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WINE

New Wines Off the Old Bloc

June 15, 1995|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

If you thought learning about wine was difficult enough already, just imagine what the new international political climate has done to the subject.

With former Soviet bloc states gaining independence, South American governments achieving greater stability and South Africa ending apartheid, whole new worlds are opening for wine lovers. Many of these nations are discovering wine export as a way to raise capital.

True, few of their wines will soon challenge Domaine de la Romanee-Conti or Cha^teau Latour for the dollars of deep-pockets wine collectors, but California winemakers who produce medium-priced wines are clearly aware of these newly emerging wine areas.

Look, for instance, at Eastern Europe. Five years ago, virtually none of the wine made in Hungary, Bulgaria, Soviet Georgia, Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine could have sold in the West. For one thing, winemaking standards under Iron Curtain rule were primitive, and most of the vines that were planted there were unfamiliar to Chardonnay- and Cabernet-loving Americans.

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Today, huge blocks of vineyards throughout Eastern Europe are being converted to more popular varieties. Moreover, partnerships with powerful, wine-savvy companies in the West are creating a range of upscale wines that compete quite successfully with established brands.

For instance, the huge Penfolds wine group of Australia test-marketed a Moldovan Chardonnay in England last year. The wine was tasty and sold for about $5. Penfolds is continuing to investigate Eastern Europe's wine potential.

Then there is the grape-growing revolution in Chile. Aided by French and Californian investors who have exported their expertise--and are now importing some remarkably fine wines--Chile is making a major impact at the midpoint of the fine-wine business, the $5- to $8-a-bottle range.

One of the biggest changes has come from South Africa, which couldn't market wine here for a decade because of the U.S. government's trade sanctions. For many wine lovers, one of the more difficult things to get used to today is the notion that South African wines are firmly back in the U.S. market.

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South Africa began making wine some 300 years ago, and over the last 25 years has blossomed as one of the fine wine regions in the world. Cape wines, excluded from this country until 1993, started becoming very popular in England a decade ago.

Last year, about 2.2 million cases of South African wines were sold in the United Kingdom, and exporting efforts under the direction of the huge cooperative KWV winery were primed in part by a 19% rebate on the FOB price. The so-called GEIS (government export incentive system) is in the process of being reduced, but for the time being it offers a great springboard to those wanting to sell wine overseas.

KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging) was established by the South African government in 1918 to assure grape growers of uniform pricing in an otherwise fluctuating business. Oz Clarke, in his "Encyclopedia of Wine," says that KWV, which has legislative authority over all wine growers and producers, "has certainly provided stability and security for its members, but it has also stifled innovation and creativity. Recently, there have been signs of a more open approach."

KWV once dominated all exports, but today at least a half dozen importers are dealing with various South African brands. There is even a Cape Wine of the Month Club, based in Huntington Beach, that sells dozens of South African wines.

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Among the entrepreneurs is Ken Onish, a former executive with Jos. Seagram & Sons, who brings in wines under the Springbok and Cathedral Cellar brands, both made by KWV expressly for export.

The Springbok line is the major brand for Onish, who says sales are rising faster than expectations, even though it's only a year since the April 1994 election that made Nelson Mandela the nation's first black president.

Another line of wines hitting Southern California shelves in the last few months was called the Africa Collection, a reasonably priced line of popular varietals.

Nico Steyn, president of Cape of Good Hope Wines of Los Angeles, said the Africa Collection wines were designed with a simple name because "the problem with South African wines is that most of them are unpronounceable to Americans." His very attractive 1992 Chardonnay sells for $6, an excellent bargain.

South Africa is a fascinating country with many wine-growing regions, each with one or two favored grape varieties. Steen (Chenin Blanc) is one of the more popular grapes there, but lack of interest in Chenin here means little of it is exported to us.

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Last week I sampled a dozen South African wines with Cape Wine of the Month Club's John Gorman, an enthusiastic fellow, and I found all of them excellent.

Of the traditional grape varieties, I truly enjoyed the aromatic and flavorful 1993 Rust-En-Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) and a stunning 1990 Overgaauw Cabernet ($15), with elegant fruit, fragrant, spicy aroma and complex, mature flavors.

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