The late Peter Ustinov had the definitive joke about Toronto. It's New York, he said, run by the Swiss. In wine, I think of New Zealand as France run by Harvard MBAs. And I mean it in a good way.
Though literally a world away, the country's wines, as a group, may be stylistically closer to those of France than any other. Poise and elegance are two words that tend to apply, especially in contrast to, say, the jammy fruit bombs of Australia.
Credit mostly goes to the remote country's maritime climate, sort of a cross between Bordeaux and the cool Loire Valley, with an extra splash of rain thrown in
New Zealand even excels at most of the top French grapes: Chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris, riesling, gewürztraminer - all thrive alongside 35 million sheep and five million people.
But, and this is where the business suits come in, the wines are remarkably consistent in quality. Not always the best in their category, they are usually worth the price and frequently are a bargain. Bad apples amid the kiwis are rare.
Spring is the ideal season to explore New Zealand wines. White or red, they tend to be fresh, lively and versatile at the table, just the thing for the chic patio gatherings that food-porn magazines insist can be thrown together at the last minute. Pegged to the season, Vintages stores in Ontario are about to release a number of high-end New Zealand wines, some of which are very good.
Another timely reason: The current weakness of the New Zealand dollar means you can find exceptional values. Very good wines, particularly whites such as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, can be had for between $12 and $18. Most provinces carry reliable big brands, such as Nobilo, Villa Maria and Oyster Bay.
Between $20 and $30, New Zealand produces artisan-style wines that can seem like bargains next to good pinot noir from Burgundy, merlot from Bordeaux or syrah from the Rhone Valley.
A key reason for the consistent quality of New Zealand wines is its whole-hearted embrace of innovative vine trellising systems and vineyard management practices, which have helped minimize rot and promote better fruit ripeness in the damp climate.
Nowhere is New Zealand's embrace of innovation more conspicuous than in packaging.
More than 90 per cent of New Zealand wines have twist-off caps, a bold move to reinforce the industry's commitment to freshness of flavour and to battle cork taint, the fungal epidemic randomly affecting roughly one in 12 bottles sealed under cork.
Canadians who know anything about New Zealand wine likely will be familiar with sauvignon blanc, its signature variety, which accounts for about half its acreage. Some experts believe, not laughably, that the country produces the world's best sauvignon blanc. The signature style explodes from the glass with zesty aromas of grapefruit, grass and herbs, though French-wine buffs sometimes fault it for being too loud and lacking the mineral-like quality of Sancerre and that other great Loire Valley sauvignon blanc, Pouilly-Fumé. The most hallowed New Zealand producer is Cloudy Bay, but good brands also include Villa Maria and Babich.
Chardonnay was the country's second big hit, a lively, food-friendly style that stresses fresh fruit rather than the creamy, vanilla-swathed chardonnays that see extended oak-barrel aging.
So compelling and consistently good are the sauvignon blancs and chardonnays that, almost a decade or so ago, critics essentially moved on, turning their attention to debates about New Zealand's Next Big Grape. Most bets have been on pinot noir, a prized but finicky variety. There are three very good examples in the forthcoming Vintages release, any one of which would make a good partner for simply grilled salmon or chicken.
Readers will have to go out of their way to find the best one, though, because it's not advertised in the Vintages catalogue for the release and is available only as an "in-store discovery" at certain high-traffic locations. It's called Rippon Pinot Noir 2006 and is not cheap, at $44.95 (product No. 92676). Produced in Central Otago at the south end of the country's south island (where it's closer to the South Pole and therefore cooler), it shows remarkably good flesh and weight. More New World in style than classically Burgundian, it's jammy and opulent for a pinot, with ripe berry flavours, spice and crisp acidity on the finish. Winemaker Nick Mills is an off-road kind of dude, producing this pinot with indigenous rather than factory-prepared yeasts from vines on unirrigated soil, which forces the root system deep into the soil for more complex nutrients and stronger plant. It's also bottled without clarification or filtering, so try not to be put off by the naturally opaque, vaguely cloudy appearance; it's all good.
I've long been a fan of Palliser Estate. The Palliser Estate Pinot Noir 2006 ($28.95, No. 120766) is a pinot that sits somewhere between the austere Burgundian style and the fruity seduction of sunnier New World regions such as California's Russian River Valley. It's medium bodied, with ripe berry-like flavour studded with a spice nuance reminiscent of clove. Good concentration and perfect acidity.
Most Burgundian of all is Carrick Pinot Noir 2006 , also from Central Otago ($39.95, No. 919837). Another product of wild yeasts, this wine is soft and round, with very good flavour concentration thanks to a warm growing season. Rich berry flavours get a nice complement from a nuance of dark chocolate.
Beyond the pinots, I want to mention two other reds from this coming Saturday's launch in Ontario.
In the very-good category is CJ Pask Gimblett Road Cabernet Merlot Malbec 2006 ($19.95, No. 120816). There's an attractive earthiness in this cool-climate red that's hard to find in similar blends from hotter Australia. Medium-bodied, it shows nuances of cherry, tobacco and damp earth, with fine-grained tannins that add interest to the texture and may give this wine a few years of cellar staying power.
And a wine that has me wondering whether syrah might be New Zealand's Next Big Grape is Elephant Hill Syrah 2008 ($23.95, No. 121673). There's a tarry, leathery, licorice-like essence to this wine that I love. Good peppery spice and acidity for liveliness and balance, too. It reminds me of a good Crozes-Hermitage, a syrah-based red from France's northern Rhone Valley. New Zealand run by the French?
The annual spring New Zealand Wine Fair takes place tomorrow at the Design Exchange in Toronto, and in Calgary May 26 and Vancouver May 28. More than 40 wineries will pour samples. For more information call 1-888-9939927 or visit NZWine-events.ca.