New Zealand Sauvignon and Pinot

New Zealand sauvignon blanc is a no-brainer for the consumer looking for fresh white wine at a moderate price, either to accompany a restaurant meal or for enjoying at home. In spite of the relative strength of the New Zealand dollar, I was surprised to find that prices for many of these wines were roughly the same as last year, even a bit lower in some cases. This despite the fact that most producers, especially the smaller ones, have little additional leeway for lowering cellar-door prices and that U.S. importers and distributors have already pared their margins to move the merchandise.

The U.S. continues to display a major thirst for New Zealand sauvignon blanc. During the past year, this variety represented 87% of the New Zealand wine shipped to the U.S. by volume, with pinot noir in second place, accounting for 7%. (Shipments of New Zealand wine to the U.S. are up about 20% over the past year, a much better performance than most other countries can claim.)

Marlborough sauvignon, which accounts for nearly 90% of New Zealand’s production of this variety, has indeed become a hugely successful international brand, with all the pluses and minuses that entails. On the positive side, you shouldn’t have trouble finding a few good examples in any serious wine shop or wine-savvy restaurant.

On the other hand, the difficulty with any “brand” is the great sameness of the wines, with many growers using the same yeasts to standardize their wines and to promote a house style. The result is that although I tasted many very good sauvignons this year, many of them struck me as workmanlike. And the number of wines that stood out for their sheer concentration or distinctive personalities was limited. Sauvignon blanc, after all, is New Zealand’s cash cow, and few producers can afford to take risks, either in the vineyards or in the winery. So use my notes to find either style of wine you need: cleanly made, varietally pure and eminently affordable sauvignons, or more complex and idiosyncratic wines, usually for a few bucks more, that will give your tasting vocabulary a workout.

Recent growing seasons in New Zealand have been fairly benign benign. The huge crop of 2008, poorly timed in light of worldwide economic conditions, resulted in a wine glut in New Zealand that the country’s producers are still dealing with. As a group, they have cooperated effectively to cut yields since then, and Nature helped out in vintage 2010, as cool, damp weather during the flowering reduced the potential size of the crop in many major growing areas. The harvest in most regions (Central Otago was one notable exception) was later than usual, but Indian summer conditions allowed growers to pick ripe fruit in a leisurely fashion. Still, it turned out to be one of Hawkes Bay’s cooler vintages. Overall wine production was down 7% from vintage 2009, despite a 7% increase in vineyard land.

In 2009, following a successful flowering in warm, dry weather, the summer across much of New Zealand was a bit cooler and wetter than usual, with some February precipitation in Marlborough raising disease pressures and requiring growers to prune carefully and open up their canopies. But the weather turned mostly fine again in early March, and the delayed harvest took place under favorable conditions.

The market here for New Zealand pinot noir is much smaller than that for sauvignon, but cosmopolitan wine lovers are increasingly realizing that these very fresh wines are steadily gaining in texture and complexity. I was pleased to find numerous vibrant, varietally accurate examples in the under-$30 range this year. But Burgundy lovers owe it to themselves to try the more soil-driven and serious examples now being produced by New Zealand’s pinot all-stars. These wines are not cheap, unless you compare them to Burgundy of similar quality. When I’m looking for an energetic red wine at home to perk up dinner, a pinot from New Zealand is hard to beat.

All of the following wines were tasted in August and early September.