Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Tuesday Tasting: Reds from the Southern Hemisphere
Tuesday Tasting is a regular feature of Lyke2Drink that explores some of the best beers, wines and spirits on the market. This week we're taking a tour of red wines from south of the Equator.
Not long ago any serious discussion of red wine started and ended in one of four places: France, Italy, Spain or California. The wine world is pretty traditional in its thinking and no other producers were giving real cause for a change in the accepted wisdom.
That was then, this is now. A number of circumstances came together to leave a crack in the door and vineyards from other regions and they exploited the opportunity. Vineyards located south of the Equator are perhaps the most successful in crashing the party with shiraz, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and other reds that offer exciting alternatives. Wineries principally from five Southern Hemisphere countries -- Australia, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina – have the traditional producers scrambling to try to match quality and price.
What changed to rock the world of red wines? Like most major market changes, it was no single event. A grape shortage in California in the 1990s created an opportunity for Australians to help consumers discover that good red wine need not cost $40 a bottle. Chilean vintners soon would prove it need not cost $15 a bottle. About the time this lesson was soaking in, media reports surfaced of thousands of bottles of fake Italian Chianti and French Burgundy being discovered on the market, casting doubt in the minds of some consumers about the authenticity of what they had been drinking. The French made their situation more difficult when they stumbled politically in dealing with America. The U.S. Dollar faded against the Euro during the last few years, making price an issue for the higher end French and Italian labels. Then grape harvests in several of the major red wine regions reached near record levels, resulting in gluts in the market. The Australian wine surplus has consumers in that country feasting on $2 bottles of wine at the moment.
No longer does anyone question a bottle of Australian red wine brought to a dinner party. Consumers find adventure in trying a red from South African, a country that not long ago was virtually banned as a trading partner with the U.S. Southern Hemisphere winemakers have uncovered four keys that are helping them gain market share: value pricing that encourages trial; availability of popular varietals, such as merlot and shiraz; easy to understand labels; and good wine that matches what the casual wine drinker is looking for in a red.
Simply put, for a large chunk of American wine consuming public it is easier, cheaper and more enjoyable to drink an Australian wine than a French wine. They don’t need to try to figure out the mysteries of the Bordeaux, Burgundy or some other appellation. The labels don’t require experience with French pronunciations. If they are looking for a merlot, it says so on the label. For most entry to mid-level wines, they will likely pay less for a wine of similar quality. And, many experts argue the wine is closer to what the typical American palate wants in a wine experience. Besides, Australians are viewed as fun. The French? Well, they’re French.
Here's a quick tour around the Southern Hemisphere wine world:
Argentina: The wine industry in Argentina has been primarily focused on domestic and South American markets, so it can be hard to find an Argentine wine in the U.S. Most people are surprised to learn that Argentina out produces Chile and is fairly close to the U.S. in total output of wine. The first grapes were planted by Spanish settlers in the mid-1500s. Investment in the industry during the 1990s has pointed vineyards in the direction of internationally favored grape varieties. The results so far include some interesting blends, such as Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec-Merlot. Wine to try: Argento Malbec or Cantena Cabernet Sauvignon.
Australia: The first vines were brought to Australia in 1788. Several waves of European immigrants brought more vines and wine making experience. Equally important is that during the last several decades Australians have heavily invested in winemaking infrastructure and now rank among the most modern of any wine producing country worldwide. The technology, facilities and automation, coupled with some the best growing conditions on the planet, have meant abundant crops and quality wines. Tax incentives have caused over production and price cutting, which favors the consumer for the moment. Reds from the Barossa Valley are among the world’s best. Shiraz, an old world grape called Syrah in Europe, is Australia’s signature. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also do well down under. Wine to try: There are plenty of fine Australian reds, so it is difficult to go wrong. A good bet is one of the reds from Penfolds, which can range from the affordable to the pricey. Each is worth what you will pay for them.
Chile: Grapes were first planted in Chile by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. No one is sure how much of the production went towards sacramental wines and how much was for general consumption, but centuries would pass before the next big evolution in Chilean wine. In the 1800s wealthy landowners began importing French vines and French winemakers. When phylloxera and other disease wiped out vines in Europe, Chile’s vineyards were not harmed. Political difficulties during much of the last century slowed the emergence of Chile as a wine producing powerhouse, but foreign investment arrived to bolster wine making in the country. Chile is recognized as a value wine producing region, but prices for some labels have been on the rise as the reputation for quality grows. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Carmenere are the reds to look for from Chile. Wine to try: Santa Ema Reserve Merlot says quite a bit about the quality wine being produced in Chile in a package priced around $10.
New Zealand: The first vineyard on New Zealand was established in 1835. It was not until the 1980s that New Zealand started to get noticed on the international scene and mostly for Sauvignon Blanc and other whites. About 75 percent of New Zealand’s wines are white, but Pinot Noir, along with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, from New Zealand are worth trying. The Hawkes Bay, Otago and Malborough areas show the best promise for reds. Wine to try: Felton Road Pinot Noir is a very fine red wine.
South Africa: The vineyards in this country were first established in the 1600s, but went through significant development under the British during the 1800s because wars made Continental wines difficult to import to the United Kingdom. Ignore for much of the last century, South African vintners did their own thing. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot, South Africa produces the Pinotage, a blend of the Pinot Noir and Cinsault grapes. Wine to try: Goats do Roam, a tongue in cheek poke at the French Rhone reds, is a very affordable blend of pinotage, shiraz, cinsault, grenache and carignan. For a little more, try Warwick Estate Three Cape Ladies, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinotage.