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Ten Wine Frontiers to Explore

From Sicily to Stellenbosch, these 10 emerging wine regions are offering up some great new surprises. If you still think Mexican Merlot is a joke, you've got plenty to learn.

Mendocino, California. Baja, Mexico. The island of Sicily. No, these aren't suggestions for your next vacation, but the names of some of the most promising new wine regions in the world.

As fine wine production grows ever more global, serious small producers and well-funded conglomerates have started expanding into areas once thought incapable of producing great wine. The results have been nothing short of astonishing. In less than a decade or two, wines made in these little-heralded places have garnered much attention and many awards. We asked 10 writers to tell us about their favorite up-and-coming wine regions and explain what makes them so promising—the vineyards, the grapes and, of course, the star producers. Although each description is only a snapshot, we hope you'll remember these names the next time you're looking to buy a new wine.

Mendocino, California

Despite a winemaking history dating back to the 1870s and century-old Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines that still produce amazingly complex wines, Mendocino County has long been overshadowed by its southern neighbors Napa and Sonoma. Even its best grapes were for decades sold and blended into the wines of other regions. However, in recent years, Mendocino wineries have begun keeping the best juice for themselves and turning out wines that can compete with the finest in the country. These include bottlings from early pioneers like Fetzer (a leader in organic farming), Handley, Navarro and Greenwood Ridge wineries, not to mention top sparkling-wine producer Roederer Estate. Newer Mendocino stars include Fife Vineyards, a producer of full-throttle Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs, and Eaglepoint Ranch, which turns out brawny Syrahs and Zins and is a source of vineyard-designated wines for other Mendocino wineries, including Edmeades. Also of note is Goldeneye, owned by Napa-based Duckhorn winery. Its lush and elegant Pinot Noirs have set new standards for Mendocino County.

—Linda Murphy

Central Otago, New Zealand

Central Otago is New Zealand's, if not the world's, most unlikely wine region. In fact, all the meteorological data would suggest that Central Otago—which is even colder than Germany—is not a viable viticultural site. The secret to its surprising success in growing grapes, however, is what's known as the Central Otago heat trap, the landforms whose aspect and position shelter vineyards from the wind and hold the warmth of the sun. It wasn't until 1987 or so, when pioneers like Alan Brady of Gibbston Valley Wines founded the first commercial wineries, that the viticultural virtues of the region became known.

Today, there are 46 wineries and 90 vineyards. Surprisingly enough, even though Central Otago's climate resembles that of Germany more than that of France, its great grape isn't Riesling, as one would expect, but Pinot Noir. In fact, Pinot Noir, the fragile Burgundian red, will soon account for about 70 percent of Central Otago's vineyard land. Among its best Pinot Noir producers are Rippon (which has been called the most beautifully sited vineyard in the world) and Gibbston Valley, which produces a variety of Pinot Noirs (top ones are the Home Block and the Reserve), as well as Felton Road, probably Central Otago's most famous Pinot winery. Its best bottling is Block Three Pinot.

—Greg Duncan Powell

Ontario, Canada

One of the hottest wine regions is one of the most northern—Ontario, Canada, to be exact. Although wine lovers may be familiar with the region's world-class ice wines, the big boom in Ontario right now is in dry wines from grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. In a little over a decade, the number of Ontario wineries has jumped from 20 to 90, attracting such international stars as Jean-Pierre Colas, from Burgundy (he's now at Peninsula Ridge Estates Winery), and Rob Scapin, from Australian producer Brown Brothers. Scapin, who joined Jackson-Triggs a few years ago, has since turned out a number of award-winning reds, including a plush Proprietor's Reserve Meritage. More recently, the parent company of Jackson-Triggs, Vincor, formed a partnership with giant French wine producer Boisset to create an Ontario-based winery. Designed by famed architect Frank Gehry (with a potential price tag of $30 million), Le Clos Jordan will specialize in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but its first wines will not be released until late 2006.

—Natalie MacLean

Baja, Mexico

The fact that the oldest winery in the Americas (Casa Madero, founded in 1597) lies about 250 miles south of the R’o Grande always seems to surprise, if not shock, fans of fermented grape juice (who may have to medicate themselves with copious quantities of tequila before accepting that Mexico has been making wine a lot longer than the U.S. has been drawing maps). The good news is that there are now many wines from south of the border that are worth seeking out, especially from the northwestern corner of the Baja peninsula, where 90 percent of Mexico's vineyards—and most of the country's top wineries—are located. Stretched across three small valleys (Guadalupe, Santo Tomás and San Vicente) that run from the edge of the Pacific to Ensenada, Baja's vineyards drape the barren landscape like thick green throw rugs scattered on a large, sandy floor. While 40 years ago visitors would have struggled to find more than a handful of haciendas, today there are over a dozen commercial wineries, producing more than a million cases a year. A multitude of grapes are planted—Chardonnay, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel—but Baja reds are the best. Look for recent releases by Château Camou, Casa de Piedra, Monte Xanic, Santo Tomás and Mogor-Badan.

—Joshua Wesson

Alentejo, Portugal

Long known for its cork forests, olive groves and wheat fields, Alentejo, just southeast of Lisbon, has only recently become famous for its vineyards. Though the region has always produced a bit of wine, most of it was pretty unremarkable—and unremarked upon. Until 1991, that is, when the Rothschilds made an investment. Fast-forward 10 years, and the hot, parched Alentejo now boasts some of the most sought-after vineyard acreage in Portugal. A smattering of international grapes like Cabernet and Syrah have been planted, but by and large, Alentejo growers are loyal to indigenous red varieties such as Trincadeira das Pratas, Aragonez (Tempranillo), Periquita and Alicante Bouschet. Two well-priced Alentejo labels worth looking for are Tapada do Chaves and Herdade de Santa Marta, although pricey producers Cartuxa and Quinta do Mouro are making the most interesting reds. Look for Cartuxa's Reserva and its more modern Pera Manca as well as the luscious Casa dos Zagalos from Quinta do Moro (think Châteauneuf-du-Pape meets Primitivo).

