It might sound easy to sum up Southern Hemisphere wines with one word: malbec.
Certainly, this big red wine from Argentina is surging its way onto more wine lists, but chefs, beverage directors and sommeliers across the United States are discovering that other wines from south of the equator can also be tasty and profitable.
“I think the appeal Southern Hemisphere wines have is that people can get a sense of origin,” says Mary Melton, director of beverage for Scottsdale, Arizona-based P.F. Chang’s, an upscale-casual Asian bistro with 201 locations that stock 47 wines ranging from $5 to $14 for seven ounce pours, with about four of those wines coming from Argentina and Australia.
Australian shiraz…South African chenin blanc…Chilean carménère. Some might require a hand-sell, but as George Miliotes, director of beverage and hospitality for Orlando, Florida-based Seasons 52 restaurants, “There is great interest in the United States in learning about wine [from these areas].”
Seasons 52’s 16 locations concentrate on seasonal and fresh food and stock 100 wines, including 60 by the glass priced from $6 to $18 for six ounce pours, with about 18 of those wines coming from Argentina, Australia, Chile and South Africa.
In the southern hemisphere, Argentina is the big player. According to the Washington D.C.-based DISCUS, Argentine imports rose almost 3,000 gallons in 2010 over 2009, while Australia saw a decline of almost 6,800 gallons. Yet overall, operators say that Southern Hemisphere wines are growing in popularity: and for good reasons.
“You can almost see the sun beating down on a Chilean vineyard when you talk about the wine,” Melton says. “It feels like it has more roots. Plus the fact the flavors tend to be big and powerful and don’t forget the great value.”
Everywhere you look, malbec tends to be doing well. At P.F. Chang’s, the Catena Zapata Alamos Malbec does so well, “It’s a little workhorse,” Melton says, adding that the chain is considering adding another malbec to the list as the New World fruit flavors and mild tannins are so appealing.
“We’re thinking about having two price ranges for malbecs,” Melton says. “Just having one offered isn’t enough. Maybe we’ll have a higher-end one or by the bottle only.” Chang’s sells a lot in the $7-a-glass price point, Melton says, but adds that she has “been getting requests for higher-end malbecs in markets such as Texas and Florida.
Malbec is the anchor, but P.F. Chang’s also has Argentine torrontés and chardonnays in the cellar from which individual locations can sell on their wine lists.
At Inca’s Kitchen, a 64-seat Peruvian restaurant in Naples, Florida, owner and chef Rafael Rottiers says Argentine malbec sells very well. “On a scale from 1 to 10, it would be a 7. Malbec is really good, but also [Argentine] chardonnay is very popular.” The restaurant stocks seven wines, including three from Chile and two from Argentina.
Argentina comprises four percent of Seasons 52’s list, Miliotes adds. Because of malbec’s popularity, Miliotes has seen a rise in by-the-bottle sales.
“The styles are good, the prices are good, and I think winemaking quality is pretty high across the board,” Miliotes says, but Argentina’s “secret weapon” is this: “If you go to Argentina, they eat a lot of beef, but they eat a lot of beef with chimichurri [a garlic-, red pepper- and parsley-based sauce] and a lot of spices, so I think malbec very naturally goes with that style of food. And in the Unites States, we’re increasingly enjoying bolder flavors, bold spicing with red meat. Malbec goes pretty well and there’s a good advantage with food and wine pairing there.”
It is not just the Argentine reds that are seeing an uptick. “Torrontés is on the rise,” Miliotes says. “I don’t see that rise stopping either because it’s pretty sexy juice at really fair prices.”
A few years ago, shiraz may have replaced merlot as the hot new varietal, operators note, but now Argentine malbec has knocked shiraz from its pedestal.
What does that mean for Australia, known for its shiraz? The country’s wine program seems to be going through, as Melton puts it, “an identity crisis as far as what they’re going to be and what people are going to know them as.”
A surge in popularity in wines from Spain and Italy has also affected Australian sales, Melton says.
Australian wine sales may be down overall, but as Suzan Waldschmidt, director of beverage for Tampa, Florida-based Outback Steakhouse, which has 800 locations, says, “It still represents an enormous amount of the total wine sales category.”
Besides, the country produces more than just shiraz.
