New Zealand's ocean-influenced climate--markedly cooler than that of its neighbor Australia--yields wines with admirable fruit intensity and crisp acidity. Fully two-thirds of New Zealand's wine production is white, and more than half of the wine it ships to America is Sauvignon Blanc. The U.S. market has developed a major thirst for these juicy, fresh New Zealand Sauvignons, which are mostly free of oak influence. But New Zealand Pinot Noir, too, is growing rapidly in popularity here, thanks in large part to the emergence of the Central Otago growing region, which has exploded onto the world wine scene in the past five or six years with some stunning, fruit-driven Pinots.
High labor costs, considerable recent investment in frost-protection measures and the strong New Zealand dollar are just three of the reasons why the average bottle of New Zealand wine is relatively high--significantly higher, for example, than the average bottle from Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile, and Argentina. There's virtually no dirt-cheap wine produced in New Zealand. On the other hand, very little New Zealand wine sells for more than $40--a handful of bottlings of Bordeaux varieties or Pinot Noir--and white wine prices are mostly moderate.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.