—Alice Feiring

Toro, Spain

Once one of Spain's least illustrious wine regions, Toro has been transformed into one of its most exciting—in less than a decade. Located in northwestern Spain, close to Portugal, Toro has long been home to big cooperative wineries. But thanks to the arrival of superstar winemakers like Mariano García (who produces excellent reds at Bodegas Maurodos), Toro has become a desirable address. García recognized that the region's old, low-yielding Tinta de Toro vines (cousin to famed red grape Tempranillo) could create wines of power and finesse. Other names to know: Bodegas Fariña, Compañia de Vinos Telmo Rodriguez and Bodegas Vega Saúco.

—Michael Bonadies

Sicily, Italy

Whether it's the arid southern reaches of Tuscany, the cool central hills of Campania or the Alpine reaches of the Alto Adige, it seems like every place in Italy is an up-and-coming wine region these days. Indeed, Italy has changed so much in the past few years that the whole country feels like a new frontier. But one region really stands out when it comes to combining good value with New World winemaking techniques: Sicily. Once a veritable bulk-wine reservoir, Sicily can now claim a growing number of dynamic private estates. Both white and red wines are produced, but the reds, particularly those made from the native Nero d'Avola grape, are worth seeking out. Alone or blended with Cabernet or Merlot, Nero d'Avola delivers bold flavors reminiscent of another island variety, Syrah. The Morgante Nero d'Avola and the Cusumano Nero d'Avola Benuara are great deals, while the Abbazia Santa Anastasia Litra is a luscious blend of Nero d'Avola and Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Anastasia makes four reds, all of them good). And because Sicily is Italy's premier dessert-wine producer, don't skimp on sweet stuff. Try the orange-blossom-scented Carlo Hauner Malvasia delle Lipari, from the nearby island of Lipari, and the Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryè, made on an isle off Sicily's southwest coast.

—David Lynch

Stellenbosch, South Africa

Less than an hour's drive from coastal Cape Town at the very tip of the continent, Stellenbosch is the best-known and most beautiful wine district in South Africa. Although its views are incredible—panoramas of lush vineyards below craggy mountains—it is its intense and elegant wines, particularly its whites, that have brought Stellenbosch its most recent fame. Sauvignon Blanc is unquestionably the star white grape. Full of live-wire acidity and made in a lean, racy style, the finest Stellenbosch Sauvignons rank among the world's best, with producers like Mulderbosch, Delaire, Thelema and Ken Forrester leading the way. Other white grapes, notably Chardonnay, are grown, but memorable examples are harder to find (although Chardonnays from Rustenberg and Thelema are notably rich and lingering). As for red wine, Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) are Stellenbosch's strong suit, with long-established but revitalized estates like Meerlust, Rust en Vrede and Rustenberg at the forefront. And last but not least, Pinotage, South Africa's much maligned and often badly made local red, has finally gotten better treatment by Stellenbosch wineries like Kanonkop, Beyerskloof and Clos Malverne, whose bottlings show off the varietal's ripe berry flavors and aromatic, peppery style.

—John Frederick Walker

Languedoc, France

No French wine region today offers as much quality, variety and value as the Languedoc. Although its inexpensive varietal wines like Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are as easy to drink as they are to pronounce (and good deals can be found in the $10 range), the biggest news is its intensely flavored appellation wines—Faugères, Pic St-Loup and Côteaux du Languedoc. Thanks to a small group of passionate new producers, these wines (made from grapes like Carignan and Grenache) are some of the most interesting and delicious in France. Many of these up-and-coming producers have worked at famous estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux, while others learned from Languedoc pioneers like Mas de Daumas Gassac (the Château Lafite-Rothschild of the Languedoc). Look for wines from the following producers: Domaine les Aurelles, Mas Jullien, Domaine d'Aupilhac, Domaine Fonsainte, Château de Lascaux, Domaine de l'Hortus, Château de Cazeneuve, Domaine de la Grange des Pères and Domaine Canet-Valette.

—Daniel Johnnes

Walla Walla, Washington

If Washington State is one of the best-kept secrets in American wine, then Walla Walla practically qualifies as classified information. Although Walla Walla is the address of some of the state's best reds—Cabernet and Merlot, and, more recently, Syrah—its remote location in a corner of southeastern Washington State (the appellation edges a tiny bit into Oregon) has kept the region from becoming better known. Although this has meant fewer tourists, it doesn't seem to trouble most Walla Walla winemakers, who like the slow pace of their rural home. As one said to me, "We aren't looking to be another Napa." But such obscurity also means that Walla Walla wines are quite reasonably priced (something its winemakers may be a little less pleased by). Great bottles can be found in the $20 to $30 range—an impressive price-quality ratio indeed, considering that both 1998 and 1999 were outstanding vintages. Walla Walla—based stars include L'Ecole No. 41 (especially Merlot), Canoe Ridge (another Merlot specialist), Cayuse (top Syrah), Waterbrook (great value), Leonetti (cult Cabs and Merlots made by Gary Figgins) and Glen Fiona (run by Figgins' brother Rusty, a Syrah specialist).

—Lettie Teague

Published October 2002
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