Can New Zealand do for pinot noir what it has done for sauvignon blanc? Anthony Rose sees a red dawn in Cloudy Bay Country

The first vintage of the new century has produced a record crop for New Zealand. Small beer by Australian standards, but hardly surprising given that the number of wineries in this dynamic, young winemaking country has nearly trebled to 371 in just a decade. Make that 372. One of Sancerre's top producers, Henri Bourgeois, has decided to stop trying to beat the Kiwis and join them in making both sauvignon blanc, the grape behind Sancerre, and pinot noir. Smart move. With an enviable image for quality, New Zealand tops the world's price charts with an average price of £5.50 per bottle.

The first vintage of the new century has produced a record crop for New Zealand. Small beer by Australian standards, but hardly surprising given that the number of wineries in this dynamic, young winemaking country has nearly trebled to 371 in just a decade. Make that 372. One of Sancerre's top producers, Henri Bourgeois, has decided to stop trying to beat the Kiwis and join them in making both sauvignon blanc, the grape behind Sancerre, and pinot noir. Smart move. With an enviable image for quality, New Zealand tops the world's price charts with an average price of £5.50 per bottle.

Brands such as Cloudy Bay and Montana have brought recognition to New Zealand for the unrivalled quality of its dry whites made from sauvignon blanc. Today's wines rival Sancerre and beat it for consistency. In vintage 2000, the sauvignon blanc crop is smaller than normal, but the best examples are bursting with the pungent elderfloral aromas and compelling tropical fruit flavours - the trademark of Marlborough at the northern tip of South Island. Montana and Villa Maria, two of the yardsticks for good value, are bang on form with mouthwateringly fruity examples of the variety.

White wines dominate, as you might expect from the only southern hemisphere country with a temperate, maritime climate. Unreliable weather patterns cause as much vintage variation in red wines as in Bordeaux. Nevertheless, with a series of sunny harvests since 1998, Kiwis are beginning to make a noise about their reds. Between them, the bordeaux grapes merlot and cabernet sauvignon just about hold sway. But pinot noir, the red burgundy grape, is catching up fast.

The warm, maritime-influenced climate of Hawkes Bay on North Island makes it the best spot for bordeaux-style reds made from merlot and cabernet sauvignon. This is confirmed with the 1998, declared by many to be the region's vintage of the decade. However, cabernet sauvignon can struggle in cool vintages, as it does in bordeaux. Merlot ripens earlier and is softer, mitigating the tendency of cabernet sauvignon towards weediness. As a result, the merlot grape is gaining popularity over cabernet sauvignon as the focus for a style closer to St-Emilion than Médoc.

If Hawkes Bay is the bordeaux-style capital of New Zealand, it's less easy to be sure which region best suits red burgundy's pinot noir. The first pinot noir vine was planted as recently as 1976, but with over 1000 hectares to its name already, it has become New Zealand's mostly widely planted and fastest-growing red variety. It is no pushover though, and in the marginal climatic conditions of New Zealand it's no easier to get it right here than in burgundy. So why do the Kiwis persist with such a temperamental variety? Because its natural conditions predispose it to a style with as seductive an array of subtle perfumes and sumptuous red berry fruit flavours as burgundy itself.

Until recently, Martinborough, a small sheep town on the tip of North Island, with gravel terraces and a cool, ocean-influenced climate, led the way with pinot noir. But Villa Maria, New Zealand's second biggest company, decided to set out its pinot noir stall in Marlborough. This is likely to shift the pinot noir balance in favour of South Island, where further south still, Canterbury and Otago are also producing exciting reds from the burgundian grape.

In Otago, the closest wine region to the Antarctic, an Englishman, Nigel Greening, recently bought the Felton Road winery - a good move because his cult Block 3 in particular (sadly, sold out) and Otago pinot noirs in general, look set to become as stunning as New Zealand's lake district is picturesque. Estates here are tiny and prices expensive due to their relative scarcity. With pinot noir planting almost doubling in the next two years, perhaps New Zealand can do for pinot noir what it's done for sauvignon blanc. Then Henri Bourgeois probably won't be the only Frenchman to plough this particular fertile furrow. Bordeaux-style

The 1998 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Cabernet Merlot, Hawkes Bay, £9.99, Safeway, offers ripe, blackcurrant fruitiness in a medium-bodied style. The 1998 Quintology Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon, £12.99, Oddbins, is a delightfully juicy cherry and blackcurrant fruit blend, while the 1999 Glazebrook Merlot Cabernet, around £12.50, Robersons, London W14 (020-7371 2121), SWIG, London NW3 (020-7431 4412) offers classic, bordeaux-style elegance. The 1998 Te Mata Awatea, around £13.99, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack and Harvey Nichols, is a spicily perfumed, silky-textured red. The youthful, intensely concentrated 1998 Alpha Domus The Navigator, can be found at £12.99-£14.45,Noel Young Wines, Cambs (01223 844744), virginwines.com, madaboutwine.com.

Burgundy-style

Pinot Noir doesn't come cheap, so be prepared to pay a premium for quality. Real depth of flavour starts at just under £10 with the 1999 Montana Marlborough Reserve Pinot Noir, £9.99, Oddbins, Unwins, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury. Also from Marlborough, the 1999 Wither Hills Pinot Noir, around £12.99, at Ballantynes, Cowbridge (01446 774840), and, from mid-February, Oddbins, and the Wine Society, is full of expressive, strawberryish fruit flavours, while the 1999 Seresin Estate Pinot Noir, £15, Harvey Nichols, is rich in sumptuous red berry fruitiness. From Martinborough, the 1999 Alana Estate Pinot Noir, £14.95, Berry Bros & Rudd (London SW1, 0870 900 4300) is a wine in intensely flavoured, burgundian mould. As for Otago, you might give the sumptuously loganberry-juicy 1999 Peregrine Pinot Noir, Central Otago, £12.99, Oddbins, a whirl.

Anthony Rose is Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the Year

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