Ladies and Gents,
Every four years, a beautiful thing happens—the World Cup.
I refer to the greatest sport on Earth—that which causes wars to erupt, marriages to begin (and fail), brothers to pit against brothers, or even mothers to denounce their firstborn—all for the love of sport. Only football (or soccer, to us Yanks) creates unbridled passion and a fanaticism unlike any out there. I know—there are some folks who would disagree. The NASCAR fan who travels the country, a million miles on the odometer of the RV; the third generation Denver Broncos’ season ticket holder who designs their Christmas lights in the image of Elway….
To those naysayers, allow me to retort. Over the course of two years, the top 32 qualifying countries are chosen to play in the World Cup tournament. They are placed in eight groups of four, and play each other once to move out of the group stage. The 2014 competition is held in Brazil, arguably the epicenter of world football. This morning, I am watching the Group B game between the Netherlands and Chile. Spain, the heavy favorite in the group (and the competition), was upset by both countries in the last few days; their journey is finished in this campaign. In the 70th minute, Chile brings on a substitute, Valdivia. The crowd erupts. The announcer explains why: Valdivia, although a native of Chile, plays for Palmeiros, a major football club in Brazil, and is one of their star players. In fact, he was kidnapped by a band of Palmeiros supporters when news of his trade to another club surfaced. Club loyalty? Soccer is a religion.
Club loyalty? Soccer is a religion.
Take that, Hogettes.
I love the camaraderie of the game, along with fact that great wines come from region in those countries that world soccer has to offer. Shoot, climate change has enabled England to make very respectable sparkling wines. In the spirit of the World Cup, I give you my take on the teams, and what you should be drinking while losing your voice (and your mind) for the team you support.
- United States: An outsider in the race, but judging by the way they have played the past couple of years, there is no shame in their game. No Landon Donovan? Who cares! Dempsey, Jones, and Fabian Johnson—they may drink more beer than wine (Jones and Johnson were born and raised in Germany), but it don’t matter. Embrace diversity. As you wear the red, white, and blue, try a variety of wines that just aren’t Napa Cabernet or Sonoma Chardonnay. Oregon Pinot Gris, Washington Merlot, New York Finger Lakes Riesling, New Mexico Bubbly…all are welcome, and are really good. Make it to the finals, and open the Screaming Eagle.
- Argentina: Maradona and Messi—names legendary to Argentines everywhere. They are a hop, skip, and a jump from home, and could take the cup across the border. When it comes to famous “M”s, how about Mendoza and Malbec? Without a doubt, Malbec has made its mark. Good wines, great prices, and easy to pronounce. Nothing like a good red to go with some grilled beef or chicken kebobs, and whatever is left over, put in the sangria.
- Russia: Ah…the mother. They have Kerzhakov and Fayzulin. Great players, and a strong defense wins championships, but not for this team. You can knock back some Georgian wine, or, start the vodka shots if they do make it out of the group stage.
- Cameroon: This is where I start the African teams. No, no South Africa here to give us Steen or Pinotage. Cameroon is the only African team other than Ghana to have made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Led by Samuel Etoo, they have a nice team, but you’re drinking beer on this one. Home-made, from the garage or basement.
- Brazil: Well, the Amazon rainforest is not kind to grape varieties…too humid. Normally I would stick with Cachaca (think rum, but distilled cane juice instead of molasses) and drink Capirinhas until you speak Portuguese. Interestingly, the region that is in the rainforest, Vale de San Francisco, has two harvests a year instead of one. However, there are some regions of the country that do very well with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, mainly in the south. Vale de Vinhedos is the most regarded region. Not much comes to the U.S., but, if you find it and are wearing the “Canarinho” yellow, show your pride.
- Ivory Coast: Upsetter of France in 2002, that which usurped its past colonial master. Some great players are on this team: Drogba, the Toure brothers—masters of their craft. This is a team that will get out of the group stage, and could even make it to the semis, if a little luck comes their way. For liquor, see Cameroon.
