|The term "world-class" no longer pertains only to wines made in Europe and California. New worlds of winemaking have emerged, and their products should vie for attention in any wine drinker's house. Some of the finest cabernets, merlots, chardonnays, rieslings and other varietals are produced in New World regions such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile. But can these wines really compare to the finest produced by Europe and California? Absolutely.
New World wines are technically defined as "wines produced in regions established by colonies of European exploration, which began with some of the longer voyages in the 15th century." In other words, New World wines are all those produced in regions other than Europe and the Mediterranean countries.
The most prominent and productive New World wine-producing countries are the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With the exception of those of South Africa, New World wines are generally produced to express the varietal fruit qualities of the grape rather than of their geographic origins. New World wine styles are also more subject to market trends, and nature tends to play a lesser role in the process of making them -- modern technology takes the lead here. Consequently, the popularity of these wines is starting to catch on. Today there are New World wine competitions, festivals and special sections in wineshops.
The term "New World wines" certainly conjures up images of gallant explorers landing on the shores of new continents, spreading old traditions into fertile uncharted territory. Now wine consumers, too, can make courageous efforts to explore the world in hopes of discovering new wines. Europe and California may offer safe havens for the traditionalist, but there's a wealth of quality products just waiting to be found if you know where to point your compass.
Although the Land Down Under has been producing wine for more than 175 years, it's only been within the last 20 that Australia has been recognized as a producer of world-class wines. Table wine production just recently surpassed that of fortified wines, as Australians shift from a cheap, wholesale product to a more refined, quality-oriented market. This shift is a result of a keener focus on vineyards planted in cool-climate districts, such as Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills. Aussie winemakers have realized the need to concentrate on wines with more elegance, clarity of fruit flavor and complexity in order to satisfy discriminating palates worldwide. Areas once abandoned because of their inability to produce ripe fruit are now back in production, as winemakers use the strengths of this continent's diverse growing regions.
Wine production in Australia is concentrated in four states: South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. Some of the more famous regions -- such as Hunter, Barossa, Coonawarra, Yarra, Padthaway, and Adelaide -- are producing the majority of its world-class wines. The most famous and consistently best Australian red wine is Penfolds' Grange from South Australia. It's also the most expensive. Produced from the shiraz grape (the Australian name for syrah) and capable of aging for decades, it's one of the most sought-after red wines in the world.
Vines were first planted in New Zealand in 1819, yet it took more than 150 years for producers to realize that their maritime climate was ideal for growing world-class wine grapes. The country's wine production is still small by world standards (about one-tenth that of Australia) but vineyards now flourish in nine growing regions -- Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, Northland, Auckland, Wairarapa, Nelson, Canterbury and Central Otago -- spanning the country from the North Island to the South Island.
The largest wine region in terms of vineyard acreage is Marlborough, situated at the northeastern tip of the South Island. Here, the three most recognized grapes planted are chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc, with the latter being responsible for putting Marlborough on the international map. Sauvignon blanc is probably the best-known grape from this region and is the most-planted variety. New Zealand sauvignon blancs tend to be rather pungent, aromatic and a bit herbaceous -- a style for which the coutry has become known. Chardonnay is the second most widely planted grape, with the style of wines made from this variety more dependent on the winemaker than on the vineyard. Rieslings range from dry to very sweet, botrytis-affected dessert wines, which can be produced almost every year.
Centered around the town of Napier is one of New Zealand's oldest and best wine growing regions, Hawkes Bay, where chardonnay is king. With intense flavors and bold elegance, Hawkes Bay chardonnays are seldom matched by those of other regions. In the red-grape category, cabernet sauvignon is the predominant variety, often showcasing intense flavors with a hint of herbaceousness. And depending on the winemaker, these wines can exhibit a strong oak influence from aging up to two years in new French barrels.
South Africa has been a major wine producer for more than 350 years, and its wine-producing regions centered around the Cape of Good Hope are what many believe to be some of the most picturesque in the world. With mountains jutting straight up more than 1,600 feet from valley floors, South Africa's 10 proclaimed areas of origin (wine-producing regions) are home to more than 4,500 wineries. The country currently ranks eighth in the world in total wine production, but it wasn't until the recent abolition of apartheid that the country's wine market was opened to the United States. Even so, only 80,000 to 100,000 cases of South African wine are imported into the United States each year.
In general, South African wines are more European in style than other New World wines, because many South African winemakers study viticulture and winemaking in France. In addition, South African wines have been favored throughout the world for their style, as they incorporate finesse and charm rather than brawn and forwardness, like their Australian counterparts. Their fingerprint is a cross between Bordeaux and Tuscany, with red wines generally exhibiting slightly lower alcohol levels, higher acids and firm, ripe tannins. They are also less opaque in color and tend to age very gracefully.
Of South Africa's 10 areas of origin, Stellenbosch is considered the center of gravity. Situated east of Cape Town and bordered on the south by False Bay, wines from this area reflect the fertile soils and coastal influence needed to produce a world-class product. With the highest concentration of wineries and widely diverse microclimates, Stellenbosch consistently produces this country's best wines.
