Dunne on wine: New Zealand's hills are home to Beautiful

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

In wine circles over the past two decades, New Zealand has become synonymous with sauvignon blanc. Americans have embraced the pungent and zesty sauvignon blancs from the island nation so enthusiastically that growers and vintners in the United States have scrambled to emulate its fresh and racy style.

But New Zealand's wine trade isn't a one-trick pony. While the nation's wine industry is young – the first sauvignon blanc was made in commercial quantities only in 1980 – it is rapidly diversifying. Its frisky chardonnays and bright pinot noirs have generated buzz abroad over the past decade.

And now New Zealand farmers and winemakers are talking up what they like to call "the aromatics" – gewurztraminer, pinot gris and riesling, all white wines with distinctive smells, vivid fruit and refreshing acidity when made attentively, as they tend to be in New Zealand.

While the country's pinot gris especially is finding a market abroad, accounting for two-thirds of the aromatics being exported, wine enthusiasts also are developing a fondness for New Zealand riesling, which accounts for a fourth of the exported aromatics.

To encourage more understanding of the nation's rieslings, the trade group New Zealand Winegrowers conducted a seminar on the varietal in San Francisco in May. Participants sat down to 12 examples of New Zealand riesling, two each from five different regions, and two dessert-style rieslings.

They showed immediately why they qualified for membership with the other "aromatics." Almost without exception, their aromas were pronounced, often evocative of peaches, occasionally of petrol. Their overall styling ranged from lithe, stony and limey to rich, vigorous and persistent.

At the outset, moderator Chuck Hayward, the New Zealand wine buyer for Oakland-based internet wine retailer JJ Buckley, noted that "a lot of experimentation" still characterizes development of riesling on the islands, where it has been grown substantially only since the 1980s, though evidence of the varietal in the country can be traced to the 1800s.

Experimentation with riesling is at its most robust, Hayward indicated, in the Canterbury and Waipara appellations just outside Christchurch on the South Island. Soils in the area range from alluvial silt over gravel to chalky loams often rich in limestone, while the climate includes long, dry, sunny and relatively cool summers. About a third of New Zealand's riesling is grown in Canterbury and Waipara.

The trial-and-error under way in Canterbury and Waipara can produce some eccentric results, as shown by one of the wines poured from the region, the Pegasus Bay Bel Canto 2009 Canterbury Waipara Valley Riesling. It's a riesling so warm, husky and complicated that in a blind tasting it might be mistaken for a traditionally styled California chardonnay.

The other wine from the region, on the other hand, the Mt. Beautiful Wines 2009 North Canterbury Riesling, represented a classic take on the varietal. It's all willowy grace, its suggestions of apricot, apple and lime running broad and deep. I later tasted it in two other settings, finding notes of flowers and petrol in the smell perfectly harmonious, its traces of residual sugar balanced with an invigorating acidity. At an outdoor play or concert in the dwindling days of summer, this is the wine to stick in the picnic basket.

Named after a landmark peak in the Cheviot Hills district of North Canterbury, Mt. Beautiful Wines was founded in 2004 by David and Leigh Teece.

A native New Zealander, David Teece is a business entrepreneur with a portfolio of various economic interests. He's also the Tusher professor of global business at the University of California, Berkeley. Leigh Teece, a native Californian, worked in venture capital and international banking before devoting herself to rearing four children, pursuing philanthropic interests and pioneering grape growing and winemaking at Cheviot Hills.

They planted their first vines in 2004 and harvested their first grapes in 2007. They're banking mostly on sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, with just 5 percent of their first 70 hectares (173 acres) planted to riesling. Given the authority of their 2009 riesling, they might want to reconsider that ratio.

Mt. Beautiful Wines 2009 North Canterbury Riesling

By the numbers: 12.5 percent alcohol; 1,000 cases, of which 500 have been imported to California; $18.

Context: Off-dry, the riesling can be sipped as an aperitif or paired with Asian dishes that haven't been seasoned too assertively, milder Indian dishes and sushi. It's also popular with oysters at Hog Island Oyster Co. in San Francisco.

Availability: In the Sacramento region, the wine is carried by Nugget Markets, Capitol Cellars, Corti Brothers and Total Wines and More. It also is available at the restaurants Grange and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

More information:. Visit the winery's website, www.mtbeautiful.co.nz.

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