Tasting Wine: Try these New Zealand alternatives

I’ve lamented with colleagues about the monotony of many New Zealand wines. The consensus is that many are pretty good, but most are nothing to write home about.

New Zealand is famous for its sauvignon blanc. It has dominated viticulture on this two-island nation for 30 years. Pinot noir, especially from Central Otago on South Island, has also gained prominence. No doubt the kiwi renditions of these grapes deserve recognition, but lately the most exciting New Zealand wines I’ve tried have been made from other grapes.

In spite of its relatively small size, New Zealand has a variety of climates. On North Island, especially the areas near Auckland and Hawkes Bay, there is temperate, Bordeaux-like weather and as such, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot tend to do well here. Syrah and chardonnay, grapes that are more climatically flexible, also hold their own. South Island and parts of North Island are cooler. Sauvignon blanc is grown throughout South Island as well, but it often has a more pronounced herbal character and crisper acid than its compatriots on North Island. South Island is home to much of the country’s pinot noir, with Central Otago, the most southern and coolest region, stealing the pinot show.

Riesling, pinot gris and gewürztraminer, the cool-climate grapes of Germany and Alsace, have also stated their case, and while planting of these grapes is tiny in comparison with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, I think they hold as much promise.

Today I want to write about the other wines made in New Zealand. Perhaps they hold the key to reigniting my cabal’s interest in New Zealand wine. Here are three that are definite standouts.

Aurum Riesling, 2006 (Central Otago)

 This five-year-old winery is making some of the purest and best wines coming out of New Zealand. It was named aurum, which means gold in Latin, because its vineyards are in close proximity to old gold mines. Although the riesling comes from relatively young vines, only five to nine years old, it offers an opulent burst of grapefruit, tangerine, lime and Jolly Rancher — yes, the candy — with a long, clean finish.

Suggested retail: $17

Neudorf Pinot Gris, Brightwater, 2006 (Nelson)

Neudorf makes terrific wines pretty much across this board, and this pinot gris is a key part of its lineup. Alsatian in style with a drop of residual sugar, honeysuckle, tangerine and pears, this is a luscious bottle of wine.

Suggested retail: $22

Dry River Syrah, 2004 (Martinborough)

When I first tasted this syrah I said to myself, “very good,” and, after looking at the price, “too expensive,” but then something interesting happened. As I was about to taste another wine I noticed this incredible finish that in some ways reminded me of Hermitage, yet it had a unique minerality so I went back for another sip. Full-bodied with an ashen smokelike aroma, black pepper, bacon, tobacco, boysenberry and raspberry fruit, approachable acidity and firm acid, this is actually one of the rare wines that is every bit as good as its asking price.

Suggested retail: $70

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.</em>

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