New Zealand Sauvignon and Pinot

I tried far more New Zealand sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs this summer than ever before, but in the warm months the assignment of tasting these vibrant, fruit-driven, cool-climate wines can never be a hardship.

Similarly, the U.S. market’s thirst for New Zealand sauvignon blanc continues unabated. Sauvignon blanc accounted for nearly 85% of the volume of New Zealand wine shipped here during the year that ended in June—up significantly from 78% a year earlier—while pinot noir represented another 8%. (Chardonnay was next, at 3.4%.) Surprisingly, New Zealand red wine other than pinot noir accounted for just 1% of the total. With all due respect to the mostly North Island producers who are now managing consistently to make ripe, user-friendly wines from red Bordeaux varieties, these wines continue to be a tough sell in the U.S. market, as drinkers here have far too many less expensive choices in this category and continue to gravitate toward juicier reds like pinot noir.

Good crisp sauvignon in the $15 to $20 range is another matter. And with a growing number of wine drinkers seeking out juicy pinot noirs with early appeal, New Zealand’s growing portfolio of outstanding examples offers a compelling option, even if it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find excellent wines in the $30 range. The strong New Zealand dollar has been an obstacle to sales, and yet I saw more New Zealand pinots from more wineries this year than ever before.

That’s not to say that all New Zealand pinots and sauvignons merit the active interest of consumers. Although the average level of quality of these wines is higher than ever, a sizable percentage of the sauvignon blancs I tasted in recent months lack concentration and flavor authority, while too many pinots show limited complexity, palate presence and persistence. Young vines are often responsible for dilute wines, and some of New Zealand’s producers may be overcropping to satisfy growing demand for their wines. While I love the style of New Zealand’s pinots and sauvignons, only the best of them have the texture, concentration, complexity and length to merit outstanding ratings.

Recent vintages. Pinot noir and sauvignon blanc have generally benefited from good weather conditions in recent years, and many growers are particularly excited about the quality of their 2007s. In Marlborough in 2007, unusually cool weather during flowering resulted in a mostly low crop level, but weather conditions were then quite favorable through the summer, with below-average rainfall and average temperatures. The harvest started a bit late but took place at a leisurely pace, without serious weather concerns that might have required picking quickly. Most growers feel that their sauvignons nicely combine weight and aromatic purity, and alcohol levels are generally quite reasonable. The low yields and small berry size in pinot resulted in rather powerful wines that will probably have better-than-normal tannic structure for aging. As Brian Bicknell of Mahi Wines described it, “we had fewer periods of potential botrytis infection in 2007 than in the previous four years.” He was thus able to pick thoroughly ripe sauvignon blanc well into April.

Martinborough began with a very low crop level for pinot noir, and following a dry and temperate summer made unusually concentrated, deeply colored and powerful wines. Larry McKenna of Escarpment told me that the only real concern was the possibility of getting overripe or slightly raisined flavors.

Meanwhile, Central Otago also had a poor flowering in 2007 and problems with millerandage, following a spring plagued by the constant threat of frost. Crop levels were tiny, especially for those wineries that crop-thinned strictly after veraison to eliminate the less-ripe clusters. Ultimately the pinot harvest was not as late as initially expected thanks to warm late-summer weather (and unusually warm nights in the weeks prior to harvest) and took place under clement conditions. The small berries, and small quantities of fully ripe fruit, have widely produced plush wines with ripe flavors. It must be noted that overall production for New Zealand reached record levels in 2007, due in large part to continuing replanting and the establishment of new vineyards, but many of the best wineries faced crop shortfalls.

Most winemakers I spoke to described 2006 as having produced juicy, graceful pinots and sauvignons. It was a typical year for Martinborough: a normal crop load, reasonable but not excessive rainfall during the summer, and enough warmth to ripen the pinot fruit successfully, with no real weather pressures to face at harvest time. Early indications are that the pinots are true to type, even if they have a tendency to be quite primary today. Escarpment’s McKenna ranks 2006 in the same high quality class for Martinborough pinot as 2001 and 2003.

In Marlborough, Bicknell described the 2006 pinots as “possibly a bit silkier than the’07s but without quite the same structure.” In Central Otago, ideal spring weather resulted in a very good flowering and set the stage for a full crop level, with large bunches and large grapes. The summer was dry and warm and the harvest began at least a week earlier than usual. Felton Road’s Blair Walter carried out a saignée to concentrate virtually all of his musts, and describes his 2006 pinots as “easy to make and easy to understand.” While he was initially concerned about a possible lack of concentration and depth in the wines, he has come to view this vintage’s pinots as elegant and refined. Still, he has a preference for 2007 in Central Otago. Mike Weersing, who is responsible for the superb Pyramid Valley Vineyards wines, agrees that 2007 was better in Central Otago due to the “tiny yields” but noted that in his home area of Canterbury the cooler 2007 growing season rendered lighter but highly perfumed wines.

By the way, early reports on 2008—and the wines that have come my way—are quite promising. Marlborough’s growers are largely happy with pinot noir and sauvignon, although rainy periods beginning at the end of March vexed those who harvested late. Rain similarly complicated matters in much of Canterbury and Waipara. Central Otago picked pinot noir into early May but managed to get the fruit in before being hit by damaging frosts.