A couple weeks ago, I joined several other writers, sommeliers and buyers at a tasting of New Zealand wine led by the legendary Oz Clarke, the man behind all those famous wine guides. Silly me, I always assume that when I'm in the presence of British wine royalty, I'll hear the usual line about how New Zealand wines have come a long way since Cloudy Bay first surprised the trade with its Sauvignon Blanc 30 years ago, but the Kiwis still need to find their footing. Instead, Clarke delivered one of the most spirited, informed and passionate presentations I've ever heard on New Zealand wine – and that's coming from a guy who's delivered a few of his own. Clarke knew the winemakers, the vineyards, the vintages and all the history between the first emergence of Cloudy Bay and now. He isn't just a wine critic who chimes in on New Zealand whenever it's convenient to do so once or twice a year, as so many of his counterparts do – he's perhaps the only wine critic who's truly gone out of his way to understand and appreciate these wines, and share his enjoyment with everyone else. Moreover, this tasting demonstrated that Clarke is right to be enthusiastic in the here and now. The best New Zealand wines – and, to be fair, we were tasting some of the very best the country has to offer, much as if we were at a Bordeaux tasting that only focused on the first growths – are now truly in a league all their own. And unlike their European counterparts, New Zealand's best wines display fair price tags for the level of quality you get. It might not even be a stretch to say that they're a value.
Allow me to get into specifics, particularly with the red wines (we tasted Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays to start, but anyone into wine already knows that New Zealand easily holds its own with those two grapes). The lineup of Pinot Noirs comprised the 2012 Burn Cottage Central Otago; 2010 Seresin "Sun and Moon" Marlborough; 2011 Felton Road Block 5 Central Otago; 2010 Bell Hill North Canterbury; and 2009 Rippon "Mature Vine" Central Otago. (As a side note, Rippon is, hands-down, the most beautiful vineyard in the world.) Clarke said of these wines that "New Zealand Pinot has been criticized for being too enjoyable, the stuff of which all good suicides are made." I have no idea what that means, but all of these wines not only impressed, they showed distinct, regional character. I posted to Facebook as much, only for my friend and Australia/New Zealand wine expert Chuck Hayward to reply: "Wait [til] you taste the Syrahs!" (He'd tried the wines a few days prior in San Francisco.)
He wasn't kidding. But a brief sidebar, if I may. Another wine writer sitting next to me at the tasting leaned over and asked, "Why do Kiwis always compare themselves to other wine regions, like Burgundy, Sancerre and Bordeaux? You never hear winemakers from other regions doing that."
At first I responded, "Because they're in the middle of the South Pacific, the rest of the world largely ignoring the good work they're doing. But they also trained as winemakers in those places, so it's what they know." I suppose that was probably true, about 10 years ago. But my response should have been: "Because they can. They've earned the right to."
That couldn't have been more true when it came to the Syrahs, which were accompanied by two Bordeaux-style reds...that were, by the way, at $50 per bottle as good as anything from Bordeaux for about $500. (If you don't believe me, check out this one of many wrap-ups from the past several years of blind tastings that New Zealand winery Craggy Range held for MWs, critics and writers, pitting its Cab-Merlot blends against the likes of Petrus, Mouton, Lafite, et al; Craggy's wine came out on top or close to it just about every time, whether the tasting was held for critics in New York, San Francisco or London.) But the Syrahs were truly mind-altering.
Wine writer Peter Hellman, sitting across from me, said, "I remember you telling me a few years ago that Craggy Range Le Sol is one of the world's best wines. I just had a bottle a couple months ago." I've long believed that Le Sol is one one of the world's most under-appreciated wines, and at $100 or so per bottle every bit as good as the $300, $400 and $500 rare treasures from the Northern Rhône. But I said to Peter, after tasting the Syrahs in front of us – the 2010 Bilancia La Collina from Hawke's Bay and the 2010 Trinity Hill "Homage" Hawke's Bay (both crafted by the same winemaker, Warren Gibson) – that they might have surpassed Le Sol. These weren't just the best New Zealand Syrahs, they're undeniably two of the best in the world. Both were stunning, offering explosive, perfumey aromas of fruit, chocolate and black pepper, with incredibly silky, integrated palates. Most importantly, though, you don't have to be a wine nerd to know the instant you sniff or taste these wines that they're truly special, unlike any red wine from anywhere else on the planet.
A Master Sommelier sitting across the room shared her enthusiasm, declaring that she can't wait to get these wines onto the list at her restaurant. But here's the relatively unfortunate part: These wines are very hard to find, neither of them imported to the U.S. in large quantities with any sort of regularity, if at all. They should be, and probably will be soon, though if you see any Hawke's Bay Syrah on the shelf at your local wine shop, you'd be smart to grab it. Not only might you not see it again, you're likely to be tasting one of the world's most incredible wines without spending a small fortune.
That's the reputation that New Zealand wines should have as a whole, actually, and it certainly will be once other critics and writers follow Clarke's example of visiting, exploring and studying the industry's people and places over several years. In the meantime, try and take his and my word for it that New Zealand winemakers are no longer in the shadows cast by other regions; a small sampling of a few wines is all it takes to show that they're casting a very big one of their own.