The Best New Wines from New Zealand

New Zealand's fresh, fruit-driven wines continue to grow in popularity in the U.S. market. With American wine lovers, especially restaurant customers, seeking out more vibrant and less tiring white wine alternatives to chardonnay, New Zealand sauvignon blanc is penetrating the consciousness of the mass market, and more adventuresome drinkers are discovering the country's brisk riesling and pinot gris bottlings as well. As you will read on the following pages, I tasted more delightful New Zealand wines than ever before, partly because more wineries today are shipping wine to America. But with pressure on the U.S. dollar over the past year, prices for New Zealand wines are sneaking higher, and it's getting harder to find legitimately interesting wines - other than sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot gris - at low prices.

Recent vintages. Vintage 2002 was clearly a challenging one for most growing areas of New Zealand, partly due to the record size of the crop. It was a cool and frequently wet growing season in which grapes in many sites struggled to achieve flavor development. Most of the country experienced higher-than-average rainfall during late summer, which often had the effect of stimulating vine growth rather than ripening the berries. Warmer, dryer weather in March and early April reportedly helped later-ripening varieties such as cabernet and syrah; I have not yet had the chance to taste these wines. But in my recent tastings I ran across numerous successful pinot noirs.

I found 2002 to be especially hard on sauvignon blanc, New Zealand's most commercially important variety and a grape that has provided more than its share of highlights in my tastings of New Zealand wines in recent years. The wines generally possess brisk acidity and freshness, but of more than 75 examples of 2002 sauvignon blanc I tasted this summer, the majority were too herbaceous and/or tart to recommend, including many wines from producers that normally produce excellent examples. Virtually none had the ripeness, density and flavor development to merit outstanding ratings. Almost certainly, excessive yields were a determining factor here. At the same time, however, I found dozens of crisp, stylish wines, most made without any oak influence, and I continue to consider New Zealand to be the finest source for sauvignon blanc outside the Loire Valley.

By the way, my early look at a handful of 2003 sauvignons suggests that this vintage, with crop levels down sharply from 2002 due to spring frost and poor weather during the flowering, may well have yielded sauvignons with more aromatic and flavor interest, although it must be pointed out that New Zealand's winemakers do not expect this generally cool year to be a particularly strong vintage either. (One exception is reportedly Central Otago, which managed for the most part to escape spring frost despite the fact that this southerly region is also generally New Zealand's coolest and most frost-prone.) The 2003 sauvignons, however, may be slower to arrive in export markets than in past years, for two reasons. First, with considerably less wine available, many producers will be seeking to parcel out their bottles to make it through the 12-month cycle. Equally important, there is a growing feeling among many of New Zealand's producers that their sauvignon blancs do not show well when rushed to market just after they've been bottled and really need six to nine months to round into form.

Although sauvignon blanc bottlings did not dominate my annual tastings of New Zealand wines quite as they had in recent years, one of the reasons for this was also the increasing quality of other white wines, including many examples from vintage 2001, a year that produced a full crop of higher-than-average quality. I tasted more good chardonnays and juicy, intense rieslings than ever before. And I was particularly impressed by a number of pinot gris bottlings this time around. The best examples of New Zealand pinot gris are fresh, reasonably aromatic and food-friendly. While most New Zealand wines would be better if crop levels were reduced by 25% or more, I did not run across many dilute pinot gris offerings.

New Zealand's red wines. In recent weeks, I've sampled scores of New Zealand pinot noirs, including a host of delightfully fresh, stylish, fruit-driven wines. If these wines do not generally match Oregon's best examples for weight on the palate, complexity of soil character, and sheer ambitiousness, they are often fresher, juicier and easier to drink.

As for New Zealand's red wines from Bordeaux varieties, I still don't see the point. For every reasonably competent cabernet or Bordeaux blend I tasted, no fewer than eight or nine were unacceptably herbaceous, thin or dry. And even the good ones typically show distinct green qualities that I suspect many American wine drinkers will find troubling. What makes these wines even harder to swallow is that fact that they're more likely to cost $40 than $20, ranking them as poor value in export markets.