Gift to Impress: When giving wine, look south for bargains, innovations

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 27, 2006

By Paul Alexander

Associated Press

Giving wine as a gift this holiday season? Consider skipping the obvious French, Italian and California labels and look south — as in south of the equator — for something a little different, a little ahead of the pack and a lot lighter on the wallet.

Australia has already made its name as a quality, affordable alternative with its distinctive shiraz offerings. But now it’s joined by New Zealand, South Africa and South America vying for the same market on wine shop shelves and Internet sites.

“There is a smorgasbord of opportunity,” says John Gorman, head of the 13-year-old Southern Hemisphere Wine Center in suburban Los Angeles, which specializes in south-of-the-equator producers. “You’re going to get more wine for less money than the French and others.”

Walking into a wine shop, with arrays of labels and grape types, can be intimidating even if you have a specific region in mind. Asking for guidance from a clerk can help, but it’s best to have at least a rough idea of what you’re looking for. A light, fruity red? A crisp, dry white? Something with a good pedigree?

Thanks to competition from southern wines, as well as wine gluts in Europe and Australia, you can pick from plenty of pizza-friendly wines that run less than the cost of the pie itself.

Wines and regions that impress

“There’s a lot of good malbec out there” from Argentina, says Ray Isle, a senior editor for Food & Wine magazine. “It’s one of my favorite bargain wines.”

Malbec, with a number of good choices below $10, is particularly good as an accompaniment for steak or ribs because it stands up well to strong meats. Some reds from Chile have similar attributes.

Looking at southern wines also provides an opportunity to impress your well-traveled in-laws, who always seem to be raving about some sassy little Bordeaux that they found off the beaten path in the south of France.

There are hot new wine regions, hot old regions that are experimenting with little-known types of grapes, and hot new styles that are strictly outside the box.

Australia’s iconic shiraz already has such large followings that few people will blink if you pop the cork on one. But you’re likely to get a really big pop at the weekend barbecue with a bottle of sparkling shiraz from Down Under.

“A lot of people are asking about it,” Gorman says. “There you have this deep, red wine with bubbles in a Champagne flute. People think of sparkling wine mostly as a before-dinner drink. But you can put sparkling red out there, and it’s good with turkey, ham, pizza, even with desserts like cheesecake.”

Innovation

A number of Australian vineyards also are experimenting with blends of shiraz and viognier, normally a white grape. The result is often a smooth, easy-drinking wine that goes surprisingly well with spicy Asian foods and curries.

Already known for its great sauvignon blancs, New Zealand is quickly developing a reputation for its fruity yet complex pinot noirs. And South Africa has some pretty good shiraz makers.

“Every day we see new markets emerging,” says Tom Traverso, marketing manager for wine.com, singling out India and China as the really new kids on the block.

Innovation also is hitting traditional and new producers in Europe. Spain is having a resurgence after undergoing massive renovations to its vineyards as part of an effort to update cultivation methods.

Try Hungary for sweet Tokays and Slovenia for tasty whites.

“Southern Italy is very hot right now,” Traverso says. “They have 2,000 varieties, some dating back to Greco-Roman periods. They’re doing some fantastic things with them, like vermentino, falanghina, two white wines.”

Experimentation can take other forms, too.

“Maybe your uncle loves French Bordeaux, so you’re looking for something that would appeal to him,” Gorman says. “We might suggest something from the upper Clare Valley in Australia, or South Africa’s Stellenbosch area.”

And there’s one final bargain suggestion. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other countries are producing some super-sweet dessert wines that you could just about use to top pancakes. Since they’re only half-bottles, spending $20 or $30 doesn’t sound so bad.

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