Like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Don’t Miss Out on These Other Great Kiwi Wines

BLANC SLATE If you hear New Zealand and immediately think Sauvignon Blanc, it’s time you expanded your horizons.
BLANC SLATE If you hear New Zealand and immediately think Sauvignon Blanc, it’s time you expanded your horizons.


Sauvignon Blanc dominates sales of New Zealand wine stateside. But anyone interested in excellent value should seek out these Kiwi Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, sparkling rosés and more.

RECENTLY I asked the manager of a large wine store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, “Do you have any New Zealand wines that aren’t Sauvignon Blanc?" The answer was no.

I wasn’t surprised. After all, this variety accounts for the vast majority (about 89%) of New Zealand’s wine exports, and almost five times more Sauvignon Blanc than Pinot Noir, the country’s second-most-popular grape, is currently planted there. While New Zealand producers turn out plenty of wines made from other grapes—Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, to name a few—not many show up in American wine stores.

I couldn’t help but wonder: What would I find if I went looking for New Zealand wines other than Sauvignon Blanc? In stores that stocked New Zealand Non-Sauvignon Blancs—NZNSB, as I decided to call them—I found two or three at most. Only two stores, both in New Jersey, stocked more: my local Total Wine & More, in West Orange, and Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, in Wayne.

Thanks to Gary’s corporate wine buyer Gillian Sciaretta, the store features 12 NZNSB wines (along with 43 New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs). When Sciaretta assumed buying duties late last year, she tasted an array of New Zealand wines and was impressed with their uniform high quality. Indeed, she thought quite a few “over delivered" for the price and was particularly impressed by New Zealand Pinot Noirs.

I found even more NZNSBs at Total Wine & More, though I needed the assistance of a sales associate to ferret them out. There was no New Zealand section as such; instead, New Zealand Pinot Gris and Chardonnays were shelved with Chardonnays and Pinot Gris from other countries, and New Zealand sparkling rosés were shelved with sparkling wines from around the world.

“Non-Sauvignon Blanc makes up a tiny fraction (a few measly percentage points) of the NZ wine business at Total," said Rodolphe Boulanger, Total Wine & More’s Maryland-based vice president of wine merchandising, in an email. He oversees New World wines, including those from New Zealand, for more than 255 Total Wine & More stores. The largest number of NZNSB wines in Total stores are Pinot Noirs (a distant second to Sauvignon Blancs in sales), followed by rosés and Pinot Gris, a virtual tie for third place, with rosé “a smidge ahead," Boulanger said. This accords with the latest export stats from the New Zealand Winegrowers, which lists Sauvignon Blanc as far and away the largest export followed by Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and rosé.

Boulanger posited that New Zealand winemakers are in some ways victims of their own success: They have done such a good job producing and promoting Sauvignon Blanc that oenophiles have a difficult time considering their other wines.

And yet, as Boulanger noted and my tasting later bore out, Kiwi producers make good to very good Pinot Noirs, good Chardonnays and decent Pinot Gris, not to mention some toothsome sparkling wines and Cabernet blends. I even found an impressive 2019 Riesling, though I wondered if the four-year-old wine was a late release by the winery or had simply languished on the shelf.

That wine, the 2019 Rippon “Rippon" Mature Vine Riesling Lake Wanaka Central Otago ($32), was the sole New Zealand Riesling I found. (Only 1,530 acres of Riesling were planted in New Zealand as of 2022.) It was also the only wine in my tasting closed with a cork, not a screw cap. Marked by a racy acidity with notes of lime zest, this very dry wine was lean but definitely not past its prime.

I found three Pinot Gris bottlings, but two were unbalanced and overly sweet. The 2022 Fern Ridge Hawke’s Bay Pinot Gris ($17), however, was crisp and dry with a pleasant tropical note. The only two Chardonnays I could unearth were from the same producer: Kumeu River Wines. The 2022 Kumeu River Estate Kumeu Chardonnay ($32) was a more complex and powerful wine, sourced from six different vineyard sites, barrel fermented and aged almost a year in barrel. The 2022 Kumeu Village Chardonnay ($20), meanwhile, was lighter and brighter, fermented mostly in stainless steel. While both are well made, I gave the Village bottling the edge, particularly in terms of price/quality ratio.

The lone Cabernet blend I found, the 2018 Te Mata Awatea Cabernets/Merlot Hawke’s Bay ($40), was a polished Bordeaux-style blend, soft and approachable but impressively structured. I shared it with a Bordeaux-loving friend who was astonished to learn it was produced in New Zealand. Te Mata, established in 1896, is arguably New Zealand’s oldest and most famous producer of Cabernet blends. Awatea is the bestselling premium Cabernet blend in its native New Zealand, according to Te Mata CEO and owner Nick Buck. Only 2,400 bottles of its 60,000-bottle production make it to the U.S.

The four Pinot Noirs I purchased were all reasonably priced and well-made, though the 2020 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir Central Otago ($20), marked by crisp red fruit and a lithe profile, impressed me the most in terms of quality and price. Lithe and rather restrained, it’s one of two Pinots produced under the Innocent Bystander label; the other is Australian.

The McBride Sisters Collection Hawke’s Bay Sparkling Brut Rosé NV ($20) was an anomaly in several respects: Although it’s produced in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, the entire production is shipped to the U.S. A juicy, fruity, frothy pink blend of mostly Pinot Noir and a bit of Chardonnay, it was a lot of fun. Sisters Robin McBride and Andréa McBride John grew up in California and New Zealand, respectively, and met later in life. Now they make wines in both countries, under labels including McBride Sisters Collection, SHE Can Wines and Black Girl Magic.

It wasn’t easy to track down the 15 bottles I managed to buy, and the effort required did raise the question: Is it worth trying to find wines imported in such small quantities? Given that oenophiles happily search for rare wines all the time (Burgundy lovers, I’m looking at you), I’d answer yes, especially since the wines I recommend below have such a good price/quality ratio. Perhaps an increased demand for these NZNSBs will mean that more show up on retail store shelves.

OENOFILE / Non-Sauvignon-Blanc Beauties From New Zealand

1. 2022 Kumeu Village Chardonnay, $20. Sourced from vineyards in both the Kumeu and Hawke’s Bay regions of New Zealand’s North Island, this crisp and vibrant Chardonnay is fermented in old French oak and (mostly) stainless steel.

2. 2018 Te Mata Awatea Cabernets/Merlot Hawke’s Bay, $40. This savory Merlot-Cab Franc-Cabernet Sauvignon blend has notes of red and dark fruit and spice. Produced from estate fruit, it’s styled to be approachable in its youth, said Te Mata CEO Nick Buck.

3. 2020 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir Central Otago, $20. Not to be mistaken with the Innocent Bystander Pinot produced in Australia, this one from New Zealand’s Central Otago region is a lithe, juicy red with a brisk acidity and earthy notes, well balanced and food-friendly.

4. 2022 Fern Ridge Hawke’s Bay Pinot Gris, $17. Juicy tropical fruit—these are the three words that come to mind right away to describe this white wine produced in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand. It is also pleasant, uncomplicated, crisp and dry.

5. McBride Sisters Collection Hawke’s Bay Sparkling Brut Rosé NV, $20. The McBride Sisters make wines in both New Zealand and California. This pink sparkler is a juicy, frothy, fun blend grown in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay. The entire production is exported to the U.S.

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