Get ready to place your bets: Twenty years from now, what will be the country outside of Europe making the best wine? The list of serious contenders includes only six countries, including Argentina, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the United States. All have their strengths. Any one of them could conceivably end up on top. However, my wager is riding on New Zealand.

When I first published this hunch in the spring of 2000, it was based on hundreds of wines that I judged at a competition in New Zealand. Relatively few of those wines were available in North America at the time, but in the interim many have found importers and distributors here. So, whether my hunch strikes you as intriguing or dubious or downright loony, it is now possible for you to come to your own conclusions.

We're talking about a "hunch" here because things are changing so rapidly in all six countries that future outcomes are impossible to predict with any certainty. Nevertheless, we're certainly not just shooting in the dark. If we look not ahead but backward over 20 years, there is little doubt that the pace of improvement has been more rapid in New Zealand than in any of the five other countries. The improvements are striking in several distinct senses: New Zealand's best wines have become much better; outstanding wines are being made from many more grapes; and many more producers are now making wines that compete for top honors.

Despite a small population and a relatively limited land mass, New Zealand has the right kind of people and geography to act as a giant-killer when it comes to wine. The industry is well organized, unusually cooperative, and marked by a spirit of openness and innovation. The winegrowing regions combine brilliant sunshine and relatively cool temperatures, enabling growers to craft wines with the intense fruitiness associated with the New World but also the finesse and structure of bottlings from the Old World.

The wines recommended below will show the grounds for my enthusiasm. While they may not take you all the way to betting with me on a country that has 20 times as many sheep as people, they will at least make you very unwilling to bet against the Kiwis. Wines are listed in order of preference within categories, with regions of origin and approximate prices indicated in parentheses. Tasting notes are provided here for the top Pinot Noirs, and notes for other wines will appear at the top of the online show today at noon.