Vines in a cool climate

New Zealand can charge higher prices for its wines because their consistency and quality are guaranteed, says Anthony Rose
Ever since Cloudy Bay put New Zealand on the world's wine map, New Zealand sauvignon has not only become respectable, but now leads the new world challenge to the best of the Loire Valley. Thanks to a clean and green image, established in the past decade, the country's wine industry is now able to get away with prices that even French producers can only dream about. And British wine drinkers are evidently happy to pay up, for we consume more than two-thirds of New Zealand's exports.

New Zealand's cool maritime climate makes growing conditions ideal for tantalisingly aromatic and fruity, premium white grape varieties. Only the fact that the contents of its entirewine industry could be lost inside the vats of a medium-sized Hungarian co-operative allows its competitors to sleep easy in their beds.

In a marginal climate, vintage variation is significant. Two cool vintages in 1992 and 1993 threatened to end the burgeoning British love affair. Even 1994, while superior in quality to its two predecessors, is only of average size, but if the promise of a bumper quality crop this year is fulfilled, the prices should stay reasonable. In recent years, the excessive leaf canopy in New Zealand's vineyards has been dealt with. By reducing shade and exposing grape clusters to sunlight and air, the unripe flavours and fungal problems have been cut down.

With the fine, albeit reduced, 1994 vintage, Marlborough has confirmed its status as the prime southern hemisphere site for the most zesty sauvignon blanc. Favourable weather helped tone down some of Marlborough's natural grassiness and tart acidity to produce a fuller style - even if it is too fruity for devotees of flinty austerity. But I suspect many will be prepared to sacrifice a bit of hit-and-miss complexity if they can be guaranteed the big flavour Marlborough consistently delivers.

Marlborough's basic benchmark sauvignon blanc, Montana, which has risen a modest 20p (from £4.79 to £4.99) in eight years, has confirmed its value- for-money status. It used to be on the shelves throughout the summer; but the decline in the sauvignon blanc yield means it is unlikely to be in the shops much past May. Perhaps this will be the year of Villa Maria, which has surpassed itself in this vintage.

Many of the smaller vineyards produced fine, concentrated sauvignons in 1994 with assertive flavours, such asCloudy Bay, Allan Scott, Dashwood, Hunters and Jackson Estate. By contrast, the more restrained flavours of North Island's Hawkes Bay in wines such as C J Pask's ripe, juicy Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc can provide welcome relief from Marlborough's often relentlessly gooseberryish twang.

With so much of the spotlight focused on New Zealand's sauvignon blanc, it may be a surprise to learn that almost twice as much chardonnay as sauvignon is now planted there and has adapted with ease to New Zealand's different regions and winemaking styles. The impressive 1994 chardonnays should convince those who think chardonnay ends with Australia that it is worth paying the extra for added flavour, natural balance and complexity.

In the recent cool vintages, little attention has been paid to New Zealand's much-vaunted red wines. Despite a tendency to lean towards acidity and herbaceous flavours, as vineyards mature, there are signs that pinot noir is becoming more intense in cooler regions such as Martinborough, Canterbury and Nelson, while promising blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot could see Hawkes Bay become the St Emilion of New Zealand.

1994 New Zealand Dry White, £3.99, Waitrose. Attractively floral, deliciously dry, refreshing Mller-Thurgau.

1994 Montana Marlborough Chardonnay, £4.99, widely available. Refreshingly crisp, with elegantly restrained buttery oak.

1994 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, £5.95, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up; Waitrose. Fragrant, intensely flavoured, gooseberry fruitiness.

1994 Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, £6.99, Majestic. Aromatic, ripe,rounded fruit with a hint of green bean character.

1994 Allan Scott Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, £7.74, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (01206 764446). Fine, steely, almost flinty with a tropical edge; also an excellent ripe, gently oaked, elegant 1992 Chardonnay, £7.95. Both on special offer. Lay & Wheeler also has the refreshingly dry 1994 C J Pask Sauvignon Blanc on offer at £6.54.

1994 Forrest Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, about £7.99, Adnams, Southwold (0502 724 222); Berry Bros & Rudd, London SW1 (0171-396 9600). Herbaceous, with clean-cut, gooseberry fruitiness.

1994 Lawson's Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, £7.49 bottle/case, Bibendum, London NW1 (0171-722 5577). Rich, concentrated sauvignon; also powerful, toasted oak 1994 Dry Hills Chardonnay, £8.99.

1993 De Redcliffe Riesling, Marlborough, about £7.99, Grog Blossom shops, London; D Bryne, Clitheroe (0200 23152). Classic, apple and honey Mosel- style riesling.

1994 The Millton Vineyard Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay, Gisborne, £7.99, selected Safeway stores. Rich North Island chardonnay with the complexity of honeyed botrytis notes.

1993 Goldwater Chardonnay, Marlborough, £8.89, Majestic. Buttery flavours and a lean, citrusy streak.

1994 Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc, £9.49, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Intensely aromatic and juicy sauvignon; also a richly flavoured chablis- like 1993 Chardonnay, £10.79.

1993 Mark Rattray Pinot Noir, Canterbury, £11.49, Oddbins. Stylish, attractively oaked pinot noir from South Island.