Is New Zealand just a one-grape wonder?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

New Zealand has long been the Lilliput of the New World. But what it lacked in size it more than made up for with the consistency of its refreshingly assertive sauvignon blancs. The evidence is plain to see because, at £5.85, the average retail price per bottle of New Zealand wine in this country is streets ahead of any other country.

New Zealand has long been the Lilliput of the New World. But what it lacked in size it more than made up for with the consistency of its refreshingly assertive sauvignon blancs. The evidence is plain to see because, at £5.85, the average retail price per bottle of New Zealand wine in this country is streets ahead of any other country.

Being little though can make you inconspicuous, especially when your rivals are planting vines like there's a big tomorrow. With the demand for sauvignon blanc stronger than ever, New Zealand is not resting on its clean and green laurels, no sir.

Plantings of sauvignon blanc have increased so dramatically that in the four years between 2002 and 2006, production is expected to double. This means not only more wine to sell, but a lot more effort put into selling it. According to John Hancock, winemaker and part-owner of Hawke's Bay winery Trinity Hill, "as efficiencies come into play due to increased volumes, New Zealand will have to drop its prices in the coming years". As the competition hots up from Chile and South Africa, Kiwi wines may well need to make concessions to stay on the shelves of the major supermarkets.

Against the tide of growing production, the 2003 vintage came along to remind us that nature still likes to have the last laugh. The vines suffered badly from frost damage, so much so that the crop was drastically reduced by more than a third over the previous year. An already frost-affected vintage was made worse by rain at harvest time towards the end of April. Producers with insufficient grapes to satisfy orders ended up scurrying to buy in inferior material. The result is a patchy vintage across the board. This was self-evident from January's annual tasting, which featured more than 460 wines from 73 producers.

Fortunately, there are some very good sauvignons indeed. When they arrive in this country between now and the spring (of which more over the coming weeks), expect to see the classic combination of pungently assertive aromas and delightfully juicy, tropical fruit qualities from, among others, Kim Crawford, Mud House, Borthwick, Framingham, Jackson Estate, Matua Valley "Paretai", Craggy Range Avery Vineyard, Vavasour and Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve. There are some disappointments though, with a lot of slightly sweet, pear-droppy or just simply dilute wines. Getting good concentration from sauvignon blanc over the coming years, much of it from young vines, will be one of New Zealand's greatest challenges.

One way out is to shake off its image as a one-grape country. While almost two- thirds of all of the wine exported from New Zealand is sauvignon blanc, the grape only accounts for just about a third of production. According to John Hancock: "Sauvignon blanc totally eclipses everything else we do, so it doesn't open doors, it slams doors in our faces."

Producers are looking to pinot gris as a potential saviour, but there are some fine rieslings too, like the aromatic dry whites from Black Ridge, Olssens, Felton Road and Framingham. Long-term, pinot noir, the red grape of burgundy, may be New Zealand's best chance for an escape route. It's red for a start, and 2002 (which I aim to come back to when more wines are available here) was a good vintage in Lilliput.

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