With their high-quality, relatively affordable wines, New Zealand vintners are proving that screw tops are nothing to scoff at.
There's more to New Zealand than just lamb and "The Lord of the Rings" -- it's also one of the most underrated producers of high-quality bargain wine. That low profile is largely due to how recently vineyards were established there, mostly in the late 1970s. And because the industry is young, it's often quite innovative, especially in one area: The Kiwis have brought excellent wines in screw-top bottles to America.
Early on, New Zealand producers, less prestigious than the French and Italian ones, had to settle for bottom-of-the-barrel cork from suppliers. This meant that their wine often spoiled. And, says New Zealand wine expert Jacob Briars, "our wines are bright, with a purity of flavor, so it was more obvious when they did spoil. Chilean Malbec, for example, has a heavier taste, so you might not notice."
To address the problem, four New Zealand vineyards tried out screw caps in 2000; it was such a success that about 95 percent of wine producers there now shun corking. In addition to spoil-proofing wine, caps make it easier to reseal -- ideal for anyone who doesn't down a bottle in one sitting. It's not surprising then, that vineyards in other countries -- including Austria and even parts of France -- are now embracing screw tops. But contrary to what you might think, the screw-top revolution isn't another sign of our budget-crunched time. Says Briars, when you consider the investment required to switch from corks to screw caps, "caps are more expensive than all but the best corks."
Look for these three consistently outstanding New Zealand vintages
- Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (kimcrawfordwines.co.nz) is the first wine any newbie to New Zealand's vineyards should try. This classic from the Marlborough area on the South Island is "bursting with fresh flavors like passion fruit and cut grass," says Briars -- in the most delicious way, of course.
- Craggy Range Pinot Noir (craggyrange.com) is blended by a mad-scientist-like winemaker who uses grapes grown in small patches all over the country, seeking out the ideal weather and overall conditions for each type of vine. Though New Zealand is best known for its white wines, there is a handful of terrific reds, such as this Pinot.
- Neudorf Chardonnay (neudorf.co.nz) is lighter and less oaky than the typical Chardonnay, making it easy to drink with just about any meal. Anyone who dismisses Chardonnay as too buttery and thick-tasting would be wise to give this one a try.