WineInk: Another World
The Southern Hemisphere heats up
I’ve had a hankering for wines from the Southern Hemisphere lately.
Maybe it was the crowd of Argentinians at Denver International Airport I saw watching their nation’s World Cup match versus Australia on their phones as they passionately rooted for them to advance to the next round. (They did.)
Maybe it was the conversations over dinner on Thanksgiving with friends who had recently returned from New Zealand about the beauty of that island’s vineyards.
Whatever the reason, the sun splashed wines from the south have been calling my name.
As we sit here in Aspen, we are on the cusp of the winter solstice, snow is falling, and the 2022 harvest in the Northern Hemisphere (with the exception of some late harvest or ice wines) has been put to bed. The vines lie are dormant as they sleep through the cold and snow of winter, awaiting their next chores in the 2023 vintage.
Ah, but turn the world upside down, and it is just the start of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. From Australia’s Barossa Valley to the coastal vineyards of New Zealand, from the Western Cape of South Africa to the Colchagua Valley of Chile and the Rio Negro region of Argentina, the vines are flush with fruit, and, yes, the Beach Boys are playing on transistor radios. (Well, that last part may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)
It is the time in these wine regions where vintners are preparing their vines and grapes for the harvest season, which, for the most part, will begin in late January and last through March.
To provide a little contrast, today the Marlborough District — New Zealand’s largest wine region and one of the southernmost wine regions on the planet — will bask under 15 hours of daylight with a sunrise at 5:45 a.m. and sunset coming at 8:50 in the evening. Here in Aspen, we will see the sun (if it comes out at all) for less than 10 hours, actually nine hours and 29 minutes. Makes you want to take a trip south.
It would be a generality — and one not likely true — to suggest that wines grown and made in the Southern Hemisphere are more rustic, wild, and exotic. But, I am going to make that suggestion anyway because, to me, there is a quality of discovery that gives the wines from the lands down under a bit of all three of those experiences. Though so many of the wines — the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, The Aussie Shiraz, the Carménère from Chile, and the Argentine Malbec — are sourced from the same grape varieties as those of the Old World, they are products of New World wine makers, just grown in different soils and climates.
And, there is the rub: While there are so many variations and nuances in every given wine — for instance, a Pinot Noir produced in a windswept, fog-infused vineyard from the Sonoma Coast making tastes markedly different from another grown and made by a winery just a few miles away in the Coombsville AVA of the Napa Valley — there are other bromides made about “Old World” wines and “New World” wines.
The most prevalent of these sweeping statements is that wines from the European countries (the Old World) reflect the traditions of their origins, while those from the New World, which is how the wine regions of the Southern Hemisphere are typically referred to, are more likely to be defined as less traditional. And, in fact, there is merit to that sweeping statement. But. like everything else in wine, these are just arguments to debunk.
Do the wines taste the same from one hemisphere to the next?
Well, that is too broad a question. If you are drinking Pinot Noir from Burgundy, you might expect the wines to be lighter in style, weight, and alcohol. They may have higher acidity and be a shade or two lighter in the glass, as well. There is an elegance to the wines. Take that same grape, and plant it in, oh, say, the Mornington Peninsula region of eastern Australia, and you may find the wines to be a bit fuller, juicer, and perhaps a touch more fruit forward. There may be more power to the wines.
Of course, it depends on the maker and the techniques (How long was the hang time? What was the oak usage?) that are used, not to mention the composition of the soils and the climate, the things we call terroir. But, the point is, the differences in these components are what make wine interesting and exciting.
While Old World wine regions, for the most part, have been around for centuries, in the New World (the Southern Hemisphere), people are still experimenting and discovering new places to plant grapes and make wines. In Argentina, the Rio Negro, a cool climate region near Patagonia, is fast becoming a Pinot paradise, as producers like Bodega Chacra discover the value of this off-the-beaten-track wine region. While Chacra has old vines, some planted in the 1950s and even 1930s, it is still a place where the future is even more promising than the past.
In the Claire Valley of Australia, far from the ancestral home of Riesling, winemaker Jeffrey Grosset founded an estate dedicated to the production of the grape. On a rocky hillside sits an organically-certified vineyard called Polish Hill, where he produces what some consider to be the finest Riesling wines on the planet. The project is a labor of love, and it shows that excellence comes from the attempt to try the new.
While great Cabernet Sauvignon is produced in wine regions in both hemispheres, one of the most interesting iterations can be found along a patch of red dirt in the Coonawara region of Australia’s Limestone Coast. The secret is in the soil they call terra rossa. This strip of dark-red soil runs along the top of an ancient limestone ridge and is about a mile wide and 10 to 15 miles long. It is prized by many of Australia’s most significant winemakers as being the Holy Grail for Aussie Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines produced from major Aussie winehouses, like Wynn’s and Penfolds, are sourced from Coonawarra, but there are smaller mom-and-pop producers. The wines are bold and concentrated, yet balanced. The region is still in its relative infancy and yet has become an iconic region in the Southern Hemisphere for those who love the Bordeaux bred Cabernet Sauvignon grape.
These are just a few examples of wines that have their genesis in the Old World European grape varieties that have found new inspiration in Southern Hemisphere vineyards. Right now, they are all in the middles stages of what will be the new vintage.
I’d like to take a southbound trip.
Grosset Polish Hill 2022
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit winemaker Jeffrey Grosset at his estate in the Claire Valley of Southeast Australia. As I arrived for my appointment, another car pulled up with two German winemakers who had come to pay tribute to the man they believed made the best Riesling wines on the planet. As Jeffrey showed us around the arid, dry, rocky organic and bio-dynamic vineyards where he grows his wines, it was awe-inspiring for the Germans, whose vineyards were so vastly different in every way.
While I have yet to taste the latest release of this 2022 Polish Hill, the winemaker’s comments kind of say it all: “Bright and potent with intense lime-juice aromatics that commands attention, this wine has a wonderful lime, lemongrass core, intensity and power yet with balance in the mid-palate. There’s a purity which thrills, it’s tight and fine before a long limey finish and a whisper of minerality. So attractive and persistent in its youth, it has the depth, power, and balance to enjoy now or in 20 years.”
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.