At the rate North Americans are turning on to New Zealand wine, it might be wise for TransCanada to consider an undersea pipeline from Wellington to Vancouver. Who needs Keystone XL when you've got a thirst for serious sauvignon blanc?
In 2015 alone, exports to Canada were up 18 per cent in value, surpassing $92-million, according to New Zealand Winegrowers, the industry trade association. That represents 13.4 million bottles, lower than for such dominant suppliers as the United States and France, admittedly, but remarkable for a nation of 4.5 million people. In the U.S. market, the cup runneth over, with sales up 26 per cent to $396-million.
To be fair, currency played a modest role in the recent surge south of the border, with the depressed New Zealand dollar giving Americans stronger buying power. But sales to this country have been gushing for years, doubling in value since 2008 to the point where our No. 8 foreign wine supplier in dollar terms is nipping at the heels of Chile, Argentina and Spain.
No other wine exporter with significant volume in Canada comes close to New Zealand's growth rate. (Neighbouring Australia actually saw sales to Canada decline between 2010 and 2014.) It's not just about our thirst, either. New Zealand's showing in North America was part of a broader surge that saw its global exports advance 14 per cent over 2014 to more than $1.42-billion.
It's a testament to the appeal of New Zealand's signature offering, of course. That would be punchy, fruity, grassy sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region, arguably the most regionally distinctive wine style to emerge from a land outside Europe. But it's also a mark, I think, of two other things.
Never huge players in the currency-sensitive bulk or jug-wine market, New Zealand producers have made a concerted effort to focus on premium juice. They've carved out a national brand identity for quality like no other country, notably fetching an average export bottle price that is the envy of the world (and especially of its neighbour across the Tasman Sea).
There's also the multitrick– pony factor. It's not just about sauvignon blanc any more. Producers have captured attention with pinot noir from Central Otago, Bordeaux-style blends and superb syrahs from Hawke's Bay, and a host of compelling aromatic whites, such as pinot gris, gewürztraminer and even grüner veltliner, Austria's flagship grape.
Ironically, what I'm most excited about these days, however, is sauvignon blanc. Not that sauvignon blanc but a new style that might impress even Eurocentric drinkers with little passion for traditionally vivacious Kiwi offerings. Until recently, almost all Marlborough sauvignon blanc was fermented in flavourneutral stainless steel tanks at a cool temperature. That technique helps preserve bright fruitiness and aromatic, vegetal verve. Let that juice ferment instead in relatively warm oak vats and you get another sort of magic: softer fruit, mellower depth and tamed grassiness. Let the finished wine later mature in oak barrels – ideally in contact with spent yeast sediment, or lees, from fermentation – and it can develop more complexity, cellar-worthiness and a smoother, richer mouth-feel.
The late, great Didier Dagueneau of Pouilly-Fumé in France's Loire Valley was celebrated for crafting a similar, rogue style of sauvignon blanc, charging upward of $100 a bottle to his cult worshipers for his top wines. But there's oak influence in California fumé blanc as well as many sauvignon blancs produced in Bordeaux. The first selection below is a great New Zealand example.
The rest are more classically flamboyant in style. Usually crafted in tiny quantities, oaked Kiwi "savvy" has only just begun trickling out of the home country. For now, the pipeline is still made mainly of stainless steel.
Giesen The August 1888 Sauvignon Blanc 2012, New Zealand
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $35.95
The Giesen brothers, Theo, Alex and Marcel, named this superpremium white after their grandfather, a restaurateur and sommelier. (It's pronounced "ow-goost" in their native German.) Fermented with wild yeasts, as opposed to the commercially cultured strains common to winemaking and most Marlborough wine, the wine is made from handpicked fruit from low-yielding vines, fermented in oak vessels and matured in contact with the lees – or yeast sediment – for richer texture. Medium-bodied and brimming with luscious tropical and melon-like fruit, with hints of vanilla spice and grass and a flinty aroma, it finishes with juicy acidity. Perfect for rich fish and poultry dishes but eminently versatile at the table and even worth cellaring up to six years. Available at the above price in Ontario, where, incidentally, it's cheaper than at the New Zealand winery (where it sells for the equivalent of $39.67); various prices and stores in Alberta, $33.05 in Manitoba.
Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2014, New Zealand
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $23.95
"Greywacke" refers to the sandstone around Marlborough but is also the current label of Kevin Judd, founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay, New Zealand's most famous cult brand. Medium-bodied and crafted in part with wild yeasts, this is pleasantly oily in texture and relatively substantial, with nuances of peach, lemon, chamomile and asparagus framed by zippy acidity. Available at the above price in Ontario, $29.99 in British Columbia, various prices and stores in Alberta, $25.70 in Quebec.
Waimea Pinot Gris 2012, New Zealand
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $18.95
Plump and fleshy, this is big like an Alsatian (the wine as well as the dog) and almost as smooth as LeBron James on the basketball court. Succulent preserved peaches coated in butter and a spark of gingery spice. Available in Ontario.
Tiki Pinot Gris 2014, New Zealand
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
The estate was named after the hand-carved pendants of Maori culture, designed to echo the craft-oriented approach of this estate, owned by former high-flying investment bankers Royce and Sue McKean. Hinting at sweetness in the mid-palate but finishing delectably dry, it shows plum and quince fruit on a fleshy texture. Suitable for light curries. Available in Ontario.
Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2014, New Zealand
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
Austria's signature white grape has found a green pasture on the other side of the planet. Yealands ferments a small proportion of this typically stainless-fermented variety in oak barrels, which imparts creamy texture and a subtly spicy edge to the ripe pineapple, melon and candiedorange fruit. Perfectly tuned. Brilliant for lightly spicy seafood. Available in Ontario.
Kono Sauvignon Blanc 2014, New Zealand
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Loud and proud, a cheerfully aromatic sauvignon in the classically outgoing Marlborough style. Rounded sweetness at first, balanced by lively dried herbs, lemongrass, tart grapefruit and lemon zest. Spicy marinated shrimp or wasabi-infused sushi would be nice. So would simple raw oysters, hot sauce optional. $14.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.