Australia is passing France as the United States’ second leading wine exporter, after Italy. Technology and winemakers trained in the most advanced techniques are credited with Australia’s move away from sweet, cheap, high alcohol wines to the ones of today. Still easy on the wallet, the country’s ripe, plummy Shirazes, gooseberry Semillons and supple Chardonnays are enjoyed throughout the world. Plus, the Australians know they have a good thing – the country consumes almost three times as much wine per person as does the United States.

Only 1,000 miles southeast of Australia is New Zealand, where wine consumption lags so far behind that until the last two decades most New Zealanders had not even tasted their own country’s wine. Then came the focus of world attention on the Sauvignon Blanc of Marlborough, on the northeastern tip of the cooler South Island, starting with the release of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Since then, it seems the world can’t get enough of New Zealand wine.

My tasting took place over a week with the guidance of Greg Taylor, general manager of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, who explained that over the years exporters from New Zealand and Australia have learned the best way to ship their wine is in temperature-controlled (warmed) and pressurized cargo holds. If the temperature drops to the freezing temperatures of the outside air at thousands of feet above ground, the wines freeze and when they defrost there is sediment and loss of flavor.

My top recommendations include:

Pelorus Cuvée Brut Sparkling Wine, New Zealand: This collaboration between Veuve Clicquot, Cloudy Bay and Deutz Marlborough Cuvée is a versatile sparkling wine. Made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, it’s a universal food match with all the Pacific Rim fish and grilled meats.

Thomas Mitchell Chardonnay 2004, Australia: Victoria had a ripe peach flavor that is characteristic of the best Chardonnays from Victoria. Combine those ripe peaches with fig and lemon and a long, smooth finish and you are ready to dig into sushi, prawns or pasta with cream sauce.

Cloudy Bay Chardonnay 2003, Marlborough, New Zealand: Since the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc brought New Zealand into the spotlight there has been growing appreciation for the country’s Burgundian style wines as well. This Chardonnay has complex full-bodied ripe fruit and subtle oak. It pairs well with roasted chicken, fish, creamy soups and lamb.

Howard Park Chardonnay 2003, West Australia: Made with grapes selected from two vineyards in the coolest part of Western Australia the wine undergoes very limited malolactic fermentation. The final product has fine minerality and grapefruit palate. Another Chardonnay for all but the darkest meats.

Mitchelton Blackwood Riesling, Australia: It has fresh citrus flavors balanced by oak barrel ageing and full malolactic fermentation. It has a generous soft palate and lemon and grapefruit aromas – think crab, salads and curry.

Vidal Sauvignon Blanc 2003, New Zealand: This one’s from the renowned Hawkes Bay region of the North Island where long hours of sunshine yield Sauvignon Blancs as first-rate as those from the South Island’s Cloudy Bay. The complex soils are credited for passionfruit aromas that intoxicate before the first sip. The flavors of citrus and crisp acid make this another versatile white and a great cheese match.

Yarra Yering Underhill Shiraz 2002, Australia: Syrah is the equivalent of Australian Shiraz, or vice-versa, depending on the side of the equator. This one was ripe and spicy – loaded with aromas of black fruits, minerals and licorice. Its intense fruit characteristics supported by cherry oak make it the go-to wine for steak, lamp, duck, BBQ and spicy Asian fare.

All Saints Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia, 1999: This is an Australian Cabernet I would rank up there with our top California Cabernets, with a much more palatable price of about $30. It is full of ripe berry fruit nose mingled with background oak and lifted by spiciness and tannins.

Yalumba Tricentenary Grenache 2003: Simply put, Australia is the go-to place for Grenache.

Sip Tips

Whitcraft Wines has a new offering. Number one son and assistant winemaker, Drake Whitcraft, has his own label. Aubaine Drake Pinot Noir 2004 ($50) is handcrafted, like all Whitcraft wines. This über-boutique wine is also foot-crafted by Drake. He foot-stomped these Aubaine Vineyard grapes, prepared and sprinkled the yeast for fermentation, punched down the caps four times a day, and coddled his baby through barrel ageing and bottling. The wine is available at the Whitcraft Winery & Tasting Room, 36 A S. Calle Cesar Chavez.

Master Sommelier Peter Neptune returns to the Wine Cask November 11 for a lecture on Italy’s Piedmont Region with a seminar, guided wine tasting and detailed materials appropriate for both novice and seasoned wine tasters. Tickets ($45) are limited and they are close to selling out. Event will be held on November 11, from 2 pm to 4 pm, at the Wine Cask, 813 Anacapa Street. For reservations call 966-9463.