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updated: 11/2/2010 1:41 PM

Youthful New Zealand wines poised for growth

Good Wine

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As New Zealand wines stampede into the suburbs and Chicago, you may think that our "Good Wine" column has given short shrift to Kiwi country. Not so, dear reader.

First, we had to cover 2,000 years of Old World winegrowing in nations such as Italy and Germany; next two centuries in the New World's U.S., Chile and Australia.

So, with New Zealand's winegrowing breakout dated roughly in the 1970s and the bulk of vineyards aged less than a single decade, we figure we're right on schedule.

New Zealand (NZ) lies in the South Pacific, about 1,200 miles southeast of Australia. Wine regions span its two islands and range from 36-degrees North (comparable to Jerez, Spain) to 45-degrees South (Bordeaux, France), the ocean influencing sunny but moderate summers, mild winters and consistently cool nights. In ideal vintages, this translates into long-ripened grapes with vivid fruit flavor balanced by firm acidity.

The vines are toddlers, but are tended by fully-matured winegrowers who boarded the first passenger jets in the 1960s, to work in European wine lands, then bounce back home for the harvest down under. Cath Oates, head of viticulture and winemaking for Mud House met her life-partner in Australia and said "Let's go be flying winemakers."

After stints around the world, both are now stationed in NZ, (he with Maori-owned Tohu Wines), but they keep their flyers' miles high with international business and pleasure.

"He's somewhere in Chicago right now," laughed Cath over our dinner in Lincoln Park, "but we won't see each other until next weekend in Manhattan."

So far, the NZ wine industry is doing everything right. Top-selling Sauvignon Blanc is the focus, followed by Pinot Noir, which enjoyed excellent 2008 and 2009 vintages and an annual 33 percent rise in exports sales.

And unlike established regions, that bear the weight of history, there's a youthful exuberance to NZ winegrowing. Says Oates, "We're so small and young, there's a Team New Zealand feeling. We can all sit in one room and say, 'There's a recession on, it's time to reduce production. And everyone says 'OK.'"

While bottle prices began high, economy of scale has increased the under-$20 category. So, if enthusiasm and quality remain high, you'll see plenty more of NZ wines in this column and probably on your dinner table.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Contact her at food@dailyherald.com.

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