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New Zealand's Best Not Yet Served : Market: The country is emerging as the next low-cost, high-quality wine of choice for Americans. Sauvignon Blanc is expected to be its specialty.

October 05, 1994|From Reuters

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — This nation's young wine industry has sprung from anonymity to international acclaim in the space of a generation, and experts believe the best is yet to come.

Following on the surge of imports from Australia, New Zealand wines are scheduled to become the newest low-cost, high-quality reds and whites to grace American tables.

It is a story that began with European immigrants, who felt it was possible to grow more than grass on South Pacific shores spanning latitudes as broad as North Germany to North Africa.

The early days featured plantings of Muller Thurgau grapes sold in cardboard boxes to a protected domestic market.

Boom in the 1970s turned to bust in the 1980s before a deregulated industry emerged, focused on exports of good value wines, mostly to Britain.

The star variety now is Sauvignon Blanc, described by one enthusiastic British wine retailer as "like bungee-jumping into a bottomless pit full of gooseberry leaves while strapped to (Australian supermodel) Elle Macpherson."

The retailer liked it.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a bright, straw-colored drop with lively acidity and a herbaceous character. North Island versions have a melon or honeysuckle flavor, and they are expected to sell in U.S. wine stores for $7.75 to $15.50 a bottle.

The New Zealand wine industry has come from nowhere in 25 years to challenge the established wisdom of what is good in the wine world, but how good is New Zealand wine?

"Twenty years ago we were at the top of the fourth division or bottom of the third division and we are now probably in the premier division," John Buck, chairman of the Wine Institute of New Zealand, told Reuters.

"We are not in the top four, but we're closing in."

The ingredients for New Zealand wine's growing respect were a good and varied climate, a lack of history that freed winemakers from tradition, food technology skills borrowed from the dairy industry and a willingness to experiment.

But Buck believes most commentators still miss the point about New Zealand wine.

"Sauvignon Blanc," he said, "is a stepping stone in an evolving wine industry. . . . If you are brutally honest, it is a cash-generator."

He said it was like a white Beaujolais or up-market Muller Thurgau, with a short maturation period, short turnaround and high yields. It was appropriate for a young industry.

"The wineries who have done well out of it are now investing in cabernet and pinot-based reds and methode champenoise ," Buck said.

"That is where the next wave of quality will come from, as early as the 1995 vintage."

Wine writer Vic Williams sees the bubble eventually bursting worldwide on Sauvignon Blanc, with the future lying in grapes like Riesling.

"It (Riesling) is perceived as being slightly sweet, but in New Zealand we seem to be able to balance that with enough acid to give it zing in your mouth," he said.

In the meantime, however, poor yields in recent years mean New Zealand is struggling to meet demand for its wine.

New Zealand wine exports rose sevenfold between 1987 and 1993 and the industry is seeking a further threefold increase to NZ$100 million ($60 million) in value by the year 2000.

Exports now account for nearly 21% of total wine production.

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