DRINK / Elegant and grassy or big and buttery: New Zealand is making delectable chardonnay, says Anthony Rose

CLOUDY BAY, as much for its dreamy name and label as its fine wine, has drawn the world's attention to the outstanding quality of New Zealand sauvignon blanc in general and Marlborough in particular. But New Zealand is now starting to show that it has even more to offer.

Its chardonnay can be delectably rich and, with the added advantage of naturally fruity acidity, it is capable of developing a complex, smoky, chablis-like character with age. Riesling, gewurztraminer and chenin blanc, too, with their penetrating citrus-and- honey flavours and elegant balancing acidity, all perform exceptionally well.

Now New Zealand reds, once so grassy and herbaceous that they were dismissed as pale imitations of Loire Valley reds, are coming into their own, thanks largely to a root-and-branch revolution in the country's vineyards.

In the Seventies, New Zealand began replacing its Germanic grape varieties with plantings of the French classics: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. More recently, its vineyard husbandry has been elevated to new scientific heights.

Dr Richard Smart, an Australian, has turned on its head the conventional wisdom of low yields equals high quality. His technique is to space out the vineyard to create a dappled-sunlight effect within an open canopy of foliage. In New Zealand's vigorous vineyards, such 'canopy management' works in producing riper fruit and better wine.

But ripening can still be a struggle. After the excellent 1991 vintage, 1992 was a cooler year with high natural acidity adding steel to white wines, but making life tough for red wine grapes. Most of the sauvignon blancs at the annual New Zealand wine-tasting this month in London were from the 1992 vintage.

Pick of the crop for me were three outstanding wines, each rather different in style: Hunters (from Jane Hunter OBE), which was aromatic, super-ripe and concentrated with real intensity of tropical fruit flavours; Cloudy Bay, showing its class with a typically powerful, exotic effort; and, in lighter vein, Palliser Estate's remarkable, grassily crisp 1992 from Martinborough, with its grapefruity overtones, taking over where the exceptional 1991 Wairau River (not as exciting this year) left off.

Lower down the order, the consistency that was the hallmark of 1991 is less evident, although there are still many excellent sauvignon blancs including a ripe, exotic Vidal, and Te Mata's elegant, perfumed Castle Hill, both from Hawkes Bay.

As expected, the lion's share of excellence is to be found in Marlborough: Allan Scott, Collards Dryland Vineyard, Jackson Estate, Matua Valley and Selaks have all turned in fine examples of the variety. In the under- pounds 5 good value stakes, both Villa Maria and Nobilo's show nicely textured, typically gooseberryish characters. Even Montana, not quite up to its hugely successful 1991, is still fair value for the price.

In the case of chardonnay, all the regions are keen to tell you that they produce the best. Certainly in a country whose wine regions range from sub-polar to sub- tropical, chardonnay is a more complex, diverse creature than sauvignon is ever likely to be. Broadly speaking, South Island tends to produce a crisp, elegant style notably from Nelson, Marlborough and Christchurch.

North Island chardonnays are likely to be richer. But generalisations are dangerous because of the influence of so many other factors. For instance, noble rot, as it is affectionately known, can add a complex, honeyed character. New Zealand's green-apple acidity, if too tart, may be reduced by means of a malolactic fermentation which, when well executed, creates a butterscotchy, burgundian character.

Then there is the fashion for new oak with everything. Often a selection of the best wine goes into expensive small French barrels, with the result that it is impossible to see the fruit for the trees.

It is still early days for 1992 chardonnay, but the potential looks good. Cloudy Bay, Jackson Estate, Goldwater Estate and CJ Pask are all fine. Montana, in lighter, more simple, buttery vein, offers good value. There were a number of fine chardonnays from the 1991 and 1990 vintages which are too numerous to mention in detail.

In a whirlwind tour of the South Island regions, I marked as outstanding Waipara Springs' elegant 1991, with its undertones of vanilla and butterscotch, Redwood Valley's powerful, delicately grassy chardonnay from Nelson, and, from Marlborough (Cloudy Bay apart), both Hunters' rich 1990 and Selaks' sleek 1991.

From the North Island, Palliser Estate's 1991 is big, fat, rich and buttery, a New Zealand meursault, while from Hawkes Bay, Morton Estate's 1991 smoky, intensely fruity chardonnay is nicely balanced with a citrus-streak of acidity. From Gisborne, Judd Estate 1991 Chardonnay is an elegant classic, while in the Auckland region, Kumeu River is typically, full of nutty, butterscotch fruit.

The Nineties will test New Zealand's capacity to produce consistently fine reds. In Coleraine, John Buck at Te Mata Estate has shown that New Zealand can make great red wine. Others in Hawkes Bay such as Ngatarawa (the g is silent), C J Pask, Vidal, Esk Valley and Stonecroft all demonstrate the potential of the region for cabernet sauvignon, merlot and even syrah.

In Martinborough, Ata Rangi, Palliser and Martinborough vineyards are now turning out high- class pinot noir as, in the South Island, have Waipara Springs, Neudorf, Gibbston Valley and Rippon vineyards.

While it is good for the image to have a number of high-class reds, the big question is whether New Zealand can reproduce red wine quality on the same commercial scale as it has with its whites.

Time was when, apart from lamb and butter, New Zealand's best-known exports were Kiri Te Kanawa and Richard Hadlee. Now we in Britain have acquired a thirst for New Zealand wine that has seen exports shoot from next to nothing up to projected sales of 600,000 cases for the year 1992-93.

The UK now takes 65 per cent of New Zealand's wine exports, and the trend is set to continue. All the more impressive when you consider that New Zealand wine, apart from California at the boutique end, is the most expensive in the New World. The fact that it has found a niche suggests that, even in our price-conscious market, quality will still sell if the value is there.

WHERE TO BUY THOSE CHOICE BOTTLES

THE 1992 New Zealand sauvignons are starting to arrive. Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc 1992 is pounds 7.99 from Wine Rack and Bottoms Up and also at the Hermitage, London N10 (081-365 2122), which has Hunters at pounds 7.99, too.

Cloudy Bay is mostly in restaurants but pounds 8.99 at selected Davisons shops; pounds 9.15 from Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446).

The Jackson Estate is pounds 6.69 at Davisons; pounds 6.95, Tesco; and pounds 6.99, Wine Rack/Bottoms Up.

Allan Scott's 1992 is pounds 7.70 from Lay & Wheeler.

Villa Maria is pounds 4.99, Thresher Wine Shops/Wine Rack/Bottoms Up, Waitrose; Nobilo's is pounds 4.99 at Tesco; Montana is pounds 4.99, Thresher and Davisons.

Jackson Estate 1991 Chardonnay is pounds 7.49, and Morton Estate 1991 Chardonnay is pounds 6.99, both at Wine Rack and Bottoms Up.

Redwood Valley 1991 Chardonnay is pounds 8.99- pounds 9.95 from Wine Rack, Justerini & Brooks, London SW1 (071-493 8721); Lea & Sandeman, SW10 (071- 376 4767); Reid Wines, Bristol (07614 52645).

Among some top NZ reds, the 1991 Cabernet/ Merlot from C J Pask is pounds 8.30 at Lay & Wheeler. Morton Estate's Black Label Cabernet Merlot 1990 is pounds 9.49 from Majestic Wine Warehouses.

Ata Rangi's 1991 Pinot Noir, pounds 15.40, and Celebre (cabernet/merlot/syrah blend), pounds 12.95, are at Kiwifruits, London WC2 (071-240 1423).

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