New Zealand Sauvignon and Pinot

Exports of New Zealand wines to the U.S. have grown by 19% over the past 12 months, driven by this market's thirst for sauvignon blanc, which accounted for nearly 90% of New Zealand wines shipped here.  Happily, most of New Zealand's best producers of sauvignon are represented in the U.S.  I say happily because overcropping of sauvignon blanc in New Zealand has been an issue in recent years with new plantings kicking in.  Now that some large producers have signed contracts to provide cheap high-volume wines to supermarket chains in England and Australia, there's less incentive for farmers to control their crop loads.  But Stateside we see relatively little of this low-end juice.  And at the high end, sauvignon quality has been steady, helped by the lively, aromatic 2010 vintage and a successful harvest in 2011.

Although it's difficult to make weather generalizations across New Zealand's disparate growing regions, the 2010 vintage widely benefited from a somewhat cooler summer than 2011, with particularly cold conditions in the spring. The first half of the summer was generally damp, further delaying the ripening process, but then dry, warm summer conditions set in by February, and a long, favorable late season allowed growers in most regions to pick at leisure.  (There was even drought in the Auckland area.)  Marlborough reportedly did very well, and pinot growers in Central Otago were able to ripen their fruit thoroughly as the second half of the summer brought sufficient warmth.

Marlborough enjoyed more or less average temperatures for the season and less rainfall than usual.  A late Indian summer drew out the harvest, with temperatures remaining warm through April.  White varieties from this vintage generally show good acidity and typical cool-climate aromas and flavors, and growers could pick their reds without weathe pressures.  Crop levels were generally moderate.

Two thousand eleven brought a larger crop and warmer conditions.  A strong La Nina pattern resulted in periods of heavy rain on both the North and South Islands, and the crop size was well up on 2010.  White varieties that were allowed to hang too long produced somewhat tropical wines.  Central Otago experienced damp weather in February, although it was mostly warm and drier elsewhere.  Colder weather in Central Otago in late April essentially brought an end to the growing season in that region.  Marlborough benefited from a warm March followed by cooler weather in April during the harvest period, and as a rule it was drier on the South Island than the North.  Conditions in 2011 were generally better for the prime pinot- and sauvignon-producing regions than they were for syrah and the red Bordeaux varieties on the North Island.

Lynnette Hudson, who consistently makes some of New Zealand's finest pinot noirs at Pegasus Bay (in Waipara on the east coast of the South Island just south of Marlborough), noted that pinot crop levels were down 30% to 40% in 2010, enabling the vines to ripen their remaining fruit fully.  The 2010s, she reports, are concentrated and balanced, with abundant fine-grained tannins and good aging potential.  In the warmer summer of 2011, crop levels were higher and it was necessary to remove some crop to make concentrated wines.  On the other hand, she pointed out, "the warm season made it easy to ripen the fruit and it was best not to reduce the crop level too much so as to retain vibrancy in the wines."  The 2011 wines, Hudson continued, rely more on their phenolic material than on their acidity for balance.

I was able to taste more New Zealand pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs this summer than ever before, including a number of wines from high-quality producers who are not yet in the U.S. market.  It's a difficult time for producers to find representation in the U.S. market; some importers continue to drop suppliers whose wines have slowed down in the marketplace and they're not really looking for new ones.  It doesn't help matters that the New Zealand dollar remains close to its all-time high.  With prices mostly remaining high, it's difficult for any player in the supply chain, from producers to retailers, to make a solid profit.  Incidentally, generally lousy conditions in Marlborough during the flowering of the 2012 season cut yields sharply for the latest vintage, which cannot be a positive sign for the overall pricing situation.