Outstanding quality and lower quantities characterize the 2000 vintage in New Zealand. The country's hallmark Sauvignon Blanc and very promising Pinot Noir varieties in particular have benefited from the difficult growing conditions.

After a slow start to the growing season, with unseasonably cool weather, a hot and relatively sunny March helped the smaller than normal berries to ripen, so harvest took place at the normal time.

The fact that the weather was less damaging than might have been expected can be attributed to improved viticulture methods in New Zealand. As the main cool-climate wine producer in the New World, New Zealand is well geared towards achieving excellent results in cooler conditions.

Despite the adverse weather, the country's leading wine producer, Montana Wines, parent company of Brancott Vineyards, reported a crop that was 9% higher than that of 1999. The company also reported a significant shift towards high-quality varietal grapes.

These positive developments were largely due to the company's continuing investment in new vineyards over recent years. It is expected that the growth in Brancott Vineyards' quality grape resource will accelerate further over the next three vintages, as new plantings in Marlborough, Gisborne and Hawke's Bay come into crop.

Cold climatic conditions at the time of flowering meant that this year's Sauvignon Blanc crop was well down on expectations. The quality, however, is expected to be exceptional, with the zingy acids and herbaceousness that have made New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc a worldwide favorite.

Likewise, this year's Pinot Noir could be the best ever. This is the result of smaller berries that produced great concentration, ripe tannins and excellent balance. The wines are expected to be intense, with soft, fine tannins -- further boosting an exciting variety that seems set to equal or surpass the success of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Marlborough

For the first time in 20 years Marlborough has had back-to-back La Nina seasons. This weather pattern brings easterly rather than westerly winds, more cloud cover and a slight increase in rainfall. This year saw cool, overcast conditions for much of the growing season, with cloudy weather in late October and November affecting the flowering and fruit-set of most varieties.

Slightly cooler than average conditions over the harvest months allowed the grapes to ripen with little disease pressure. Harvest started at the beginning of March with the hand-picking of Pinot Noir. Later-ripening varieties have been up to a week behind last year. This extended ripening period has allowed excellent development of varietal character in varieties such as Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

The flavor concentration, fullness and freshness of the Sauvignon Blanc harvested is outstanding. Brancott Vineyards' senior winemaker in Marlborough, Andy Frost, expects that the wines will compare well with the best ever produced. The flavor development in Chardonnay is also extremely pleasing, he says. The quality of Riesling is variable, but the best is superb.

Pinot Noir had an excellent year with great flavor concentration. The quantity of this variety increased substantially as new vineyards came into production. New clones further add to the winemakers' options.

Gisborne

The Gisborne weather over the flowering period was ideal this year, resulting in a good fruit-set compared to previous years. The cool summer that followed produced smaller berries with intense fruit flavors. Despite high rainfall in March, the fruit held up well, especially as there were sufficient drying times between rainy spells.

Harvest began in the second week of February, as normal, but lasted two weeks longer, ending in April. Some Semillon for Sauternes-style wine was left for late harvesting in May. The length that the grapes stayed on the vines allowed for slower ripening and increased flavor development.

Chardonnay, which normally displays exceptional quality in Gisborne, achieved greater ripeness than in recent years. Gewurztraminer yielded a good quantity of fruit that is markedly better than in previous years. On top of that, winemakers are getting a more varied resource that increases their blending options as the vines get older and new ones come into production.

According to Brancott Vineyards' senior winemaker in Gisborne, Steve Voysey, the vintage was far better than the raw climatic data would lead one to expect. This is probably due to the cool nights, which resulted in slower ripening and better flavor balances. The intense fruit flavors promise much for the wines to be produced.

Hawke's Bay

With cooler than normal weather in the early part of the season, the harvest looked like it would start later than normal. However, a hot and dry January and February meant that the season started at the normal time -- the first grapes harvested being Pinot Noir, at the end of February. Harvest ended with Cabernet Sauvignon near the end of April. Some late harvest Semillon was picked in May.

According to Brancott Vineyards' senior winemaker in Hawke's Bay, Tony Prichard, the 2000 harvest was unusual in that the heat and rain data would suggest the vintage shouldn't have been as good as it was. The rain that did fall in the harvesting period had a minimal effect, mainly due to the cool, southerly conditions that accompanied it. So the grapes were harvested in great condition.

Almost all the Chardonnay harvested achieved extremely high levels of ripeness. The fruit was also remarkably clean. The Merlot had smaller berries than normal, resulting in wines with concentrated flavors and a huge amount of structure.

But the variety that performed best was probably Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite the cool conditions, this variety is totally free of green, herbaceous characters, having achieved full, ripe flavors. Particularly pleasing was the first crop from the new Montana Terraces vineyard. The succulent, soft and fleshy fruit is good enough to go into the very top wines produced by Brancott Vineyards in Hawke's Bay.

The other new blocks that came into production also delivered fruit of great quality.

All in all the winemakers are very pleased with the quality of the wine they have to work with.

The Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines Company, a division of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., with principal offices in San Mateo and Napa Valley, California and New York City, produces and markets the wines of Sterling Vineyards, Tessera, The Monterey Vineyard and the sparkling wines of Mumm Cuvee Napa, in addition to Barton & Guestier. The company is the exclusive U.S. importer of G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouet Champagnes, Brancott Vineyards from New Zealand, San Telmo from Argentina and Sandeman Ports and Sherries; and is the largest importer of classified Bordeaux in the United States. The portfolio is completed by Dominus in the Napa Valley, a collection of Burgundy estate-bottled wines, F.E. Trimbach wines from Alsace, Castello d'Albola in Chianti, and several other European wines and spirits.