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New Zealand's Sauvignon Swing

As Sauvignon Blanc powers ahead, Pinot Noir adds to the excitement from the South Pacific
Daniel Sogg
Posted: May 15, 2008

Winemakers in New Zealand continue to find their sea legs. Faced with the fickle maritime climate of this island nation, vintners have had to negotiate a steep learning curve. Yet there's been impressive progress in recent years. The batch of current releases—mostly Sauvignon Blancs from 2007 and Pinot Noirs from 2006—offers generally high quality and a number of outstanding values, though consumers should be selective.

Since my last report on the country ("New Zealand's Red Success," May 15, 2007), I have reviewed more than 280 wines in our San Francisco office. Nearly all of the bottlings I tasted this past year that rated outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) were produced from either Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, New Zealand's two most important wines. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available at www.winespectator.com/051508.)

Sauvignon Blanc, the country's best-known variety, makes up nearly 40 percent of New Zealand's 60,000 acres of producing vineyards, as well as 78 percent of its exports to the United States. Practically all of the best Sauvignons come from Marlborough, a region on the northeastern tip of the South Island. Although styles vary according to vintner preferences and vineyard location, Marlborough Sauvignons tend to be especially crisp, aromatic and food-friendly, with baseline flavors of tart lime and grapefruit, along with grass, fresh herbs and crushed stone. Some wines have tropical guava and passion fruit character, and riper versions can feature peach and apricot.

Younger is nearly always better for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, since green flavors, which begin as merely an undertone, gain momentum with time. Therefore, even though a number of quality 2006s remain available, you should focus on the top 2007s, of which four earned 91 points: the Brancott Marl-borough B Brancott ($25), the Kim Crawford Marlborough ($17), the Saint Clair Marlborough Pioneer Block 1 Foundation ($26) and the Saint Clair Marlborough Pioneer Block 2 Swamp Block ($26).

The 2007 vintage turned out well for most Marlborough Sauvignon estates, but it did present challenges. Late November frosts hit some vineyards hard, and November and December were unusually cold, rainy and windy, which delayed the start of ripening and protracted flowering. "I think it was a difficult vintage," says Kim Crawford, winemaker for his Marlborough-based brand.

Mild weather the rest of the season resulted in wines with greener flavor profiles and less of the inviting tropical character than was common in the 2006 vintage, which was significantly warmer. "There's more citrus and herbal character in 2007 because it was a cooler season," says Darryl Woolley, winemaking and viticultural manager for Nobilo, also based in Marlborough.

Despite these difficulties—and the effects of a weak dollar—the current batch of Marlborough Sauvignons still ranks as a go-to source for outstanding value, offering many modestly priced bottlings with fairly wide availability in major U.S. markets. In addition to the 2007 Kim Crawford, of which 125,000 cases were imported, there's also the Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Regional Collection 2007 (90 points, $13, 200,000 cases imported), the Crossroads Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2007 (90, $15, 10,000 cases imported), the Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2007 (87, $10, 110,000 cases imported) and the Brancott Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2007 (87, $13, 100,000 cases imported).

The vast majority of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in stainless steel tanks at very cool temperatures, which preserves maximum vibrancy and highlights freshness. However, a growing number of estates are making small lots of Sauvignon fermented at least partially in oak barrels, some of which are new. When done with riper grapes, the resulting wines can be outstanding, with a distinctively fleshy mouthfeel and warmer flavors of custard, melon and coconut. Barrel ferments can also extend longevity. Examples of this style include the Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Section 94 2005 (91, $30) and the Walnut Block Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Blicks Lane 2007 (90, $15).

Sauvignon Blanc may pay the bills, but Pinot Noir is grabbing much of the attention. It's the second most widely planted variety in New Zealand, with 11,000 acres currently in production. In general, New Zealand Pinot Noirs have more affinity with the wines of Burgundy than those of California. Cooler growing conditions impart bright acidity and taut tannins, and the wines show a wide range of lively fruit flavors, including berries, plum and cherry, with the better versions often featuring intense spiciness as well as crushed stone and mineral accents. Depending on ripeness levels, some wines exhibit green tea and herb notes. Nearly all of the top bottlings come from three regions: Central Otago, in the southern third of the South Island; Marlborough; and Martinborough, near the southern tip of the North Island.

