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New Zealand turns 'Sideways' to Pinot Noir

Two decades after startling the wine world with a revolutionary style of Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand wine producers are turning heads again with their refreshing take on the holy grail of red wines: Pinot Noir.

World-class: New Zealand's fastgrowing wine scene embraces vineyards and wineries in eight major growing regions, including Waiheke Island near Auckland, where Te Whau winery is one of the most popular.

As anyone who has sat through Sideways knows, this finicky grape with the elusive, magical character grows in only a few spots on Earth, most notably Burgundy, followed by parts of California and Oregon and several other tiny pockets around the globe. But in the past few years, New Zealand has joined the ranks of the heavyweights with a collection of Pinots that are remarkable for their purity, accessibility, consistency — and outright beauty.

Best of all — and this is spurred to a large extent by the Sideways phenomenon — New Zealand is beginning to ship more to the USA. The amount is still relatively small and will remain so because the prime growing areas are small, but most of what's arriving here is of top quality and can be had for $15 to $45 a bottle in retail shops.

I attended a Pinot Noir conference recently in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, where 100 top Kiwi producers showcased their wines, and the consensus among the international wine journalists (most of whom have far more experience with elite Burgundies than I do) was that New Zealand has arrived as a major player. We also agreed that the wines are bound to get even better as the vines mature and producers figure out the best vineyard sites and refine their viticulture and production methods.

During my visit to five major wine-growing regions I sampled a variety of other wines, focusing on bottles that are exported to the USA. I found Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are stars with an excellent supporting cast. Here are some general impressions of major types of wines being exported, along with a list of recommended producers whose wines are available here in at least a few markets. (I didn't sample many Syrahs from Hawke's Bay, but I hear they're very good.)

Pinot Noir. Simply a revelation. If you've been burned by the inconsistency of Burgundies, found Oregon Pinots overpriced and California versions overly lush, try these and sidestep all of those pitfalls. They're well-balanced, pure, deeply colored, velvety and remarkably consistent as a category. The best ones come from Central Otago, Marlborough, Waipara and Martinborough. Recommended producers: I could list 50, but a few stars are Craggy Range, Fairhall Downs, Felton Road, Kumeu River, Mt. Difficulty, Neudorf, Carrick, Amisfield, Peregrine, Dog Point, Two Paddocks, Martinborough Vineyards, Dry River, Quartz Reef, Pegasus Bay, Villa Maria and Escarpment.

Sauvignon Blanc. Some producers have toned down the pungency, and that's a good thing. They still offer exotic aromas and flavors of citrus, passion fruit and herbs along with vibrant acidity, but now the effect is more refreshing than electrifying because some of the tartness has been tamed. Marlborough is the region to look for. Recommended producers: Babich, Brancott, Cable Bay, Cloudy Bay, Grove Mill, Kim Crawford, Fairhall Downs, Tohu, Martinborough Vineyards, Stoneleigh, Villa Maria, Neudorf, Spy Valley, Whitehaven and Seresin.

•Riesling. Think spice, flowers, minerals, limes and peaches. I tasted mostly dry and off-dry versions, and the fruit was plentiful and pure and in balance with the acid. They're usually priced under $18. Recommended producers: Carrick, Craggy Range, Framingham, Villa Maria, Dry River, Mt. Difficulty, Spy Valley, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay and Felton Road.

Pinot Gris. This is the country's fastest-emerging white wine category — at the expense of Riesling, I'm afraid. The styles are all over the map: Some taste like dry, insipid Pinot Grigios, others like ripe Alsatian Pinot Gris. The best ones are off-dry and have an intense pear note. Recommended producers: Ata Rangi, Bilancia, Carrick, Nautilus Estate, Kumeu River, Seresin, Escarpment, Woollaston Estates and Kaimira Estate.

Chardonnay. I sampled only a few, but the ones from Neudorf Vineyards in the Nelson region were among the best wines of the visit: exquisitely balanced, medium-to-full bodied and capable of aging. Also check out Kumeu River.

© Copyright 2007, USA Today

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