Article By: Sandy Block, MW
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was the first wine from New Zealand I ever tasted. And the second and the third. Talk about starting at the top! Not that I'd heard of the now iconic winery or even that I could differentiate anything more about New Zealand as a winemaking country at the time than I knew about, say, Cyprus. But after enough people you respect put a bottle in your hands and say, "You've got to try this," something finally registers. Initially word filtered west from the UK. A British writer commented in 199O that despite the weak 1988 vintage "Cloudy Bay-mania has shown little sign of abating and America hasn't even tasted the stuff yet." (Jane MacQuitty, Australia and New Zealand Wines, 199O.) I certainly found the wine distinctive right off the bat, so much so that it sparked my interest in learning more about the small country that produced it. It would be a few more years, however, before I began to find more than a handful of other New Zealand wines available in all but the most esoteric wine shops. But something about the label, the name and the taste experience of that Sauvignon Blanc stayed with me and whetted my appetite for what would follow.
And that was something marvelous. As more Marlborough district Sauvignon Blancs hit the US market and they grew from being an underground curiosity to something of a mainstream staple, my tasting notes continued to be full of superlatives. I was simply shocked at how thrilling the wines tasted to me across the board, the brand hardly mattered and they became one of my all purpose household drinks. There were variations in aromatic concentration, in flavor nuance, certainly in the finish of the wines from different companies, but their overall structure struck me as consistently racy and appetizing, the general quality level impeccable. Marlborough, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc stood out instantly in blind tastings. The flavors lingered. As I came to understand it this phenomenon was something new and different under the sun, something that fit my own preferences exactly, and the world palate was enriched for it.
The Marlborough story, as I learned and then taught it, was a straightforward one: a coastal region with a moderate to cool climate, long hours of sunshine and a long growing season, stony relatively low fertility soils and basically dry weather translated into unforgettably citric, ripe, crisply acidic, medium-bodied wines of impressive flavor intensity and duration. It was easy to taste the difference and easy to communicate. Not that everyone loved this style as much as I did and do. But as a new paradigm began to emerge for white wine and for Sauvignon Blanc in particular, one that was influenced by the dining side of the gastronomic equation, these uncompromising flavors came into vogue. Sentiment at tastings I would conduct in the mid-199Os ran about 3 to 1 against; today the average group is at least 3 to 1 in favor. But the wines continue to call forth strong emotions. For an era that was beginning to prize dramatic well-defined flavor in its wines, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc came along just in time.
The commercial side of the story has been remarkable as well. From essentially nothing in the mid-197Os, New Zealand's fine wine industry has grown by leaps and bounds to make its considerable impact felt in the UK, and now the US, by focusing on exports. The scenario is not unlike that of neighboring Australia with the point of difference being that New Zealand's vineyards are cooler in climate. Marlborough does not market ripeness, blandness, high extract, full body, or very much red wine, although many of the Pinot Noirs grown there are outstanding. Market success has been all the more noteworthy because the region, and the country's, inroads have come during a time when the industry's major growth trend has been in red wine consumption.
The figures are staggering and they speak for themselves. The first vines planted in Marlborough's modern era went into the ground as recently as 1973. For years afterwards the area continued to be noted more for sheep grazing than viticulture. Outside of a few isolated pockets of wine production there essentially was no wine industry to speak of in New Zealand until about 2O years ago. The country had 12,OOO acres under vine 15 years ago, which grew to 19,OOO acres 1O years ago, 33,OOO acres 5 years ago and about 55,OOO acres today. Exports to the US have skyrocketed from virtually nothing in 1995 (16OO cases), to 278,OOO cases in 2OOO, to over 8OO,OOO cases in 2OO4. This qualifies as something of a major boom.
One of the main reasons for this growth is the aforementioned excitement Marlborough's Sauvignon Blancs have generated, which then translated into greater acceptance for the country as a legitimate producer of other fine wines from other regions which focused on other grape varieties. It's an intriguing story because often wine is marketed from the "bottom up", with moderate prices and great value the main propositions to gaining entry into the all important export markets. Australia, for instance, first made its impact felt as a producer of oaky Chardonnays at giveaway prices. Chile came to market as the low cost provider of flavorful Cabernet Sauvignon. The brands were almost anonymous. In fact, the country and the grape variety constituted the brand. New Zealand's path was different, and Cloudy Bay played a central role in creating the image that paved the way for the other wineries that followed. Just as Angelo Gaja may have opened up the eyes of critics, professionals and ultimately consumers elsewhere to Italy as a producer of potentially world class wines, Cloudy Bay stood out among the opinion makers before much of an industry even existed around it. Marketing itself, and by extension the region and the country, from the top down proved to be a very successful strategy. The wines delivered and enthusiastic consumers in the US and elsewhere voted with their pocketbooks.
