Best of the vintage

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The Independent Culture
In the spoof South American weather report on The Fast Show, BBC2's Friday night comedy programme, the appearance of a puff of cloud in a relentlessly blue sky is treated as if the papal nuncio himself had dropped in out of the blue. In Britain, we love to bang on about the weather because there's so much of it about. But can the southern hemisphere really cheat on the weather while Europe's wine regions suffer pendulum swings of vintage variation?

It's true that the climates of many New World wine regions are closer to Europe's Mediterranean than to a typical maritime climate such as that of Bordeaux. But not New Zealand's. The climate there is maritime too.

For the purity of its refreshing fruit flavours, and its reliability, New Zealand wine quickly established itself at the top of the price range. But in 1995, while drought was wreaking havoc in Australia, the New Zealand harvest was badly hit by rain. With early-ripening grape varieties faring generally better than late ones, the bloated crop came in at practically double 1993 levels.

The quality Marlborough sauvignon blanc, the cash cow among New Zealand's premium grape varieties, was the worst hit, along with the reds. Marlborough has established itself as the top region for sauvignon blanc (also for quality methode champenoise sparkling wines such as Cloudy Bay's Pelorus and Deutz Marlborough Cuvee). But growers here were so much at the mercy of the weather that many normally reliable names such as Montana and flagship Cloudy Bay were disappointing.

North Island competitors, meanwhile, were able to produce good examples of the riper style of sauvignon: in Auckland (Collards), Hawkes Bay (Castle Hill, Esk Valley, CJ Pask), and Martinborough (Palliser Estate).

Chardonnay should have fared better; it adapts well to the varying climates of the North Island regions and is also more malleable in the winery. But Bob Campbell, New Zealand's wine-writing guru, has a point when he says that the development of regional styles is hampered by "clever" wines that rely on wine makers' tricks. Among the early 1995s to arrive, there is still a plethora of wines crafted a la bourguignonne, but lacking substance. With creditable exceptions, the 1995 vintage was not one in which producers could relax into purer, regional styles based on minimal handling of the grapes.

There is at least cause for enthusiasm among the 1994 reds. The cooler marginal regions of Martinborough and Central Otago have shown the way forward for expressive pinot noir, though they are relatively highly priced. There are also a handful of successful Bordeaux-style blends of cabernet and merlot from 1994, mainly from New Zealand's Medoc, the gravelly Gimblett Road district of Hawkes Bay.

The appearance of the phylloxera pest in New Zealand's otherwise clean and green vineyards hasn't slowed the pace of new plantings, both by established companies and by new growers. New Zealand's vineyard area is set to expand from 6,000 to an estimated 8,000 hectares, though, to put the growth into context, the whole area will still be less than a tenth the size of Bordeaux.

Sadly, it is unlikely that after a large and somewhat wishy-washy 1995 vintage, prices will fall. The view from New Zealand seems to be that any concessions have already been made by attempts to limit what ends up in the bottle to the best quality stuff. Pale shadows could yet come back to haunt the Kiwis

Kiwi classics

1995 CJ Pask Sauvignon Blanc, Hawkes Bay pounds 7.29, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (01206-764446). Water-white, with attractively understated, grapefruity tropical fruit flavours, underscored by zippy acidity

1995 Esk Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Hawkes Bay pounds 7.99-pounds 8.99, Harrods, Selfridges, Bentalls. Attractive elderflower aromas with a touch of smokiness and tangy, gooseberry-like fruit, in the more restrained Hawkes Bay mould

1995 Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough pounds 9.99, Wine Rack, selected Bottoms Up stores. Pungently assertive elderflower notes, underpinned by cleanly refreshing, tropical grapefruit and passion fruit flavours

1994 CJ Pask Chardonnay, Hawkes Bay pounds 9.45, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester. Exciting, vibrantly fresh fruit and intense, chablis- like, flinty flavours in which the fruit is juicy and the oak elegantly poised

1994 Palliser Estate Chardonnay pounds 10.99, selected Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Thresher. Sweet vanilla oak nose, fruit richness and intensity of flavour with ripe peach and tropical fruit flavours and excellent balance

1994 Montana Cabernet Sauvignon pounds 5.49, Tesco, Wine Cellar, Cellar 5, Thresher, Oddbins, Waitrose, Victoria Wine, Berkeley Wine, Co-op. The overt herbaceousness of former years translates into soft, grassy fruit with a blackcurrant core

1994 Martinborough Vineyards Pinot Noir pounds 10.95, Oddbins, Adnams, Southwold (01502-727220). Super-fragrant pinot noir with elegantly crafted, vibrantly fruity raspberry- and cherry-like flavours enhanced by oak-matured spiciness

1994 Esk Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/ Cabernet Franc, Hawkes Bay about pounds 8.99, Bentalls, Selfridges. Vibrantly fresh fruit, with an attractively restrained fruit middle and a nice, elegant touch of oak combining in a balanced, supple red