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Aromatic Whites from New Zealand
By Linda Murphy
Mar 4, 2008
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During my recent visit to New Zealand, a handful of winemakers privately expressed concern about the overwhelming success of the country's Sauvignon Blancs.  They fretted that their dependence on 'Savvy' is not very savvy at all--that their white-wine world is a monoculture, and that there is a chance that consumers will tire of their racy, fruity and often pungent wines and look for something new.

Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc sales remain red-hot in global sales and production continues to grow, yet in the minds of some winemakers, there need to be more shades-of-white colors in the crayon box.

Erica Crawford is one such vintner.  The founder and president of Kim Crawford Wines in Auckland, she is perhaps the most vocal New Zealand vintner on the country's need to expand its white-wine repertoire.

'As a wine exporter, approximately 75% of all our exports are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc--and that's a huge reliance on one varietal from one region,' Crawford said.  New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc demand is 'stampeding ahead,' she added, 'but drinking trends come and go.'  It is possible, Crawford says, to have too much of a good thing.

Indeed, white wine represents 85% of New Zealand's wine exports to the United States, 80% of that Sauvignon Blanc.  While there are some smart Chardonnays being made in NZ, Crawford and others see great opportunity with the 'aromatic' whites--Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer--as supplements to the Sauvignon Blanc phenomenon.

The aromatics are, with a few exceptions, fermented in stainless steel tanks and barrels rather than wood, to preserve their delicate floral, fruity aromas.  With the exception of Riesling, these wines are best consumed when they're young and fresh; aging won't do them any favors. 
 
Vibrancy is the key to great aromatic whites, and it comes from the palate-cleansing natural acidity that is inherent in New Zealand wine grapes.  The maritime climate allows for very cool nights and mornings during the growing season, which locks in acidity, yet there is plenty of daytime warmth to develop the crystalline fruit flavors so typical in Kiwi wines.

This formula works for Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, just as it does for Sauvignon Blanc, and while these grape varieties have been grown in New Zealand in small quantities for years, they're just now gaining traction.  Of New Zealand's 42,000 acres of white grapes, the three aromatics combine for just 5,530 acres, yet from 2005 to 2008, Pinot Gris plantings zoomed from 1,208 acres to 3,022, and Riesling and Gewurztraminer showed growth, though not as remarkable. 

New Zealand Pinot Gris grew an impressive 138% in sales between 2006 and 2007 in export markets. 

Kiwi Pinot Gris, Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are typically off-dry; winemakers leave a bit of unfermented sugar in the wines to balance the racy acidity and plump up the fruit character and texture of the wines.  They're easy to drink, stylish, pair nicely with a wide range of foods, and--as winemaker after winemaker told me--they can't make enough to quench consumers' thirst.  Many new wine drinkers get their start with Pinot Gris (rarely labeled as Pinot Grigio, in the Italian manner, in New Zealand) and move on to more 'serious' wines, they say.

Dry versions with less residual sugar are more steely and structured, yet have a following as well, particularly with those accustomed to drinking dry German and Australian Rieslings. 

Peter Munro, winemaker at Matua Valley Vineyards in Auckland, said it's not easy to make a dry Pinot Gris that has any flavor.

'Pinot Gris doesn't taste like anything until it gets quite ripe,' he said.  'It needs to get to at least 24 sugar, but it has to get there easy.  It can't be sitting in the sun.  It has to be cropped at just the right level without stressing the vines, to keep the primary fruit character.'

Everyone agrees that sugar, acidity and phenolics (the tannins from the skins, seeds and stems) need to be in balance for all three aromatic varietals; unbalanced wines can be overly sweet and fat (lacking acidity), or too acidic and strident.  The key is to hit the midpoint. 

Alcohol levels are a concern, too.  Many of the Pinot Gris and Riesling wines I tasted had alcohol levels of around 14.5%, similar to California white wines, though most Rieslings are a couple percentage points lower.  Grapes need to be on the vine long enough to achieve their lusciousness, so the sugars are allowed to rise, but so does the alcohol content.  Yet if the grapes are harvested less ripe, the seeds and skins can impart bitterness because there isn't enough mature fruit to balance it.  Thus, balance in the vineyard is vital to harmony in the wine.

