Cheerleaders. Lawyers. Jocks. You can't help but conjure a stereotypical image of these concepts, good or bad. Now even teen beauty-pageant contestants come to mind as individuals who are, um, not so intelligent. Yes, I can't help it, but I'm going to hell anyway, so I might as well laugh on the way. And drink good wine while I'm there. This questionable (evilly fun?) practice carries over into the wine world as well. It's good because maybe light 'n' fruity Aussie shiraz introduced thousands to the vast selection of wines from Down Under. But bad because once consumers latch onto something they crave, they become transfixed like a dog gnawing a bone. Australian shiraz can be so much more than what many people associate with it, and so many other wine regions face the same dilemma: how to shirk the stereotype they've been unwillingly assigned?
The little island that could
Take New Zealand, for example. For the past 10 years, it has enjoyed praise and monster profits for its green-grassy, grapefruit sauvignon blancs. Darlings of the critics, the public rushed to slurp them down, yet largely ignored the other wines produced on this cool-climate island. But ohmigawd, its pinot noirs rock. They're inexpensive (well, for pinot -- $20 or so), crisp and acidic -- closer to a shy French Burgundy than the fruit-bomb pinots of California. New Zealand wineries such as Villa Maria, Spy Valley and Omaka Springs put out good pinot. And then there are the chardonnays: full-bodied, tropical and often oak-free -- what the grape is actually supposed to taste like.
The sommelier's pet
Another maligned wine region is practically the entire country of Italy. Visions of straw baskets brimming with cheap Chianti cloud judgment of many people who rarely venture outside the rolling hills of Tuscany. And there are literally thousands of choices. But if you begin exploring the dusty shelves of alternative Italians at your local wine shop, you'll find crisp, bubbly Prosecco, quaffable Valpolicella or hearty Barolo. Ask any sommelier to recommend an Italian wine, and his eyes will light up with respect. Most wine professionals (including this one) adore Italian wines ... the more obscure, the better.
The drier side
Not all German wines are sweet, just like all pink wines aren't sweet. Can I scream that any louder? But by damned, too many Americans cling to that image like sticky gum on a shoe. Sure, there are some pretty sugary Eiswein and Trocken-beerenauslese out there, but they're so expensive, don't worry about accidentally buying them. Go for a nice, chilled, dry German Kabinett riesling -- perfect for late-summer imbibing. Or spy the word "trocken" among the gothic mess on the label -- this indicates the wine is dry. Recommended wineries include Dr. Burklin-Wolf, Thanisch and Schloss Vollrads.
There is some wine in Africa
South Africa, although barely on the radar yet, is woefully stained by its dirty-tasting, homegrown grape, pinotage. Definitely an acquired taste -- I admit I avoid them. But I do remember the first outstanding South African sauvignon blanc I tasted, whose soft, tropical personality wooed me into love. Smoother and less tart than New Zealand's grapefruity numbers, they might be a way for chardonnay lovers to branch out into the wild unknown. Wineries to look for: Sincerely, Robertson and Neil Ellis.
Kim Crawford 2006 Chardonnay Unoaked Marlborough (New Zealand) Full-bodied and smooth with enchanting tropical fruit such as mango. Slightly sweet to the tongue with a refreshing aftertaste of citrus and steeliness. Sw = 3. $17. ****
Porcupine Ridge 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Western Cape (South Africa) Zesty with lime and generous green apple, but follows through with a creamy, soft mouthfeel. Finishes so clean, you almost don't know it's gone. Sw = 1. $10. *** 1/2
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.