I'd be willing to bet, oh, let's say a ripe kiwi, that you couldn't stick an imaginary knitting needle into the globe at Auckland, through the middle, out the other side and accurately pinpoint where you'd end up. I tried to think of some place evergreen and temperate like New Zealand and missed the bet by a mile -- or 800 miles to be more exact. The answer is southern Spain, near Jerez, which, climatically, is nothing like New Zealand.
Evergreen, temperate New Zealand, whose latitude is moderated by its maritime position, produces sheep, kiwi fruit and rugby players. To this list, let's add wine. The wine industry is not new, but, like our own, major advances since 1960 have led to a growth in exports and, therefore, international publicity.
Talking to Don Maisey of Corbans, largest exporter of New Zealand wines, I had the impression that growers in New Zealand feel the same way about Australia as the growers of Oregon and Washington state feel about California. There are certain wines they can do better than their larger, more famous neighbors. It's the same style of wines: the lighter, more delicate. And, like the growers in our Pacific Northwest, they have difficulty in getting the recognition they consider their due.
Do New Zealand wines merit international recognition? The arrival of mechanical harvesting has done much to improve quality, says Maisey. "Previously we'd been unable to get enough pickers when the grapes were fully ripened. So we'd start picking early, often when the acid level of the grapes was still too high." Now the emphasis is on table wines, especially whites, using grapes known for their fruity style: muller-thurgau, riesling, chenin blanc. Generally, the wines are fermented out, finishing dry.
Although I have tasted an occasional bottle of McWilliams, which is linked with the McWilliams of Australia, and Montana, the arrival of Corbans was the first opportunity to taste a range of locally available New Zealand wines. The one red, a '79 Cabernet-Pinotage, was not exciting. Light, sharpish, with a hint of the acetone nose for which pinotage is infamous, it faces too much competition from other light reds on our shelves.
The whites were more interesting. The '81 Chenin Blanc is clean and dry, if anything a shade too neutral. The '81 Riesling-Sylvaner (muller-thurgau) is a little fruitier, with the light tingle of modern cold fermentation.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the '80 Liebestraum. The name, the brown bottle and the rustic, Germanic label hinted at a wine designed for sweet-toothed, mass-market appeal. In fact the wine is drier than the packaging -- on the soft side, and finishing medium dry.
All the Corbans' wines are selling around Washington for $4.50 or below, which makes good marketing sense. At that price, they are worth trying. And, if you like them, they are reasonably priced for buying in quantity.