Cloudy Bay, New Zealand's most famous Sauvignon Blanc, is the most extraordinary wine. Not so much for how it tastes - nowadays it has many a challenger in its trailblazing pungent, piercing, defiantly New World style - but for how much it is loved.
I find it difficult to think of any other single wine with quite so many fans among the great mass of casual wine drinkers. Once these people get a sniff of the razor-sharp acidity that characterises New Zealand wines plus Sauvignon's greengage razzle on the palate, they just will not let it go. They plead to be able to buy it by the case and every autumn pick wine lists bare of it as soon as the year's allocation arrives in the northern hemisphere.
Nowadays Cloudy Bay Sauvignon is made in serious quantities - quite enough for Britain's biggest supermarket chain Tesco to have been able to offer it by the dozen, for example, as a come-on for its new online Wine Warehouse (£136.68 at www.tesco.com), for example (NB stocks have currently been exhausted but they will be repeating the offer in the next few weeks). It has also become a sufficiently tall poppy for many a wine professional to have taken a sideswipe at it over the past few years.
It is this sweetish, hit-on-the-head style that has led New Zealand wine's march into Britain, by far its most important importer, accounting for about half of all wine exported from this relatively small country. (The Darling co-op in South Africa, for example, produces more wine than the whole of New Zealand.) Prices of New Zealand wine have remained pretty steep, partly because of the Cloudy Bay syndrome and partly because quantities produced are relatively small.
After years of consistent growth however, Britain's imports of NZ wine fell back in the 12 months to June 2001. Admittedly, this was compensated for by recent increases in American imports of wine from New Zealand as the dominant company Montana (recently ceded to Allied Domecq) launched its Brancott brand in the US, but I suspect Kiwi wine producers will have to work hard increasingly hard to argue that their wines represent good value in an international context.
This is certainly true for Pinot Noir, the red burgundy grape variety the Kiwis are working hard to make their own, in the business today. And so few of them have much capacity for ageing.
But at least New Zealand's producers of Pinot Noir can be comforted by the fact that there is a global shortage of half-decent examples of this finicky grape, which demands a relatively cool climate to ripen in a sufficiently interesting way. The competition is much tougher for most of New Zealand's other reds, which can be delicious - but if they are, they are often lauded to the skies back home and cost the earth. However well-made NZ's best Bordeaux blends such as Esk Valley's The Terraces, Stonyridge Larose and Te Mata are, they are so revered back home that they can look just too expensive on export markets, particularly those awash with claret from elsewhere.
Perhaps even more exciting is that New Zealand is now producing some promising other white varietals, particularly Pinot Gris and Riesling (the latter both sweet and dry) - even if development has been slightly hampered by the fact that the late Professor Helmut Becker, the wine industry's guru in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged it to import high-yielding clones from Geisenheim in Germany.
The key to finding value in New Zealand wine is either to catch a shipment from a producer who is just starting to export and is not yet too greedy (Alan McCorkindale's new Spy Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from Bibendum Wines of London NW1 and Broadbent Wine Selections of San Francisco springs to mind), or to get your hands on some of the following:
- Kim Crawford Dry Riesling 2001 Marlborough
£8.99 Butlers Wine Cellar of Brighton, Luvian's Bottle Shop of Cupar in Fife, Norman Gardner Wines of London SW16, Oasis Wines of Southend, Selfridges of London W1 and Wadebridge Wines of Cornwall.
- Dry River, Martinborough
Farr Vintners of London SW1, Justerini & Brooks of London SW1 and Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh.
Undoubtedly the most cerebral wine producer in NZ, who sends tiny quantities to Britain each year, largely for sentimental rasons (he is an Oxford alumnus). The Pinot Noir is most famous but Syrah, Riesling and Pinot Gris can be exceptional too.
- Gibbston Valley Riesling 2000/2001 Central Otago
£11.99 New World Wines of London SW11.
Both these vintages are very fine, eerily pure and off-dry. Great aperitifs.
- Hatton Estate Hawkes Bay
I have tasted only one wine from this new producer, a 1998 Cabernet/Merlot, but it struck me as one of the liveliest blends from the heavily-touted Gimblett Gravels subregion whose wines can sometimes be too much of a good thing.
- Isabel Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2001 Marlborough
£9.90 Morris & Verdin of London SE1, Adventures in Wine of Daly City, CA 94014 (AIW@ix.netcom.com).
Very distinctive, Sancerre-like style - much drier than most. More expensive than many fine Sancerre 2000s though.
- Kingsley Estate Hawkes Bay
- Matakana Estate Pinot Gris 2000 Warkworth
Berkmann Wine Cellars, London N7 (tel 0207 609 4711) or email (email@example.com).
Not the best, but one of the best value.
- C J Pask Hawkes Bay
£9-20 Lay & Wheeler of Colchester.
One of the most impressive producers of Bordeaux reds with a long track record. Recently blotted its copybook by misleading labelling of Sauvignon Blanc imported from Chile to compensate for Hawkes Bay's tiny 2001 crop. It also once had to take the incendiary word 'powerful' off a label bound for the US.
- Stonecroft Syrah 1998 Hawkes Bay
£13.95 Lea & Sandeman of London SW10, W8, SW13 and NW3.
Quite the most successful Syrah in New Zealand. Round and flavoursome without being overripe.
- Unison Selection 1998/99
£15.95 Waitrose's top stores.
Both vintages are an impressively-knit blend of Bordeaux varieties with Syrah. Serious stuff.
- Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001 Marlborough
£10.99 Oddbins and Michael Skurnik Wines of Syosset, NY 11791.
Smoky with real lift and excitement.
For other stockists see WineSearcher.
For more information on New Zealand wines try www.nzwine.com or Wine and Food Associates in New York (tel +1 212 505 1616, fax +1 212 505 1723, email firstname.lastname@example.org) or David Strada in San Francisco (tel +1 415 567 5511, fax +1 415 567 9011, email email@example.com).