New Zealand Whites Beyond Sauvignon Blanc

No offense against the ubiquitous, crisp and zesty screw-capped expression, but there is so much more to explore.

Monowai Estate

Monowai Estate

New Zealand produces two percent of the world’s wine, but it’s overwhelmingly concentrated in one white varietal: sauvignon blanc. Assertively acidic and bursting with tart and tangy flavors of passion fruit, grapefruit and lime (and some say "grass" and "cat piss" - in the nicest possible way), it’s emerged as the country’s signature grape, immediately identifiable and an unapologetic antidote to flabby, fleshy,  oaked whites. But if it’s the only white wine you’ve sampled from the Kiwis, you’re missing out.

“What sets New Zealand apart is our ability to produce intensely aromatic whites,” says Kim Crawford winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst. “We have a cool climate that enables distinctive fruit characters to develop that you don’t find in many other regions.” He’s especially excited about pinot gris and chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay, the country’s second-largest wine-growing region that’s known for producing whites that tout depth and complexity. “The region’s soil types coupled with the maritime climate and evening sea breeze make it great for white varietals.”

Its small market share compared to that of other countries like the United States and France means that New Zealand can’t compete by volume, points out Dave Edmonds, winemaker for Nobilo. “Where we can compete is quality and we are seeing the average price per bottle rise each year from our little corner of the world,” he says. “This tells us we must be doing something right.” Indeed.

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Erica Crawford, founder of Loveblock Wines, admits that smaller vintners like herself grow other varietals because they want to--much to the chagrin of accounting departments who know how easily sauvignon blanc sells. She has a particular penchant for riesling; whether dry or sweet, residual sugar easily balances the searing natural acidity of riesling grown in New Zealand. Loveblock plants grapes for its bone dry riesling on top of the hills overlooking Marlborough’s Awatere Valley on alluvial loam soil with some clay over stone; it shows lemon, lime and flintiness, and that high level of acidity deems it age-worthy, during which it can pick up signature notes like petrol. Whether it’s the “next big thing” or will remain a winemaker and sommelier niche darling remains to be seen, though.

More increasingly popular is pinot gris; 78% more vineyard land has been planted with it compared to just ten years ago, and exports to the U.S. have grown 11% in the past year. “We have learned how to manage the vine and wine,” Crawford believes. “The residual sugar and alcohol tightrope can be tricky, but I think New Zealand winemakers have learnt how to tame the high alcohol [and] cloying [styles].”

Patrick Materman, chief winemaker for Brancott Estate (winner of the NY International Wine Competition 2018 Marlborough Winery of the Year), agrees that pinot gris continues to rise in popularity, and more restrained styles are especially resonating with consumers. On the South Island, producers in the regions of Nelson, Waipara and Central Otago as well as Marlborough are making stellar pinot gris (not to mention other aromatic whites like riesling and gewürztraminer.) “All of these express themselves with lifted aromas, fresh fruit characters and a juicy acidity that carries the palate intensity and makes them pair so well with food,” he says. “The cool conditions lengthen the growing season and this effectively builds intensity of flavor into the grapes.” That, coupled with low nighttime temperatures, delivers freshness that’s a hallmark of NZ whites.

One trend he’s seen is harvesting white grapes earlier in the season, when sugar levels (and therefore potential alcohol levels are low). These expressions are vinified to around 9% ABV and are a great option when you are seeking a refreshing wine that’s not too heavy-handed.

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Wine drinkers might not immediately associated New Zealand with chardonnay, but Phil Jones says that before sauvignon blanc took over in the late 1990s, NZ chard actually outsold it. “Well- made NZ chardonnay is unbelievable and South Island chardonnay can be crisp and full of fruit flavors of pineapple and other tropical fruits,” says the owner of Goose Bay Winery. “North Island tends to [show] stone fruit flavors due to the warmer summers.” No matter where it’s made, all boast great acid levels and restrained (if any) use of oak. 

It seems like people are realizing that NZ is not a one-trick pony, Edmonds says. “The world has seen how good our sauvignon blancs are, and now they’re beginning to learn about other varietals.”

Bottles to try:

2017 Kim Crawford Pinot Gris ($16): Pale straw in the glass, it has ripe pear and quince aromas with honey, floral notes and a touch of citrus. The palate is clean and fresh with Braeburn apples.

2017 Kim Crawford Chardonnay ($15): Stainless steel fermentation keeps this wine lively, while malolactic fermentation and lees aging for 8 months lend butterscotch note and roundness. It has aromas of citrus, stone fruit and tropical fruit, and beautiful concentrated fruit and texture on the palate balanced by fresh citrus acidity.

2014 Loveblock Bone Dry Riesling ($21): This wine comes alive with food, and is ideal for the more nuanced and fragrant Asian flavors of Japanese and Cambodian cuisine. Try it with sashimi and sushi, and ginger lifts the shy fruit sweetness.

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Brancott Estate Marlborough Pinot Grigio ($10): Honeysuckle aromas reveal fresh pear and tropical melon. The palate has flavors of peaches, apricots and sweet tropical fruits like mangos. It is rich, full and weighty with subtle spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon.

2016 Goose Bay Chardonnay ($16): Ripe flavors of tropical fruit and toasted oak make this wine perfect with full-flavored fish, veal and chicken.

2016 Monowai Pinot Gris ($15) (gold medal, 2018 NYIWC): Golden straw in the glass, this wine has aromas of honey, lychee and pear. Pear and honey also show up on the palate, as well as citrus, while aging on the lees gives it weight and complexity and acidity lends length and freshness.