Can you remember the time you first tried a big, juicy, unctuous Australian shiraz?
What about the first bottle of zesty, zingy New Zealand sauvignon blanc you uncorked (or more likely, unscrewed)?
Or when you heard about that “trendy new grape from Mendoza called malbec”?
It wasn’t all that long ago that these wines weren’t on every shelf and wine list like they are today, when it’s hard to picture a menu without them. They are now joined by other grapes seeing an uptick, from tannic tannat to cheery carménère, as the Southern Hemisphere continues to be a hot and hip part of the wine world.
Make It a Malbec
Sure, malbec came onto the scene just as consumers were growing tired of bold, jammy shiraz. But it’s no longer fair to refer to it as a “trending” wine, says Jessica Norris, corporate beverage director for Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. “Malbec has proved its worth [and] has graduated to being a standard and must-have on a wine list today.”
The Southlake, TX-based company manages 13 locations of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, 24 Del Frisco’s Grilles and 16 Sullivan’s Steakhouse restaurants. Southern Hemisphere wines vary at each location from eight to 12, priced from $8 to $16 by the glass and $45 to $300 by the bottle.
One selection is the Ben Marco “Expressivo” malbec from Mendoza ($22 a glass), which Norris describes as plush, with “ripe plum and cassis with hints of purple flowers and dried herbs.” It pairs well with the prime beef short rib stroganoff ($29.50).
Malbec has indeed taken its rightful place with other sought-after varietals, agrees James Still, sommelier/dining-room manager of Bar Vasquez, an Argentinean restaurant in Baltimore.
“Having seen our guests’ willingness to explore premium and ultrapremium examples of the grape really has opened my eyes to just how serious the consumer is taking it,” he notes. “Malbec is here to stay.”
Of the 197 bottles on the 260-seat Bar Vasquez’s list, 135 are from South America; out of 18 wines by the glass, 15 are from South America. Still points to the 2013 Carmelo Patti Lujan de Cuyo malbec ($75 a bottle) as a classic style.
“Medium-bodied, the stress here is placed on elegance and sensuality, not power, [where] sweet red fruits mingle with earthy notes and rose petal,” he says. “This is malbec as it used to be.” The wine’s elegance and restraint makes it a good match for the restaurant’s Uruguayan grass-fed filet mignon from Estancia Ranch ($34 for a 6-oz. steak, $62 for 12 oz.)
Tapping Into Torrontes
But it’s not just malbec—or even Mendoza—that has guests excited about Argentina. “I’ve been very surprised with consumer awareness of wines from Argentina’s Salta province, just a sliver of the country’s overall exports,” Still notes. These include red wines and the country’s heady white grape torrontés.
He describes the 2015 Bodega El Porvenir de Cafayate Amauta “Absoluto” torrontés ($36 a bottle) as juicy and round, with notes of ripe peaches and white flowers. Still recommends it with pork empanadas: “The exotic florality of the wine mingles beautifully with the cumin and curry spice seasonings.”
At about 8,000 feet, Salta is the highest elevation wine region in the world, which translates to aromatic wines with fresh acidity and purity of flavor. Salta wines factor on the list at El Che, an Argentinean-American restaurant in Chicago. The 102-seat, wood-fired cuisine eatery boasts a 110-selection wine list including 40 from the Southern Hemisphere, priced $40 to $275 by the bottle and $12 to $30 by the glass.
The 2016 Colome torrontéz from Salta ($12 a glass) delivers an “incredibly aromatic and tropical nose that yields a dry, intensely citrus palate,” according to El Che wine director/general manager Zach Jones. It’s great match for peppery arugula salad with manchego, apples, sunflower seeds and Creole vinaigrette ($13).
Jones also likes the 2016 Mayu Pedro Ximenez wine from Chile’s Valle de Elque, “a super cool, bone-dry white from some of the highest altitude vineyards in Chile,” he notes. “This is fantastic with aged cheese as well as shellfish and oysters. Our grilled oysters and smoked whitefish rillete immediately come to mind.”
Praise for Pais
In Argentina as well as Chile, Jones explains that there has been a move toward natural wines, small producers and concentrated quality rather than mass production.
“There is a real celebration of terroir going on with many up-and-coming producers,” he notes. “It’s no longer about the giant houses—it’s the little guys on the fringe who are changing the game.”
One way is through unique varietals such as pais. Once Chile’s most-planted varietal until it was recently overtaken by cabernet sauvignon, pais had been traditionally used in lesser-quality bulk wines. But some producers are vinifying it into lighter-bodied varietal reds.
The cider-like 2015 Cacique Maravilla “Pipeno” pais from Chile’s Bio Bio Valley ($50 for a liter bottle) at El Che “has a pronounced earthiness and funk on the nose, but wonderful flavors of raspberry, currant, pomegranate and umami,” Jones says. He recommends drinking it slightly chilled with just about anything except a fatty steak.
Bar Vasquez offers the 2015 González Bastías “Matorral” pais from Maule ($65 a bottle) made from dry-farmed ancient bush vines. Still describes it as “endlessly fascinating, balanced and fresh, [with] pine, resin and rosemary [that] leaps out of the glass while vivacious red fruits entice.” He recommends it to groups whose varied orders run the gamut from seafood to red meat if the guests seek something a little more daring and off-the-radar than pinot noir.