“I do think that Australia is producing all types of varietals now which I can’t say works for everyone, but Outback Steakhouse, as an Australian-themed restaurant, can get away with selling an Australian pinot grigio or merlot as long as the wine is drinkable and priced fairly,” Waldschmidt says, adding that the chain sells “quite a bit” of its house cabernet and that “Jacob’s Creek and yellow tail continue to build their brands and hold strong sales.”
Sales of Australian wines are up at Outback, Waldschmidt points out. She adds that, “A big part of those sales are Australian House Wine Little Boomey and also our Jacob’s Creek shiraz and Black Opal shiraz,” she says.
Definitely, Australia isn’t going away, restaurateurs say.
“We still find people like the Australian style of chardonnay and they like the Australian style of shiraz,” Miliotes says.
Adds Waldschmidt, “It is a great country, with great winemakers… A lot of the vineyards make wonderful wines and we do quite well with them.”
“What malbec is to Argentina,” Miliotes says, “Carménère is to Chile.”
Considered the jewel of Chilean varietals, carménère might be overshadowed by Argentine malbec but it is definitely an up and coming player.
In fact, at Epazote, a 60-seat, Aztec-inspired, Santa Fe, New Mexico, restaurant known for its mole dishes, the 2009 Santa Rita 120 carménère (priced at $8 for a six ounce pour, $35 a bottle) is the most popular of the restaurant’s 10 red wines.
“Carménère is very well balanced,” chef Fernando Olea says. “It doesn’t have too much acidity, which makes it pair very well with spicy food.” His pairing suggestions include Duck Breast with Mole Poblano: a dish that contains more than 30 ingredients and three different chiles ($28) or Olea’s New Mexican Four Hundred Anniversary Mole, which showcases the flavors of apricots, red Chimayó chile, pecan and piñon nuts ($30).
Yet Chile is not all about carménère. At Inca’s Kitchen, Rottiers points to a Chilean blend, which is 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and 40 percent shiraz, from Villagolf. “That wine is very popular,” Rottiers says. “It sells like crazy.”
And Miliotes says Seasons 52’s viognier from Chile, from Casillero del Diablo, also does well. “I know it’s not the most highly proven varietal from Chile, but we think that for $8 a glass, it gives an extraordinary amount of love at that price range. And it’s a really tasty wine.”
Because Chilean wines are not as well known as Argentina’s, they can require a hand-sell, Rottiers says. “Only our repeat clientele is familiar with these wines. So we talk about the region, the quality, the type of grapes, what’s involved and will even give the customer a taste.”
What’s the future for Chile?
“I think growth may be slower than Argentina,” Miliotes says. “I think it’s a longer, slower cycle there because it’s not as sexy as malbec. But I still see people interested [in Chilean wines].”
Seasons 52 isn’t typical when it comes to South African wines. Eight percent of its wine list comes from South Africa. “That’s a fairly high percentage,” he says, adding that the country accounts for 10 to 12 percent of total of the chain’s wine sales.
What’s the appeal? “It’s one of my favorite areas to find great buys,” Miliotes says. “There’s a large industry in South Africa. You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the princess, but we feel that the princesses there are really worth seeking out whether lower end or higher end. De Toren’s Fusion V [a Bordeaux blend priced at $15 a glass] is one of the finest red wines made in the world today at any price.”
Miliotes, the 152nd master sommelier in the world, flies to South Africa to custom blend the restaurant’s entry level Indaba chardonnay, priced at $6.25 a glass. “It’s one of the linchpins of our program,” he says. “I think it gives a lot of value for that price.”
What makes South Africa special, Miliotes says, is that one can find a wide range of varietals such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and the red Bordeaux blends, made in both unique and familiar styles at solid prices.
Many people consider the red-wine grape pinotage South Africa’s signature, but Miliotes is not a fan. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but I just don’t think it’s all that germane to the American market, and, personally, I don’t think it travels that well.”
Miliotes wouldn’t be surprised if other restaurants also begin to discover South Africa.
“I think other people will start looking there for a really, really good buy. I think chenin blanc will continue to expand. People tend to look for chardonnay and cabernet and even shiraz for that matter at relative bargain prices.”
All four regions continue to have their sweet spots in terms of by-the-glass and bottle pricing and unique flavors that they bring to the market.