The host kept his hand over the label as he poured a glass of chenin blanc. "I think you'll like this," he said, and I did. It was a lovely straw color with a floral bouquet and a crisp finish. It seemed too dry and lively for a Loire wine; I guessed that it was Californian. Wrong. It came from New Zealand's Tolaga Bay, made by Corbans. At only $4 a bottle it was clearly a bargain. New Zealand is a relative newcomer to wine production, but the prospects are very good. Temperature, moisture and sunshine vary considerably within a small area, and matching microclimates with grape varieties is still going on there, which lends some excitement to the country's developing vineyards. Those areas now in production offer well- made wines often more competitively priced here than our own or the European competition. Their quality and variety will surprise you.
Grapes were planted in New Zealand in the early 19th century, but European varietals were first introduced on a large scale almost 100 years later. Phylloxera, the plant louse, destroyed most of them. Growers tore out what was left and replaced them with hybrids developed to withstand phylloxera but often lacking the charm and complexity of the traditional wine grapes.
That was not a boost to New Zealand's internal comsumption; neither was the fact that New Zealanders liked their beer. Many considered wine a waste of time, even a kind of social stigma, being associated with latter-day Dalmatian and Lebanese emigrants who pioneered New Zealand's wine industry. Most of the wine was fortified, covering its defects, giving it an added kick and earning the dubious characterization "dally plonk." Added to these impediments was New Zealand's prohibitionist sentiment.
After World War II, varietal grapes were planted on increasing acreage in Auckland, Hawke Bay on North Island, Waikato and Poverty Bay near Gisborne. More recently, South Island has attracted growers at Marlborough and Canterbury. There is still no absolute agreement on which grapes are best for each region.
A lot of Muller-Thurgau -- called riesling sylvaner in New Zealand -- flourishes, but the more interesting whites are made from chardonnay, gewurztraminer and real riesling, all of which have won medals at international tastings, as has cabernet sauvignon from Hawke Bay.
Hawke Bay seems to have the best potential, with plenty of sun, well-drained soils and a source of irrigation from the mountains.
"New Zealand's natural gift," writes Hugh Johnson, "is what the wine makers of Australia and California are constantly striving for: the growing conditions that give slowly ripened, highly aromatic rather than superripe grapes." In other words, delicacy rather than power.
Corbans wines are those most widely available here. Other than the chenin blanc, Corbans offers an interesting '80 blanc de pinot noir from the Henderson Valley oddly described on the label as "a classic, dry white Burgundy style, round and full-flavored." In fact there is nothing classic or white about it. Golden orange is the color, the taste German and off-dry.
The '81 riesling sylvaner also owes much to the Rhine influence -- it's a pleasant, floral wine and, well-chilled, a good aperitif for a warm spring evening.