A dark horse has the element of surprise. The term, which comes from racing, evokes the sense of “being in the dark” that betting against a newcomer or unknown horse would bring to gamblers. When it comes to wine, we all have known and trusted bottles we keep going back to, so it might take a little persuation to put our chips on less famous regions.
In the Old World, much of this uncertainty is resolved by the credibility that top appellations have cultivated with the passing of time, in some cases centuries. But in the the case of many New World wine regions, producers have relied on flagship grape varieties to put themselves on the map, and areas that have stood out with consistent quality have earned a place in the best cellars, despite having a shorter history.
The quintessential example of a New World dark horse winning the race is perhaps the Judgement of Paris, a competition that took place in 1976 and which saw some of France’s top wines tasted blindly against their Californian counterparts. To the delight (and dismay) of many, the results changed the wine trade forever.
Nowadays, there are numerous New World wine regions that have made a name for themselves, often followed by a surname given by the grape variety that most famously and successfully grows in that place. Two popular examples are Mendoza + Malbec from Argentina as well as Marlborough + Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
These two have undisputably made it to the mainstream. They are ubiquitous in our firendly neighbourhood restaurant wine lists and must-haves on our supermarket shelves, so well-known perhaps that you’d barely feel adventurous when grabbing a bottle.
And fair play to them for achieving crowd-pleasing “dinner party wine” status. I’m not here to do the hipster thing and hate on wines just because they’re popular, but it does feel good to be the early adopter in your group and bet on an unexpected winner from time to time.
The regions below, and their respective flagship grape varieties, have already gained critical acclaim and proven themselves in the wine industry. Not quite strangers to wine lovers, their faces are still less familiar than those discussed earlier. Give them a chance to wow you next time you’re looking for a bottle to treat yourself or your party.
CENTRAL OTAGO + PINOT NOIR
To say that a wine region has the potential to equal Burgundy is a bold statement. But this region at the south of New Zealand’s sourthern island has been regarded as the New World’s answer to the famous French appellation by numerous experts and publications.
Central Otago combines high altitude, plenty of sunshine, hot short summers, dry autumns and well-drained soils… All the things Pinot Noir loves. This is why approximately 80 per cent of the region’s plantings are dedicated to producing lean, vibrant and silky Pinot Noir.
One to try
Akarua RUA Pinot Noir
€29.95 – Available at Baggot street Wines, wineonline.ie
Made by pioneers in the region, it comes from grapes grown in the Akarua’s 50 hectare site on Cairnmuir Road, at 270 metres above sea level.
Aged for 10 months in French barriques (30% of which were new), it has a subtle use of wood that doesn’t detract from the fruit. Expect notes of cherries, cranberries and a hint of spice, with smooth tannins and a long finish.
CLARE VALLEY + RIESLING
If you love your Rieslings, Germany and Alsace are probably on your speed dial. However this sourthern Aussie region located about 120km north of Adelaide is home to some of the best Rieslings in the Southern Hemisphere.
It is far from being an overnight success. The Clare Valley is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions, with a history tracing back to the 1840’s. With a warm to hot days and cold nights, and a moderate continental weather, this region allows Riesling to ripen elegantly and slowly, retaining its acidity while developing intensity of aromas.
One to try
Grosset Polish Hill
€36.29 – Available at kmwine.com
Sharp and floral, this dry and vibrant wine is a peer to the best Old World Rieslings around. Grapes grow on an organic, eight-hectare vineyard at 460 metres of altitude and are treated with great care in the winery, where they are fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks.
High acidity, intense aromas and a beautiful balance between limes, lemons, nectarines and white flores.
UCO VALLEY + CHARDONNAY
Located within Mendoza, this Argentinian region stands out from its surroundings and has made a name for itself. Cooler and higher up, it offers a great setting for fine Malbec, but it is also a wonderful place for white wines from Chardonnay as well as Torrontés to thrive.
Many of Argentina’s most prestigious producers have vineyards in the Uco Valley and enotourism has developed at a fast pace to the point where it has been dubbed “Argentina’s Napa Valley” by no less than the New York Times.
One to try
Salentein Barrel Selection Chardonnay
€19.50 – Available at Celtic Whiskey Shop
If you are a fan of full bodied, rich, buttery Chardonnays in the style of California or Burgundy, you know they friendlier on the palate than on the pocket. But don’t let its great value be the only argument to give this delectable Chardo from Valle the Uco a chance.
Expect aromas of ripe citrus, green apple, lemon curd and vanilla. Full-bodied and with moderate acidity, it feels well rounded and creamy in the palate.
STELLENBOSCH + CHENIN BLANC
France’s Loire Valley might be the benchmark against which all other Chenin Blancs are measured. But the grape has found itself at home in South Africa, where it has become the most planted variety. Versatile as few, Chenin Blanc offers a range of expressions that goes from sharp and steely to off-dry and plump, to even top notch sparkling and luscious dessert wines.
The South African region of Stellenbosch is mountainous, with enough rainfall and well-drained and diverse soils… a winemaker’s playground. In fact, experimentation and innovation is becoming a known trait among the new generation of producers in the area.
One to try
Delheim Chenin Blanc Wild Ferment
€18.95 – Available at O’Briens Wine
This complex white comes from grapes grown on premium sites and fermented with wild yeasts in French oak. Adding to its texture, a period of seven months of lees-ageing follows, resulting in a wine that surprises with an intense parade of ripe limes, peach, honeysuckle and wax.
On the palate, it is medium bodied and balanced, showing a tropical note that complements the citrus.
ITATA VALLEY + CINSAULT
Two underdogs have come together to become their best selves: Chile’s Itata Valley and the Cinsault grape. One of the country’s oldest and southernmost winemaking regions, Itatahas experience a renaissance in the hands of adventurous winemakers. Often, their grape of choice is Cinsault.
The grape, often regarded as less than sophisticated and relegated to blends in hot regions, gains a freshness and vitality rarely seen elsewhere when given the spotlight in this region, specially when it come from some of the precious old vines rediscovered by winemakers.
One to try
Montes Old Roots Outer Limits Cinsault
€23.50 – Available at wineonline.ie and independent off licences
Multi award-winning producer Montes seeked to venture the Itata Valley in southern Chile, where the history of grape-growing is 500 long, a mind-boggling figure in New World timelines. The vines used for this wine are 80 years old, and the grapes are vinified using a combination of whole cluster fermentation, desteeming and crushing and the addition of some of the stems back into the fermentation.
A brief ageing in used oak helps the wine integrate but adds no wooden notes, letting the red ripe berries, tobacco and rose to shine through.