The Best of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

What a difference a year makes!  Last summer the task of tasting well over a hundred 2012 sauvignon blancs from Marlborough was truly an acid test, as many of those wines were made from grapes that never ripened properly in a very cool, late growing season.  This year the '13s were far more satisfying and less overtly herbaceous, not to mention easier on the stomach.  And my early look at the '14s suggests that this large harvest has been another good one for Marlborough sauvignon blanc, although heavy rain at the end of the harvest penalized growers who were carrying excessive crop loads.

This year's coverage of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir includes more 90-point wines than ever before, including some from producers new to the American market and others who do not yet have representation here.  Chardonnay is currently enjoying a surge in popularity in New Zealand and here, too, I discovered a number of excellent wines that were new to me.

Thanks to an ideal growing season, this 2013 vintage appears to have been highly successful across most varieties and growing regions in New Zealand, producing wines that offer a felicitous balance of flavor intensity, texture and freshness.  It's certainly the first exciting vintage since 2010 and many insiders consider 2013 to be the best vintage in more than a decade.  Crop levels were copious, with production especially high in Marlborough, which mostly escaped the drought conditions that resulted in vine stress in many other growing areas.  Producers on the North Island, who had suffered through a very difficult 2012 growing season (especially for cabernet sauvignon and syrah), are particularly enamored of their 2013s, which benefited from a markedly drier--and warmer--growing season.

A pleasant surprise this summer was what the challenging 2012 season did for pinot noir.  While I did not taste many wines I would describe as fleshy, I did find some wonderfully scented, brisk and sharply delineated wines, particularly from Central Otago, which enjoyed drier conditions than Marlborough did and was able to take full advantage of the long, cool growing season and late harvest.  (Otago also enjoyed a large crop in 2012--in contrast to Marlborough, where production was sharply down from 2011 levels.)  But even Marlborough has turned out some very good 2012 pinots.  And Martinborough escaped some of the rains that affected areas farther north on the North Island.

The flood of new pinots from Central Otago continues unabated, and there are many exciting developments in this category, especially as more and more producers move from making blends from the various subregions here to making single-vineyard wines.  The cooler 2012 season tended to favor warmer microclimates such as Bannockburn and Bendigo, while in 2013 wines from cooler spots like Wanaka and Gibbston were more likely to maintain their terroir character and sound acidity.  As a general rule, the 2012s are tighter and more aromatically complex, while the 2013s show more flesh and lower acidity, thanks to warm conditions in February and March.  Felton Road's Nigel Greening compares 2013 and 2012 in Central Otago pinot to 2009 and 2010 in Burgundy, noting that "the public will like the 2013s while the producers will always prefer the 2012s."

And of course Central Otago's pinots will only get better as the vines here mature.  The overwhelming majority of Central Otago pinots are made from vines less than 15 years of age, and often less than 10.  So, many vineyards are just now approaching the age where they begin to become interesting.  The move away from making special barrel selections to making single-vineyard wines is also resulting in much more interesting wines, and terroir character will only be amplified as the vines mature.  Central Otago remains a rich category for pinot noir lovers, although relatively high prices for the top wines will still limit their appeal to budget-conscious drinkers.

The following wines were all tasted in New York between late July and early September.