Racy, tart and citrusy, sauvignon blanc is the wine most people think of when they think of New Zealand. But there is a lot more to wine in this Kiwi nation.
Famed for its stunning and pure landscape, New Zealand is equally acclaimed for its wines. Climate, geography and skill have combined to produce distinctive, high-quality wines.
In 1986, Cloudy Bay’s sauvignon blanc created a sensation, putting New Zealand on the world wine map. Since then, it has been enjoying dramatic growth and international acclaim. Naturally, sauvignon blanc is its main exported varietal followed by pinot noir and chardonnay.
New Zealand is about 1,200 miles from Australia in the South Pacific. It is about the size of California, with just one-tenth of the population. In fact, it has more sheep than people. The country consists of two main islands: the North Island and the South Island, and has a mountain range, known as ‘the Alps,’ that runs through both islands. Most vineyards are situated on the drier, sunnier side, in the ‘rain shadow’ east of the Alps. Grapes are grown in a vast range of climates and produce a diverse array of styles.
The original vineyards started on the North Island with white varietals such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and gewurztraminer, as well as pinot noir in the red category. As wines became more popular, vineyards slowly spread farther to the South Island beginning in Marlborough and then down to Central Otago where it is much cooler and the dominant grape, pinot noir, produces ‘dark and brooding’ wine. These pinots are definitely worth seeking out; however they do tend to be almost twice the price of their northern counterparts. The rugged terrain in Central Otago and the Alps in the south reaches 10,000 feet, and is much more difficult to harvest, but the wines have a purity, intensity and vibrancy that seems indicative of the terroir.
Through innovative practices in the vineyards, New Zealand winemakers are known to deliver quality, in a sustainable and environmental manner. New Zealand viticulturist Dr. Richard Smart introduced the groundbreaking system of canopy management, which balances leaf growth and controls fruit yield. In viticulture, the canopy is the part of the grapevine visible above ground. Cutting back the leaves of the canopy allows more sun for the grapes to develop more. The combination of canopy management and the site/vine row placement results in a stunning balance of citrus and tropical fruit notes in their sauvignon blancs.
Through careful site selection and innovative practices in winemaking, New Zealand has emerged as a serious wine-growing region. The advantage of being on the southern hemisphere and opposite growing seasons is that winemakers get to hone their skills in other famous wine regions such as Burgundy, Tuscany and Napa Valley during their off-season.
The riches of this clean, green wine country of New Zealand are certainly worth a try on many levels. Take in a deep breath of its pure mountain air and a sip of its unspoiled paradise.
Sample wines with tastes of the fruits within their flavor profiles. New Zealand is known for sauvignon blanc—have you tried gooseberries and all the different grapefruits? Pinot noir, on the other hand, is associated with cherries: including red, Bing, black, maraschino and Rainer.
Try other wines from New Zealand. How about a pinot gris? Or try a Central Otago pinot noir. The best I have had recently for the money is Roaring Meg.
Stanley Browne is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, and the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves. He is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant, hospitality and wine industry.