"Should we be concentrating on sauvignon blanc or putting our eggs in different baskets?" Stumbling off the plane at 6.30am in Auckland after a 30-hour flight, I wasn't ready for the question exercising the mind of Terry Dunleavy, then heading up the New Zealand Wine Institute. All I could think of was bed. That was in 1991 when sauvignon blanc was nearing its zenith as New Zealand's unique selling point. In time, even sceptics were converted to Kiwi sauvignon's intensely assertive tropical fruit qualities.
Sauvignon blanc remains New Zealand's flagship wine and, with two in every five bottles produced, its most widely planted grape variety. But the wine landscape is undergoing subtle changes. Pinot noir has become the second most widely planted grape in New Zealand. Quite a feat for one of the most fickle grape varieties around, especially since it's now being talked about and consumed as a genuine alternative to red burgundy. Try the raspberryish 2006 Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir, £19.99, Waitrose. Pinot noir has pushed chardonnay into third place, but New Zealand, as with every New World country worth its salt, is coming up with better and better chardonnays. For the full flavour of fine Kiwi chardy, try the finely poised, toasty 2005 Vavasour Chardonnay, £11.49, Corney & Barrow (020-7265 2400).
Looking back now, I suppose I should have been more finely tuned to the potential of New Zealand's cool maritime climate for aromatic white grape varieties, in particular riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and viognier. In a sense, New Zealand is the mirror image of Alsace in its ability to produce intense, aromatic styles, and yet it's different. Alsace rieslings are full and dry. New Zealand's geographical length means it can produce both full, dry rieslings and more delicate, Mosel-like kabinett and spätlese sweet whites.
This versatility is reflected in a range of classic dry whites on the one hand, with refreshing lime-zesty characters such as the 2006 Hunter's Marlborough Riesling, £13.50, Jeroboams shops, a similarly aromatic 2006 Paddy Borthwick Riesling, £124.80 / case, John Armit (020-7908 0600) and the more evolved, toasty, almost keroseney likes of the 2004 Forrest Estate Dry Riesling, £9.99, Adnams (01502 727222). On the other hand are the lighter, fragrantly floral and sweetly fruited styles like the lusciously juicy green apple 2007 Felton Road Block 1 Riesling, £16.95 – £24.50, Lea and Sandeman (020-7244 0522); Berry Bros (0870 900 4300) from Otago, and the sumptuously citrusy 2006 Neudorf Moutere Riesling from Nelson, around £16.49, contact importers Richards Walford for details on 01780 461013 / email@example.com.
The grape that's really caught fire – if that's possible in such a cool, maritime climate – is pinot gris. From next to nothing a decade ago, its popularity is such that it has overtaken riesling to become the country's third most popular white after sauvignon and chardonnay. Even though it's the same grape as pinot grigio, New Zealand is right to call it pinot gris because, as a high quality variety in Alsace, and incidentally Oregon, the name hasn't been devalued like pinot grigio. It can be something of a white paint grape though – neutral, that is – unless cropped at low levels, and some tend to be overpowering or oversweet. Among the handful I find nicely poised, the richly textured 2006 Seresin Pinot Gris, £98.10 / six, John Armit, fits the bill nicely, while the best 2007s are on the water, so I'll come back to them once they're in store. In the land of the long white cloud, white wine continues to reach new heights.Reuse content