Virtually unspoiled by wine snobs who drive up prices, good deals from the Southern Hemisphere are still to be had. Even the expensive stuff ($25-plus) 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 markup. So sticking with known labels will help avoid a cheap wine hangover.
When buying from these countries, generally stick with red wines. They haven't quite mastered the subtleties of whites; only occasionally will you find a great Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. With good climates and lenient irrigation laws, the 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 vineyards yield big, fruity wines. 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 arena. They churned out boatloads of insipid wine destined almost exclusively for internal consumption. But then a little known red grape called Malbec [MAHL-beck], 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 ($8) : Easily the best bargain I found. Slaps you silly with its strawberry and raisin tastes and smells. It's so smooth and fruity you can drink this Cab without food.
Carmen 1999 Nativa Chardonnay Maipo Valley ($15) : Clean, refreshing, citrus-y Chilean white. A touch of oak gives it some oomph. Organically grown.
Jacobsdal 1995 Pinotage Stellen-bach ($13) : Stereotypical Pinotage, with earthy "barnyard" (even smelled some elephant) aromas when you first pour it. Don't be afraid. Subtle berry flavors follow the stampede.
La Palma 1999 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot($17) : The ripe fruit overtakes you when you smell it, and caresses your palate. Truly amazing and, considering the quality, a steal at this price.
Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com.