Somewhere along the way in this amazing growth story the quality picture of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has, however, become a bit muddled. From a category you could trust blindly to provide outstanding quality, we've reached a point where you must choose carefully. Too many Sauvignon Blancs began to hit the market during the past five years that tasted overly sweet and tropical behind all the acidity, too many that lacked concentration due most likely to over cropping, and too many that were one dimensionally thin and even aggressive in flavor. As the acreage expanded and production kept ratcheting upwards, it may have perhaps been inevitable that there would be some dilution and loss of flavor.
So it was more than reassuring to me to re-connect with Cloudy Bay recently, in the form of a wonderful tasting over lunch with winemaker Eveline Fraser, whose current Sauvignon Blanc release is right on point in relation to the historical style that established the winery's reputation in the first place. The main bit of new informatioin was that Cloudy Bay has finally decided to release its benchmark Sauvignon Blanc in the US market in a screw cap (something it has done in New Zealand for the last three vintages). This is a statement that will resonate with the many consumers who are already convinced of Cloudy Bay's impeccable quality and it will help the industry as a whole to gain broader acceptance for this form of bottle closure. When influential quality leaders with trusted names adopt a particular marketing strategy (in this case enclosing their product in a screw cap-finished bottle to preserve natural wine flavors against the ravages of TCA) it speaks volumes to their many fans and leaves an indelible impression. When consumers encounter other similarly packaged wines with which they may be less familiar, they're less apt to dismiss them because of the positive association they've already formed. As Ms. Fraser indicated, the years of experimentation and research that Cloudy Bay had undertaken showed clearly that quality was preserved more consistently in a screw cap-finished bottle than in one sealed with cork, due to the unavoidably high incidence of cork taint. The wines were fresher and more consistent.
The Wairau Valley, the Marlborough sub-region that is home to Cloudy Bay's vineyards, is an ideal zone for Sauvignon Blanc because of its long sunny days and cool, dry evenings. Ripening is generally not a problem and the grapes invariably retain strong levels of acidity to balance the sugar. 2OO5 was a lighter vintage in the Wairau in terms of yield. It also developed a bit cooler than average. The flavors of the just released 2OO5 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc reflect this weather pattern. Pale in color, the 1OO% varietal wine has an understated lemon peel, green herb-like aroma. It's less than dramatically fragrant at this stage of its evolution, perhaps a bit more classically styled. There are nuances of flowery herbs and vegetal notes as well. In contrast, the acids are quite vibrant, the wine's first impression on the palate being that of a fresh squeezed, barely ripened grapefruit. If not quite yet brilliant, the flavors are pure, direct and very lingering, with intriguing green fruit accents. This vintage is a bit more restrained than others I have recently tasted, with a cleanliness and purity that is sure to take on more flesh as time progresses.
Quite a contrast was the rare Cloudy Bay "Te Koko" Sauvignon Blanc, 2OO2. This was the biggest surprise of the tasting to me because I'd never seen a bottle before. Also pure Sauvignon, it's fermented with natural yeasts and aged for 18 months in barrel, in contrast to the exclusively stainless steel "high tech" treatment of the other Sauvignon Blanc. This was clearly apparent in the deeper color, smoky/earthy aroma and rounder creamier texture of the wine. The Te Koko, which translates roughly to Cloudy Bay in Maori, is a lovely wine with smooth rounded edges. It's a completely different take on Sauvignon Blanc. Perhaps Graves-like in inspiration, it's fleshy and firmly structured, with a penetrating core of lemony acidity, but the flavors are also accented with vanilla, white pepper and toasted grains. Interestingly the wine does not have more intensity than the regular bottling, it's just an alternative interpretation. One harder, I might add, to pull off. Sauvignon Blancs are attractive to me mainly for the brashness of their flavors. Including some Semillon in the mix has a tendency to broaden the range of fruits you experience, enhance texture and refine the style. Te Koko is delicious and interesting to taste because it has all the appeal of a fine barrel-aged Bordeaux but it's pure Sauvignon. At first blush it has more in common with Sauvingon Blancs from warmer climates, such as the rounder textured wines produced in Hawkes Bay, several hundred miles north, but the vibrancy of the cooler climate Marlborough fruit is undeniably evident underneath.
