Ruud Maasdam, co-owner of Staete Landt winery in New Zealand, puts it crisply: "New Zealand is about fruit power." To anyone familiar with virtually any Kiwi sauvignon blanc, the country's signature grape, there's no need to elaborate. The wines can seem like they'd been squeezed directly from mangoes, grapefruit, gooseberries or passion fruit rather than grapes.
Fruit power is what happens when sunshine and well-drained alluvial soils combine with a cool, acid-enhancing maritime climate and a prevailing winemaking ethos that deftly resists the heavy mascara of aggressive oak-barrel aging.
Those sauvignon blancs, which quickly carved out a category all their own after making a splash on foreign markets in the mid-1980s, also usually exhibit a fresh, herbal essence that can call to mind the country's verdant landscape (or "lambscape," as anyone who's toured the islands might subconsciously pun).
Yet Maasdam, whose twin pet sheep, Molly and Mike, recently helped greet me at his country home in the windswept Marlborough region on the South Island, was not speaking about sauvignon blanc. He made the remark as we sampled a 2009 pinot gris. It had acquired a textural richness thanks in part to fermentation in old oak containers, but the uncanny pear-like fruit barrelled through the faintly spicy notes of the deftly restrained wood. Crisp acidity kept things fresh and lively.
Pinot gris is close to the hearts of many New Zealand winemakers eager to build on the country's global success with sauvignon blanc. But it's hardly the only one. Chardonnay and merlot have been producing impressive results for decades, though their quality, it must be said, has varied more considerably from producer to producer than sauvignon blanc. More recently, succulent, berry-like pinot noir and savoury syrah, both easily winning my vote for New Zealand's compelling new signature varieties, have begun to cause a stir.
I'll be reporting on the dynamic New Zealand wine scene at length in coming weeks, but a small sampling of the expanding grape repertoire can be found in a special spotlight in today's release at Ontario Vintages stores. Among the 14 offerings is one of Maasdam's fine pinot noirs. Incidentally, he and his wife, Dorien Vermaas, natives of the Netherlands, christened their curiously named winery in honour of Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer. After landing on New Zealand in 1642, Tasman dubbed the place Staete (or Staten) Landt, roughly meaning "land discovered in honour of the (Dutch) States-General."
I like to think that if the seafarer could journey forward in time and taste the country's wines now, he'd nickname the place Fruit Landt.
Carrick Pinot Noir 2007 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.95
Central Otago at the south end of the big South Island arguably boasts the best microclimate for pinot noir - inland, mountainous, dry and sunny. Carrick is a very good producer, delivering a 2007 with textbook pinot characters of fresh, berry-like fruit, subtle spice, coffee and just the right amount of fresh acidity. This red would be a fine match for medium-rare duck breast or roasted game birds. It should age well for at least three more years.
Seresin Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95
The distinguished cinematographer Michael Seresin, known for such darkly moody films as Midnight Express, ironically serves up some of the most crystal-clear whites in the country. This shows impressively restrained grapefruit laced with fine-grained pepper and a mineral tingle. If you love Pouilly-Fumé from France's Loire Valley, you'll be impressed with this beauty. Pair it with spring asparagus.
Staete Landt Pinot Noir 2008 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
Medium-bodied and brimming with cherry-like fruit, Staete Landt's pinot hangs on a spine of juicy acidity. Woven into the fruit is a light patchwork of spices and fine-grained, astringent tannins. It would pair well with grilled salmon or roast chicken and it could develop more complexity with four to six years in the cellar.
Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $27.95
A top producer of Bordeaux-style blends, Craggy Range sits on some of the finest red-grape soils in the country. This is a mix of mostly merlot with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and malbec, velvety and cherry-like yet with slightly dusty, chewy tannins and complex overtones of coffee, tobacco, dark chocolate and spice. It would be beautiful with rare lamb chops and should age well for four to six more years.
Eradus Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Eradus is based in the sauvignon blanc mecca of Marlborough but the grapes were grown on a coastal district called Awatere, known for a leaner, tighter style than what many associate with New Zealand. It's crisp and racy, with electric acidity and an unmistakable note of wet grass, but the tropical fruit comes through. Good stuff and a nice partner for shellfish or salads.
Lone Kauri Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
This bargain pinot shows austere dark-fruit and cherry-cola flavours, angular tannins and lively acidity. It would make a fine match for grilled salmon.
Kim Crawford Hawke's Bay Merlot 2009 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
One of the big export names in sauvignon blanc, Crawford crafts fine, full-bodied reds, too. Seductively fleshy but not heavy, the 2009 merlot shows juicy plum, a hint of cocoa and tight acidity. Serve it with seared duck breast.
Wither Hills Pinot Gris 2010 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $19.95
Will pinot gris be the Next Big White from the sauvignon-blanc capital of Marlborough? Some winemakers hope so, though the prevailing style shows a vague sweetness that may not be to everyone's liking. This is attractively soft and creamy-textured, with classic gris flavour of pear and hint of mineral. Expect a whisper of sugar on the finish. I'd be tempted to serve it with pork tenderloin or smoked fish.