Beyond Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand: New Zealand’s other whites are great deals

April 11, 2014

By Bill St. John Special to Tribune Newspapers

I have heard that the best therapy begins when you say the first thing to come to mind. Because our cups are due a cure for the blahs, let’s have a go.

Say the first grape variety that pops into your head when you read the name of the place. Napa Valley. Cabernet sauvignon, right? The Mosel; riesling, yes?

And the no-brainer for this brain game: New Zealand. Sauvignon blanc.

More than two-thirds of all Kiwi wine, red and white, is sauvignon blanc; it’s a full 83 percent of the country’s wine exports. No wonder it’s the first — often, only — grape variety that we think of when we think of New Zealand.

Sure, those in the know know that these stunningly gorgeous islands in the South Pacific make other wines (pinot noir gets a nod or three), but the light from the white of sauvignon blanc, in particular, tends to blind us from seeing other whites from New Zealand.

Best buy alert: Combine solid winemaking — they prove that with killer sauvignon — with under-the-radar nonsauvignon, and it’s time to visit Deal City for New Zealand riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris and chenin blanc.


Much like those made by their island-cum-continent neighbor, Australia, Kiwi rieslings tend to be dry, though not all are. Riesling is a mere 1 percent of the country’s wine output, but the percentage of stunners that I tasted was close to 100. New Zealand is perfect riesling country: sunny days, cool breezy nights, long dry autumns.

2013 Giesen Riesling: A two-region blend; off-dry, super juicy, Mosel-like and gossamer; such a delicious tease. $13-$15

2012 Rippon Riesling “Mature Vine” Lake Wanaka, Central Otago: Quite dry, lean, but powerful concentration of citrus and minerals; length, length, length. $28

2011 Villa Maria Dry Riesling “Cellar Selection,” Marlborough: Excellent value for ripe stone fruit character, incisive acidity and long flavors; salty food says, “eat me.” $20

2009 Spy Valley Riesling “Envoy,” Marlborough: The electricity you get in whisperingly sweet, tautly crisp German riesling, but here with more sun to embolden flavor; stunning energy. $27

Pinot gris

It’s no surprise to find successful pinot gris near stellar riesling; consider Alsace for the best instance. And like Alsace, New Zealand pinot gris is about depth of flavor and a delicious texture, nothing like over-cropped, lifeless Italian pinot grigio (same grape, different result). Again, samplings showed near-uniform excellence, although only 2 percent of New Zealand wine is pinot gris.

2013 Astrolabe Pinot Gris “Province,” Marlborough: Spice of Alsace, linearity of Trentino, tang of both; nice, zippy close. $17-$20

2012 Greywacke Pinot Gris, Marlborough: A richly rendered style, with yeasty and minerally notes and a super luscious texture you’ll want to slosh around. $25-$27

2012 Wairau River Pinot Gris “Estate,” Marlborough: Accents on inviting aromatics over texture; it just keeps talking, “mint, metal, peach, chamomile, wet rock.” $18

2011 Amisfield Pinot Gris, Central Otago: As chewy and unctuous as a white can be, with lovely stone fruit aromas and tastes; go ahead, have it with meat. $23

2011 Loveblock Pinot Gris, Marlborough: Whiffs of wet white stones atop richly textured peach and lychee character; from some good ol’ vines. $24


By itself, chardonnay is the ultimate blank slate grape; where and how it grows and who makes it into wine are the styluses that carve personality into it. As Michael Brajkovich, winemaker for Kumeu River Wines, puts it, “Chardonnay is the only white variety to deliver complexity and texture based on its various terrains.”

New Zealand is a fine classroom in which to learn this lesson. Its chardonnays are often compared to those from another cool climate chardonnay star, Burgundy, but I would submit that they also share that region’s range of styles as well. The proportion of New Zealand wine that is chardonnay is 9 percent.

2011 Felton Road Chardonnay Bannockburn Vineyard, Central Otago: Toasty, oaky style, with texture and depth from lees stirring, but a Puligny-like line; great value for all the concentration. $26-$30

2010 Kumeu River Chardonnay “Estate,” Kumeu: Big, rich and spicy, concentrated by a cool vintage; delicious length; get a load of this price. $27

Chenin blanc

I couldn’t even find an authoritative source how much (how little) chenin blanc New Zealand produces, but what I tasted from the South Island was so good I was very happy to find it indeed.

2011 Millton Chenin Blanc Te Arai Vineyard, Gisborne: What a terrific wine! Gobs of ripe apple-like fruit just like in a dry Vouvray, with that same chin-dripping juicy texture you get from the combination of persistence of flavor and snappy ending acidity; fantastic. $25

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.