Wine: White heat

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, sauvignon blanc is king. Thanks to the runaway success of its world-class sauvignon, New Zealand wine has easily the highest average retail bottle price in the UK at £5.93, compared to the market average of £3.91. Yes, sauvignon is making waves in South Africa and Chile too, but Marlborough, the home of Kiwi sauvignon, has established itself as the crème de la crème of the New World by consistently improving the quality and broadening the style. Gone is the strident cat's pee on a gooseberry bush (to quote Jancis Robinson), in favour of a range of tropical styles, blends and even a handful of Graves-style oaked versions. Whisper it quietly, but the French bastions of sancerre and pouilly fumé are under threat from a wine once dismissed as "alcoholic pineapple juice" by one noted wine authority. The wonderfully aromatic 2006 Lawson's Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc, £9.99, Majestic, £8.95, Lay & Wheeler (0845 330 1855), belies such snobbery.

A runaway success, with a style that its warmer neighbour across the Tasman can't so easily emulate, has brought unprecedented expansion. New Zealand's vineyards have more than doubled in a decade to just over 22,000 hectares, with Marlborough representing nearly half of the total. Sauvignon may be a one-trick pony, but it's a show pony of the most profitable kind, so, not surprisingly, it's hard for New Zealand's wine producers to change the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it mentality.

The exciting news here is the rise of two potentially world-class reds in pinot noir and syrah. A recent day devoted to syrah in Hawkes Bay revealed the astonishing progress that this northern Rhône variety has made. A decade ago, Alan Limmer was a lone voice extolling the virtues of syrah at Stonecroft. Today, every self-respecting Hawkes Bay producer, hitherto fixated on Bordeaux blends, is now making syrah. Not shiraz, note, but an aromatic, peppery style, viz the raspberryish 2004 Woodthorpe Syrah Viognier, around £12.50, Great Grog (0131-662 4777), Wimbledon Wines (020-8540 9979), Grape Ideas (01832 734258), that more closely resembles the elegant syrahs of the northern Rhône than the bolder shiraz of Australia. Hawkes Bay producers who previously backed Bordeaux-style reds are having to admit that syrah may be a better long-term bet.

If syrah is as yet a work-in-progress in Hawkes Bay, the Pinot Noir conference in Wellington showed that red burgundy's pinot noir is now capable of quality and depth in five different regions: Martinborough on North Island and Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara and Central Otago on South Island. This development is worth a column of its own - coming soon - but until then, try the silky, loganberry-like 2005 Churton Pinot Noir, £13.30, Tanners, Shrewsbury (01743 2345000).

Hand in hand with this new development comes the dramatic expansion of white aromatic varieties such as pinot gris, gewürztraminer, riesling and viognier. Pinot gris is the hot one. The Alsace variety that's often innocuous in France can produce wines in New Zealand's climate of spicy fruitiness in styles ranging from dry through off-dry to medium sweet. The same goes for riesling, a grape being turned into a range of styles from dry whites in the Australian mould to off-dry and sweeter, featherweight styles modelled on Germany's Mosel Valley. Kiwi producers have fashioned gewürztraminer, too, into a crowd-pleasing white.

At one recent conference, a delegate rose to praise New Zealand wine for displaying "the best average quality in the world". It's a fair assessment of a country that's changing from one-trick pony to all-round performer.

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