The 2005 vintage was a breakout year that yielded a bevy of outstanding wines. Though one of those bottlings, the Voss Pinot Noir Martinborough 2005 (92, $42), was released last summer and is included in this report—and a handful of other outstanding 2005s remain available at various retail shops—most of the Pinots in current release are from 2006, which was a very unusual growing season. It was exceptionally warm throughout most of the country, and budbreak and flowering occurred a full month early at some sites. Hot, dry weather continued through harvest.

Successful producers were able to harvest very ripe and healthy grapes. The finest 2006 we reviewed is the Valli Pinot Noir Central Otago Gibbston Vineyard (92, $52), which features notably supple tannins, lovely spice aromas and concentrated flavors of dark fruit. Other standouts include the Craggy Range Pinot Noir Martinborough Te Muna Road Vineyard 2006 (91, $45) and the Staete Landt Pinot Noir Marlborough 2006 (91, $32). Though prices are fairly modest by Pinot standards, these wines, like most quality Pinot Noirs, are available in very limited quantities.

It is no coincidence that the top-scoring Pinot in such a warm year comes from Gibbston, which is the coolest area of Central Otago, a region that, unlike either Marlborough or Martinborough, is relatively insulated from the moderating influence of the ocean. Early growing seasons with warm, dry weather can be a pleasure for producers, since they aren't forced to race against the approach of fall or worry about the threat of rot, but there are risks as well. "In some of the hotter areas of Central Otago, people saw the sugars going up before the flavors were there," says Grant Taylor, winemaker at Valli.

California Pinot producers know this scenario all too well: Warmer weather drives up sugar levels while the development of flavors and tannins lags behind, so some vintners leave fruit hanging as they wait for ripeness. But this can be a tough pill to swallow. "The problem with Pinot in many places in a hot year like 2006 is that people pick not because they have ideal ripeness, but because they're starting to get [grape] shrivel and elevated sugars," says Mike Weersing, winemaker at Pyramid Valley, which made two outstanding '06 Pinots, the Marlborough Growers Collection Eaton Family Vineyard (91, $45) and the Central Otago Growers Collection Calvert Vineyard (90, $45).

Though some of the 2006s show green tea and fresh herb character, with tannins that can be unyielding, many estates made supple wines with inviting fruit flavors, and there are a number of excellent values as well. Look for the lithe, bright Nautilus Pinot Noir Marlborough 2006 (91, $25), a blend of six Marlborough vineyards. Other fine options include the Te Kairanga Pinot Noir Martinborough 2006 (89, $20) and the Villa Maria Pinot Noir Marlborough Private Bin 2006 (88, $20).

As good as the two major varietals are, there are other excellent wines as well. Chardonnay is the second best white, though styles vary depending on region and producer. Most Marlborough estates supply brighter, citrus-tinged fruit, with modest oak character, while wineries from Hawkes Bay, a warmer region on the North Island, usually feature richer flavors and more new oak. The country's most consistent Chardonnay producer is Kumeu River, an estate based north of Auckland on the North Island. It made a trio of outstanding wines included in this report, led by the Chardonnay Kumeu Maté's Vineyard 2005 (92, $43). Other white varieties include Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, with styles ranging from bone dry to quite sweet and quality usually falling in the good to very good range (80 to 89 points).

Red wine lovers looking past Pinot have few choices. There are a number of Merlot-based blends available in the United States, but quality is inconsistent, and many bottlings suffer from inadequate ripeness. Syrah ranks as the most intriguing "other red" variety, though the wines are rarely exported here in quantities exceeding 500 cases. Among the better examples are the Murdoch James Estate Syrah Martinborough Saleyards 2006 (90, $24) and the Trinity Hill Syrah Hawkes Bay Gimblett Gravels 2006 (88, $34).

But the current storyline in New Zealand focuses on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and these two will remain the protagonists for the foreseeable future. The time is right to acquire these wines. The 2007 Sauvignons are ideal summer whites, refreshing and reasonably priced; and because severe frost in 2007 reduced yields at a number of Pinot estates, consumers who look past 2006 might have limited options until the 2008 vintage.

Associate editor Daniel Sogg is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of New Zealand.



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