— For American wine enthusiasts, New Zealand mainly brings to mind lively sauvignon blancs and, to a lesser extent, pinot noirs from this cool-climate region. There is no shortage of either variety in the United States, although in my experience it has been much easier to find satisfying sauvignons than pinot noirs, at least in the moderately priced category.
Wairau River Wines, in the well-known Marlborough region on the north end of New Zealand's South Island, excels at both, as I discovered on tasting the wines this summer. The winery has been in business since 1978, when Phil and Chris Rose planted their first vines on the banks of the Wairau River. After a decade or so of growing grapes for other wineries, they launched their own label in 1991.
I’ve written often about New Zealand sauvignon, including my preference for a slightly softer, less piercing style than many on the market. Not only does Wairau River’s wine fit into this category, it’s one of the top New Zealand sauvignons I’ve tasted recently, a model of balance and elegance.
The 2008, with a bargain price of $15, is still racy enough to make it unmistakably Kiwi sauvignon, with notes of pear and tropical fruits, muted lime and a touch of vanilla. Fermentation and aging are in stainless steel. It can be enjoyed by itself and with goat cheese and other appetizers, shellfish, broiled white fish fillets such as flounder or fluke, and with sushi.
I also enjoyed Wairau’s 2006 “Home Block” Pinot Noir. While the suggested price of $30 may be pushing it for everyday drinking, the wine showed a brightness in the fruit and a complexity that were lacking in some less expensive New Zealand pinots I’ve been tasting.
In pinot noir I am looking for wines with concentrated yet pretty fruit and a delicate disposition over those with power and excessive levels of alcohol and oak. Wairau’s wine has notes of cranberry, blueberry and cherry and is punctuated by an interesting herbal touch. Ten months of aging in French oak barrels leaves a subtle imprint that frames the wine.
New Zealand’s pinot noirs, it seems to me, lie somewhere between the classic, terroir wines of Burgundy and the more opulent fruit style of California. Wairau River offers an excellent example of what they can achieve.
Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.