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New Zealand zeal
Sauvignon blancs are hot in kiwi country

I first wrote about New Zealand sauvignon blancs in this column in 1997, and I do not mind being a man ahead of my time. Back then, New Zealand was a new, exciting, and relatively undiscovered wine region. Cloudy Bay, one of the country’s leading wineries, had attracted some notice in America, but that was pretty much it. I love it when the world and I are in sync, however, so it gives me great pleasure to report that currently, the hottest white wines are not chardonnays or rieslings, but sauvignon blancs — specifically, the solid 2000 vintage from New Zealand (where the harvest wraps up in March and April, so the 2001s are in the tanks, while the 2000s were released this year). If you have not tried them, you are missing some of the best wine values anywhere. New Zealand is on fire.

No one would deny sauvignon blanc’s position as New Zealand’s most important varietal (indeed, New Zealand is probably the only country in the world that could, or would, make this claim). Why do folks love the SBs from NZ so much? It may be the refreshing, thirst-quenching, citrus notes up front, or the exotic herbal undertones that add complexity on the finish. These wines are known for their vibrancy, their sharp, concentrated tartness, and their distinctive aromas. Once you start sipping, it’s hard to stop. “Refreshing” is the word I keep coming back to — and unlike chardonnays, which overwhelm many foods, sauvignon blancs from this region pair well with most fish and shellfish dishes. They can also go with chicken or pizza on warmer summer nights.

So what makes New Zealand offerings so approachable? “It’s the climate,” says Tim Preston, a winemaker there. “New Zealand is smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We have a maritime climate with warm days, cool nights, and a very long growing season.”

New Zealand is about 1200 miles from Australia. Roughly the size of California, the country comprises two islands, the North Island and the South Island. Most of the North Island’s top wineries are near Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough, and Waiheke Island, all located just offshore from the country’s largest city, Auckland. The North Island produces many high-quality wines, but it’s the northern tip of the South Island, near Marlborough, that has brought New Zealand to the wine world’s attention. A stunningly beautiful bowl rimmed by steep mountains, Marlborough is a valley devoted largely to sauvignon blanc. The region boasts a climate similar to that of Burgundy and gets more sunshine than any other place in New Zealand. Cool ocean breezes coupled with long growing days and plenty of wind allow the grapes to mature and gain intensity while retaining high acidity.

New Zealand wine has just begun to come into its own. Until 20 years ago, the country placed heavy restrictions on the sale of alcohol, but repeal of those draconian laws sparked a wine revolution. When Australian winemakers crossed the ocean to produce the first vintage of Cloudy Bay in 1985, the unique, seductive, fruity sauvignon blanc put the region on the world’s wine map. Wine guru Oz Clarke was an early champion, and Cloudy Bay drew widespread notice in the mid ’90s, just as American drinkers were discovering alternative varietals. As a result, New Zealand sauvignon blanc quickly became a cult wine. But although it graces many fine restaurants’ wine lists, most stores get severely limited allocations, much of which goes to their best customers. Cloudy Bay remains the gold standard, but I have tasted many SBs recently that give it a run for its money and then some (at least insofar as the 2000 vintage is concerned).

Sauvignon blanc, like Burgundy, can be very expressive of the region’s terroir. Americans have become accustomed to oaky chardonnays, and US producers tend to oak sauvignon blancs a tad too heavily for my taste (many of these are called fumé blancs, a term coined by Robert Mondavi in the early ’70s). The kiwi style involves less oak, no malolactic fermentation, and just the right balance between fruit and herbal notes (largely determined by how much sun exposure the grapes receive, which in turn is directly related to the angle of the vines and the extensiveness of the “canopy,” or leaves). One thing is for certain: these wines explode in your mouth with a raw, unadorned beauty that excites the palate. They’re like Liv Tyler in the movie Stealing Beauty — young, invigorating, alive, untamed, but balanced, poised, and ready.

Here are a few of my favorites, all of which sell for about $10 to $25. Almost all the New Zealand sauvignon blancs available in Massachusetts are excellent, and given their reasonable prices, I would encourage you to try a few and find which one(s) you like best. Just do me one favor — make your first sip a small one. I wouldn’t want you to burn your tongue.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: May 24-31, 2001

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