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NZ Sauvignon Blanc, First Pinks, Carmen of Chile

New Zealand sauvignon blanc has joined the mainstream. This we know because a customer walked into an LCBO store in Kingston recently and asked the Product Consultant, “Have you got that stuff called Cat Piss on a Hot Tin Roof? Of course, the befuddled shopper was really after Coopers Creek Cat Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, the presumably much tastier $14.00 NZ sauvignon named for two of this grape’s more common descriptors.

Anyone attending the New Zealand wine fair Tuesday at the Design Exchange, and/or partaking in Saturday’s New Zealand release at Vintages stores, will also know Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is mainstream. 11 sauvignons are hitting the shelves in one onslaught, and on scrutiny at three different tastings of this crew, I have come to a couple of conclusions. First, the quality is very high across the board, perhaps due to the 2005 vintage, ageing vineyards and more experienced winemakers. Second, there is real stylistic diversity emerging within the genre. Gone are the days when you can categorize all NZ sauvignons as tasting like cut green peppers, grapefruit or, cats pee on a gooseberry bush.

Nowadays there is more fruit, minerality, structure and finesse in Kiwi ‘savvies’, as local winemakers call them. This is certainly the intent of two Euro-inspired wines—the poised, reserved Clos Henri 2005 Sauvignon Blanc**** ($27.95 Vintages May 27) from a new property in Marlborough by Henri Bourgeois of Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley; and the livelier yet sleek Mount Nelson 2005 Sauvignon Blanc***1/2 ($19.95, Vintages May 27) from a new project owned by Lodovico Antinori of Tuscany in Italy. But neither are as good as the Jackson Estate 2005 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough****1/2 ($19.95 Vintages May 27), a controlled explosion of fresh fruit, citrus, herbs and mineral flavours tightly wound into a harmonious whole. To me, it defines the state of the art with NZ SB in 2006, and, twice with food, it proved that its sense of balance is key. I enjoyed it first with a delicate, summery smoked salmon omelet at Provence Délices in Cabbagetown, then within days had it again with a cold scallop, shrimp and calamari-based salad at Biff’s. In both cases it cruised through the food flavours without altering or being altered, both bracing and embracing at the same time.

The first imported 2005 rosés of the season show up at Vintages on Saturday, heralding a big release of more impressive wines on June 9, with more following through the summer. From South Africa, Delheim 2005 Pinotage Rose*** ($11.95 Vintages May 27) is pale with a lifted strawberry jam, twiggy nose spiked by 9% muscat in the blend, then brisk, tart and dry on the palate—a good quencher. From France, one wonders why the Perrins of the Beaucastel fame in the Rhone would send in Perrin 2004 Rose Reserve*** ($13.95, Vintages May 27) instead of the 2005, but it is holding well, with deep colour, youthful plummy-berry fruit set in a fairly substantial frame, finishing dry. Same question to the importers of Domaine Lafond Roc L’Epine 2004 Tavel Rose** ($16.95, Vintages May 27), of which two bottles showed trace musty character that I believe is cork-related. Not ruinous and there is good weight and structure but there ought to be a law that all rosé, with its delicate aromatics, should be in screwcap.

I recently tried two new LCBO general list vintages from Carmen of Chile, and I rush to tell you both are excellent value, and both are from the Casablanca Valley that catches cooling oceanic influences. Carmen 2004 Merlot Reserve**** ($16.95 LCBO) is surprisingly poised and balanced given 14% alcohol, with perfectly ripened berry fruit set seamlessly in tea, earth and barrel nuances. A bit youthfully tannic so stick a few bottles away for about a year. Very classy. Carmen 2005 Chardonnay***1/2 ($9.95 LCBO) is amazing value, with intriguing pineapple and fresh dill notes and background oak spice from 30% barrel fermentation. Surprising structure for ten bucks, and a great summer aperitif wine while the salmon is grilling.

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