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Kiwi fruits

Thanks to its assertive sauvignon blancs and intensely flavoured chardonnays, comparisons with sancerre and chablis no longer flatter New Zealand to deceive. Yet its reputation for red wines still lags behind. Oddbins, for instance, is not alone in complaining that "we just can't become enthusiastic over the style, which is sometimes slightly austere and restrained". But are Kiwi reds just a weak extra string to New Zealand's white wine bow, or do they deserve recognition in their own right?

Covering just one fifth of the country's vineyards, the quality red grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir are in short supply. What's more, in immediate fruit impact and value for money, New Zealand struggles to compete with the fuller-blooded styles of Australia, Chile, Argentina or South Africa.

As in Bordeaux, a cool, maritime climate brings unpredictable weather, yet cool-climate vineyard sites are a rare and highly prized commodity in the southern hemisphere. A long, mild-growing season creates the necessary preconditions for wines of subtle but intense flavours.

Adapting the vineyards to expose the fruit to sunshine has had a major impact on wine quality. Kiwi producers are also discovering the benefits of matching grape to vineyard site. In Hawkes Bay, where gravel soils suit the Bordeaux style, the merlot grape is currently in a fight for survival with cabernet sauvignon. In the view of ex-Bordeaux winemaker, Jenny Dobson, now at Sacred Hill, the climate may, in the long run, suit merlot better.

"The two to three weeks cabernet needs over merlot seems to make more difference in Hawkes Bay than in Bordeaux," says Dobson. Although Marlborough sauvignon blanc was justifiably savaged by the critics, 1995 turned out to be a particularly good year for reds, and particularly merlot, in Hawkes Bay. According to Gordon Russell, of merlot specialists Esk Valley, "1995 is an extremely underrated red wine vintage, the best for us since 1991."

If there's a shift towards merlot in the north, an excellent vintage in 1996 should add to the reputation of red Burgundy's pinot noir grape in Martinborough, at the southern tip of North Island, and the cooler South Island regions of Marlborough, Canterbury and Otago. "Martinborough is a microcosm of what New Zealand should be doing internationally," says Larry McKenna of Martinborough Vineyards. "Pinot noir, if it isn't already, will be the most important red grape variety coming out of New Zealand."

Joining a growing band of world-class pinot noir producers, among them Dry River, Ata Rangi, Martinborough, Palliser and Te Kairanga, the latest sensation is Fromm, a Swiss venture in Marlborough producing wines of premier cru red burgundy quality. Hatch Kalberer, Fromm's winemaker, explains: "The New World, with few exceptions, is not prepared to put the viticultural effort in. If our ambition is to make grand cru burgundy quality, then we must have a grand cru crop."

Latterly, Cloudy Bay, and Montana. New Zealand's two highest-profile companies, are busily engaged in trying to crack the problem of the image and limited availability of Kiwi red wines. Cloudy Bay has come up with an excellent prototype 1994 Pinot Noir and Montana l996, which is still in barrel. The sooner they can reproduce the brilliant success of their white wines with a commercial pinot noir, the sooner the rest of us, Oddbins included, will be swallowing more than our words

Kiwi red wines of the week

1995 Saints Hawkes Bay Cabernet Merlot, pounds 7.99, Marks & Spencer. Appealing blackcurrant fruitiness and vanilla undertones from Montana. 1995 Esk Valley Merlot/Cabernet, Hawkes Bay, pounds 8.99, Waitrose, Unwins. Juicy merlot ripeness with an oak-spicy veneer for St Emilion-like complexity. 1995 Sacred Hill Basket Press Cabernet, pounds 8.99, Fuller's. Stylish, delicately minty, succulent Hawkes Bay cabernet sauvignon. 1995 CJ Pask Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawkes Bay, pounds 9.95. Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (01206 764446). Classically elegant cabernet with sweetly oaked, mulberry fruit flavours. 1995 Te Kairanga Pinot Noir, Martinborough, pounds 9.99, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Fragrant pinot noir with oak-matured wild strawberry fruit characters.

Stop Press The 1996 Fromm Pinot Noir, pounds l1.95, is now in stock at Lay & Wheeler