The Best New Wines from New Zealand

New Zealand is now the fastest growing wine category in the U.S. market, with the number of cases shipped to the U.S. up a startling 81% from July of 2004 through June of 2005. Clearly, American wine lovers are increasingly turned on to the fruit-driven, crisp and technically sound wines issuing from New Zealand's ocean-influenced climate. Roughly three-quarters of New Zealand wine exported to America is sauvignon blanc, as the U.S. market has developed a major thirst for these juicy, fresh wines, which are mostly free of any oak influence. New Zealand pinot noir, too, is growing rapidly in popularity here. Not surprisingly, these two varieties account for an overwhelming majority of the best wines I've recently tasted from New Zealand.

I had the good fortune to spend the second half of January in New Zealand, enjoying spectacular summer weather and combining a little R&R with a lot of wine tasting. (I was lucky, because the weather was cold and damp in most of New Zealand through the end of December, and the flowering for the 2005 growing season was very late in most areas.) I managed to spend time in Martinborough, Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago, visiting a number of the top producers and tasting hundreds more wines in a series of group tastings. While my tasting notes on the following pages are based primarily on samples I tasted in New York in July and August, I have supplemented these notes with additional current releases I tasted in New Zealand, including some wines that are not yet available in this market.

Prior to my notes, a few random observations on the current state of New Zealand wine:

While the brisk, steely style of sauvignon blanc has been much in demand by restaurant-goers in America for the past several years, and while this is the style that put New Zealand sauvignon—and especially Marlborough—on the world map, I found a somewhat worrying trend toward making bigger, riper and softer examples in my travels through New Zealand. This trend is especially noticeable in Marlborough, where large producers with high crop levels may have little choice but to let their fruit hang in the hope of making wines with less pungent, peppery green capsicum and jalapeño notes, not to mention asparagus and other strong vegetal qualities. The result is wines with more tropical aromas and flavors—sometimes almost chardonnay-like in character—plus, of course, some residual sugar. Is this a good thing? Few sauvignon producers elsewhere have succeeded with this approach. This question is critical for New Zealand because sauvignon blanc in recent years has accounted for 35% to 40% of total production and an even higher percentage of exports.

Chardonnay in New Zealand, although the second most important variety in terms of production, is mostly unexciting—like most chardonnay that's not from Burgundy. Few sites appear capable of producing truly distinctive wines, and full crop levels and a high percentage of young vines further limits the translation of soil character into the bottle. Slapping a lot of oak on these wines generally results in chardonnays that are more about wood than chardonnay. Still, there may be a decent market opportunity in the U.S. for fresh, unoaked chardonnays made in a sauvignon style, provided prices are reasonable.

Bordeaux red blends from New Zealand's North Island continue to be a very difficult sell in the U.S. market, and for good reason. Although some of these wines are well made in a rather lean way, few producers have demonstrated an ability to produce consistently satisfying, ripe wines that avoid intrusively herbaceous character. And high prices for these wines, at least in export markets, make them relatively poor value.

I believe we will see a growing number of interesting syrah bottlings out of New Zealand in the coming years, made mostly in a Northern Rhône syrah, rather than Australian shiraz, style. But pinot noir is the great red hope for this country. Although pinot production in Central Otago dates back to the mid-'80s, this spectacular region of lakes, alpine meadows and steep mountains and valleys (this is "Lord of the Rings" country) is only just now exploding into the U.S. marketplace. I consider the very good 2003 vintage a watershed year for these wines, as the number of talented producers has now reached critical mass and a goodly number of these wines are now being shipped to the U.S. Helping matters is the fact that with 2003, most of the best Central Otago pinots are bottled under screwcap, which only further emphasizes the fresh, clean fruit of these wines. New Zealand in general leads the world in the use of screwcaps, and I applaud this approach.

The style of pinot made in Central Otago is also much in demand among younger wine drinkers in the U.S. today: with their rich dark fruit aromas and flavors, intriguing floral and mineral nuances, and ripe, harmonious acidity—not to mention their often considerable heft (typically 13% to 14% alcohol)—they pose a serious threat to the more established pinots of Martinborough, which, while often more complex, earthy and Burgundian, can come off as drier and leaner in comparison with the fruit bombs from Central Otago. However, pinot noir in New Zealand is rarely cheap, and it remains to be seen how many estates will enjoy steady sales of wines priced higher than $40.

Recent vintages. The 2002 harvest was generally a very large one, although yields in Central Otago were closer to normal. Quality varies widely. It was a wet year in Martinborough, and many wines in Marlborough and Central Otago show somewhat green flavors. The 2003 crop was generally much smaller, as many areas were badly affected by spring frost, but the grapes ripened well under favorable late summer and early fall conditions. Total production was especially hard-hit in the North Island growing areas of Auckland, Hawke's Bay and Gisborne, but actually up from 2002 in Central Otago, which managed to avoid frost damage.

The combination of favorable weather during flowering and substantial new plantings brought a record crop in 2004. Although February was rainy, those who picked in March and April enjoyed generally fine harvest conditions. But some growers in Martinborough and elsewhere had to harvest their white grapes early due to incipient rot, and parts of Nelson struggled to get their fruit ripe. Production soared in such areas as Hawke's Bay and Marlborough, but actually declined in Central Otago. While some 2004s I tasted lack concentration, they are generally balanced wines. Vintage 2005 saw another large crop. Following a very cool and late start to the summer, the weather turned favorable in January, and most regions enjoyed Indian summer conditions through the peak harvest month of April.

One final note: an export-focused marketing alliance called the Family of Twelve has been organized to promote a geographically diverse group of a dozen of the most quality-minded producers of New Zealand, most of which are making world-class wine. This group includes some of my favorite New Zealand producers, such as Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Felton Road, Nautilus Estate, Palliser Estate, Pegasus Bay and Villa Maria. Other properties that impressed me on my trip and in my recent tastings included Amisfield, Carrick, Cloudy Bay, Daniel Schuster, Dog Point Vineyard, Herzog Winery, Kumeu River, Mt. Difficulty, Neudorf Vineyards, Seresin Estate and Spy Valley Wines. If most of these names are new to you, you've got some catching up to do. Here are notes on the best New Zealand wines I tasted in recent months.