- Spain: The darling of football, the “tiki-taka” style is a joy to watch. Barcelona and Real Madrid are clubs of the highest caliber. Although a Ribera del Duero may be a challenge to drink in high temperatures, they are used to balmy weather. Try an unoaked Tempranillo from Rioja, or a fruity Garnacha from the middle of the country. Bright whites are exemplified in the Rueda region; made from Verdejo (and sometimes a little Sauvignon Blanc), they are easy to drink and ideal for parties.
- Ghana: Arguably the most rounded of all the African national teams, they have a great mix of youth and veteran players. Muntari of AC Milan and Kevin “Prince” Boateng (his brother plays for Germany) lead the team, but you shall be guzzling the local Ghanaian beer when they leave the tournament early. Star Premium Lager, anyone?
- Portugal: This team is more than the pretty boy, Cristiano Ronaldo. From a historical perspective, the country’s wine has been one-dimensional. Port or vinho verde? Not anymore. Interesting wines from the Alentejo region give dimension to the lean and crisp whites of the Douro, and still, reds from Portugal’s great vineyards normally reserved for Port production are world-class.
- England: Yes, I put them down. Bubbly, anyone? If you can find the phenomenal wines from Nyetimber, try them. They are once in a lifetime. No different than the odds or opportunity of finding an England team that will win it all…or win one match on penalties…or make it through the group stage. And, no, I am not bitter.
- Uruguay: This country has long been a soccer powerhouse, and counts itself as one of the few to win it all and host. Luis Suarez drives me insane, arm-biting notwithstanding. He is Tannat. Brought by Basque settlers in the late 19th century, this rich red displays tobacco leaf and works surprisingly well with game and roasted meat. Fun.
- Australia: Cahills’ goal against the Netherlands will go down as one of the greats this year. Barossa Shiraz is a classic. Although they will not make it through the group stage, I am a fan of their gritty style. If you’re in the mood for a white wine, try an Aussie Riesling or blend. The searing acidity goes well with ceviche or shrimp on a Barbie…. That spellcheck capitalizes “barbie” is cause for concern.
- Korea: Soju. They are on the way with grapes, but plum wine or rice distillate is the way to go. One heck of a team, but a few shots of this will soften the blow when they are eliminated. No, not by Kim-Jong-Il or Dennis Rodman…but Algeria did a nice job on them.
- Chile: A pleasant surprise in the tournament so far. Taking care of Spain and Australia, they are a true underdog, and well-rounded—much like their selection of wines across this narrow country. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, you can grow anything here. Carmenere is their grape of identity: spicy, with blue and black fruits, and a hint of bell pepper. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc do well here, but I love their unique varieties like Pedro Ximenez, used historically for distillation. A great white wine, if you seek it out.
- Ecuador: Pisco. Enough said.
- Algeria: A well-disciplined team, a couple of known players who play hard and are doggingly persistent. The workhorse of the competition, that can, if on form, take on anyone. Sounds like their wine. In fact, when phylloxera killed vineyards in Europe in the last part of the 19th century, guess who picked up the slack? Yep. Algerian vino with your Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They have as many acres under vine as Germany. If you can’t find an Algerian wine, drink a Carignan or Grenache…will be as close as you can get.
- Greece: You have to admire their grit, but their odds are Atlas making it to the top of Olympus while eating spanakopita out of both hands. The wonderful news is their wines are good, hard-to-pronounce varieties, but perfect for summer. Try Moschofilero, a delicious white variety from the Pelopennese, or Assyrtiko, from the island of Santorini.
- Honduras: See Ecuador.
- Japan: They always have a chance to make it out of the group, and have a well-managed team. Uchida is a strong player, and I do like how they work the field. You are knocking back a few sake bombs. If they make it out of the group stage, step it up and go with a higher quality rice-fermented beverage. Takasodo Shumos’ “Divine Droplets” will do.
