Current Releases from New Zealand

Of the nearly 250 current releases from New Zealand I tasted this summer, a solid majority of the standouts were sauvignon blancs, mostly made in the pungently fresh and decidedly unoaky Loire Valley style. Along with a handful of examples from California, and the very finest bottlings from Northeast Italy, Styria and South Africa, these are my favorite sauvignon blancs produced outside France. Where they lack the bracing minerality of top Sancerres from the best flint and limestone sites, they offer supple texture, sharply delineated fruit and sheer gulpability that I find absolutely compelling, and some of them are great bargains as well. I also tasted a higher percentage of successful chardonnays and rieslings than ever before, many from the 1999 vintage, a moderately warm year that produced grapes with sound sugar and acid levels and very good flavor development.

New Zealand's red wines based on Bordeaux varieties continue to disappoint. For the most part these wines lack ripeness and depth; some are downright sour. Many wines from the warm El Niño harvest of 1998 show healthy, deep colors but don't follow through in the mouth. Some are overextracted and finish with harsh tannins, while others are simply overoaked. Retail prices of the few passably good New Zealand reds tend to be outrageously high for wine lovers who have easy access to a world of ripe, affordable reds. Many English wine writers continue to play up New Zealand pinot noir as the Great Southern Hope, but I still find most of these wines lean and herbal. That said, I should end on a hopeful note: a handful of these pinots offer enticingly fresh red berry and spice flavors and noteworthy finesse, suggesting that quality is on the rise.

On the following pages are notes on wines that rated 85 points or higher in my recent tastings. I also tasted dozens of less successful examples. These latter wines are listed following my notes; those followed by an asterisk rated 83 or 84 points.