If we were all millionaires, we could guzzle great wine every day. But since most of us fall outside those elusive parameters, we evolve into bargain hunters. To uncover the amazing deals, though, you have to stretch your boundaries and explore unfamiliar territory — like Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
Virtually unspoiled by wine snobs who drive up prices, good deals from the Southern Hemisphere are still to be had. Even their expensive stuff ($25-and-up) rivals U.S. and French wine quality and sneaks in at half the cost. The secret lies in tracking down the right producers. Argentina, as well as Chile, brims with scam artists who make low quality, watery wines and sell them at high mark-up. So sticking with known labels will avoid many a cheap wine hangover.
When buying from these countries, stick with red wines. They haven’t quite mastered the subtleties of whites, but occasionally you will find a great Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. And, with good climates and lenient irrigation laws, their vintages are pretty consistent from year to year.
Chile has three reliable, quality regions: Maule, Maipo and Rapel. These areas benefit from plenty of sun, so most of the wines are big and fruity. They specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and a relatively unknown but underrated grape called Carmenere. A few reliable Chilean producers: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, Errazuriz, Casa Lapostolle, Caliterra and Carmen.
Until recently, Argentina loitered behind Chile in the quality wine arena. They churned out boatloads of insipid swill destined almost exclusively for internal consumption. But then a little known red grape called Malbec, originally from Bordeaux in France, began to shine in the Mendoza region. Similar to a Cabernet, this versatile grape creates hardy or fruity wines, so it spans the spectrum. Argentina also grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and an Italian varietal called Bonarda. Recommended wineries: Bodega Terrazas, Trapiche, Bodega Weinert and Santa Julia.
South Africa presents a completely different story. It was only recently, since Apartheid’s abolition in 1994, that South Africa arrived on the international wine scene. But that didn’t mean people were going thirsty. As early as 1925, South African winemakers developed an entirely homegrown grape varietal called Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (or Hermitage in France). Since then, South Africans have loved Pinotage as Americans love their Zinfandel. Notable wine regions are Paarl and Stellenbach, both located on the southernmost tip of the African continent. Other red varietals they cultivate: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Names to look for: Zonnebloem, KWV, Fairview, Kanonkop and Warwick.
It’s easy to find excellent Southern Hemisphere deals, but the prices are rising. Let’s enjoy it while the market stays reasonable.
Trapiche 1999 Estate Bottled Cabernet Easily the best bargain I found. This Argentine nectar slaps you silly with its strawberry and raisin tastes and smells. It’s so smooth and fruity you can drink this Cab without food ($8).
Carmen 1999 Nativa Chardonnay Maipo Valley Clean, refreshing, citrus-y Chilean white. A touch of oak gives it some oomph. Organically grown ($15).
Jacobsdal 1995 Pinotage Stellenbach Stereotypical South African Pinotage, with earthy “barnyard” aromas when you first pour it. Don’t be afraid. Subtle berry flavors follow up the stampede ($13).
Tikal 2000 Corazon Truly impressive, delicious Argentinean blend of 60 percent Bonarda, 40 percent Malbec. Very smooth tannins with blackberry flavors. Great splurge wine ($24).
La Palma 1999 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot The ripe fruit overtakes you when you smell it, and caresses your palate. Truly amazing Chilean brand, and a steal at this price ($17).