Foreigners often say Americans are rife with arrogant superiority. Although certain nameless politicians might believe we actually reign supreme, we definitely have competition in the wine arena. We’ve continually expanded our wine production, stretching to promising appellations such as Texas, New Mexico, and New York. But other countries, more steeped in wine history — and possibly passion — than the U.S., are quickly proving their land is full of quality appellations. Argentina, Chile and South Africa come to mind. Their unusual grape varieties and distinctive tastes make them interesting, and their value makes them tempting, but knowing where the best grapes are grown is key to getting the sweet deals.
When you’re shopping for Chilean wines, relish the reds. Yes, their whites are fine, but I have two words: cabernet sauvignon. And another two words: cheap and yum. Look for Maipo and Rapel Valleys printed on the label, and expect to pull out only a fiver and a 10 for fantastic wines. These appellations benefit from plenty of sun, so most of the grapes yield big, fruity wines. An up-and-comer in Chile is the syrah grape, as well as a fun but underrated one called carmenere (CAR min YARE).
In the kindergarten line of wine reputations, Argentina loiters near the back. For years, they churned out barrels of insipid wine destined almost exclusively for internal consumption, not realizing that, if they improved quality, the rest of the world might buy their wares. So they wised up and introduced their secret weapon: malbec (MAHL-beck). In the early 1990s, consumers knew this Bordeaux-original, but didn’t know it flourished in the Mendoza region in Argentina. Voila! An industry was born. Similar to cabernet, this versatile grape creates hardy or fruity wines, so it spans the spectrum of tastes.
South Africa is definitely the ugly kid at the back of the line. Until very recently, wine writers groaned when they heard about South African wines, dreading intensely flavored plunk. But, with the help of the South African government and a dash of clever marketing, they’re moving up the line. Stellenbosch, an appellation on the southern coast, is still too in flux to have a particular expertise for a variety, but try its cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, which are pretty reliable, and especially good values. If you’re dabbling in pinotage, South Africa’s homegrown grape of funk, look for Paarl or Western Cape on the label.