As many readers already know, I prefer the traditional wines of the Old World.
It’s not that Australia or South America aren’t capable of producing wines of exceptional quality, and I certainly do enjoy touring California wine country.
But quite simply, the cooler climates of Europe’s wine-growing areas tend to produce wines with lower alcohol, higher acidity and a consistent balance of ripeness and freshness. Those are exactly the kind of wines I want to drink with food as opposed to the exceptionally fruity and alcoholic wines trying to bowl me (and my palate) over.
Interestingly enough, New Zealand is one of the places in the New World which can produce such wines, and I’m increasingly impressed, especially because New Zealand is one of the world’s youngest wine industries. Vines first arrived in New Zealand thanks to a Christian missionary in 1819, and the first record of wine production dates to the late 1830s. But New Zealand experienced a series of setbacks similar to those faced in the U.S., including a devastating bout with the phylloxera root louse as well as a strong prohibition movement.
New Zealand began to relax its alcohol laws in the 1950s and saw improved grape-growing and wine-making techniques in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1985, Cloudy Bay Vineyards officially put New Zealand on the world’s wine map with its intensely aromatic and rich, yet racy, style of Sauvignon Blanc from the South Island’s Marlborough region. This uniquely pungent Sauvignon Blanc of Marlborough took the world by storm and today it represents a benchmark style for the varietal.
Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest region and produces more than half of the entire country’s wine. Much of this region is planted to Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and even good quality sparkling wines are also produced there.
Other New Zealand regions to look for include the Otago region of the South Island, which produces impressive Pinot Noir, and the North Island’s Hawke’s Bay region for its red blends based on Merlot.
All of New Zealand’s regions produce wines that share the common “Old World” traits of fresh acidity and balanced alcohol, yet give a generosity of fruit only found in the New World.
All of the bottles recommended below have been bottled under screwcap. Kim Crawford, in Marlborough, was the first to commercially release a New Zealand wine under screwcap. Today, more than 85 percent of that country’s wines are finished with this closure. While screwcaps lack the romantic appeal of popping a cork, they are an excellent closure for early drinking wines.
2011 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough
If you want to experience the intensity of New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, this wine has it. It’s pungently aromatic with fresh cut grass, limes and jalapeno peppers followed by ripe melon flavors and brisk acidity. Available at Brix, $14.99.
2011 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough
This is the wine that started it all. Cloudy Bay stunned the world in 1985 with its powerfully expressive, mint and citrus-laced Sauvignon Blanc. A side-by-side comparison with the Whitehaven will reveal Cloudy Bay’s superior texture and richness on the palate. It’s a modern classic and well worth the money. Available at Brix, $27.99.
2010 Kim Crawford Pinot Noir, Marlborough
New Zealand is now acknowledged as one of the few countries to have successfully come to grips with Pinot Noir, a fickle but supremely aristocratic grape variety. Kim Crawford in Marlborough was the first to commercially release a New Zealand wine under screwcap. It features aromas of cherries and violets with soft, silky tannins and bright, juicy acidity on the finish. Available at Hy-Vee Linden Market, $15.99.