New Zealand Sauvignons and Pinots

Owing largely to the high cost of grape-farming and winemaking, New Zealand's wines have never been cheap in export markets. But pricing has barely budged in recent years as quality as risen, despite the fact that New Zealand's producers have spent much of the past year wrestling with an unusually strong New Zealand dollar. Bad news for American importers but good news for consumers: today, more and more of these wines are looking like values to American wine drinkers.

An ample supply of wine has also helped to keep a lid on prices. New Zealand was still digging out from under the load of a huge 2008 harvest when vintage 2011 brought another full crop. One result of having so much fruit is that New Zealand has increasingly been shipping bulk wine to markets like Australia and the U.K., providing something of a safety valve for producers swimming in juice.

But quality-conscious producers who control their yields continue to sell their wines steadily in the U.S. market, and there have never been more excellent New Zealand choices on retail shelves here at reasonable prices than there are right now. Even pinot noir prices are looking better and better, as quality rises and as Burgundy becomes even more difficult to find--and increasingly unaffordable--in the U.S. market.

Recent New Zealand vintages have been conducive to making high-quality, ripe wines. A mostly late harvest took place under reasonably favorable conditions in 2009. Brian Bicknell of Mahi Wines reported that 2009 featured an unusually long 181 days between budbreak and harvest, with all of the extra time in the period between flowering and harvest owing to cool March weather. In 2010, beautiful weather during the second half of the summer helped the fruit ripeness catch up following a late flowering in most regions and kept berry size down. The harvest took place mostly under relaxed conditions, as grape skins were healthy. (There had been more rain and thus more rot pressures in 2009.) The growers I communicated with in recent weeks were all very happy with the level of flavor intensity in 2010. The mostly moderate summer temperatures allowed for very good aromatic expression in sauvignon, although a few growers noted that there was danger in picking too late. In the case of pinot noir, cooler, damp weather late at the end of April and beginning of May could have hurt late pickers in Central Otago, but most of the fruit was in by then.

I was especially impressed this year by the number of vibrant and varietally accurate pinots I tasted in the $30-and-under range. The same goes for sauvignon blanc in the $20 range. As there are fewer consumers willing to pay up for a bottle of wine in this scary economy, pricing of these wines is extremely competitive, making for a favorable environment for those who are still buying.