I recently had the pleasure of spending an evening with Erica Crawford, the wife and partner of Kim Crawford, one of the winemakers that put New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the map in the late 1990's. (And full disclosure: she paid for dinner). We met up at Roka Akor, a high-end Japanese restaurant with a few locations in the U.S. I can't tell you how novel it is to meet with a wine producer who is confident showing their wines along side Asian food, but for New Zealand and Australian producers this is first nature. American wineries will almost never present their wines with Asian, Mexican or God forbid, vegetarian food.
In the late 1990's several wines from New Zealand were generating shockwaves through the American wine market. Cloudy Bay, Kim Crawford, Nautilus and Villa Maria were all generating tremendous excitement. These were all keenly-focused, unoaked wines that delivered incredible, exotic flavors and ripping acidity. As an industry, we began to accept terms like "gooseberry," and even "cat pee," as a way of understanding the flavor profile of these dynamic southern hemisphere wines that were really a band apart from the wines we knew from France, America and even South America.
I had lunch with Kim Crawford about twelve years ago at Boulevard in San Francisco. I'll never forget his interaction with the server when the server poured him a taste of his own wine to approve the bottle. You see, Kim Crawford had been one of the first winemakers to bottle his wine under screwcap instead of using cork. He was one of many New Zealand and Australian winemakers that had become increasingly frustrated with corks imparting a moldy taste to their wines and opted for a more sanitary, dependable closure.
The server poured him an ounce or so of the wine and sought Kim Crawford's approval. Kim didn't even sniff the wine. He waived his hand and said, "I know it's fine. Go ahead." The server poured the wine, and yeah, the wine was clean, precise, and just what it should be.
I was already somewhat acquainted with screwcaps and wines finished with them, but that meeting really impressed on me the potential of these closures, the dependability of these closures, and how they could also simplify wine service in ways that I genuinely appreciate.
Kiwis made, and continue to make, an indelible impression on the wine world, especially when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc. I judge a few major wine competitions every year, and New Zealand wines often take first prize in the Sauvignon Blanc category. These islands found their jam, and they've capitalized on it very well. They win again and again.
To this day, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of the fastest growing categories in the United States, and New Zealand just took over the third place position for wine imports to the U.S. behind France and Italy.
By Erica Crawford's estimation, there were two key developments that put New Zealand wine on the map.
The first was the mass adoption of screw caps as a substitute for cork. New Zealand (and Australian) winemakers were terminally frustrated with the TCA-tainted corks they were being sold, and both countries decided to move to screw caps as a more dependable closure. Kim Crawford was one of the leaders of that trend. "It gave us a tremendous, ridiculous amount of press," explained Crawford.
The second big deal for New Zealand wine, said Crawford, is the making of Lord of the Rings. Those Peter Jackson films released in the early 2000's put New Zealand on the map, especially for Americans who might have had a hard time finding the island on a map before that.
Kim and Erica Crawford sold out the Kim Crawford brand to Vincor in 2003, when they received an offer that was too good to turn down. The label was then re-sold to Constellation in 2006, and continues to grow steadily.
So, what did Kim and Erica Crawford do after they sold their brand, rode out a non-compete agreement and decided to focus on the next big thing? Loveblock.
They held onto a few key vineyards, focused on organic and biodynamic growing techniques, downsized their vision, tried to design a more plush version of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, expanded into Pinot Noir, worked on engineering some serious Pinot Gris, made some sweet wines aimed at the Japanese market, and generally just endeavored to move forward and not do the same damn thing again.
As Erica says of the cliche'd gooseberry-and-cat-pee smelling Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, "You can only drink so much of it," Loveblock's Sauvignon Blanc is comparatively elaborate, complicated, and more indicative of some of the finer examples of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the market these days.
The result is their new brand -- the one they call Loveblock, and the wines are really good. And they're not just the same kind of thing you're used to from New Zealand.
First we tried two vintages of Pinot Gris, both very interesting and showing some real vintage differences. In both cases the Pinot Gris was impressive. Style-wise, the wines were less sweet than what you might expect from Alsace, deeper than most Italian expressions, and probably fleshier than the current racy style that has become prevalent in Oregon. I fully approve of the style that Oregon is championing lately, but NZ has long shown an aptitude for top-notch Pinot Gris production.
Loveblock 2013 Pinot Gris Marlborough ($25) I really enjoyed this wine. It has a kiss of ginger on the nose, and is generally very flavorful with luscious apricot, lemon curd notes. Great length and acidity without a lot of residual sugar. A few years in the bottle has rounded out this white nicely. (93 Points)
Loveblock 2014 Pinot Gris Marlborough ($25) Here the residual sugar is a bit higher and the acid could be notched up, but there's so much class to the fruit. Candied lime, minerality, good structure, stone fruit and ginger elements are all there. This fruit comes from a hilltop site and is organically grown. (92 Points)
Loveblock 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($22) This Sauvignon Blanc is profoundly more layered and generous than you might expect from your everyday NZ Sauvignon Blanc. It comes from three vineyards, two in the Awatere Valley, quite possibly the best site for this grape in New Zealand. Then the Crawfords season it with small amounts of Arneis, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. It's spicy, super aromatic ,with tons of flavor. It has kaffir lime leaf, gooseberry, Juicy Fruit gum, passion fruit, alfalfa aromas, and tons of texture as well as a subtle, flinty minerality. It's a fascinating concoction, it tastes great, and is arguably more akin to a California Sauvingon Blanc than anything from New Zealand or France. I kinda wish it had a little more cut and authority to it, but you know what, it's damn good. (92 Points)
Loveblock 2013 Pinot Noir Central Otago, New Zealand ($30) The grapes for this wine come from the Loveblock-owned Someone's Darling Vineyard in Bendigo, Central Otago, planted to a mix of a few Burgundian clones of Pinot Noir as well as Abel clone grapes, one of the earliest iterations of the grape imported to New Zealand. I'm not really sure about the origins of that Abel clone, and I'm not sure the Kiwis are either. The wine shows a really nice mix of red and black fruit, it's not over-complicated and has great acidity. I mostly pick up currant and blackberry fruit. Everything seems sensible and well-proportioned. (90 Points)