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As recently as five years ago, it was hard to find New Zealand wine in Chicago. Then in the 1990s the country started exporting fine wines aggressively, first to Britain and then to the United States. Since then local retailers have devoted more shelf space not just to the country’s highly praised sauvignon blanc but also to its gewurztraminer, chardonnay, Riesling, pinot noir, and merlot. “We now carry about 45 New Zealand wines from 27 different producers, as opposed to about one third that number five years ago,” says Don Sheil, a wine consultant and buyer at Binny’s Beverage Depot, “and these numbers continue to increase 10 to 20 percent annually.” The number of wineries in New Zealand tripled between 1988 and 1999, and the amount of wine the country has exported to the U.S. has increased nearly fiftyfold over the past decade.

Grapevines were first planted in New Zealand in 1819 by Anglican missionary Samuel Marsden, who wrote about the country’s exceptionally wine-friendly terrain (a mix of forest, mountains, and coastline) and climate (mild). But an early prohibition movement, 19th-century mildew and aphid infestations, and laws prohibiting wine from being sold in stores and restaurants prevented fine wine production from taking off until the 1960s.

Today, New Zealand has laws governing grape juice levels to assure wine quality and has invested considerable amounts of capital in wine making. Disease-prone root stock has been replaced by more resistant varieties. And winemakers have gotten more savvy about vineyard site selection, taking advantage of the coastal climate and long growing season to let grapes ripen evenly and gently, yielding wines with pure, elegant flavors.

Sheil credits the wine’s popularity to its reasonable prices and unusual flavors. “Tastewise, it’s a New World wine, meaning it has more in common with a California wine than a French one,” he says. “But there are differences. Take the sauvignon blanc, for example: In a French sauvignon blanc you’ll taste mineral and stone; in a California one you tend to see tropical fruit or melon notes. Whereas there are citrusy, grapefruit notes–even grassy notes, like wild grass–and gooseberry in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Mostly, you just get a really high-quality wine from New Zealand for not a lot of money–especially with their chardonnays, sauvignon blancs, Rieslings, and pinot noirs. A $15 bottle from New Zealand can go up against anything from California or Oregon, at any price point.”

When Jeff Durbin and Mike Banko opened the small Lakeview wine shop Gourmet Grape last May, they carried just three New Zealand wines. “We poured this Sacred Hill New Zealand sauvignon blanc at the opening party and we still have customers coming back for it,” says Durbin. He’s since added nine new wines to the store’s Kiwi section. “It’s the new trend,” he says. “They’re great wines, and people are starting to realize that.” His best-selling Sacred Hill sauvignon blanc goes for $14 a bottle. “For that price, they don’t have to even think twice,” he says. As more people catch on to Kiwi wine, though, Durbin says, prices will creep up. “That’s already starting to happen.”

The Gourmet Grape holds wine tastings every month–the next ones will be on May 15 and 16 to celebrate the store’s one-year anniversary. The store is at 3530 N. Halsted, 773-388-0942.

On May 3 New Zealand Winegrowers and Chicago Uncorked will host a wine fair at the Museum of Contemporary Art from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. More than 45 wineries will participate. It’s $35 in advance, $45 at the door. For more information call 312-498-5595.

New Zealand Wines Available in the Chicago Area

2003 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Private Bin, $10, Wine Discount Center, 1826 N. Elston, 773-489-3454

2003 Matua Valley Chardonnay, $12, Binny’s Beverage Depot, 213 W. Grand, 312-332-0012

2003 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc, $15, Wine Discount Center

1999 Unison Merlot Blend, $16, Fox & Obel Food Market, 401 E. Illinois, 312-202-0003; Que Syrah Fine Wines, 3726 N. Southport, 773-871-8888

2003 Sacred Hill Sauvignon Blanc, $14, Gourmet Grape

2002 Nga Waka Sauvignon Blanc, $19, Armanetti Liquors, 515 N. Western, 312-226-4600; Sam’s Wine and Spirits, 1720 N. Marcey, 312-664-4394

2003 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, $19, Gourmet Grape

2003 Craggy Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, $22, Knightsbridge Wine Shoppe, 824 Sunset Ridge, Northbrook, 847-498-9300

2002 Huia Pinot Noir, $24-$27, Binny’s; Gourmet Grape; Sam’s

2001 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir, $35, Galleria Liqueurs, 1559 N. Wells, 312-867-7070

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.