- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES — The world discovered New Zealand wine 20 years ago. That’s when the second vintage from an unknown winery named after an inlet near the top of the country’s South Island found its way to London.

The wine immediately became a media darling. Cloudy Bay’s 1986 sauvignon blanc, marked by vibrant, vivacious flavors, wowed the British press in early 1988, just as subsequent vintages did with American critics.

A flurry of planting and building followed, and a decade later, Cloudy Bay’s was but one of a multitude of award-winning New Zealand sauvignons that were exciting wine enthusiasts all across the globe. A country that had not even been an afterthought in the international wine world suddenly had become a leader.

New Zealand sauvignon blanc remains a global star. Not only does it account for about half of the country’s grape harvest, but demand for it remains unsatisfied. Although more vineyards are being planted all the time, more people seem to want ever more pungent, fruity New Zealand sauvignons.

Yet in 2008, sauvignon blanc is only part of New Zealand’s wine story. In the late 1980s and 1990s, sauvignon’s sudden success in the global marketplace led ambitious vintners to experiment with different grape varieties. They planted vineyards all over the country — from the Auckland region at the top of the North Island all the way down to Otago, near the bottom of the South Island.

Today, while many of the experiments remain ongoing, sufficient results have come in to be able to say with confidence that New Zealand is capable of producing truly distinctive (and delicious) wines from a diverse selection of grapes. If your only experience with New Zealand wine has consisted of sauvignon blanc, you’re missing out on a great deal of contemporary excitement. Here, then, is a brief survey of New Zealand’s other wines — whites first, then reds.

CHARDONNAY

As recently as 2001, more vineyard acres were devoted to chardonnay in New Zealand than to sauvignon blanc. Like their counterparts all over the winemaking New World, New Zealand vintners were trying to cash in on chardonnay’s global popularity. Yet too many of their wines tasted either excessively okay or innocuous, and while the past seven years have seen an increase of more than 250 percent in sauvignon blanc planting, growth in chardonnay has been quite modest.

Still, chardonnay remains the country’s second most widely planted white grape. At their best, top examples show a refreshing, even riveting character, the result of their naturally high level of acidity. If they lack the richness of California chardonnays, they more than make up for it with their own vibrant style.

That style is especially obvious in unoaked versions of the varietal. While retaining the grape’s inherent lushness, these wines taste bright instead of buttery. Consistently good, reasonably priced unwooded chardonnays come from both Kim Crawford and Villa Maria.

PINOT GRIS

Though few pinot gris vineyards in New Zealand are more than 10 years old, the grape is generating considerable excitement — as well it should because the wines are real head-turners.

Unlike Italian pinot grigio, New Zealand pinot gris emphasizes juicy fruit flavors. Yet unlike its Alsatian counterpart in France, it rarely feels heavy on the palate, being above all else refreshing to drink. Good examples also entice because of their evocative perfume. Though few are bone dry, most display only subtle sweetness, and so they don’t seem cloying or sappy.

Many New Zealand vintners think pinot gris will become their country’s second signature white. The high quality of wines from producers such as Kumeu River, Lawson’s Dry Hills and Mt. Difficulty suggest that they may be right.

RIESLING

Another aromatic grape variety that seems to thrive in New Zealand’s cool climate, particularly in vineyards on the South Island, Riesling accounts for just a small percentage of the country’s wine production. Yet top examples can taste riveting, and if consumer interest in this too often neglected grape continues to grow, one suspects more growers will start planting more vines.

The one problem with New Zealand Riesling, at least with the wines being imported here in the United States, is that they range from tasting quite dry to tasting overtly sweet, with no real indication of style on the label. To be fair, this is a problem with this particular varietal all over the world. Still, it hurts wines from an up-and-coming country or region more than it does those from established ones.

Made in an off-dry but in no sense saccharine style, Rieslings from Allan Scott, Pegasus Bay, and Villa Maria provide very tasty drinking.

PINOT NOIR

This is the grape about which New Zealand vintners are most enthused these days, even more than sauvignon blanc (if only because success with the latter variety has been confirmed so clearly). Planting of pinot is up nearly 900 percent in the past decade. It now is by far the most widely produced red wine in the country.

This surge in enthusiasm has two sources. Savvy New Zealand vintners know how to read sales figures, so they realize that demand for pinot noir, especially here in America, is at an all-time high.

The quality of their supply, though, is more important. Put simply, outside of Burgundy in France, no place in the world is producing more compelling wines with this fickle grape than New Zealand”s South Island. No wonder vintners — and consumers — are so excited.

Unlike California and even Oregon pinot noir, wines that (as regular readers of this space surely know) keep disappointing me because of their lack of structure and candied character, New Zealand pinot tends to exhibit bright fruit held in check by crisp acidity and fine-grained tannin.

Top examples evidence a lightness of touch that tastes and feels true to this thin-skinned grape. As opposed to American renditions, they do not seem clunky or heavy when you drink them.

Pinot noir is notoriously inconsistent no matter where it grows, and New Zealand wines certainly can disappoint (just as many Burgundies do every year). The best wines, though, are very, very good. Given the youth of the country”s industry, no wineries have long track records of success. Yet over the past five years or so, Craggy Range, Felton Road, and Mt. Difficulty have excelled.

One caveat: With high-quality pinot, no matter the country or region, you need to be prepared to pay a pretty penny. Values are very hard to find.

MERLOT

Most of New Zealand is simply too cool to grow red Bordeaux grape varieties successfully. Yet some excellent wines come from the North Island, particularly the Hawke’s Bay region and even more particularly the Gimlet Gravels subregion. Merlot there seems to be more consistent than cabernet sauvignon, which ripens later in the season, though some wineries blend the two to good effect.

Good Hawke’s Bay merlots or merlot-based blends are not muscular, heady wines. Instead, they show grace and polish, being marked by finesse much more than force. Like all good New Zealand wines, bright fruit constitutes their initial appeal, and the wines prove admirably balanced and harmonious.

Craggy Range is a leader with this grape variety, with its silky yet sumptuous “Sophia” blend heading the charge.

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