country
Finland plans to seek EU recognition as a wine-producing country - Getty

Morocco

Over the last century, Morocco has had a rollercoaster of a history with wine production. France claimed a protectorate over Morocco between 1912 and 1956 and during these years a significant amount of expertise and effort was poured into creating and improving vineyards. However, EU quotas imposed in the Sixties destroyed the country’s export market and many vineyards were pulled out. Today the country makes around 40 million bottles a year, most of which is consumed domestically.

About three-quarters of the wine made in Morocco is red and vineyards are clustered in coastal areas in the north of the country. With the cooling influence of the Atlantic and the elevation of the Atlas mountains, Morocco is thought to have better natural potential for wine production than you might imagine and has attracted some foreign investment.

What should I try?

A project between two Moroccan grower families and the Graillot family of Crozes-Hermitage in the Rhône in France produces particularly good red wine; try the spicy, rustic Tandem Syrah du Maroc 2021 (13.5%, The Wine Society, £14.50; Yapp, £20).

Morocco has had a rollercoaster of a history with wine production
Morocco has had a rollercoaster of a history with wine production - Getty

Ukraine

Winemaking in Ukraine goes back to the 4th century BC and I do not need to point out that the last century has seen many disruptions to this long tradition. The Second World War caused the loss of 68,000ha of vineyards; the country lost its most important winemaking region (and half its bottled wine production) when Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014; and then there is the current situation.

Still, the country is resilient. It boasts six main wine regions, including the Black Sea region in the south, which specialises in full-bodied reds and sparkling wines, and Bessarabia in the south-west where popular varieties include sukholimansky white, chardonnay and riesling for whites and Odessa black, cabernet sauvignon and merlot for red.

How does its future look?

The new Wines of Ukraine organisation has 15 members and is actively seeking to promote and export the country’s wines worldwide, to which end it will host a tasting of some 60 of the country’s wines in London in October.

Gathering grapes in Zakarpattia
Gathering grapes in Zakarpattia - Getty

What are your favourite wines from little-known regions? Let us know in the comments