In New Zealand wine is in top gear. Exports marked a record high of $1.29-billion last year, up 8.2 per cent over the previous 12 months, according to New Zealand Winegrowers, the industry trade group. For producers in the land of verdant valleys, ubiquitous cricket grounds and muddy rugby fields, it was welcome news following a slump in prices years ago due to overproduction – and almost as celebration-worthy as the Black Caps' valiant second-place finish (against neighbouring Australia) in the recent Cricket World Cup.
Canada has been a significant player in those numbers, with annual shipments to this country for the first time exceeding one million cases as of February, making it the fastest growing region on store shelves and restaurant wine lists.
In another sense, though, New Zealand is out of top gear. Or, rather, Top Gear. I was amused to come across an article in England's Daily Mail exposing the impressive backstage demands of the famous British car show's three stars. Yes, that same Top Gear that garnered front-page headlines after lead host Jeremy Clarkson was suspended for allegedly slugging a producer who failed to supply the car czar with steak and fries following a long day's shoot.
It appears the now-fired Clarkson and his motorhead co-stars, Richard Hammond and James May, are as fond of New Zealand's grassy sauvignon blancs and fruity pinot noirs as are Canadians. So successful was the TV show that it had spun off live tours in which the trio appeared onstage before stadium audiences in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. A "green-room rider" for a 2014 Top Gear Live event in Oslo, Norway, which the Daily Mail believes to be authentic, lists demands including Marlboro Lights, "nice" garbage bins, a DVD of The Hangover Part III, Pictionary, Playstation 3, green plants, white linen, a Nespresso coffee machine, hair wax, 24 bottles of Peroni beer, Bombay Sapphire Gin and 20 bottles of wine, specifically sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from New Zealand's iconic luxury producer Cloudy Bay as well as Veuve Clicquot Champagne.
My first thought: Peroni?! I can think of a few hundred more scintillating brews than that big-brand Italian lager, which in automotive terms is about as exotic as a Ford Fiesta. And while I do like Cloudy Bay, which helped catapult zesty New Zealand sauvignon blanc onto the world stage, I can also think of a few great alternatives – including a couple of more affordable options for a man now out of work and two whose Top Gear future on the comfy green-room couch (with room for "six people," according to the rider) remains uncertain.
Saint Clair Pioneer Block 2 Swamp Block Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $24.95
One of New Zealand's top family estates, Saint Clair produced a marvellously complex Block 2 sauvignon blanc in 2013 from a small, specially isolated vineyard parcel near the salty soils of Cloudy Bay on the cool Marlborough-region coast. Medium-bodied and concentrated, with lush texture, it's a fruit salad of a white, showing banana, grapefruit and peach accented by gentle spiciness and minerality. Try it with medium-weight fish, such as grilled halibut topped with mango chutney. Various prices in Alta.
Elephant Hill Syrah 2013 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.95
Though sauvignon blanc and pinot noir get the lion's share of attention when it comes to New Zealand, the country's syrah is a relatively hidden treasure. Elephant Hill's 2013 from Hawke's Bay on the North Island could pass for a fine Crozes-Hermitage from France's northern Rhône Valley. Full-bodied and polished in texture, it's like blackberry jam laced with smoked meat and cracked pepper, lifted by lively acidity. A fine choice for gamy meats.
Dog Point Pinot Noir 2012 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.95
A top dog in the sauvignon blanc category, Dog Point makes serious pinot noir from its Marlborough vineyards, too. Here's a chewy, supple example hinting at cherry, herbs, tea and baking spices, like a fine red Burgundy with an extra helping of dense fruit. A versatile red for food, it would pair particularly well with grilled salmon or duck confit. Various prices in Alta.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $31.95
The name that quickly launched a cult following and blazed a trail for New Zealand sauvignon blanc just turned out its 30th vintage. It's as though they packed all the grass in New Zealand – including all those manicured cricket grounds – into this 2014 white. Light-medium-bodied and elegant, it's clean and crisp, with zesty lemon-lime and peach-like fruit, a dry, chalky mouthfeel and overtones of lemongrass and minerals. Oysters, anyone? $29.99 (plus tax) in B.C., various prices in Alta., $33.99 in Man., $32 in Que., $36.99 in N.S.
Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
A standard-bearer for crowd-pleasing, punchy, premium Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Villa Maria's Cellar Selection deserves praise for consistency at a fair price. The juicy 2014 is a blast of white table grape, grapefruit and melon, with fresh grass and herbs underfoot. Grilled shellfish and salad would make for a proper pairing, as would asparagus topped with goat cheese. Various prices in Alta., $21.95 in Man., $28.79 in N.S., $26.28 in Nfld.
Waimea Classic Riesling 2014 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
So floral, this could save you a trip to the FTD shop if you're in the market for a Mother's Day gift. Dry but with a sweet core offset by tangy acidity, it hints at peach and lime. Match it with pork, smoked trout pâté, cheeses or spicy Asian fare. $26.29 in N.S.
Sugar Loaf Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $20.95
Sugar Loaf founder Kate Acland named her winery after a group of tiny, uninhabited islands visible from the Taranaki coast, where she grew up. The volcanic rocks are rugged but this wine, made in Marlborough, is not. Light-bodied and delicate, it suggests mango, passion fruit and cherry candy, with notes of snap pea and grass and good acid balance. Pair with delicate seafood dishes.