Add New Zealand to Argentina, Australia, Yugoslavia, Cyprus and South Africa -- the countries making a bid for the U.S. wine market. And mark Washington for its East Coast debut.
New Zealanders planted their first vineyards over 150 years ago. Although some world-class, award-winning wines were produced as early as 1908, the industry foundered after the 1920s. But in quality and quantity New Zealand wines are now improving and Washington consumers stand to benefit.
The renaissance started in the late 1960s with the establishment of modern vineyards. Planting of vinifera grape varieties, from which the better European and American wines are made, then began in earnest. At the same time, state-of-the-art wineries were built and graduates of the University of California at Davis joined the ranks of New Zealand winemakers.
The government, too, has begun to encourage the production of quality wines. New Zealand recently passed a labeling law that affects all wines from the 1980 vintage on. Wines sold with a varietal label, such as riesling, must be made only from the grapes of the specific variety. Similarly, vintage-dated bottles may contain wine produced only in the year indicated. Blending with wine from earlier vintages is forbidden.
Six of the seven New Zealand wines at a recent tasting by Les Amis du Vin, Washington chapter, bore geographical names in addition to varietal names and vintage dates. But New Zealand wine laws, unlike French laws, do not yet require that a specified minimum percentage of the wine labeled Te Kauwhata, for example, come from Te Kauwhata vineyards.
New Zealand also produces non-vintage jug wines. These bear unregulated labels such as "chablis" which like their U.S. counterparts, say little about what is in the bottle.
Initially, however, none of New Zealand's jug wines will appear in the Washington market, nor will New Zealand reds -- no loss, since tasting revealed serious flaws in the reds. Instead, the New Zealanders will send us white German-style wines, light, fruity, and low in alcohol, appealing and slightly sweet.
Because prices for the wines were not available, I can't say whether any of them represents good value or how competitive they will be with German wines.
Here are my testing notes in order of preference:
Te Kauwhata Riesling Sylvaner, 1979, by Cooks Wines. The riesling sylvaner is another name for the muller-thurgau grape. This wine had an appealing fruity aroma that reminded me of golden raisins. It tasted very German. Medium dry, it had a medium to light body, was fruity with a touch of flintiness, and had a good balance and a nice, slightly tart finish.
Interestingly, Cooks' labels indicate the picking date of the grapes -- generally in March -- and the bottling date of the wine, as well as the total production time.
Gewurtztraminer, 1979, by Cooks. This wine had a sweet fruity nose with a hint of flora aromas. In the mouth it had good body and was fruity, tart, clean, slightly flinty, offdry with good balance and a tart finish. Though I enjoyed it, it had none of the spiciness typical of a gewurtztraminer.
Te Kauwhata Chenin Blanc, 1979, by Cooks. This chenin blanc had a light, nondescript, fruity aroma with a hint of vanilla. In the mouth it had medium body, with a light, fruity, slightly sweet and slightly nutty, tart flavor.
Marborough Benmorvan Riesling, 1979, by Montana Wines. This riesling had a sweet, fruity aroma similar to golden raisin and grapefruit. The flavor was similar with enough tartness to balance the sweetness. The flavor and body, however, faded rapidly in the mouth.