In the wine world at least, New Zealand is something like the little engine that could, resolutely pushing its winemaking standards, production, and profile ever upwards. Last fall, the editors of Decanter magazine — required reading for U.K. wine snobs — gave out their annual World Wine Awards and for the first time, the best Pinot Noir award did not go to a Burgundy from France. Instead, the winner was the 2005 Bald Hills Bannockburn from Central Otago, New Zealand's southernmost wine region. Big news — not just because France was bested, but because scrappy little New Zealand did the besting.
New Zealand Pinots do earn consistently high marks from critics, as do the country's sparkling wines, which are often a Pinot-Chardonnay blend. But both can be hard to come by for under $10. Better, then, to sample wine made from the country's most-planted varietal, Sauvignon Blanc — with which New Zealand has earned its reputation on the international winemaking scene over the last several years. Marlborough, New Zealand's leading wine region and the word to look for when selecting a budget Sauvignon Blanc, is home to all three wineries represented in this week's tasting.
Our Token Winemaker had high praise for the 2006 Whitecliff Sacred Hill Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($9.99), with its pungent aroma of asparagus and tropical fruits like mango and papaya. He found the Whitecliff just a little too heavily vegetal, but still liked the taste. This was my favorite, too — I found the bouquet strongly stemmy, reminiscent of deadheaded flowers, with flavors of honey and orange blossoms. A mellow white great for drinking on its own.
We all smelled hay in the 2006 Brancott Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($8.99), along with — once again — asparagus (but overcooked this time). To me, the Brancott had a certain barnyard mustiness that didn't exactly invite a second sniff, let alone a sip, but its defenders praised its nice acid and body.
New Zealand has been ahead of the curve in embracing screwcaps on wine bottles — so much so that in 2001 a group of winemakers established an organization called the Screwcap Initiative to aid and promote the technology both at home and in export markets. We were therefore surprised to see the cork closure on the 2006 Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($7.99). This one had a powerful aroma that I loved — lemony, with a little peach and apricot and a tart, citrusy taste that veered a little too close to sour in the finish. "Reminds me of drinking fermented pineapple juice in Mexico," grumbled one taster, but I defended the Monkey Bay as a nice crisp white that packs a punch — great for pairing with a heavily seasoned poultry dish.