Grab a glass. These are the kings of the wine frontier

Fed up with Frascati? Sick of Sancerre? Sarah Barrell reveals the wine wastelands that are now producing tasty tipples

Much to the consternation of the old-world oenophile, wine lists these days read more like holiday brochures. Perhaps you fancy something sunny from Stellenbosch, South Africa? Or maybe a little boutique offering from southern Australia? As fine wine production continues to expand, respected artisan producers and big-money conglomerates have started investing in areas once considered wine wastelands.

Much to the consternation of the old-world oenophile, wine lists these days read more like holiday brochures. Perhaps you fancy something sunny from Stellenbosch, South Africa? Or maybe a little boutique offering from southern Australia? As fine wine production continues to expand, respected artisan producers and big-money conglomerates have started investing in areas once considered wine wastelands.

Winning hands down in the "least likely to succeed" category is Central Otago, New Zealand. Forget Australian wines, New Zealand's South Island is creating the current buzz for Antipodean tipples, despite the fact that the climate should make wine production here impossible. The mercury drops lower than in Germany, but an undulating landscape means Central Otago's pioneering vineyards are sheltered from the wind, and bask in something of a sun-trap.

The first vineyards in this hilly region were not founded until 1987, but today there are 46 wineries and 90 vineyards producing vintages that have wine experts salivating. More surprising still, while the climate and conditions most resemble those of Germany, the prize grape here is not riesling but pinot noir. The family-run Rippon vineyard is the most popular spot for sampling rosette-winning pinots in an archetypal New Zealand lakeside setting.

An unlikely wine hotspot is Mexico. It comes as a surprise to most wine lovers that the oldest winery in the Americas (Casa Madero, founded in 1597) lies 250 miles south of the Rio Grande in the north-western corner of the Baja peninsula.

Around 90 per cent of Mexico's fine wines are produced here, the vineyards spreading like a green blanket across the valleys of Guadalupe, Santo Tomas and San Vicente. In a spectacular setting by the Pacific, the dozen or so haciendas now produce more than a million cases of wine a year. Grape varieties are extensive but it's the reds that win prizes here. Most of the award-winning vineyards - Château Camou, Casa de Piedra, Santo Tomas - offer free tours and tastings.

Elsewhere in Latin America, while Chile and Argentina are notable areas for wine production and vineyard touring, southern Brazil has much to offer the more curious. Head to the Vale dos Vinhedos (the Valley of the Vineyards) and the southern city of Porto Alegre to sample some of the country's best. The fertile land in this part of the Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, lured wine-making immigrant Italian families more than a century ago - founders of the vineyards in an area known today as Little Italy. The largest wine-making town in the region, Bento Goncalves, remains true to its Italian roots, being packed with wine merchants and delis. There are 23 family-run vineyards in the area.

North now to the chilly home of one of North America's hottest viticultural centres. Even if wine buffs are familiar with the Niagara region's sweet "ice wines", they are unlikely to know that the current boom in Ontario is in dry wines made from cabernet and merlot grapes.

International wine buffs have been increasingly interested in the area since a local company, Vincor, teamed up with the revered French wine producer Boisset. The collaboration has spawned a new Ontario-based winery called Le Clos Jordan, designed by the architect Frank Gehry. It is due to release its first wines in 2006.

Over in Europe, the burgeoning Italian wine scene is not confined to the mainland. Sicily is the country's leading dessert wine producer, but the outlying volcanic islands of Lipari, Salina and Pantelleria also shine when it comes to the sweet stuff.

Most notable are the vineyards producing the superlative sweet Malvasia wine that makes these Aeolian Islands well worth the boat ride. Formerly colonised by Greece, the islands adopted and kept up the Hellenic tradition of winemaking, something that Greece itself all but forgot.

Good news today for Greece's most ancient industry: the country is going through an enological renaissance. Accolade-gathering vineyards are cropping up across the mainland and vast archipelago, with good vineyard tours and tastings to be had as far and wide as Santorini, the Peloponnese, and in the mountains outside the northern city of Thessaloniki. Package-holiday specialists have been quick to respond with an increasing number of tours dedicated to the country's wine-making hubs.

We may drink a lot of it but the cava-producing vineyards around Barcelona are little known to British tourists. Cava has been produced in Spain since the 1800s, the industry prospering especially during the late-19th century when the philoxera disease withered French vines.

Catalonia's sparkling wine may be seen by many as cheap party booze but there are many more prestigious labels than the well-known Freixenet. The main producing towns (Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, and Vilafranca) are rather charmless industrial places but the surrounding countryside of the L'Alt Penedes region has some 140 elegant vineyards within day-tripping reach of Barcelona or Tarragona.

Also worth a day-trip if you are renting a villa in the ever-popular Alentejo region of Portugal are the vineyards just south of Lisbon. Long known for its cork forests, the Alentejo has only recently come on to the wine connoisseur's map, led by an investment in 1991 by the Rothschilds. A decade later the Alentejo is home to some of the most talked about vintages in Portugal.

The fact that these vineyards excel at red wines made from indigenous grapes makes the Alentejo even more interesting. Look out for red varieties such as Trincadeira das Pratas, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet. And don't miss a visit to the sophisticated wine cellars at Herdade do Esporao or J Portugal Ramos, close to Estremoz.

And from the sublime to what some still consider the faintly ridiculous: English wine. Or more specifically English champagne. Nyetimber is the name on lips of the chattering classes these days. And while it may taste like it's come from across the Channel, it is produced in Sussex.

This vineyard is leading the way for the ever-improving crop of British wines. The estate keeps producing fizz that has expert blind-tasters swearing they are in Bordeaux. And a visit to the 35-acre estate in the South Downs is close to being as professional and picturesque. The estate produces wines using a Magnum Press imported from the Champagne region (one of only 30 in the world) and has the Queen on its list of fans. Apparently, it was the tipple of choice in the royal household when seeing in the Millennium and toasting the Queen Mother's 100th birthday. And considering how many glasses HRH has had to raise in her lifetime, this is doubtless more than a patriotic choice.


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