The Best of the Blancs: Sauvignon Blanc’s the star of New Zealand’s fermented firmament

With sweat already dripping off my brow, it’s hard to believe another part of the world toils at harvesting grapes just as its coldest season is set to enter. New Zealanders are just finishing up the backbreaking annual ritual called “crush,” one that creates the wine I’m so fond of swilling. Their burgeoning wine culture has been around about as long as ours, booming in the early ’70s. But with more and more fantastic New Zealand wines landing on our shelves everyday, I look forward to seeing what they do next.New Zealand, two north-south situated islands floating in the Pacific Ocean, is a three-hour flight from eastern Australia. The hot-days/cool-nights maritime climate fits perfectly into the lifestyle of a grape — this is especially true of sauvignon blanc, the star of New Zealand’s portfolio. The fermented results deliver intensely fruity, aromatic wines that start at good and rise to spectacular.

Since 25 percent of all vines planted are sauvignon blanc, you’ll see a lot of it on our shelves, along with a good bit of chardonnay. New Zealand also produces a fair amount of riesling, pinot noir and merlot, although spotting those can be rare and, judging from my experience, the best apparently haven’t been exported yet.

New Zealand wine can be broadly divided into two main regional styles: Northern (Hawke’s Bay and north) and Southern (the South Island including Marlborough and Wellington regions). Northern wines tend to be riper and richer with melon, nectarine and peach. The colder Southern area produces more acidic, crisper wines with the characteristic grapefruit-y, herbal stuff.

Within the two islands, there are 10 defined wine-grape regions, and many wine districts. The best known regions are Marlborough, where sauvignon blancs blossom; North Island’s Auckland, hosting the famed Kumeu River district, as well as some damn nice chardonnay; and Hawke’s Bay, another excellent chardonnay site. Other districts or vineyards to look for on the labels: Wairau River and Te Awanga Vineyard.

Not only do New Zealanders produce awesome wine, they go a step further to assure quality. Like the stunning scenery in the Lord of the Ring movies, New Zealand vineyards are “clean and green,” since the winemakers concentrate on sustainable wine-grape growing. Realizing that chemical-free grapes make better wine, they avoid most pesticides and herbicides that leach nutrients from the soil.

In addition to this week’s reviews, check out sauvignon blancs from wineries I’ve previously highlighted: Allan Scott, Cloudy Bay, the Crossings, Huia, Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Selaks, and Villa Maria. For in-depth info on New Zealand wines, log on to www.nzwine.com

Recommended Wines

Esk Valley 2001 Chardonnay Hawkes Bay
Deliciously smooth peach, tropical fruit and melon, sautéed in light butter with a dash of oak. Even a spritz of coconut and golden delicious apples. Medium-bodied and value priced. $10. 4 stars.

Omaka Springs 2002 Chardonnay Marlborough
Apples kissed by lemons, wrapped in a light chardonnay package. A crowd pleaser. $16. 3 stars.

Kumeu River 2002 Pinot Gris Kumeu River
For something a little different, pick up this full-bodied beauty. Tastes like one of those chewy, tangy tangerine candies with a touch of lemon. Slightly sweet on the finish. Pretty cool. $20. 3 stars.

Omaka Springs 2002 Pinot Noir Marlborough
Smells like roses. The tongue picks up dark red berries, with pinot earthiness to it. Has a lot going on. Kinda pricey though. $21. 4 stars.

Lynskeys 2002 Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Peaks
Fresh-picked grapefruit and lime, even some white peach mixed in there. Crisp, solid wine. $14. 4 stars.

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