GRAPEVINE : FOOD & DRINK

KATHYRN McWHIRTER ON SURPRISES FROM NEW ZEALAND
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The Independent Culture
IF IT'S New Zealand, it must be white. Or so we have come to assume, lapping up the stunning Sauvignon Blancs in ever-increasing quantities. But in the past few years, New Zealand has also made some excellent reds. You need a warmer climate to ripen red grapes, and New Zealand is relatively cool - much cooler than the parts of southern Australia on the same latitude. Rain is usually a problem, too. New Zealand reds of the past tended to taste thin, grassy and unripe.

It's not the winemaking that has changed, but the way the grapes are grown. Precisely because of the cool, damp weather, New Zealand grape- growers and vine boffins were driven to the forefront of vineyard technology. They discovered how to train and trim their vines into ingenious shapes that allow as much sunlight as possible to fall on as much leaf area as possible, and also on the bunches of grapes themselves. The grapes magically ripened. Open to the air, they could also dry off, and were less prone to rot.

The results are startlingly evident in the ripest vintages of the 1990s (the 1991, and the 1994s due to arrive at the end of this year). But even in the two vintages we can buy here now, 1992 and 1993, when the weather was bad, the best reds are brilliant (though many taste too grassy).

Pinot Noir can have wonderful, intensely fresh raspberry fruit in New Zealand. Martinborough Vineyards Pinot Noir, from the cool southern tip of North Island, is stunning year after year. The 1993 (£10.65 Chippendale Fine Wines of Otley, £10.99 Oddbins, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up, £11 Adnams of Southwold) is in a class of its own, lean but concentrated and marvellously ripe, and cheap when you compare it with red Burgundy of this quality. Also ripely raspberry fruity, elegant and concentrated - and excellent, though not quite so stunning - are 1993 Palliser Estate Pinot Noir (£8.98 Anthony Byrne of Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, £10.79 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up), also from the Martinborough region, and 1993 Dashwood Pinot Noir, Marlborough (£8.50 Coque-en-Bouche of Malvern Wells near Worcester, £8.52 European Winegrowers of Silverdale near Carnforth, £9.39 Noel Young Wines of Cambridge, £9.69 Cachet Wine of Tadcaster) from the northern tip of the South Island.

Cabernet Sauvignons start very affordably: the ripe 1993 Montana Marborough Cabernet Sauvignon (£4.99 Thresher, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack, Oddbins, Victoria Wine, Tesco, Greenalls Cellars, Berkeley Wines and Waitrose) is softly blackcurranty with hints of oak and grass. There's a definite step up- to the lovely 1993 Stoneleigh Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (£6.79 The Wine Treasury, £6.99 Victoria Wine, Arthur Rackham, The Vintner and Guildford Wine Market), which is more complex, with blackcurrant, mint and treacle flavours. The 1992 Delegat's Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (£9.95 Les Amis du Vin and The Winery, £9.75 Bennetts Wines of Chipping Campden, £8.11 European Winegrowers) is a bigger, slightly firmer wine with similar flavours - it will age and soften for a few years, though it is already delicious. Better still is the 1990 Villa Maria Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (£11.89 per bottle by the case only, mail order only, Hatch Mansfield Agencies of Windsor); wonderfully intense and complex, it is good for drinking now or for keeping a year or two.

New Zealanders often mix Cabernet Sauvignon, claret-fashion, with Merlot, which should give a softer, riper effect, although Merlot also tastes tart and grassy if inadequately ripened. The best of these at the moment are the elegant, ripely blackcurranty 1993 CJ Pask Cabernet Merlot (£8.80 Lay & Wheeler of Colchester); the blackcurranty-minty 1992 Norton Estate Cabernet Merlot (£7.40 Nez Rouge and Berkman Wine Cellars); and the richer, more complex 1992 Morton Estate Black Label Cabernet Merlot (£9.25 Nez Rouge and Berkman Wine Cellars). Best of all the Cabernets and Cabernet- Merlot blends is the intense 1993 Te Motu Cabernet Merlot, Waiheke Island (£19.50 Fine Wines of New Zealand and Farr Vintners, arriving April), a young wine with firm tannin and good acidity that will benefit from being stored for a few years to mature.

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