The Best of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and Some Chardonnays Too

These are tricky times for New Zealand wine in the U.S. market, as the short crop of 2012 and continued strength in the New Zealand dollar are exerting pressures on prices here.  The 2012 harvest was also the coolest since 1997 across most of the country, and sauvignon blanc from the wine factory of Marlborough, which comprises the lion's share of exports to the U.S., struggled to get ripe.  Meanwhile, many of New Zealand's pinot noirs appear to have gotten a bit ahead of themselves, price-wise, in the U.S. market.  Some producers are now having difficulty selling their expensive pinots through to consumers here, and a few are looking for new importers.  That's a shame, too, because New Zealand's best pinots are utterly delicious.  Meanwhile, sauvignon blanc continues to enjoy brisk demand here.

In 2012, a cool, wet spring and poor weather during flowering cut the potential size of the crop in most areas, and the summer was mostly grim.  In theory at least, the crop was saved by a dry April, which allowed growers to let their fruit hang without fear of getting rotten grapes.

Still, from my tastings of several dozen Marlborough sauvignon blancs, 2012 is a mostly disappointing vintage.  In spite of lower potential yields, many growers either harvested too early or were never able to get their fruit thoroughly ripe.  Despite early claims from some growers that the late, dry harvest allowed them to make intense, sufficiently ripe sauvignons, too many wines in my tastings struck me as excessively vegetal--i.e., showing more green pepper and canned asparagus than gooseberry, grapefruit and fresh herbs--and many wines come off as distinctly lean, if not dilute, often with sour finishes.  The best examples, on the other hand, are vibrant, penetrating wines that deliver uncommon refreshment value.  But they are the exceptions.

Two thousand twelve appears to have been something of an upside-down year, geographically speaking.  Blair Walter, winemaker for Felton Road in Central Otago, reported that very few vineyards in Marlborough and Martinborough had even started picking by the time Felton Road had finished.  Normally, the harvest in Central Otago is a week or two later than in Marlborough.  Walter noted that the more southern, mountainous, continental Central Otago region enjoyed a quick, successful flowering in early December and warm weather into early January, having largely avoided the strong La Nina influence on more northerly and easterly growing areas.  The rest of the summer, though, was cool and wet, and berry size remained small. The harvest took place under warm, dry conditions in April, and the favorable weather lasted through the end of the harvest in May.  Walter is very optimistic about pinot noir, chardonnay and especially riesling from 2012.

Brian Bicknell, whose Mahi Wines were among the Marlborough outperformers in 2012, admitted that the poor summer had him very concerned at the end of March about getting the fruit ripe.  (In Marlborough the flowering had been very tardy, taking place in late December under poor conditions.)  But he noted that warm weather through the month of April, with only a fraction of that month's typical rain, made it possible to bring in clean and reasonably ripe fruit.  He is very enthusiastic about the 2012 pinots in particular, which he says have unusual intensity.  The small size of the crop, he added, allowed him to get his fruit ripe and essentially saved the vintage.  But certainly many sauvignon blanc producers were not so lucky--or skilled.

And even if yields were off by about 20% for Marlborough sauvignon blanc on the whole, they are still too high at many estates to make truly concentrated and characterful wines.

Lynnette Hudson, who was responsible for making the pinot noir at Pegasus Bay for many years and now runs a wine consulting business in Auckland, reported that even though the harvest was also late in Waipara, down the east coast of the South Island from Marlborough, the year holds out strong potential for pinots, which she compares to the 2010s for their refreshing acidity and vibrant fruit flavors without any overripe shriveled-grape character.  As a general rule, the 2012s and 2010s from New Zealand lead with their fresh acidity, while 2011 was a warmer year.

I tasted all of the following wines in August and early September.