GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN McWHIRTER ON A DISAPPOINTMENT FROM NEW ZEALAND
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The Independent Culture
NORMALLY, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of those wines you can rely on to be good to brilliant, whoever the producer, whatever the vintage. Not so the 1995 Sau-vignons, which are just about to arrive in Britain. They were sabotaged by the weather. "Wonderful hot summer, wettest autumn on record" sounds like the 1995 weather report for some of the northern hemisphere. Six months earlier, it was true of New Zealand. "Our annual average rainfall is 32 inches," says Alan McCorkindale, chief winemaker at Stoneleigh Wines in Marlborough at the top of South Island. "This year we had 23 inches from mid-February to the end of May."

Some areas suffered worse than others. Marlborough, New Zealand's biggest vineyard area, with the largest plantations of Sauvignon Blanc, was among the worst hit. Luckily, grapes all over the country were ripe earlier than usual because of the brilliant summer, and the Chardonnay and Merlot grapes, always fairly early ripeners, were safely in before the deluge. Some growers are trumpeting "the best ever vintage for Char-donnay". But Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon need to stay longer on the vine, and the persistent rain struck mid-harvest.

The 40 new Sauvignons flown over recently for a tasting in London were mostly very disappointing by New Zealand standards. There were none of the rotty, off-flavours you'd expect from a drenched vintage in Europe, where a proportion of the growers and winemakers are still behind the times. New Zealanders are among the world leaders in wine technology, and if anyone can handle wet grapes they can. But the rain filled up the grapes with water, and watery juice can't make the sort of intensely concentrated, aromatic wines we've come to expect from New Zealand. Many were pleasant, light, easy-drinking wines, not unlike simple well-made Sauvignons from Bordeaux, but most lacked the fruity zing. "Instead of the usual asparagus and tropical fruit flavours, it's more green pepper and redcurrant," says McCorkindale. "Another thing - we often add a little Semillon to the Sauvignon for complexity, but not this year. Semillon grapes are thin-skinned and rotted easily in 1995."

There are nearly always exceptions to bad vintages, and the stunning Sauvignon exception is 1995 Paliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough (pounds 9.99 Wine Rack, Thresher and Bottoms Up, arriving in shops about now). Martin-borough, which is at the south of North Island, was also badly rained on, but Paliser's Sauvignon ripened earlier than most and they were picked before the rain. The result is elegant, crisp and full of exotic fruit.

The other really excellent one, not quite as good as Paliser but also deliciously tropical fruity, is Cloudy Bay Sauvignon from Marlborough (around pounds 10 from Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Berry Bros, Adnams, Weavers of Notting-ham, Justerini & Brooks, and Selfridges, arriving late October). This famous wine always disappears from British shelves almost as soon as it arrives. So depressed were the Cloudy Bay winemakers as picking began last April that they asked their British importer, Edward Berry, how he'd feel about having no wine at all from the 1995 vintage.

"If they hadn't been happy with the wine they wouldn't have made any under the Cloudy Bay name," he says. "They would have sold it off in bulk for blending. Once the rain started, they had to go out and pick fast, round the clock by machine, to prevent the grapes becoming diluted. But once they had the wines in tank and had selected the best batches, it was looking very good. They found the best wines came from more mature vines, and vines planted on free-draining soil."

Having chosen the best tanks, about half the total, the winemakers blended them together for bottling as Cloudy Bay, and sold off the remainder in bulk. That still left them with as much wine as they had sold in the tiny 1994 and 1993 vintages, but only about half as much as in an average year.

Apart from Paliser and Cloudy Bay, New Zealand devotees might also look out for the good 1995 Sauvignons from Castle Hill, Dashwood, Cairnbrae, Matua Valley, Lawson's Dry Hills, Highfield Estate and Hunter's as they trickle in to Britain over the next few weeks. Or stick to previous vintages of Chardonnay (Chardonnays keep longer than Sauvignons) until those "vintage of the century" 1995 Chardonnays are up for grabs next (northern hemsphere) spring.

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