Wines originating from the regions of Paarl, Constantia, Walker Bay and Elgin should also be considered for purchase. Paarl and Constantia, like Stellenbosch, focus heavily on fine-wine production, while Walker Bay, a newer, cool-climate area, produces some very good chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling. Elgin, an area that until recently was known primarily for its apple production, is also turning out some fine cool-climate grape varieties.
New World wines from this South American country are steeped in European history. The first vineyards in Chile took root in the mid-1500s, when missionaries planted the black pais grape to produce sacramental wines. After the revolt of 1810, which ended 275 years of Spanish rule, vintners looked to reshape the future of their industry. They began importing vinifera vine stocks from Bordeaux and other prominent wine regions of Europe to increase both wine quality and production.
This importation of European vine stock proved ironic when, in 1870, the phylloxera louse began its devastating march across Europe and North America. Chile's vineyards, protected by natural barriers, remained untouched. Thus, when Europe began its monumental task of vineyard restoration, it turned to Chile for young, healthy plants for grafting onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Today, Chile remains a rare example of a country where pure, ungrafted European vines still flourish.
Recent interest from foreign investors in Chile's wine industry has boosted the country's recognition. France's Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) purchased a 50-percent equity share of Vina Los Vascos in 1988. Mumm, the Seagram's-owned sparkling wine house, was the first to build a winery there more than two years ago, and Napa Valley's Franciscan Estates has purchased 500 acres for its new Chilean property, Alto de Casablanca. In addition, Robert Mondavi has established a $12 million joint venture with Chile's Vina Errazuriz, Sebastiani is buying Chilean bulk wine to bottle for airline use under its Vendange label, and American vintners Kendall-Jackson, Firestone and Hess Collection are currently scouting and courting potential partners. With high quality and low prices, more and more vintners worldwide are importing Chilean wine juice for use in blending in their own portfolios.
Argentina is perhaps one of the world's few remaining major wine-producing regions yet to be fully exploited. This is due to the fact that up until 1980, Argentina's annual per-capita consumption rate of wine was more than 22 gallons. By 1992, however, that figure dropped by almost half (and is still dropping), and wine producers began giving serious consideration to exporting their product.
Unlike Chile, Argentina failed to draw a substantial amount of outside investment in the 1980s and '90s. However, Michel Rolland from Pomerol, Italian vermouth producers Martini & Rossi and the French Champagne houses of Chandon, Mumm, Deutz and Piper-Heidsieck have all held interests in Argentina vineyards for the past several decades.
Argentinean wine regions are widely dispersed but mostly confined to the western strip bordering the foothills of the Andes Mountains. The first recorded vineyards were planted at Santiago del Estero in 1557. The city of Mendoza was founded in 1561, and vineyards in the area known as San Juan to the north were established on a commercial scale between 1569 and 1589. In the 1820s, and again in the early 1900s, there was a massive influx of European immigrants which brought new vines and winemaking skills, thus laying the foundation for Argentina's mammoth domestic wine industry.
One of the most distinctive white grape varieties grown in Argentina is torrontes. With three different strains -- Torrontes Mendocino, Torrontes Sanjuanino and Torrontes Riojano -- the third, Torrontes Riojano, is by far the most prominent. Torrontes wines are generally light in body and tend to exhibit strong muscat-like aromas. With the idea of exporting (to the United States and Britain), chardonnay is now the white wine that everyone wants to produce. Argentina has its own clone of chardonnay -- the so-called Mendoza clone -- that was developed at the University of California at Davis. These wines tend to vary in style from winemaker to winemaker.
Argentina's signature red grape variety is malbec (also spelled malbeck), which has found its true home in upper Mendoza. Wines tend to be deep in color, exhibiting robust fruit characteristics worthy of oak aging. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, nebbiolo, dolcetto and tempranillo are also prominent red grape varieties grown here.
So no matter which country's wine you decide to explore, with prices averaging $15 per bottle, New World wines offer interesting and affordable choices on your favorite wineshop's shelves.
Because these new world wine regions are south of the equator, their harvests are the calendar opposites of those of North America's. Vines in these countries come out of dormancy in our late fall, and harvest occurs in spring. Therefore, south-of-the-equator wines are technically six months older than North American wines of the same vintage.
SOUTH AFRICA'S ZINFANDEL: PINOTAGE
South Africa is home to a varietal grown few other places: pinotage -- a cross between pinot noir (the red grape of Burgundy, France) and cinsault (a red grape grown in France's Rhone region). It's often compared to California's zinfandel grape, and although developed at the University of Stellenbosch in 1922, it wasn't planted until some 30 years later. Its unique flavor characteristics -- a deep berry with spice, smoke, earth and a bit of game -- perfectly complement heartier red meat dishes such as lamb and venison. You might even want to drink it with a cigar. In its youth, pinotage shows smoky raspberry and red fruit flavors, reminiscent of its Rhone grape heritage. As it ages, though, it leans more toward its Burgundian roots, retaining its red fruit flavors but exhibiting more earth, truffle and tobacco characteristics.