For many wine drinkers, New Zealand Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs from Cloudy Bay have become as familiar as any Australian Shiraz. Indeed, Americans are drinking New Zealand wine at a rate of about a million cases a year. Lesser known, though, are the country's handful of boutique vineyards producing top-notch wines in extremely small quantities. Serious oenophiles have taken to these artisanal vintages so enthusiastically, there are now waiting lists, shortages, and reports of more than a few tantrums. So what makes these wines so special?
THE MUST-HAVE Pinot Noir ($43)
Dry River is New Zealand's best-known cult wine. People share it with friends—by the thimbleful. The small vineyard in Martinborough produces consistently top-rated varieties across the board, which it releases in just 2,500 to 3,000 cases every year to buyers on a special mail-order A-list. (There's also a B-list of folks who get access to a spring release of just a few varieties—that's our spring, their fall. But good luck getting on either list; a space only opens up if someone drops off or the vineyard yields a large harvest.) Winemaker Neil McCallum, an Oxford-trained chemist, and his crew put unusual care into tending the vineyard, removing hundreds of thousands of leaves by hand to make sure the grapes get the proper amount of sunlight. The direct sun, says McCallum, makes the flavor more concentrated.
TIP Dry River has a new San Francisco-area distributor, RO Imports (www.rowines.com), which hopes to make the wine available soon in the U.S. Or you can try to get on the mail-order list by e-mailing your name and request directly to the vineyard at email@example.com.
THE MUST-HAVE Larose ($83)
Stonyridge makes the Larose, a traditional Bordeaux-style wine, in such small quantities that even people on a special en primeur mailing list can't necessarily get all they want. Grown on the north-facing slopes of the beautiful Waiheke Island, a 35-minute boat ride from Auckland, this year's vintage produced only 800 cases; 1,200 were requested.
Stephen White, the winemaker, grows his grapes organically, and five full-time staff look after the vineyard's 15 acres (which also produce a few other varietals in even more modest numbers). That attention and what White calls the "ripe, smooth fruit flavor and velvety tannins" of the Larose have earned it a following. Stonyridge also has an outdoor restaurant serving Italian food made with the vineyard's own olive oil.
TIP Ninety percent of the wine is sold through the en primeur list, which is often closed because of high demand (the rest is sold at the restaurant). Still, White says he might make exceptions for Americans, since he would like more people to try his wine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your request.
THE MUST-HAVE Moutere Chardonnay ($30)
Tim Finn, owner of the family-run Neudorf Vineyards, just outside of Nelson, was recently named New Zealand Winemaker of the Year by Winestate, Australia's answer to Wine Spectator. Last year his Nelson Chardonnay was served at the Lord of the Rings premiere in Wellington. And for good reason: The wines consistently receive strong reviews across all varieties, and its Moutere Chardonnay is considered a New Zealand classic for its high fruit density and savory taste. Every year 600 cases are produced, and they generally sell out within a week.
TIP Neudorf has a mailing list; to get on it, e-mail the vineyard at email@example.com. And there's encouraging news: The vineyard hopes to increase production this year.