DRINK / Cloudy Bay, sunnier outlook: New Zealand wines are on the up and up, despite a couple of poor harvests, says Anthony Rose, Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the Year

The southernmost regions of the South American, African and Australasian continents, far from the Equator, produce white wines with the greatest fragrance and mouthwatering zip and zing. At Marlborough, on the tip of New Zealand's South Island, the cool maritime climate has been the key to the runaway success of the country's pungently grassy and flavoursome sauvignon blanc, typified by Montana's reference point sauvignon blanc, (widely available at around pounds 4.99).

New Zealanders are, however, not content to base their reputation as wine producers on a single grape, style and colour of wine, and the focus has started to shift to other regions and grape varieties.

On South Island, Nelson and Canterbury are developing reputations for pure riesling and chardonnay. On North Island, warmer Gisborne, too, is gaining ground with its rich, seductive chardonnays. Hawkes Bay and Martinborough are widely regarded as prime sites for an expanding red wine industry, based on the cabernet sauvignon and merlot of Bordeaux, and on Burgundy's pinot noir.

Even by New Zealand's normally cool standards, however, weather conditions over the past two vintages have been so miserably cold, wet and, in a word, British, that the resulting shortage of grapes has threatened to kill off the country's growing success with the wines it exports.

John Buck, chairman of the New Zealand Wine Institute, blames the great freeze on Mount Pinatubo, the volcano that spewed ash into the South-east Asian atmosphere. He says, however: 'We started coming out of the Mount Pinatubo phase in January last year.' Despite a dreadful midsummer, the damage to the 1993 harvest was partially repaired by a glorious Indian summer.

Nevertheless, grape crops of 56,000 tonnes in 1992, and just 41,000 tonnes in 1993 appear paltry compared with the record 70,000 harvested in 1990. Even allowing for the lower cropping levels of premium grape varieties, this represents a dangerous decline in yield from more than 14 tonnes of grapes per hectare in 1990 to under seven in 1993.

New Zealand producers have watched demand outstrip supply in the United Kingdom. The New Zealand Wine Guild's original projection of exports to the UK of 600,000 cases by 1995 had already been achieved last June. And since it would not do to disappoint thirsty customers abroad, New Zealanders are suffering the indignity of having to import substantial quantities of wine from Australia for their own consumption.

John Buck is confident that this is a mere blip. 'The significant thing is the amount of investment that's taking place in higher quality sites, better strains of the classic varieties and improved root stocks, thanks to the confidence of European markets,' he says.

He points to the coming 'certificate of origin' scheme, a form of new world appellation controlee, as a big opportunity for greater recognition of the particularities of New Zealand's sprawling wine regions (there are nine main areas), as vineyards grow from their present level of 6,500 hectares to a projected 12,000 by the year 2000. Mr Buck predicts that, 'subject to the strength of the New Zealand dollar, prices should hold'. The country could, he reckons, produce twice the volume of wine at no extra capital cost. 'As it is, prices haven't risen for five years.'

On the other hand, Simon Ladenburg of Caxton Tower, an importer, points out that 'although there has been a drop in the average price of New Zealand wine, at nearly pounds 5 it remains the dearest wine per bottle of any new world country'.

New Zealand's cool climate makes it a natural producer of both dry and lusciously sweet aromatic rieslings, particularly in the South Island regions of Marlborough, Nelson and Canterbury. Unfortunately, for as long as riesling's image is bound up with that of liebfraumilch, it will continue to be elbowed out of the way by the ever- popular sauvignon blanc; even though, as Bob Campbell, New Zealand's top wine writer, argues, rieslings 'offer more quality per dollar than any other wine'. This is a pity, because in 1993 some fine examples cropped up, among them the dry rieslings of Seifried in Nelson and Giesen in Canterbury, made, respectively, by expatriate Austrian and German producers.

For all sauvignon's popularity, chardonnay is the grape most likely to convince sceptics, long term, of New Zealand's ability to produce great white wines to rival the complexities of white burgundy.

Conscious of the heavy-handed tendency to overdo the oak barrels, George Fistonich of Villa Maria says: 'You will see big changes in the style of chardonnay over the next few years. There will be less acidity, more use of malolactic fermentation and less of oak.'

So far, however, 1993 does not seem to have been chardonnay's year, with too many wines suffering the sort of nerve-jangling, Granny Smith green apple bite that Mr Fistonich and his colleagues would like to be rid of.

By way of compensation, there are some exceptionally fine 1992s and 1991s, although prices for the best inevitably reflect the quality gap between the commercial and single-vineyard 'boutique' wines.

Cloudy Bay is one of the top 1992s starting to appear on the UK market. The best of 1991, meanwhile, include Corbans ultra-stylish Private Bin Chardonnay, Matua Valley's elegant Judd Estate and Villa Maria's award-winning, richly burgundian Barrique-Fermented Chardonnay.

Even more so than whites, New Zealand reds have suffered badly from the poor ripening conditions of the past two vintages. And while there are some good, affordable examples from earlier vintages, such as Cooks 1990 Hawkes Bay Cabernet Merlot and 1991 Montana Cabernet Sauvignon (widely available at around pounds 4.99), red wine prices are also polarised.

The gap will put the best, showcase, hand-crafted pinot noirs and cabernet merlots beyond the reach of many consumers. Still, if you are prepared to pay for quality, both C J Pask's fruity 1992 Cabernet Merlot and the pauillac-like Waimarama Estate Cabernet Merlot will linger lovingly on the palate.

WINES OF THE WEEK

A selection of the best from New Zealand:

1993 Villa Maria Private Bin

Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 5.49- pounds 5.59, Waitrose; Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Aromatic sauvignon, crisp and tangy.

1993 Palliser Estate Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 8.99, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Assertive bouquet with juicy Florida-grapefruit sweetness.

1993 Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 7.95- pounds 7.99, Oddbins; Tesco; Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Powerful passion fruit and gooseberry character with crisp, tangy dry finish.

1993 Wairau River, pounds 7.49- pounds 7.99, Waitrose; Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Fragrant, rounded gooseberry-fool style.

1993 Hunters Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 9.49, Oddbins. Gooseberry and grapefruit richness; sancerre with shoulder pads.

1993 Jackson Estate Marlborough Dry, pounds 6.25, Tanners of Shrewsbury. Crisp, refreshing lemony riesling bouquet and citrus flavours.

1992 Seifried Riesling, pounds 7.20, Kiwifruits, Covent Garden, central London (071-240 1423). Delicately crisp, dry fruit.

1991 Matua Valley Judd Estate Chardonnay, pounds 8.99, Wine Rack. Elegantly poised, burgundy-style chardonnay with subtle vanilla.

1992 Cloudy Bay Chardonnay, pounds 11.50- pounds 11.95, Justerini & Brooks, London SW1 (071-493 8721); Lea & Sandeman, London SW10 (071- 376 4767). Richly concentrated, elegantly oaked fruit from one of New Zealand's top chardonnay producers.

1990 Hawkes Bay Cabernet Merot, pounds 4.99, Sainsbury's Vintage Selection. Sweet, ripe, claret-style fruitiness.

1992 C J Pask Hawkes Bay Cabernet Merlot, pounds 8.25- pounds 8.99, Balls Brothers, London E3 (071- 739 6466); Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446). Full- flavoured, ripe, loganberry and plum juiciness.

1991 Martinborough Vineyards Pinot Noir, pounds 10.70, Adnams. Mature, gamey, burgundian bouquet and classic, lush, pinot- noir sweetness.

1992 Waimarama Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 11.98, Bibendum (071-916 7706) arriving June. Classy toasted oak, pauillac- style red.

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