Carménère Comes Into Its Own
And then there’s carménère, originally used in Bordeaux as a blending grape, but definitely trending these days in Chile. “Carménère is often mistaken for merlot, having a very soft, smooth and succulent quality to it,” Norris notes. “Although [it] is still a hand-sell for sommeliers, I believe it will eventually be a talking point.”
Del Frisco’s offers Montes Purple Angel ($60 a bottle) from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, predominantly comprised of carménère with a small portion of petit verdot. The wine’s blueberry and black plum aromas along with dark chocolate, sweet spice and a velvet finish make it a standout next to 14-day dry-aged rack of Colorado lamb ($58 for 22 oz.), Norris says.
Carménère is becoming popular at several price points, and is moving away from the obscure to the familiar, Still says. Bar Vasquez stocks nine carménères by the bottle priced from $30 to $415, several bottles in which it’s part of a blend. It offers the 2014 Falernia Reserva carménère from the Valle de Elqui by the glass for $5 for 3 oz. and $10 for 6 oz.
“Chile has done a fantastic job of positioning varietals like carménère into the American market in a way that the more humble Uruguay has not yet been able to achieve with tannat,” Still notes.
Speaking of tannat—which is native to madiran in southwestern France—chef and certified sommelier Danny del Prado fell in love with the grape on a trip to Uruguay last year. “It is so complex—I love these wines with anything grilled, especially super-charred meat or fish,” he says.
Del Prado oversees the kitchen at the 100-seat Martina in Minneapolis, a restaurant that’s a celebration of his upbringing in Buenos Aires. He maintains a list of 115 wines by the bottle (priced from $36 to $105) and 18 by the glass (from $9 to $11).
Tannic and astringent wines often need to be tamed to be drinkable, Norris explains, either through aging or micro-oxygenation. “Overall, carménère and tannat are really fun options for someone who is looking for a wine that is affordable, has a full-bodied taste and is easily agreeable with food.”
A bit tricky to find in restaurants right now, many believe that tannat will no doubt start peppering more lists. Bar Vasquez has the 2014 Bodegas Bouza Reserva tannat from Montevideo for $53 a bottle. The wine’s blackberry, black plum and earthy notes cut through rich and fatty ojo de bife ribeye steak from Uruguay ($58 for 16 oz.)
One wine varietal that was all over menus 10 to 15 years ago but has dropped off in popularity is Australian shiraz. A glut in the market, a backlash against its viscous, overtly jammy character and overexposure and general palate fatigue led oenophiles to find their fruity red wine fix elsewhere. But things are changing a bit.
“Australia can be a tough category—people either love it or don’t understand it,” Jones notes. The country’s wines are admittedly designed for a New World, American palate and a little conversation is generally needed to move some of these bottles.
Shiraz still dominates, which Jone thinks is a shame, as the country produces other great varietals, such as the powerful 2015 Bindi Wine Growers “The Lost Highway Project” pinot noir Macedon Ranges from Victoria ($150 a bottle.) It’s dark and smoky with balance and great acidity—a foil for anything from pork ribs and sweetbreads to sausages and chicken thighs.
Victoria, along with Western Australia, is doing some phenomenal cooler-climates wines with varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling, according to Norris. Del Frisco’s sells the Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Australian riesling for $15 a glass.
The wine’s signature crisp white peach, lime zest and lemongrass flavors work with Asian dishes like Shanghai-style fried calamari with sweet chili glaze, bean sprouts, cherry peppers, crushed peanuts and scallions ($18).
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Abounds
And we certainly can’t forget to mention a ubiquitous white from the Southern Hemisphere, one depending on who you ask is either a permanent fixture on the menu or one for which wine fans are losing their thirst. Norris stations herself in the former camp.
“New Zealand sauvignon blanc has become a mainstay on the wine list,” she says, represented by standout producers like White Haven, Brancott Estate, Kim Crawford and Cloudy Bay. She likes the “bright, ruby-red grapefruit, melon and passion fruit” of the Ata Rangi Martinborough sauvignon blanc ($18 a glass) with seafood and salads.
“New Zealand sauvignon blanc did all the work and got none of the credit,” Still says. He points out that guests will just as easily order and mistake a Chilean iteration of the grape.
An atypical showstopper from the region at Bar Vasquez, though, is the 2013 Dog Point Vineyard “Section 94” sauvignon blanc from Marlborough ($69 a bottle.) “Dubbed a ‘New-Wave’ Marlborough selection, it’s all matchstick and muskmelon, texturally intriguing [and] not a canned green bean in sight,” Still says.
But Jones is a bit more lukewarm about the aromatic, aggressively acidic white varietal. “Honesty, I think it’s on the downturn of its popularity—the sheer volume of choice and quality has evened the playing field.”
Del Prado isn’t particularly excited about New Zealand sauvignon blanc either, instead including bottles like the 2015 Viña Garcés Silva “Amayna” sauvignon blanc from Chile’s Leyda Valley ($64 a bottle). “Passionfruit sorbet, tangerine and jalapeno [make] this a wonderful South American alternative for New Zealand lovers,” he says.
And that’s probably the biggest takeaway about Southern Hemisphere wines: their signature grapes and less expected varietals and blends mean there is something for every dish, mood and palate. Norris’ philosophy sums it up: “[We] focus on capturing the iconic wines…as well as the boutique finds, letting our guests share in the excitement.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area.
Feature photo: Wine at El Che | By Maypole Photography