Look out France, California and South America, here comes competition. Virtually every country with a square inch of healthy soil produces and exports wine these days. And that's great since wine from different areas infuses new energy and innovation into an otherwise complacent industry. Even though the grapes are borne in sometimes harsh climates, the new wines span the gamut from luscious dessert wines to tasty table wines. It seems the key to bringing these new guys to the table is the sexy profits from growing sales in previously wine-averse countries such as the U.S.
Mexico and Canada
Funny enough, our neighbors to the south and north offer the most memorable wines outside the traditional areas. The Baja Peninsula of Mexico is kicking butt with huge, full-bodied red wines capable of aging for 20 years or more. Winemakers are producing soft, 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 the 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, the exception being the Chenin Blancs from the Pacific Coast's Santo Tomas Valley.
On the 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, smooth and rich. The grapes used to produce this straw-colored wine include the traditional Riesling grape, Muscat, Chardonnay and a lesser-known aromatic grape called Vidal. Although icewine can be paired easily with desserts, two ounces of the stuff itself 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. Yes, Lebanon, and 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 re- planted largely with a traditional French red grape variety called Cinsault [SAN-soh]. In the 1990s, vintners expanded with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Since then, the Lebanese have been perfecting the art of Cinsault, a native grape to the French Rhone Valley region. 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 reds are worth seeking out, and most are under $10. Look for Rouge de Nuit 2000, Brut de Cuve Vin 1998, and the 1998 Cinsault.
Romania, Hungary, Thailand and Switzerland
Other countries spreading their wings with wine production are Romania, Hungary, Thailand and Switzerland. 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 hoarders of their fantastic wines, are 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 tri-fold: more choice, more flavors and less expense.
Monte Xanic 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) : A big wine from an old winery in Mexico. Laced with dark black cherry flavors, it's a perfect fit for tannic Cab lovers out there.
Inniskillin 1995 Vidal Icewine ($50) : Pricey, but truly a masterpiece. Smells like caramel and tastes like honeyed creme brulee.
Murfatlar 2001 Muscat ($10): Clean citrus flavors and lingering grapefruit on the tongue. Quite a little kicky Romanian wine.