Look out France, California and South America — here comes competition. These days, virtually every country with a square inch of healthy soil produces and exports wine. Wines from different areas infuse new energy and innovation into an otherwise complacent industry. Bringing these new guys to the table involves sexy profits from growing sales in previously wine-averse countries, like the U.S, where grapes grow in sometimes-difficult climates. Such diversity results in a gamut that ranges from luscious dessert wines to tasty table wine. Funny enough, our neighboring countries to the south and north offer the most memorable wines outside the traditional areas. The Baja Peninsula of Mexico kicks butt with huge, full-bodied red wines capable of aging for 20 years or more. They”re easy drinking wines such as L.A. Cetto Syrah. But with so much sun and heat available to the grapes — the majority of Baja is desert — it”s no surprise their reds greatly surpass the whites in quality. The whites are, for the most part, acidic and flat with very little to offer a palate yearning for flavor, with the exception of the Chenin Blancs from the Pacific Coast”s Santo Tomas Valley.
On the colder northern front, we have Canada”s awesome dessert icewines. Known in other countries as Vin de Glaciere, or Eiswein, Canadian icewine is produced by fermenting grape juice squeezed from fruit harvested after it has frozen on the vine. This method yields a thick, unctuous liquid that is very sweet, yet smooth and rich. The grapes used to produce this straw-colored wine include the traditional Riesling grape, plus Muscat, Chardonnay and a lesser-known aromatic grape called Vidal. Although they can be paired easily with desserts, two ounces of icewine in a glass is a perfect dessert substitute. Once opened, these expensive bottles last several months in the refrigerator, using a wine-save procedure such as Vacu-Vin. Labels to seek out: Cave Springs Cellars, Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs.
A surprising arrival on the wine scene is Lebanon, specifically from a winery named Cave Kouroum de Kefraya. In the 1960s, after an epidemic of phylloxera [FIL ox ER a], a louse that eats vineyard roots, killed all the native vineyards, vintners replanted, for the most part, with a traditional French red grape variety called Cinsault [SAN soh], a native to the Rhone Valley region. In the 1990s, vintners expanded with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Not so coincidentally, the winemaker at Cave Kouroum, Yves Morard, hails from the Rhone Valley. Cave Kouroum”s wines are just now being imported into the U.S., but these unique, unpretentious red wines are worth seeking out. Mostly under $10, look for Rouge de Nuit 2000, Brut de Cuve Vin 1998, and the 1998 Cinsault.
Romania, Hungary, Thailand and Switzerland have also joined in. Eastern Europe”s sweeter wines are thriving. Hungary produces an excellent dessert wine called Tokay, and Romania”s sweeter style wines are increasing in quality. With unfortunately very little imported right now, Thailand will be launching some nice, light whites designed to pair with Asian dishes. The Swiss, normally a hoarder of their fantastic wines, is sensing the potential of other markets, judging from their appearance at VinExpo in New York City in October. Watch for wines called Chassalas and Marc du Dole.
As these countries come into their own, the consumer benefits are threefold: more choice, more flavors and less expense. Who could complain?
Monte Xanic 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon A big wine from an old winery in Mexico. Laced with dark black cherry flavors, it’s a perfect fit for those tannic Cab lovers out there. $11 3 stars
Inniskillin 1995 Vidal IcewineTruly a masterpiece. Smells like caramel and tastes like honeyed creme brulee. How do they do that? $50 4 stars 1/2
Murfatlar 2001 Muscat Clean citrus flavors and lingering grapefruit on the tongue. Quite a fun little Romanian wine. $10 3 1/2 stars.