44th Parallel

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A friend strolled onto the front porch last weekend with a bottle of white wine in his hand and one of those swallowed-the-canary smiles on his face. I learned years ago that when this smile shows up, its owner will be carrying a bottle with a little test attached for the wine writer of his or her acquaintance. Usually I find a way out of the test, but this time I was the host and everyone else had already arrived.

Showtime.

Got some of the wine in a glass and took a sniff. Oaked Chardonnay was clearly one component, but the diesel notes were more like real automotive fuel than Riesling. I didn’t think my friend was trying to kill me, and I saw the cork pulled, so apparently it was a blend of Chard and Riesling and who knew what else.

Years ago the owner of the Sushi Ran restaurant in Sausalito, California correctly guessed the components of a blend of Riesling and Viognier that I brought back from a trip to Arizona (that’s another story), so I knew that weird combos are out there everywhere. But I wasn’t going to guess without a clue, so I asked for one, and got it: “Forty-fourth parallel.”

Forty-four degrees of latitude is a great address for wine on this planet, running through the Rhone valley and Tuscany and cruising past important vineyard regions from one end of North America (Niagara) to the other (Oregon). Was this mystery wine Canadian, perhaps from Nova Scotia? It wasn’t made in any style I knew from this continent, so I went back to Europe in my head.

The 44th parallel was too far south for Hungary, too far north for Lebanon or Israel. Piero Antinori once told me he was helping a friend plant a vineyard at 6,000 feet of elevation on Kyrgyzstan, but that was also too far south. Time to ask for another clue.

How much did the wine cost? “One dollar.”

I headed inside to look at the atlas. The 44th parallel goes all around the northern hemisphere, so at some point it pretty much has to run through China -- the only place where $1 for a bottle of wine makes sense. But where?

Xinjiang Province, surrounded by Mongolia, Tibet, and Kahakhstan. I kid you not. The vineyard is on the Yili River, according to the bottle. I could not find it in my atlas at first, so of course I went online. There I found a Chinese blogger who posted pictures of the river and advised visitors to the arid region thusly: “Maybe reasoning the hot and passion, I like the grapery there most. You can feel a kind of special breath. Grape what growing in this area seems alive and have nimbus. Well, you must not believe me. So, you'd better go to see it by yourself.”

After that, the wine made a lot more sense. It may have been only 11.5% alcohol, and the oak treatment might have lacked a certain finesse, but all that special breath and nimbus for only $1? Tell that to the terroirists!

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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