Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on February 3, 2017 0 Comments If you want to get some idea about how far grapevines have spread around the world, then take your globe, put one finger on the center of France, and try and find the spot on that sphere which is about as far away from France as you can possibly get. You’ll probably end up somewhere around the newest of the New Worlds — down under, around Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand has had a good 20 years. While vines were first planted on the islands around 150 years ago — surprisingly later than they first were on neighboring Australia — New Zealand viticulture wasn’t taken particularly seriously by the Kiwis (nor by the rest of the world, for that matter) for most of the twentieth century. However, as the millennium rolled around, things started to change, and in quite a dramatic fashion. All of a sudden, New Zealand wines were being heralded as an exciting new development in the world, and people began writing about and going into raptures about the explosions of flavor that these wines were presenting, how they offered something quite different from the usual New World flavor profiles, and how, above all, they were managing to do that most difficult of balancing acts: they possessed both finesse and absolute accessibility. These were great wines, made with skill, passion and on superb bits of land, made to be drunk by ordinary people over a good dinner with friends. Getting Away From Tradition If you look over the shelves of New Zealand wine in your local wine store, one key difference between these and most other countries’ produce will be glaringly obvious: the preference for screw caps over corks. Indeed, around 85% of New Zealand wines use screw caps, a testament to this country’s propensity to not only laugh off convention and tradition in favor of straight-talking practicality (screw caps make wines resistant to a wide range of flaws and fungal problems), but also do it in an environmentally conscious manner. This is just one example of how we owe both New Zealand and Australia quite a debt for kickstarting the fight back against the wine snobs. This bright and breezy, unpretentious, down-to-earth character and approach to winemaking and drinking seems reasonably commonplace today, but fifteen or so years ago, it wasn’t something people associated with wine. The Kiwis know what they like, and they aren’t going to start using lists of garbled, archaic adjectives to describe their wines — it simply isn’t their style. As the new millennium continues to trundle onward, Kiwi wine has grown from strength to strength. The mainstays of the wine industry there have been refined, and have further carved out their own identity, and new grape varietals have been planted and experimented with. The connection the people of New Zealand have with their land is evident — the current “trend” for sustainability and eco-awareness we see coming and going in waves in the west is far more than a fad down under, it’s a vital approach which is required in order to preserve a highly delicate ecosystem for future generations. Biodynamics and organic farming is massively popular, and yields an exciting and varied palate of wines to sample. As there are no native grape varietals on the islands, all the wines produced there are from imported European grapes. Let’s take a look at the key wine styles of New Zealand, and look at what makes them distinct from their cousins in the Old World. Sauvignon Blanc For a long time now, Sauvignon Blanc has been New Zealand’s signature grape varietal. This particular vine makes up a staggering 72% of the country’s entire output, and it isn’t difficult to see why it has become so popular. The cool climate of the coastal regions of both the north and south islands of New Zealand bring about Sauvignon Blanc grapes of extraordinary brightness and acidity; these are wines which bounce and sing in the glass, bringing immediate flavors of citrus fruits and fresh, herby, bell-pepper greenness, too. Uncomplicated, brilliant for drinking alongside food (especially the remarkable seafood the country is famed for), the best of the Sauvignon Blancs still comes from Marlborough in the south, where the days are warm, the nights are cold, and the grapes pick up tropical fruit flavors set off by a really zingy acidity. Chardonnay Although Sauvignon Blanc absolutely dominates the New Zealand white wine scene, there’s a fairly new Chardonnay movement just about set to take off, now that Chardonnay is swinging back into fashion once more. New Zealand Chardonnays are very, very different from their New World cousins in America. They bear more resemblance to those wonderfully structured Chardonnay wines of Burgundy, as the cold climate around Auckland allows subtler, more refined flavors to come forward. Expect white peaches, aged cheese, and bitter, zesty lemon. The result? A superb, clean-tasting wine with an exciting sharpness for a Chardonnay, ideal for the dinner table. Pinot Noir The best Pinot Noir wines from New Zealand tend to come from the high altitude vineyards of Central Otago. Whereas most of the Pinot Noir wineries across New Zealand are hugely influenced by the oceanic microclimates, Central Otago is largely sheltered from the changeable forces of the sea. As such, wineries here focus on producing well structured, relatively full bodied Pinot Noir, with a higher alcohol content than usual, but packed full of dark berry and hedgerow flavors. Plush, juicy and concentrated, these are the perfect partner for a piece of prime New Zealand lamb. Syrah When we think of Syrah, we normally think immediately of either the Rhone Valley, or of the Australian coastal regions (where it is known as Shiraz). However, New Zealand Syrah is very much its own beast, and on the warmer north island, it blossoms with some seriously beautiful flavors — all savory spice and pepper, rich, juicy plums, and an instant hit of perfumed violets and autumn leaves. Syrah has been a favorite with many of the new breed of organic and biodynamic wineries, as it has such a rich and varied set of flavors to encourage and focus on when allowed to do its own thing, without intervention or too much refining.