New Zealand winemakers have enjoyed enormous success crafting Sauvignon Blanc in their own image. The fresh, intense and aggressively grassy white is such an indelible signature for the country that wine lovers would be forgiven for thinking it's the only variety planted. Not surprisingly, Sauvignon Blanc was front and centre during festivities surrounding last week's Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, where New Zealand shared theme country honours with Argentina. But there was also a marked emphasis on what else is thriving in New Zealand's diverse wine regions.
With Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sitting a top of the planted varieties, the cool climate country is well stocked with fruity, approachable wines that make friends easily. Purity, vibrancy and intensity seem to be attributes championed by winemakers who place emphasis on the flavours of the fruit they are working with as opposed to characteristics that come from winemaking tools like oak barrels. The focus in New Zealand now seems to be matching grape variety and region to produce memorable wines in sufficient quantities to export. The most successful cases include emerging stars such as Hawkes Bay Syrah and Gisborne Chardonnay.
Pinot Noir has become a significant player in regions like Marlborough and Martinborough on New Zealand's North Island and Central Otago at the extreme south of the South Island, which boasts being the world's most southerly wine region. Actor Sam Neill was on hand to present wines from Two Paddocks, the Central Otago estate winery he established in 1993. The star of such films as Jurassic Park and The Piano was quick to point out the challenges of farming in such an extreme climate.
"We teeter on the edge of madness," Neill said during a public seminar, explaining how he had lost 50% of his crop last year due to frost. "We're right on the edge."
On a happier note, perhaps to show why all the struggle and strain was worthwhile, Neill presented one of his top wines, the First Paddocks Pinot Noir. Only 50 cases of this silky, supple red were produced in 2007.
"I've probably drank 48 cases of it already," he said light-heartedly. "It's a very rare wine. You're probably drinking it into extinction."
Pinot Noir in a New Zealand context becomes truly exciting when you consider how good the wines are at a range of price points. Quality Pinot isn't solely the domain of boutique producers, such as Two Paddocks, Ata Rangi or Felton Road. While it's unlikely to rival the overwhelming success of Sauvignon Blanc, which can be industrially farmed and mass produced without ill effect, New Zealand Pinot Noir likely stands the best chance of producing consistently enjoyable wines that are also affordable. Give the world a $20 bottle of Pinot Noir that actually --and consistently --tastes like Pinot Noir and you've got a new global sensation on your hands.
Christopher Waters is editor of Vines Magazine.
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