For such a tiny wine producer, New Zealand has made quite the splash in our stemware, and it's almost all on the strength of one grape, sauvignon blanc.
The island nation, known better for sheep, dairy, kiwis and a great movie trilogy that spawned a bad musical, churns out just one-10th the wine of its neighbour, Australia, and ranks about 30th in the world in terms of production.
But New Zealand's sauvignon blancs are regularly praised by critics and consumers alike as representing the top of their class. Oz Clarke, the famous British critic, has opined that the country makes arguably the best sauvignon blanc in the world,
That's some praise given the competition, notably the storied and subtly complex Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés of France's Loire Valley.
But New Zealand's is a style is all its own. Always fresh and clean, the wines take their cue from the clean, unoaked versions of the Loire and then pump up the flavour volume by a factor of 11. Plump tropical fruit, bold grassiness and electrifying acidity are the hallmarks -- flavours that play to the country's postcard images of pristine, exotic landscapes.
In recent years, though, the country has been diversifying, and the grape generating the most buzz is pinot noir. You can see why in the form of one terrific pinot that was released last week in Ontario as part of the Vintages fine wine department's spring spotlight on New Zealand. It's called Seresin Leah Pinot Noir 2004 ($39.95, product No. 655167). Produced by an estate founded by cinematographer Michael Seresin (of Midnight Express and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban fame), it's my favourite of all the New Zealand offerings in the current release. Medium-bodied and brimming with cherry, beetroot and spice flavours, it shows good concentration and bright acidity. Like most of the New Zealand wines in the release, it's sealed with a screw cap, a sign of the industry's commitment to fighting cork taint, a scourge that produces off flavours in an estimated 5 to 8 per cent of the world's wines.
Viognier is another one of those white grapes that used to flourish mainly in France and it's nicely represented by Coopers Creek Viognier 2005 ($22.95, No. 694828) from a New Zealand winery that also makes fine chardonnays and merlots. The characteristically floral viognier scent is followed on the palate by notes of tangerine and honey, with a viscous texture and long finish.
Showing fine balance among the sauvignon blancs is Drylands Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($18.95, No. 675405). Light and very tangy, it erupts with tropical fruit, herbs and lemon peel.
Another beauty is Tohu Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($17.95, No. 723221). It's the fruit of a partnership between three businesses run by Maoris, New Zealand's indigenous people. Big flavours of lemon and grapefruit carry through over notes of passion fruit, flowers and mint. The wine took home a silver at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards.
In an almost-sweet, arguably more crowd-pleasing style is Culley Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($18.95, No. 695155), medium-bodied, with a flavour suggesting lemon pie and a dry, long finish.
The raciest of the bunch is Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($19.95, No. 963124), showing juicy acidity and nuances of gooseberry, mango and lime.
Among the other noteworthy whites in the release is the delicious Pfaffenheim Gewurztraminer Cuvée Bacchus 2004 ($19.95, No. 996017), an opulent beauty from Alsace that's medium full-bodied and brimming with classic lychee and rose-petal nuances, and a hint of spice on the long finish. Great value.
Fans of prosecco, the sparkling dry white from northern Italy, should be pleased with Santa Margherita Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut ($17.95, No. 687582). From the winery that helped launch pinot grigio onto restaurant wine lists everywhere, it shows a lemony core with a tinge of tingly minerals. Lively and clean and nicely done.
One of the star reds of the release is Ornellaia 2002 ($139.95, No. 722470), a famed cabernet sauvignon from a Tuscan estate that recently underwent an ownership change. The legendary Frescobaldi family now shares equity with Michael Mondavi, the former chairman of Robert Mondavi Winery, and the Stolichnaya vodka people. The rain-plagued 2002 vintage in Tuscany was a washout for many producers, but Ornellaia battled back by bottling only a small, unscathed fraction of its usual production. The characteristic density and opulence is in evidence, with rich plum, cherry and subtle licorice flavours. The upside is that this wine is the most approachable young Ornellaia I've tasted, with silkier, less astringent tannins. It would be a good candidate to enjoy now or over the next 10 years -- as opposed to the usual 20-plus.
I also recently tasted its big-sister red, Masseto 2002 ($249, No. 730655), for the second time, with export manager Stefano Benini at Toronto's Grano restaurant and it, too, clearly prevailed in the turbulent vintage. There were only 30,000 bottles made of this exceedingly rare red, a glorious merlot with silky texture, polished tannins and a long, beautifully balanced finish. It's approachable now and should improve with 10 to 15 years in bottle. Unlike the other wines listed here, it's available in Ontario only through the special order Classics Catalogue by calling 416-365-5767 or toll-free 1-800-266-4764.
The other big Italian of this past week's release also comes from the Frescobaldi-Mondavi alliance in Tuscany, Luce Della Vite 2001 ($99.95, No. 710046). A blend of sangiovese and merlot, this beauty is full-bodied and complex, showing plum, cherry, vanilla, licorice and cedar notes with chewy tannins and a firm finish. It's the best Luce vintage I've tasted. Give it five to seven years if you can.
Pick of the week
Seresin Leah Pinot Noir 2004 ($39.95, product No. 655167). Medium-bodied and brimming with cherry, beetroot and spice flavours, it shows good concentration and bright acidity.