New Zealand Wine: kiwi juice comes of age

Almost exactly 14 years ago, after attending a tasting at the monthly meeting of the Wine Media Guild in New York, I first wrote about New Zealand wines in my weekly column in the Newark Star Ledger. NZ wines were relative newcomers to the American market, so much so that when I was writing the column, I found out that many of the wines I tasted were not yet imported into the United States. Argggggh.

How things have changed. NZ wine exports to the United States have grown 12-fold over the last decade, from 213,000 cases in 1999 to over 2.5 million cases in 2009. As volume has increased, so have the quality and diversity. a few weeks ago, I attended a NZ wine tasting in New York, where it was enlightening to see how NZ wines have matured over the years, especially with regard to the country’s signature grape, Sauvignon Blanc.

Most early NZ SBs had that in-your-face herbaceousness and grapefruit zing that many found a bit too, shall we say, bracing. But at a lunch of NZ winemakers and other writers at the Cooper Square Hotel in September, four SBs showed remarkable diversity.

The Saint Clair Pioneer Block 18 Snap Block Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the 2010 vintage (about $19)—remember, the seasons Down Under are the reverse of ours—showed explosive aromatics, crisp citrus notes and that quintessential NZ herbaceousness. But the 2010 Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (about $27) was less ebullient, richer and tighter. In fact (and I never thought I’d say this about a NZ SB) I think it needs a bit of time to open up.

A 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from Ata Rangi (about $20) had a ripe and rich profile and more body than either of the St. Clair wines. With 10 percent of the wine fermented in three-year old oak barrels, it had less of those effusive aromas but there was still plenty of acidity to keep the wine well balanced.

If I had tasted the Ata Rangi blind, I would have guessed it was a California SB, never one from NZ. Even more so was the case with the 2009 Amisfield Sauvignon Blanc (about $24). Rich and buttery, it had a kind of Pinot Gris or Chenin Blanc waxiness or chamomile quality. Though it finished crisp and clean, this was not a wine for oysters on the half shell, as so many other NZ SBs are. A roasted sea bass would be more like it.

New Zealand is also showing diversity in other varietals. For example, I think it can produce Rieslings as good as those from the legendary Clare Valley in Australia. The 2009 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Riesling (about $22) was ripe with rich mouthfeel, balanced by good acidity and a whiff of petrol. While the Villa Maria was more New World in style, the 2007 Spy Valley Envoy Riesling ($30) was clearly Germanic. Though ripe, almost honeyed, this off dry wine had razor sharp acidity. Either of these wines would be fine with Asian cuisines, though I’d go with the Spy Valley if there is more heat in the food because it is only 9% alcohol. (The Villa Maria is 11.5%.)

Pinot Gris is another white wine that New Zealand is having good success with. The 2008 Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Gris (about $22), produced with grapes from two sites, had an inviting chamomile and Parmesan nose, ripe fruit and delicious mouthfeel and texture, thanks, in part, to the barrel fermentation used on 15% of the wine. The 2009 Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris (about $24) was very Alsatian in style with an almost Gewurztraminer-like rose petal nose, ripe fruit and good acid balance.

NZ Pinot Noirs are still trying to gain respect. But I think they’ve made great progress, as was demonstrated at the tasting. My favorite of the five tasted was the 2008 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, which was also the best value at $35 and the best match with the roasted lamb that was the main course at lunch. Made from six clones, it was rich, ripe and spicy with excellent balance. I also liked the 2008 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir (about $45) with its lovely raspberry fruit and classic Pinot Noir meaty and leathery notes.

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