Impressive whites from New Zealand

VINTAGE POINT

Wines: Sauvignon blancs are stars in recent tasting.

July 07, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

You probably already know that New Zealand is made up of two big islands somewhere near Australia and that its national symbol is a funny-looking flightless bird with a fruit named after it.

What you can add to your list of "Things I Know About New Zealand" is that the land of lamb and the home of the kiwi produces some mighty impressive white wines -- plus some better-than-decent reds.

Not long ago, it was rare to sight a New Zealand wine in an American wine shop. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Importers are increasingly seeking the best of these wines and bringing them to our shores while the wines are still fresh, youthful and lively.

New Zealand produces many of the same grapes used in Europe and California -- chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. But its greatest success has come with the often-underrated sauvignon blanc.

In California and Australia, high vineyard temperatures tend to send the sauvignon blanc off into some stylistic directions never taken in Europe.

But in the cooler climate of New Zealand -- particularly the Marlborough region of the South Island -- the sauvignon blanc produces flavors quite similar to those found in the classic wine-growing regions of the Loire Valley.

In some cases, the New Zealand wines reproduce the smoky, herbal, gooseberry flavors of a fine Loire sauvignon blanc with such intensity that they could be described as Sancerre on steroids.

Be warned that these are not wines for everybody. Sauvignon blanc made in the Loire style can be too dry, edgy, acidic and herbal for many wine drinkers' tastes. The best New Zealand sauvignons ratchet the characteristics up a notch.

If you do like the style, it's hard to imagine that you would find a better accompaniment to grilled fish or shrimp. Their breezy acidity makes them especially fine summer sipping wines -- especially if you purchase a fresh, young 1998.

While the sauvignon blancs were the stars of my recent tasting of New Zealand wines, the South Pacific nation also produces some admirable chardonnay and at least one impressive merlot. It's difficult to generalize about their quality from the small number available.

These are some of the top choices in sauvignon blanc:

* 1998 Lawson's Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($16). Here's a wine of crystalline purity and freshness, with generous apple-pear fruit and nuances of minerals, herbs, smoke, juniper. It's a dead ringer for a top-flight Sancerre.

* 1997 Brancroft Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($19). There's a lot of intensity in this dry, herbal yet very fruity wine. It offers some very interesting flavors, including melon, juniper and even cherry.

* 1998 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($22). This bone-dry racy wine adds a refreshing jolt of green apple to its smoky, herbal flavors.

* 1998 Giesen Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($14). This complex, smoky wine shows the classic "cut" and herbal bite of a fine Sancerre.

* 1997 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough/Te Kauwhata/Hawkes Bay ($12). Ditto.

* 1998 Huia Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($22). Ditto.

* 1998 House of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($12). This lively, herbal wine is light in body but has exceptional freshness and a real zing to it. It's a great summertime wine.

* 1998 Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($13). It's not complex or rich, just a racy, fresh, smoky, bone-dry white that is made to be drunk with barbecued shrimp.

Two chardonnays made a good impression:

* 1997 Brancott Vineyards Chardonnay, Gisborne Reserve ($19). At first, this wine seemed to be a rather light, low-impact chardonnay. But it improved in the glass as the chill wore off and showed an appealing Burgundian-style toastiness and mineral flavor.

* 1997 Villa Maria Private Bin Chardonnay, Gisborne ($17). It's a little greenish, like some Eastern U.S. chardonnays, but otherwise it's a well-made, medium-bodied wine with well-integrated oak flavor.

The only red New Zealand wine I encountered was the 1996 Te Kaironga Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot ($17) from the Martinborough region of the hotter North Island. It was not a full-bodied wine, but its racy acidity level and supercharged black cherry and black currant fruit gave it an impressive intensity. It definitely bore more resemblance to a Bordeaux than a California or Australian cabernet-merlot blend.

The final treat of the New Zealand tasting was a delectable white dessert wine that appeared to be primarily riesling, though no varietal was listed on the label.

The 1998 Giesen Noble School Road Late Harvest Canterbury White Wine ($23/500 milliliter) combined slashing acidity with lush sweet flavors of apricot, pear, cinnamon, strawberries, honey and tropical fruit.

Pub Date: 07/07/99

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