- Croatia: Home of Zinfandel, and a decent team. Unfortunately, Plavac Mali (the name for Zinfandel in its country of origin) is fun, heady, and versatile, but never regarded as a top-flight cultivar. Highly enjoyable, though!
- Switzerland: Neutrality is certainly a strong suit. This team has come out of nowhere in the past few years, due to a number of immigrants in the last generation. The Vaud and Valais regions of Switzerland make some wines that are generally only available in the bistros of Geneva and Bern. Check out a Chasselas (called Fendant in Valais), a captivating white wine variety from this high-altitude region.
- Belgium: Another surprisingly strong team. When you have Vincent Kompany, the captain of Manchester City, anchoring your back four, it becomes difficult to find a weakness. They aren’t known for wine, but beer? Absolutely. Drink a Trappist Ale while seeing your team go to the quarters, possibly the semis.
- Netherlands: The other side of Belgium. This is the Minnesota Vikings of the World Cup. Been to the final game three times, but no trophy. Again, not a wine-producing country, but thinking a Genever (the predecessor to gin) and tonic, or a Heineken. Robbie or Robben would approve.
- Colombia: A phenomenal team. Strong, and could go all the way. Adrian Ramos is one of the top 15 strikers in the world right now…I see success in their future. However, you are drinking Colombian coffee liqueur or rum…see Honduras. With how far they will go in the competition, expect a nasty hangover in the morning.
- Italy: Not that I’m bitter, but the Italian team invented the “dive.” Winners of the first Academy Award for writhing on the ground in agonizing pain after infinitesimal contact with the opposing player, their wines are anything but whining. They are beautiful, much like watching del Piero, Pirlo, or Totti at form. There is nothing they cannot grow or ferment. Try a Pinot Grigio from Friuli, or Dolcetto from Piedmont. A tad frisky? Go south. Etna Rosso, from Norello Mascalese, is unlike anything on Earth.
- Costa Rica: Another pleasant surprise. Alexis Sanchez is one of the best players in La Liga, and they will advance. No wine (thank goodness), so hit up the Costa Rican rum or beer. Imperial Lager. Goes down like an upset win against Italy…smooth.
- France: 1998 World Cup winners, and then eliminated by an Ivory Coast team in 2002. This year’s team has come out of nowhere, but no one ever disputes their abilities. Unpredictable, and with a certain arrogance. Sound familiar, Bordeaux? Bring some substance with the fluff and circumstance and they may win it all again, just like the region that gave us Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
- Iran: What? Could this be the birthplace of wine? Shiraz? Well, it’s a party. They are just happy to be there.
- Germany: I am enamored of the strength, size, and speed of this team. Mertesacker and Mario Goetze? Scary. I feel this is a true favorite of the competition, yet their wines are not about strength. Longevity? Yes. Riesling and Sylvaner are underappreciated, and now grapes such as Pinot Noir and Dornfelder get global respect. You might knock back a bottle of 1971 Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling when they hoist the cup. Or a beer. Whatever.
- Nigeria: A good team—they are in a pairing that will see them through the group stages. They also have Mikel, who is an amazing talent for Chelsea. However, they, like Iran, are happy to be there. For liquor…see Ghana, Ecuador, or the Ivory Coast.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: This is the World Cup Mr. Irrelevant. Shame, because this year’s teams have the most talented players in the world. Dzeko of Manchester City was unstoppable this year. They do have good wine, you just can’t find it. Sounds like their group stage win thus far—don’t feel bad. I have the same problem with England. Drink some Blatina, a red grape variety, or go to the slivovitz or rakia, a plum or mixed fruit distillate. Hard going down, it will, at least, help take the bad taste out of your mouth.
I always say, if you make it to the World Cup, you are a winner. Drink, be merry, and remember…the next tournament is only four years away.