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Fresh White Wines from South of the Equator

The latest, freshest whites from the Southern Hemisphere are ready to serve

Roger Morris By June 1, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Sometimes there is so much excitement about the changing of the seasons that it’s easy to forget that people in the other half of the world are equally excited — about opposite seasons. 

As summer approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, winegrowers are watching their vines climbing toward the sun, with small clusters of grapes starting to form. But in the Southern Hemisphere, winemakers have already finished fermenting the first wines of vintage 2021.

Off the vine and into bottle

This difference also means wine producers in the Southern Hemisphere are first to market with a new vintage. Although a few 2020 white wines from Europe and North America are now appearing online and in retail shops, those made a half year earlier in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina — to name the Southern Hemisphere’s predominant wine countries — are already on the market and ready for enjoyment. That’s because in March 2020, as people around the world were going into COVID-19 induced lockdowns, winegrowers in the Southern Hemisphere were rushing to get their grapes picked and into the wineries.

While most southern regions produce whites from multiple grape varieties, each has one or two they consider their signature wines. Generally, these fresh whites come from cool weather regions, usually in the far south, nearest Antarctica, although they can also come from high mountain regions and cooler coasts. 

New Zealand is especially known for highly rated Sauvignon Blancs, Australia for Rieslings, South Africa for Chenin Blancs, Argentina for Torrontés, and Chile for Chardonnay — as well as, increasingly, Sauvignon Blanc.

So what was the 2020 vintage like south of the equator?

Vintage 2020 at a glance

Rob Cameron is co-founder and winemaker at Invivo & Co in New Zealand’s Marlborough region. “Marlborough has the perfect climate to grow Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with consistently high sunshine hours and low rainfall, which help build flavors and lock them in,” says Cameron. “For the 2020 vintage, we were really after an elevated phenolic structure with a hint of savory toast, but to be balanced, we needed a great deal of weight and flesh among the structure. The vineyards provided this in abundance.”

Across the Tasman Sea in Australia, Michael Hope, owner of Hope Estate in the Hunter Valley, says the country’s drought during the 2019-2020 season actually provided “ideal growing conditions,” although there were problems from a different enemy. “While crops were lower due to the lack of rain, many regions faced challenges with bushfires,” he says.

2020 will indeed be “a vintage never to be forgotten.”

Just as New Zealand made a name for itself with Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa is now making a name for itself with another famous French grape variety from the Loire Valley — Chenin Blanc. Elunda Basson, winemaker at Steenberg Farm in the Western Cape area, says the 2020 will indeed be “a vintage never to be forgotten.” The weather was warmer than average, but optimum for great quality, says Basson. “We had a steady flow of early-morning picking and not many late nights in the cellar. The total crop size for 2020 was the second largest crop ever for Steenberg.”

In Mendoza, Argentina, Sebastián Zuccardi, whose family owns Zuccardi Wines, reports that 2020 was a very dry and warm harvest in the Uco Valley, and in Argentina generally. ”All the harvest was very fast, and the challenge was to avoid being overripe.” Finally, across the Andes Mountains in Chile, winemakers say grapes that survived spring frosts and summer drought produced wines of high quality that were harvested almost a month early. Fortunately, it was just before COVID-19 struck.

Here is a sampling of 2020 whites from the Southern Hemisphere, all fresh and lively — and all under $20.

Essay South Africa Coastal Region Chenin Blanc 2020 ($8)

Floral nose, but apple-plum fruity in flavor, it has good stony minerality with some green herbal notes in the finish. Pair with a Cobb salad.

Los Vascos Colchagua Valley Chardonnay 2020 ($10)

Very lively, with a combination of apple and lime flavors, this Chilean white has a tarter and fresher profile than most Chardonnays. This would go well with fried or baked chicken. 

Southern Right Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($13)

A great wine for those who love tart, herbal Sauvignon, this South African example has lingering lime and grassy flavors with a hint of spritz. Match this with grilled shrimp with a citrus dressing. 

Familia Zuccardi ‘Serie A’ Salta Torrontés 2020 ($14)

From the high mountains of northwest Argentina, a well-balanced white with medium body and lots of aromas and flavors of peaches and apples. Classic pairing would be a freshwater fish fillet.

Villa Maria ‘Private Bin’ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($17)

A little less grassy or herbal than most New Zealand Sauvignons, it has lovely notes of citrus and stone fruits with a medium body and some lively spritz. Best match? Try spicy ham and jalapeño jack on sourdough with mayo.