Tasting Re-Cap: Wines of the Southern Hemisphere
On Tuesday, September 10th, Bob Barrett led us through a tasting of Wines of the Southern Hemisphere as part of Jet’s Global Vineyard Passport Tasting series. Many people are familiar with the wine-producing countries that were highlighted - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina – as those countries have produced some popular wines over the last decade. However, partly as a result of that popularity, the Southern Hemisphere currently suffers from the perception of it as a producer of lower-quality, mass-market wines. As New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Argentine Malbec, and Australia’s mega brands obtained ever-larger shares of the wine market, that market was saturated with lower-quality, lower-priced bottlings. As a result, wines of the southern hemisphere are often expected to be decent wines offered at bargain prices – but not to overwhelm with high-quality. Moreover, the countries and wine regions found in the southern hemisphere are classified as “New World”, implying they do not have as long of a grape growing and winemaking tradition and heritage as many “Old World” European countries. They remain in the shadow of many “classic” Old World wine regions, whose wines have long and storied pedigrees. Yet many countries south of the equator also have significant winemaking history. For example, wine production in South Africa dates back at least to the 17th century . Its Constantia, or Vin de Constance dessert wine, was widely exported in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was considered to be one of the best wines in the world.
Wine-production in many European countries is generally much older, often dating back to the Greek or Roman periods. Yet, their “modern” (but still pre-phylloxera) emergence dates closer to the South African example, spurred in both cases by burgeoning avenues for maritime trade. The Dutch – responsible for plantings around Cape Town in the 17 century – drained the marshlands of France’s Medoc around the same time.
Other than particular histories, are there any systemic differences to be found between Northern- and Southern- hemisphere wines? There are obvious differences in months of growing and harvesting, whereby countries below the equator commonly harvest between February and April, while above the equator harvest is typically between August and October. That means that the new-vintage wines from the Southern Hemisphere are always released first. But, wine growing regions are generally governed by a common set of limitations of climate and terrain. Most vineyards are found between 30 – 50 degrees latitude – whether above or below the equator. The Northern-most commercial winery is Lerkekåsa Vineyard found in Telemark, Norway, at a latitude of 59 degrees North. However, the Lerkekasa winery has yet to release a vintage, and Telemark cannot yet be discussed as a “wine region”. But the southernmost wine growing region of Central Otago in New Zealand - at latitude 45 degrees south - has already been very successful and is well-known for its Pinot Noir.
So, are there “natural” differences in quality between wines of the Southern- and Northern- Hemispheres? This tasting wasn’t structured to test that – in that we have all Southern. Instead, it was meant to highlight some of the best mid-priced wines from south of the equator, both in the areas’ “classic” grapes, as well as up-and-comers.
Leyda Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Garuma Vineyard, Leyda Valley, Chile
Sauvignon Blanc has long been associated with the Southern Hemisphere, but more closely with New Zealand than with Chile. Leyda’s vineyards are placed in rolling hills of Chile’s coastal mountain range, 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Winters are moderate and rainy, while summers are dry. Proximity to the ocean promotes weather patterns that keep summer temperatures cooler with low humidity. These characteristics, coupled with the Garuma Vineyards location on a south-west facing slope (Southern Hemisphere! Away from the sun!), enable slower grape-ripening, aiding development of aroma, fruit flavors, and sugar/acid balance. Grapes were harvested in March.
This wine has nice depth of flavor and complexity. It starts off with a characteristic green-pepper nose, then moves to a melon-y mouth with lemon and lime zest. It has a pleasant mineral component, and a noticeable lack of “grassiness”. This wine was well-liked, even by our tasters who do not typically like Sauvignon Blanc.
Ken Forrester Reserve Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Chenin Blanc is justly famous in the Loire Valley of France, but, its status in South Africa – where it is known as “Steen” – is equally exceptional. The Ken Forrester vineyard situation is similar to Leyda’s (above); the grapes are grown on the southwest facing slopes of the Helderberg foothills in Stellenbosch, cooled by winds from the ocean lying roughly 4 miles. The chenin grapes come from 37 year-old vines that are organically farmed, unirrigated, and have controlled yields. The grapes undergo natural fermentation, and the wine is aged on-the-lees.