Pinot Gris is grown in most regions of New Zealand's North and South islands, with Marlborough and Central Otago producing, to my taste, the best examples.  Gewurztraminer shines in the Gisborne region on the eastern coast of the North Island, and Riesling is ideally suited to Marlborough and Waipara of the South. 

With spring and warm weather approaching for most of us, New Zealand Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer make terrific choices as aperitifs and at the lunch or dinner table.  Now is a period of vintage transition for young New Zealand white wines, with the 2007 vintage coming on stream as the 2006s sell out. 

Below are recommendations from 2006 and 2007 that are available in the United States; buyers can't go wrong with either vintage.

Pinot Gris

Mt. Difficulty, Central Otago (New Zealand) Pinot Gris 2007 ($20, American Estates Wines): Nearly dry with just a hint of sweetness on the mid-palate, this structured Pinot Gris is very floral on the nose and lusciously fruity (white peach, citrus and apricot).  Despite its firmness, it's also moderately rich and juicy.  89 

Huia, Marlborough (New Zealand) Pinot Gris 2006 ($20, Via Pacifica): A dry, delicate and stylish wine reflecting minerals, toasted almond, Asian pear, stone fruit and citrus.  More complex and layered than most, it begs for service at the table rather than the patio.  91

Neudorf, Nelson (New Zealand) Brightwater Pinot Gris 2007 ($20, Epic Wines): Very floral, and more delicate than rich, with juicy pear and tropical fruit refreshed by brisk acidity.  Simply delicious.  90

Spy Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Pinot Gris 2006 ($23, Broadbent Selections):  Slightly sweet yet succulent, tasting of Asian pear, citrus and spiced, baked apple.  It's a yin-yang balance of ripe fruit and acidity.  88

Riesling

Drylands, Marlborough (New Zealand) Riesling 2007 ($15, Icon Estates): A steely Riesling with loads of lime and orange marmalade fruitiness.  Very dry on the palate, yet not austere, so it's delicious to drink now, yet should improve for two to three years in the cellar.  90

Pegasus Bay, Waipara Valley (New Zealand) Riesling 2006 ($22, Meadowbank/Empson): Concentrated, succulent lime, grapefruit and apricot aromas and flavors gain interest from a slight mineral note.  The wine is vibrant and moderately rich, with brisk acidity and a rewarding, long finish.  92

Villa Maria, Marlborough (New Zealand) Private Bin Riesling 2007 ($15, Vineyard Brands): Delivers fine quality at a great price.  Ripe yellow stone fruit and lemon flavors add lift to this softly sweet, round wine.  It's a good introduction to Riesling for those who might not enjoy those that are quite sweet the more austere styles.  87

Waimea Estates, Nelson (New Zealand) Riesling 2007 ($22, Via Pacifica): Crisp and subtle, with minerals, citrus, apricot and a hint of spice.  Very elegant and lean; begs for service with oysters and spicy Asian dishes.  88

Gewurztraminer

Lawson's Dry Hills, Marlborough (New Zealand) Gewurztraminer 2006 ($18, The Country Vintner): Hauntingly aromatic with rose petal and lychee notes.  The rich, viscous palate features ripe pear, citrus and ginger flavors.  A bit more acidity would lift its score.  89

Seifried, Nelson (New Zealand) Gewurztraminer 2007 ($18, Robert Whale Selections): Pretty, fresh lychee and rose petal nose; moderately sweet, with pear, apple and ginger flavors.  The crisp acidity brings it all into balance and gives the wine a mouthwatering finish.  90

Vinoptima, Ormond (Gisborne, New Zealand) Gewurztraminer 2004 ($45, Folio Fine Wine Partners): Very rich, weighty and deeply flavored in an Alsatian way, yet the lychee, ginger, Asian pear and pineapple flavors are balanced by keen acidity.  Hedonistic, serious wine from Nick Nobilo, who produces only Gewurztraminer and releases it with a few years of bottle age.  93