Current Releases from New Zealand

My tastings this summer of more than 250 current releases from New Zealand make it clear why the U.S. and other major wine-consuming markets are buying more of these wines than ever before. The country better wines, especially sauvignon blancs but also many chardonnays, rieslings and pinot noirs, are vibrant and food-friendly, and especially refreshing during the warm months. At the same time, gradual erosion in the value of the New Zealand currency against the U.S. dollar has kept retail prices here essentially flat in recent years. Juicy sauvignon blancs that were decent value a few years ago at $12 to $15 look like steals today at the same prices. And recent vintages have been mostly kind to New Zealand's grape-growers. Following an unusually warm 1998 growing season, in which even cabernet and merlot typically ripened well, both '99 and '00 produced very good wines in most major appellations, and early word is that 2001 will be the best year since '98.

New Zealand's reds from Bordeaux varieties continue to fare better in the home market than they do in the pages of this journal. These wines strike me as mostly poor value in the U.S. market, where we have access to countless characterful and far cheaper reds from Europe and elsewhere. My recent tastings did, however, include a greater number of enticing pinot noirs than ever before. New Zealand's cool climate (more specifically, cool spots within moderately warm appellations or protected microclimates within colder areas) is well suited to this tricky variety, and more of the better producers are now exporting. New Zealand's pinots are generally happy to be what they are: fresh, tangy and varietally true, rather than beefed up by late harvesting, extractive vinification and too much new oak.

On the following pages are notes on wines that rated 85 points or higher in my recent tastings. I also tasted scores of less successful examples. Many of the latter wines are listed following my notes; those followed by an asterisk rated 83 or 84 points. (For space reasons, I have omitted from my coverage another 18 producers whose submitted samples did not merit more than 84 points.)