New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of the wine world’s great success stories. In 1985, when the pioneering Cloudy Bay Vineyards in the South Island’s Marlborough region released its first Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand was a blip—at best—in the international wine market. Cloudy Bay’s wine, and the distinct style of Sauvignon Blanc it exemplified, changed that—bracingly tart; full of zingy gooseberry, grapefruit and passion fruit flavors; often with a striking peppery aroma and flavor. (In bad vintages, this note can be strong and vegetal enough to recall freshly cut bell peppers or even jalapeños.)
Sometimes strengths can also be weaknesses, though. These days, New Zealand is so identified with Sauvignon Blanc that most people overlook the fact that the country is also producing more and more top-quality Pinot Noirs, as well as a growing number of impressive wines from other varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah, to name a few. Many of these wines are coming from regions other than Marlborough, too, such as Central Otago and Canterbury on the country’s South Island, and Martinborough, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay on the North Island.
For this column, I tasted 65 New Zealand wines with two goals in mind: to recommend some really terrific wines, and to make sure that not all of them were Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, this proved easy (except for the tasting 65 wines part). It’s also worth noting that New Zealand’s 2006 vintage, based on winemakers’ vintage reports and the wines I tasted, is just terrific; most of the reds from that year should start turning up this fall, but the whites are here already.