The World's Best New Zealand Wines

New Zealand's best wine comes from the stony soil of Hawke's Bay.
© Trinity HIll | New Zealand's best wine comes from the stony soil of Hawke's Bay.
What would happen if New Zealand's most famous wine wasn't what it did best?
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Saturday, 21-Nov-2020

When the Spence brothers planted a new variety at their northwest Auckland vineyard back in 1969, they couldn't have imagined what sort of a monster they were creating.

That might sound a little harsh, but I use the word monster in terms of something huge, and what the Spences did was certainly that – in effect, they laid the foundation for the modern New Zealand wine industry, because the vines they put in were the first commercial plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in that country.

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Sauvignon's dominance of the New Zealand wine industry can't be overstated, even though the real momentum came from 750 kilometers (465 miles) south of the Spences' Matua Valley winery, in the unlikely surroundings of Marlborough. Sauvignon accounts for more than 60 percent of all plantings and 850 percent of exports nationally, with the percentages even higher in Marlborough.

Pioneers like Frank Yukich of Montana (now Brancott Estate) and Ernie Hunter and wineries like Cloudy Bay defied the local authorities who said they were mad to waste good grazing and forestry land under grapevines, and created a global phenomenon – Marlborough (and, by extension, New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc.

Rarely has a local style found such a ready global audience. From the mid-1980s, consumers have been enthusiastically swilling New Zealand Sauvignon down in ever-increasing quantities. It has freshness, acidity, purity of fruit and it doesn't cost a fortune, so why wouldn't people like it? The truth is they do – millions of people around the world reach for a bottle of Sauvignon with a funny-sounding name every day.

Except, it would seem, the wine critics.

A gentle criticism

There would appear to be a rather wide gulf between what consumers like and what critics like, at least those international critics that we follow (and more on those anon). Generally, Sauvignon Blanc doesn't rate with critics and the Kiwi version still less; the "best" Sauvignon we list on our database is the Alphonse Mellot Edmond Sancerre and that only gets a 93-point aggregate. It's as though Sauvignon is not deemed to be as worthy, somehow, as, say, Cabernet, or Riesling, or Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, or... well, you get the picture.

To forestall the cries of unfairness from the wine critics and sommeliers out there, I know that there is a difference between popularity and quality (everyone who writes for a living is all too aware of that) and that, just because something is popular, it doesn't automatically follow that it's good. But conversely, just because plenty of people like it, that doesn't mean it isn't good. It's as good an illustration of the growing gap between the consumer and the critics as anything – and we all know who needs the other the most.

Speaking of critics, let's talk about how we arrive at our scores. Wine-Searcher collates scores from a wide range of critics, from influential single palates like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson to publications like Wine Spectator, all adjusted for the 100-point scale. To generate a wine's aggregate score, Wine-Searcher uses a Bayesian methodology to calculate a weighted average, since not all critics are equal. This score is calculated for specific vintages of a wine, as well as across all vintages.

The World's Best New Zealand Wines on Wine-Searcher:

Where's the Sauvignon?

Given the acres of space devoted to Sauvignon Blanc at the start of this story, the obvious talking point is the absence of any Sauvignon on the list. Indeed, the grape doesn't feature among the top 25 wines in New Zealand, which is a huge surprise and another vivid example of how poorly the critics rate that particular wine style. More shockingly, there isn't a Kiwi wine among the top 25 best Sauvignon Blancs, which shows that even when critics turn to Sauvignon, they don't necessarily like Marlborough's take on it.

What the list does emphasize, though, is the diversity of New Zealand's wine output. Despite the massive imbalance between Sauvignon and "the rest" in New Zealand, winemakers aren't simply knocking out the kind of cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers Sauvignons beloved of supermarkets the world over; they are making excellent wines from a broad range of grapes. These wines go from the very traditional – Coleraine, for instance, is a Bordeaux blend, while the grapes that make the Homage were grown from cuttings from the Hermitage vineyard – to the contemporary (New Zealand's best Pinots have long since stopped trying to ape Burgundy), proving that New Zealand wine is far from a one-trick pony.

One other thing to point out is the relatively "low" scores. It's hard to imagine that if the wines above had French labels and heritage that they would be bouncing off a 93-point glass ceiling. However, since the local wine industry is still young in global terms, that is likely to change in the future as more consistently high scores push the aggregates higher.

Then all the industry has to do is get the critics to take Sauvignon seriously...

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