But just as New Zealand is not only a Sauvignon Blanc producer, Cloudy Bay is also not a one-varietal wonder. Although overseas demand has increased Sauvignon Blanc acreage to the point where it is now the country's most planted variety, Chardonnay is also grown there in abundance. As with Sauvignon Blanc, our market is most familiar with the "Marlborough style", which is leaner and perhaps more finely aromatic, with peach and apple blossom notes dominant, but there are outstanding Chardonnays grown on the North Island that have a richer feel on the palate. Wherever the wine's from, it's rare to encounter tropical essences in a New Zealand Chardonnay, and even less common to fault any of the wines for acid deficiency or heaviness. There is fruit in profusion, but generally moderate alcohol. Cloudy Bay's 2OO3 is an exemplar of the variety, stylistically somewhere between New World (because of its prominent fruit expression) and Burgundy (because of its finesse and seamless integration of oak and fruit). Aged in French barrels for a year, the buttery, apple-like aroma is focused a bit on the minerally side. The wine is very concentrated. Spring weather that year decimated the Marlborough crop, but the remaining grape bunches ripened slowly and with complex flavors. There are rare hints of pineapple along with an elevated spiciness and caramel-like softness. Acidity, as always, is fresh and prominent. True to the style of other Cloudy Bay Chardonnays I've had over the years, but perhaps a bit nervier in style due to the long cool growing season, this is a fleshy wine that is made in the same traditional artisanal manner as the Te Koko - a large proportion of natural yeasts for fermentation in barrel and aging on the yeast. Perhaps not as distinctively styled as the Sauvignons, this is nonetheless an outstanding Chardonnay.
The one Cloudy Bay red wine I tasted, the 2OO3 Pinot Noir, was as thrilling as the whites. The category has excited me for some time and there are a number of outstanding examples, although the 2OO3 vintage, perhaps again because of the concentration level that the short crop necessitated, is among my favorites. More producers are growing Pinot, and there is a feeling that in the future it might even grow to overtake Sauvignon Blanc as the country's signature grape. Cloudy Bay's rendition is from Marlborough fruit (where almost half of the country's Pinot is planted, the other key region being Central Otago in the far south), but the vineyards are further south than the central Wairau Valley. While acreage has been expanding, Pinot is an even more recent addition to the vineyard mix than Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, and the country's first vines were actually planted, in the Martinborough district on the North Island, as recently as 1984. Cloudy Bay's 2OO3 Pinot is marked by a "Burgundian" earthiness but also a more delicate, slightly floral/vegetal, red fruit perfume. It's somewhat silky, with fresh acidity and a lingering spicy berry-like finish. This is a wine that's made according to a combination of modern and traditional production disciplines: de-stemming and pre-fermentation maceration on the grapeskins to extract color and flavor as well as bleeding off of the excess juice, but also fermentation with natural yeasts and manual punching down of the grapeskins. It's polished and smooth and is a good candidate for the cellar.
As New Zealand continues to impact the American market, producing wines that are distinctive and delicious, with bright New World fruit but also food-friendly cool climate structure, it's inevitable that we will embrace other varietals. There are several Rieslings and Gewurztraminers on the market that are exciting to taste and to follow from vintage to vintage. In particular, the former grape seems to me to be establishing a style that is unique: halfway between the austere steeliness of traditional Alsatian renditions and the floral minerality of the Rheingau, with appealing peachy aromas, fresh acids and a sugar level that is poised just below the threshold of perception. In my experience consumers have positive quality associations with New Zealand and have been willing to try most wines produced there (with the exception of Pinot Gris and the red Bordeaux varieties, both of which are hard sells). As the winery that set the wheels in motion, Cloudy Bay continues to be a quality leader. Even if their wines are hard to find they require a special search, if only to find out what the excitement has been all about.