NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In more than 20 years as a professional eater, I have sampled (read: drunk) enough wine to irrigate an artichoke field in California.
Back in the early 1980s, restaurant wine lists were largely confined to France, Italy and California, and the chances of finding a decent selection of, say, Chilean cabernets or South African chardonnays were about the same as receiving a neck massage from a snooty maitre d'.
But the oenological globe has spun upside down in recent years, as high-quality, bargain-priced wines from the Southern Hemisphere -- Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa -- have streamed onto the market.
For tightwads like me who rarely lay out more than $25 for a bottle, this is exhilarating news.
The sales statistics are impressive. In less than 15 years, Australia has risen from being the seventh-largest wine exporter to the U.S. to the second-largest -- hard on the heels of front-runner Italy; Chile, ranked No. 6 back in 1989, was No. 4 last year, behind France.
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One of the most astonishing success stories has been New Zealand, which in the same period rocketed from 29th (with only about 13,000 gallons a year) to ninth (1.3 million gallons).
"Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand is just over the top as far as our sales go nowadays," says Michael Yurch, president of Sherry-Lehmann, a leading New York City wine merchant.
You don't need data to appreciate all this. Just visit a sizable retailer in your area and look at the selection.
And if that shop happens to be Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago, which is one of the largest retailers in the country, you'd better set aside a whole day for shopping -- Sam's carries an incredible 500 selections of Southern Hemisphere wines, most of them under $15.
"I buy everything available," says owner (and Sam's son) Fred Rosen. "People are really opening up to these, especially as they travel and expand their tastes."
Winemakers from the southern half have an edge over their northern rivals (at least for now) on several fronts.
For one, land can be much cheaper down there, especially compared with California. (There's a long-standing quip in the wine business about how the largest winemaker in California is in fact Bank of America, which holds mortgages on vineyard land.)
Equally important for the south is a plentiful and relatively inexpensive labor pool.
And don't forget exchange rates: The U.S. dollar remains strong compared with most Southern Hemisphere currencies, which is good for those of us on the receiving end of the wine equation.
Dollar disparities can change in a flash, of course. Witness the near-20 percent spike in the Australian dollar in just the past 12 months, or the euro's 10 percent rise against the buck since January.
"We're always following the values, always watching the currencies," says Joshua Wesson, a co-founder of Best Cellars, a hip little chain of shops where almost all selections are under $15. Of the 20 top-selling labels in his flagship Manhattan store in July, six were from the south. "It's not just the price," he adds. "These wines are just so good they sell."
Vin and Vigor
Also crucial to the recent rise of southern wines is technology, which today infiltrates every aspect of vinification, from soil assessment to fermentation and even to bottling.
Much of this know-how has come from the north, mostly California and France. In South America, for instance, who'd have thought a decade ago that prestigious companies like Moet & Chandon (the French Champagne firm), Pernod Ricard, Philippe de Rothschild (of Lafite-Rothschild fame) and Allied Domecq (a Spanish sherry producer) would be investing in the formerly inconsequential wineries of Argentina?
In Chile, the list of major investors includes the Bordeaux house of Cos d'Estournel, the Spanish sparkling-wine maker Freixenet and California superstars Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson.
Finally, there's the novelty factor. For centuries we've been swigging from the Old World jugs of France and Italy.
Nothing wrong with that, but it can be like eating veal parmigiana or coq au vin every day.
One major appeal of Southern Hemisphere wines is that they taste different -- not always better than French and American wines, just with different contours, different flavors from the soil and sun.
To my tongue, New Zealand sauvignon blancs are brighter and more effervescent than those from California. The chardonnays of Australia and South Africa are lighter and fresher, with less wood aging.
Australia is also justifiably famous for its peppery and fruity shirazes (called syrahs in France). Argentina reds are intriguing as well, particularly those made with the intense malbec grape, which is abundantly fruity and full-bodied, and the merlot-like carmenere. Chilean wines share these characteristics.
This is not to say that European and American winemakers are on the ropes. Far from it. (Consider the French. In a year when many Americans wanted to herd the whole lot of them back into the Bastille, U.S. consumers actually have bought slightly more of their wine: The number of liters sold here is up 0.2 percent this year.)
All the northern countries produce some very good, modestly priced wines, but they do not seem as plentiful nor as easy to find.
Time to pop the corks
Those new to Southern Hemisphere wines might want to start by tasting the sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and South Africa. Averaging around $10 a bottle retail (typically $20 to $25 in restaurants), they are crisp and light, carrying a wonderful citric edge that's reminiscent of grapefruit.
By far the most prominent New Zealand offering is Cloudy Bay (about $28), but there are many other excellent buys right now, like the 2002 Villa Maria Private Bin ($14) and the 2002 Matua Valley ($15).
One bibulous evening at home this past summer, I set up a blind tasting of half a dozen South African blancs in the $9 range with French selections of as much as twice the price.
In every case they came close to or surpassed their northern cousins.
With all of the progress in the Southern Hemisphere, it would be an exaggeration to predict an antipodal price war. For now, at least, we are imbibing it -- from both north and south -- as fast as they can bottle it.
Still, for those of us who consider wine a beverage rather than a statement, the achievements below the equator may be the most exciting phenomena since Caesar headed north to Gaul, vine reputedly in tow.
Bryan Miller is a former restaurant critic for the New York Times.