I came away with a few New Zealand wine superlatives based on my recent visit as well as input from Kiwi winemakers. Here are my best, worst and more from the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Best wine: Pinot Noir. But there's a lot of great Riesling made in New Zealand. It's an insider's favorite. Time and again, New Zealand Riesling proved to be an amazingly consistent, pure and refreshing expression of a great grape, irrespective of producer.
Most successful grape: Sauvignon Blanc, hands down. Few countries are so defined by one wine. It is by far the most widely planted grape, commanding a 70 percent share of production. While New Zealand is far from a one-trick pony, the dilemma is obvious. For most wine drinkers, New Zealand is defined by its racy Sauvignon Blancs. When you reach for a bottle you get what you expect: intense fruit, zesty gooseberry and citrusy lime notes, and often bracing acidity.
Sauvignon Blanc has opened many a door for Kiwi wines. The fear, however, is that Sauvignon's abundance—especially at increasingly lower price points—will hinder the industry as it seeks greater acceptance for its other, higher-priced wines.
The rising star: Again, Pinot Noir. It is the second-most widely planted grape, but that's misleading, since it is less than 10 percent of the country's vine acreage (and just ahead of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, which are in the 8 to 6 percent range, respectively). It is made in many of New Zealand's winegrowing districts, but if you had to choose one over another, I'd give the nod to Central Otago over Marlborough. The wines I tried from there as a group offered riper flavors and fleshier textures than Pinots from other appellations. I found the Marlborough and Martinborough Pinots leaner, more savory, herbal and firmer in structure.
A few of my favorite Pinot producers are making wines that offer uncommon depth and complexity: Amisfield, Ata Rangi, Burn Cottage, Craggy Range, Felton Road, Greywacke, Mondillo, Mt. Difficulty, Rippon, St. Clair, Spy Valley and Villa Maria.
The dark horse: Syrah. I was impressed by several, including Craggy Range and Man O' War, the latter on the beautiful Waiheke Island, a slice of paradise off Auckland.
Most underrated: Pinot Gris. These intense, well-structured and complex wines show best with food.
Most overlooked: Obviously Riesling qualifies here for the above stated reasons. Also, the Chardonnays of New Zealand are of high quality, yet they're a bit lost in the shuffle. Kiwi Chardonnays share Sauvignon Blanc's austerity and vibrant acidity, with the likes of Kumeu River, among others, bearing the standard.
The least-exciting wines for me were the Bordeaux-inspired blends or stand-alone varietal wines made of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and the like. There's not much of these grapes planted in New Zealand and, given its cool climate, it's not surprising they don't rise to the heights of the aforementioned varieties.
Dave Pramuk — Napa, CA, USA — February 29, 2012 8:36pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — March 1, 2012 2:13pm ET
Morewine Bishar — Del Mar, California — March 1, 2012 5:20pm ET
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