Liquids: Southern Hemisphere Wines

Regardless of whether you believe in God or Darwin, you’ve got to wonder about the six-month gap that came between the formation of the Southern and the Northern hemispheres. Because there’s no question about which one was created first. All you need to do is pay attention to the vintages appearing on retail shelves this spring to notice that the wines of Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand are stamped 2004, while bottles from the United States and Europe are a year behind.

Of course, they’re not really a year behind. Just half a year. Still, it’s enough of a lag to make wine geeks on this side of the equator get excited over the vintages about to come north before the old faithfuls from France, Spain, Italy, and California are even bottled. Which is ironic, due to the fact that most of the grapes we know and love today from below the equatorial belt (sauvignon blanc, malbec, and carmenère, to name a few) can be traced back to one of the winemaking nations on this side of the planet—namely, France. What’s more ironic is that we call the wines from Europe “Old World” and all those from the Southern Hemisphere “New World” when the vines that are just beginning to bloom up north are swollen with ripe grapes ready for fermenting down south.

Then how come “our” grapes from up here are being grown down there and not the other way around? The chicken-egg, or grape-wine, conundrum has been addressed before in these pages, but let me remind you that the wines made down under are grown in countries that were once outposts of European colonialism. And what about indigenous grapes that must have cropped up in just about every country that can support viticulture? Europe’s grapes simply rule the world when it comes to making superior wine. All the rest become jam. Which sounds a lot like Darwin’s survival of the fittest, doesn’t it?

But I digress. Not only are some Southern Hemisphere wines from 2004 now hitting shelves, but even wines by winemakers who either like to or have to age their wines longer are arriving six months ahead of, say, Rioja gran reservas from Spain, which are required to age at least five years before they can be sold.

If you’re not sure what to look for when seeking out wines from far south, keep in mind that New World wines list the grape name on the label, which makes the aforementioned carmenères and malbecs easy to spot, as they are common to Chile and Argentina, respectively. Pinotage is a grape that mainly grows in South Africa. Shiraz, another name for the syrah grape (arguably the original one, before the French Frenchified it), is practically exclusive to Australia (and, frankly, kicks butt over French syrahs dollar for dollar). And while sauvignon blanc and pinot noir grapes are grown just about everywhere with success, they are particularly noteworthy when they hail from New Zealand.

While a good restaurant wine list—or even wine shop—should have representation from throughout the wine world, there are some that are better than good in this respect. Consider Bonfire, where you’ll find 16 malbecs from Argentina and Chile (yes, 16!), including one of the least expensive bottles at the restaurant, a 2002 Bodega Norton from Argentina ($24). In fact, more than half of the malbecs are priced under $50. Why? “The value is incredible,” says general manager Ed Hancock. “I’ll sit and taste the wines and then look at the price and think, It can’t be right.” That has everything to do with the fact that malbec is still largely unknown by most everyday wine drinkers—except, now, you.

When you go to Meritage to check out sommelier Jonas Atwood’s wine list, you’ll find more than a dozen new South American additions, among them some of the most reasonably priced wines on the menu: the 2001 Calina Reserva Carmenère from Chile’s Maule Valley ($21), for example, and a 2001 Catena Malbec from Argentina ($40). One of Atwood’s favorite additions, however, is the 2001 Limb Vineyards Patterson Hill Shiraz from Australia ($83), which he describes as “an intensely concentrated, rich, supple shiraz, displaying soft, saturated blackberry, black cherry, and black raspberry fruits that engulf you.” Chef Daniel Bruce likes it, too. “It goes really well with lamb,” he says. “At Meritage I like to pair it with a mint-rubbed grilled New Zealand lamb chop served with a shiraz-cherry reduction.”

At Tremont 647, Matthew Ryan, the self-appointed “beverage czar,” says one of his biggest sellers is Viu Manent Malbec from Chile ($45). The Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenère ($52) does pretty well, too. But one of the more impressive lists I’ve seen lately with respect to listing a good share of Southern Hemisphere wines is at Spire, where general manager and wine director Jordan Goncharoff gets it when it comes to connecting with chef Gabriel Frasca’s menu. In fact, one of his favorite pairings includes one of the least expensive bottles on his list. “I particularly like pairing the 2004 Giesen Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough [New Zealand, $36] with chef Frasca’s fried Wellfleet oysters,” says Goncharoff. “The body is light and grassy, so it’s perfect because the acidity in the wine makes the Meyer lemon in the dish explode.”

Now it’s time for you to play matchmaker. The only rules are that you be adventurous and hit squarely below the belt—the equatorial belt, that is.