It takes generations of skill and a critical mass of exacting producers to put most wine countries on the map. In New Zealand's case, it took a single wine and a single vintage. That wine's name, if you haven't already guessed, is Cloudy Bay. Launched in the mid-1980s, the bracingly crisp, awesomely fragrant, explosively fruity sauvignon blanc was a New Zealand postcard in a bottle. Critics swooned. Connoisseurs scrambled. A small-lot cult classic was born.
Remarkably, Cloudy Bay's instant success came just a dozen years after a company called Montana (since rebranded as Brancott) planted the first commercial vineyard in the Marlborough region, a vast alluvial plain on the northeast corner of the South Island that today accounts for two-thirds of the country's output. Cloudy Bay was not the first to harness what would become New Zealand's signature white-wine style – a vibrant contrast to the elegantly understated sauvignon blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in France – but it was the shot heard round the world, clear proof the country was destined for big things.
Never a country to flood markets with bargain swill, New Zealand today boasts the world's highest average selling price for exported table wine. In the decades since Cloudy Bay's big splash, sauvignon blanc has been joined by other compelling offerings from the little, faraway country that could – merlot and cabernet sauvignon from Hawke's Bay, for example, and pinot noir from Central Otago and Martinborough, the latter most exciting of all.
There have been changes at Cloudy Bay, too. Founded by Australian David Hohnen, it was taken over a decade ago by French luxury-goods giant LVMH. (The vintages have been up and down since the glory days, though it has never fallen short of very good.) Kevin Judd, Cloudy Bay's talented founding winemaker, now crafts sublime sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs at his own estate, Greywacke, named for the rounded river stones that grace his Marlborough vineyard.
Two other talents also have moved on. Ivan Sutherland, Cloudy Bay's viticulturist for 18 years, and James Healy, the oenologist for 12, joined forces in 2004 to create Dog Point, which owns a decades-old vineyard next door to the original 1973 Montana land that got the New Zealand party started.
I think that Dog Point now ranks among the country's finest new labels, excelling with chardonnay as well as sauvignon blanc. Writing in the 2013 Good Wine Guide published by Australia's The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, critic Nick Stock ranked Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010 as New Zealand's best sauvignon blanc of the year. That wine hits Ontario Vintages stores today along with the other fine selections below, some available in other provinces as indicated.
Dog Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $39.95
There is an elegance here that invites comparison with fine premier cru white Burgundy. Ripe pineapple gets a welcome aromatic lift from toasty oak, mineral and a whiff of matchstick, deftly integrated during 18 months in French barrels. Perfect for buttery seafood dishes such as lobster.
Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $23.95
Lemonade squeezed from stone, with a fistful of grass thrown in – that's the picture I get while sipping this flinty marvel. A classic Marlborough hint of asparagus makes an appearance, too, in a good way. It's perfect for asparagus-based soups, pastas or salads. $29.95 in Nfld.
Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $39.95
This is sauvignon blanc with the sort of yeasty depth more common to barrel-aged chardonnays from Burgundy. Creamy, with a trace of delectable sweetness, it tickles the nose with Dog Point's signature nuance of struck match. Great finesse, and a good choice for simply prepared shellfish.
Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 2010 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $37.95
New Zealand's iconic brand crafts handsome pinot noirs in addition to sauvignon blanc, and this vintage is a winner. Silky texture carries flavours of plum jam and herbs, finishing with gentle tannic astringency. It would pair beautifully with pan-seared duck breast or grilled pork and should improve with up to five years in the cellar. $44.80 in Man., $43.29 in N.S., $49.50 in Nfld.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
I've heard mixed reactions from critics about this 2010 vintage of New Zealand's most famous wine. I'm in the thumbs-up camp. It's lean, with a silky core, tangy tropical fruit and a lively herbaceous character that conjures up an image of sunparched grass. Match it with light, zesty dishes. $31.50 in B.C., $29.71 in Man., $29.75 in Que., $36.99 in N.S.
Kim Crawford Pinot Gris 2011 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Kiwi winemakers are increasingly embracing pinot gris, an aromatic variety they believe could give sauvignon blanc a run for its money. I find the prevailing style a little two sweet and would sooner opt for the equally sweet but much more appropriately luscious style of Alsace. Some, like this example from one of New Zealand's major export brands, find their mark. Silky, with layered flavours of baked apple, lime zest, pear and peach, the enticing 2011 finishes dry. Try it with sautéed freshwater fish. $19.99 in B.C., $22.99 in N.S., $24.48 in Nfld.
Kim Crawford East Coast Unoaked Chardonnay 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
A smooth, medium-bodied chardonnay laced with tropical fruit, green melon and citrus. Lots of flavour without excess fat. Perfect for herb-roasted chicken.
Oyster Bay Sparkling Cuvée Rosé 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $21.95
A pretty bubbly with a light, coppery hue, it starts out vaguely sweet, with red apple lifted by zesty acidity on the well-balanced finish. Great as an aperitif. $24.99 in B.C.
Oyster Bay Merlot 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $18.95
Not your typically smooth merlot, this very dry red from Hawke's Bay on the North Island plays up the herbs, with a nod at Loire Valley cabernet franc. But there's attractive plum, berry and chocolate to support the greenery. A good match for grilled lamb chops. $17.99 in B.C., $19.35 in Sask., $17.99 in Man., $19.60 in Que., $22.49 in N.B., $21.99 in N.S., $20.99 in Nfld., $20.99 in PEI.