The year was 1996 and the place was Seattle. A quiet man stepped to the podium at the World Vinifera Conference and introduced the attendees to Cloudy Bay Marborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Almost to a person, the reaction after the first taste was, "What in the hell is this wine?" It didn't take long for this "new" Sauvignon Blanc to take the country by storm.
The inviting fresh tropical fruit salad flavors, leaning toward passion fruit, crisp acidity and a long clean finish; what was not to like. It took only a minute for most of the attendees to realize that the pungent flavors of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc were unlike any Sauvignon Blanc they have ever tasted.
Cloudy Bay would be the first of a flood of New Zealand Sauvignons to captivate a receptive U. S. market.
The Other NZ Whites
More than 35 years later, Sauvignon Blanc is still the most planted variety in New Zealand. Not far behind are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling, with Gewurztraminer struggling to stay in the game.
But to get Chardonnay to stand out, winemakers had to start making the wine in the vineyard, then coax the flavors from the shy grape in the winery, often with the help of oak. Aromatic whites like Pinot Gris and Riesling can be simple and fruity, lacking complexity. And no matter what a winemaker did to Kiwi Gewurtz, the nagging reality was that the Alsatians had the formula for that variety down pat.
The concern was not to rely too heavily on Sauvignon Blanc, to the extent that New Zealand would become known as a one-white-wine producer. And then there was the growing international taste for Chardonnay, posing a marketing challenge. So plantings of Chardonnay increased, moving it into third place behind Pinot Noir.
Chardonnay is the main white variety in Gisborne and nearby Hawke's Bay on the North Island. Gisborne Chardonnay has attractive flavors of ripe peach and pineapple, while Hawke's Bay Chardonnay is more citrus and elegant.
Perhaps NZ's best Chardonnay is Kumeu River Estate, from a smallish region outside Auckland. Others of note: Te Mata (Hawke's Bay), Millton Estate (Gisborne) and Villa Maria.
In 2012, new and improved clones of Pinot Gris were approved for planting in New Zealand. Also responsible for the revival of Pinot Gris was the growing interest in aromatic varieties, a sort of retro look at once popular aromatic white wines that all but vanished in the rush to plant more Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. As a popular varietal, Pinot Gris emerged quickly in the early 2000s, rising to the fourth most planted wine grape.
New Zealand Pinot Gris more closely follows the fuller richer style of Alsace Pinot Gris, than the lighter northern Italian Pinot Grigio. Pinot Gris is happy in cooler soils like those of Central Otago, Marlborough and Nelson, all on the South Island. Look for Pinot Gris from Kumeu River, Seresin, Gibbston Valley, Dry River.
Riesling is the emblematic grape of Germany, although it is grown in nearly every wine region in the world, even those with marginal growing conditions for Riesling, like certain parts of California.
Cool growing conditions in New Zealand are ideal for growing Riesling. The wines have a citrusy character that is balanced nicely with ample fruit. The whole package yields Rieslings that are light and delicate.
NZ Rieslings worth a search include Millton Estate, Felton Road (Central Otago), Giesen, Corbans, Neudorf, Villa Maria.
I have a friend who discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and for quite a while, it was his house white. He and his wife spend time in Paris and during one of those trips, they started drinking Sancerre and found a different expression of Sauvignon Blanc.
The beauty of Sauvignon Blanc is it's many different styles. To some degree, Sauvignon Blanc adapts to local terroir better than Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling. Get a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling, invite over a few friends for a comparative tasting and decide if your favorite is Sauvignon Blanc or one of New Zealand's other white wines.
Next blog: Wine from a Narrow Country
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