This is a fuller-bodied wine with concentrated flavors – consistent with the slow-ripening, older-vines, and lees-aging. The full mouth has tropical fruits (a bit of pineapple?), some honey and nuts, and wild herbs and spices. Evan tasted a bit of pine resin, but no one else did. There is enough acid to balance all the fullness, and this wine just tastes incredibly good and rich, with a long finish. Again, this was enjoyed by all. Oh, and we serve this by-the-glass at Jet, so come give it a try!
Coopers Creek Pinot Noir 2008, Central Otago, New Zealand
As mentioned above, Central Otago is the world’s southernmost winemaking region, and Pinot Noir is one of its stars. The region is alpine, and the vineyards – at 200 - 400 meters above sea level – are the highest in New Zealand. Central Otago has enjoyed much success over the last decade, with subsequent rapid growth; the number of wineries increased between the mid-1990’s and mid-2000’s from 11 to over 80. The majority of that growth is in Pinot Noir production, which constitutes over 80% of grapes grown in Central Otago.
This Pinot Noir has a medium-body with relatively light acid – especially for a Pinot. The fruits are tart but bright, and include pomegranate and cranberry. This is an easy-drinking wine, with a very smooth finish. Our tasters liked this wine, but many, including Goldie, found it to be a bit too neutral.
Catena Malbec 2011, Vista Flores, Mendoza, Argentina
Catena is a 3rd generation, Argentine, family-run winery that was first planted in 1902. The Vista Flores wine-growing area is in Mendoza’s Uco Valley. The vineyards are at the edge of Andes Mountains, between 3117 – 3281 feet in elevation. These vineyards do not lie near the ocean, but the Tunuyan River is found just south. Malbec has become nearly-synonymous with Argentine reds – particularly in Mendoza. This particular Malbec is from a specific region – Vista Flores – that is notable as a growing region (like an appellation), which distinguishes it from the bulk of Malbec bottlings.
This wine immediately impresses with its deep, rich color. It is a lively red in the mouth with gritty tannins (what Bob refers to as “fuzzy”, and Catherine called “interstitial”). The tannins are well-balanced with an acid component on the dark, red fruits. Evan noted a bit of mintiness to the wine. This wine is quite elegant and expressive, and just nice to drink. It was enjoyed by everyone.
Langmeil Three Gardens Shiraz/Mataro/Grenache 2011, Barossa Valley, Australia
Mataro is Australian for Mourvedre. It certainly isn’t as prominent as Shiraz in Aussie reds, but it has a traditional use blended with lesser-quality varietals to make Tawny Port-style wine. In Barossa, winemakers also have a history of using it in their G/S/M blends. Its benefit to that blend comes from Mataro’s thick skin; it grows well in hot climates and its natural tannins help prevent oxidation. The grapes come from three different areas of varying soils, with lower and flatter vineyards than the other wines tasted. In this case, delayed-ripening was a result of cooler-than-normal temperatures in the Barossa Valley.
Like the Malbec, the Langmeil wine is deep, dark, and rich. It has notes of tobacco, white pepper, and mint, or eucalyptus. It has a bit of dustiness and some cocoa, too. This was definitely the “biggest” wine of the night, but it also retained some elegance. It was also enjoyed by everyone.
This tasting really showed the diversity of Southern Hemisphere grapes and styles. We tasted whites and reds from across a broad expanse of the globe, which makes comparing the wines a little difficult. Nonetheless, people had their favorites – and they were fairly evenly spread out across the different wines, although several people voted twice! Overall, the Sauvignon Blanc was the favorite of 2 tasters, the Chenin also of 2 tasters, the Malbec of 4 tasters, and the Langmeil of 4 tasters. The Pinot Noir did not register any votes for favorite. It is a nice wine, just less memorable.
Join us for our next tasting on October 1st!