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New-world wines, old-age vines

Isolation has kept valuable vineyards free of leaf-munching pests

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The origins of modern winemaking lie in Europe -- French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese winemakers have perfected the art of turning grapes into wine over the course of centuries.

But it has been in the Southern Hemisphere where many of the advances in the world of winemaking have taken place. From screwcaps to higher-alcohol wines to environmentally conscious wineries and beyond, many countries south of the equator have been pivotal in changing what we drink and how we drink it.

One of the most interesting facts about Southern Hemisphere wine-producing regions -- at least for wine geeks -- is that there are still wineries whose vineyards haven't been affected by the dreaded phylloxera pest.

Phylloxera is a nearly microscopic insect that feeds on the leaves of grape vines -- predominately the vitis vinifera variety, which produces the great majority of the world's wine grapes. The flow of nutrients to the vines is cut off, thereby stunting the vine and impeding it from growing grapes that fully ripen properly.

The pest is resistant to vitis labrusca vines -- grapes typically found in North America. In order to keep their industry alive, nearly every European winemaker (and much of the rest of the world) produces vitis vinifera grapes from vines grafted onto vitis labrusca rootstocks.

However, pockets of vineyards in the Southern Hemisphere -- particularly in Australia and Chile, both of which are relatively geographically isolated -- have managed to avoid phylloxera. As a result, these areas contain some of the world's oldest vines.

When I visited Australia in 2011, I was taken to Henschke's picturesque Hill of Grace vineyard, whose vines produce the fruit that goes into their iconic (and pricey) red of the same name. These 150-year-old vines look more like gnarly, twisted trees than they do properly trellised vines, and winery folk are so fearful of visitors bringing phylloxera or other pests that they make you step in pails of chlorine to kill any bacteria before stepping into the vineyard.

While many wine-producing countries in the Southern Hemisphere cut their teeth on one or two main grape varieties, each has begun to diversify based on climate, soil, etc.

Australia is best-known for Shiraz, for example, but producers now grow Grenache in McLaren Vale, Riesling in Clare Valley, and plenty of Pinot Noir and cool-climate Chardonnay throughout Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania.

Similarly, Chile's focus on Merlot, Carmenère and Sauvignon Blanc is broadening to include deep, intense Syrah and Malbec (for reds) and Gewürztraminer, Riesling and more.

On the other side of the Andes, meanwhile, Argentina has long been known for its big, deep Malbec. We now see more wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and the indigenous Bonarda grape for reds, while their signature white grape, Torrontés, is fresh, fruity and floral.

New Zealand producers have focused on Sauvignon Blanc and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Noir. Growers there now work with a wide range of aromatic whites (Riesling, Gewºrztraminer) as well as cool-climate versions of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay that are giving Sauvignon Blanc a run for its money. On the red side of things, New Zealand Syrah and Merlot show great complexity and restraint.

Twitter: @bensigurdson

Estampa 2010 Reserve Syrah Viognier (Colchagua Valley, Chile -- $14.75, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Viognier, a white-wine grape, increases the depth of colour and ramps up the aromatics, as is the case in this 95-5 Syrah-Viognier blend. A spicy, barbecued meat note works well with deep black cherry, blackberry and clay aromas. It's a big, bold red, with black cherry and raspberry flavours enhanced by vanilla, lacquer and spice notes thanks to 10 months in oak barrels. It's a somewhat aggressive red that finishes a bit hot -- try with lamb. 3.5/5

Serafino 2012 Sorrento Grenache (McLaren Vale, Australia -- $17.74, Liquor Marts and beyond)

Bright cherry red and somewhat lighter in colour, the Serafino is quite aromatically expressive, with loads of ripe brambly black and red berry notes, most notably wild raspberries. It's a medium-plus bodied, extremely juicy Grenache, with all sorts of pretty blueberry, blackberry and raspberry flavours showing well with a splash of acidity. This balanced, restrained red will please those looking for Aussie Shiraz alternatives and/or a killer pizza wine. 4/5

Argento 2011 Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza, Argentina -- around $14, private wine stores)

Despite its modest $14-ish price point, this wine is considered one of Argento's mid-range wines -- the entry-level stuff is closer to $10-11. Blackberry, plum, savoury spice, leather and a hint of mocha show nicely on the nose. The full-bodied palate brings plenty of blackberry, blueberry, black tea and spice, the latter two accentuated by light but firm tannin. The Argento would wrestle well with a big steak -- no surprise given its country of origin. 3.5/5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 D17


Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 9:07 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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