New Zealand Sauvignon and Pinot

American consumers can still find New Zealand’s wines in the market at the same prices as last year, and in some cases lower. This is largely due to the willingness—or the need—of U.S. importers and wholesalers to reduce their margins to sell wines through, and it must be said that they have gotten no relief in recent months from the U.S. dollar, which has fallen sharply against the New Zealand dollar since early in 2009.

New Zealand’s wine industry is in a paradoxical position today. Exports of their wines reached a billion NZ dollars this summer, up from around 100 million ten years ago. Much of the increase in wine volume has been accounted for by sauvignon blanc, the country’s signature variety, and in recent years New Zealand’s exports to Australia have skyrocketed. When New Zealand’s 2008 harvest turned out larger than expected, growers were ecstatic, as at the time they needed larger quantities of wine to satisfy strong demand from export markets.

But barely 18 months later, the worldwide recession has changed the supply/demand equation. Benign weather in recent vintages, especially in 2008, has resulted in a glut of wine. I’ve heard some reports of grape supply contracts being cancelled and vineyards being pulled out, and New Zealand wines appear to be backing up in the pipeline Stateside. I’ve been sampling new sauvignon blanc and pinot releases at virtually the same time each year, and this time I noticed that many U.S. importers are offering the same vintage as they were last year. Clearly, this phenomenon applies equally to wines in many other categories, and U.S. importers are no doubt now in the process of pressuring their New Zealand suppliers for pricing concessions, as are importers of wines from Europe and elsewhere.

Below, I offer my notes on the best new sauvignon blancs and pinots I found this summer (notes on the most interesting syrahs will be available on the IWC web site). Despite the fact that New Zealand doesn’t produce any cheap wine (the costs of production are simply too high there, and the climate too marginal), the country continues to offer some pretty good value to serious drinkers who enjoy cool-climate wines with real energy and lift.

The 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages, with isolated regional exceptions, were all conducive to making good ripe wines, but yields may have been too high for many Marlborough sauvignon blancs in ‘08, not to mention for young sauvignon and pinot vines in other growing regions. Despite reports that growers went to greater lengths in 2009 to limit vine yields, too many sauvignon blancs in my recent tastings were tart, green or simply dilute or flaccid, while a surprisingly high percentage of pinots were overcropped and short on flavor. I suspect, too, that a lot of pinots are being churned out to capitalize on demand for this variety, but many of the new wines are unexciting. So stick to the best in each category: these have the complexity, intensity, varietal accuracy and length to merit your interest—and, especially in the case of sauvignon blanc, they’re sensibly priced.

Among the highlights of my tastings were a small but growing number of pinot noirs from limestone-rich sites with favored northern expositions. Until recently, precious few such sites had been found, much less exploited, but between the North Canterbury producers Pyramid Valley and Bell Hill and a growing number of wineries in Waitaki Valley in North Otago, this category holds considerable promise for making world-class pinots noirs with distinctive soil character and real drive.