Decades ago, Cloudy Bay was the first New Zealand wine to hit the headlines when its gooseberry and citrus-charged flavours arrived on our shores, changing the perception of Kiwi wines and establishing an international reputation for Sauvignon Blanc.
Its quality and apparent scarcity meant that this was the wine you had to seek out. Wine merchants would not put it on their shelves, preferring to sell from under the counter to preferred customers. I remember hosting a charity wine tasting at my children’s school when excess bottles of Cloudy Bay, donated by the company, were auctioned off at the end of the evening for large amounts of money and bottles carried away like trophies.
Time has moved on and there are now dozens if not hundreds of quality New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but no-one else has quite managed to harness the anticipation and excitement of the release of a new vintage of a wine that Cloudy Bay enjoyed in those early days.
My sample bottles of the new vintage had been air-freighted to the UK. The main shipment is still on the water, so the 2021 Cloudy Bay will not be on the shelves for a week or so, but when it does arrive your taste buds are in for a treat. It still has that signature flavour profile of lime, passionfruit and freshly cut grass, but over the years as the vines have aged, the flavours have built to become more complex.
“In flavour terms, 2021 is a classic year for Cloudy Bay,” said Jim. “The wine has a clear citrus core with lifted passionfruit and a lot of concentration. And it was certainly a lot easier to make than the 2020 vintage. Last vintage the whole of New Zealand went into lockdown just as harvest started.
“We had students and interns visiting from all across the world, expecting to stay for six weeks of hard work. Apart from all the housing problems and keeping them safe during the pandemic, the lockdown meant that many of them stayed on and have been working here for a whole year.”
Also on the tasting sheet was the 2017 Cloudy Bay, to demonstrate that Sauvignon Blanc is not a new-vintage wonder. These grapes were still on the vines when I was last in New Zealand, and I remember the weather was not as I had expected. I was cold and wore jumpers and a raincoat for much of the trip.
The rain meant that some grapes almost burst and there wasn’t the usual Kiwi sunshine to bring them to the peak of ripeness. Even so, the wine has retained its vitality and style.
But there is bad news on the horizon for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc this year. The amount of wine made in 2021 is down by around 20 to 30 per cent depending on region. Frost, poor flowering and a dry season have cut yields, which is probably why the wines that have been made taste so good.
Quality is exceptional, but the volume is down. This means that there will be a shortage of the cheap brands that have filled many supermarket shelves.
If your favourite wine is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there are several ways you can protect your drinking choices.
The first is to stock up. The 2020 vintage is still on many shelves and it is a top-quality wine. Winemaking was an “essential service” during the pandemic, so work carried on as usual. And despite the general rush to get the latest vintage, that really isn’t necessary. Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc actually improves after a little time in bottle. Those 2021 wines will jump out of the glass at you, but if you wait a while to enjoy them, and continue to drink your 2020 wines, you will get the best flavours from both vintages.
The other choice is to switch countries. New Zealand is not the only nation to have embraced this vibrant, lively style of Sauvignon Blanc. Admittedly it does it very well, but South African, Chilean and even French winemakers have upped their game and are making terrific wines.
Here are some suggestions to help you get through this Sauvignon Blanc crisis...
Klein Street Sauvignon Blanc 2021, South Africa, Morrisons, £6.50: Crisp and zesty fruit with fresh-cut grass and citrus. Terrific value for money.
Villiera Sauvignon Blanc 2021, South Africa, Marks & Spencer, £8: South African winemakers have their eyes on the market share that New Zealand has occupied so comfortably. They are making terrific Sauvignons such as this one with fresh, lively capsicum and tropical fruit and a clean, clear finish.
Villiera estate is a major contributor to the Pebbles Project, which provides healthcare and education for farm workers in the region.
Irresistible Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Chile, Co-op, £8: The cool Leyda Valley, close to the Pacific Ocean, has the perfect climate for Sauvignon as this zesty, green-pepper and lime filled wine shows.
Taste the Difference Riverblock Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Sainsbury’s, £9: Full of ripe passion fruit flavours, backed by zingy lemon and lime freshness. This comes from the state-of-the-art Marisco winery where owner Brent Marris uses falcons to keep foraging birds off the vines.
Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2021, New Zealand, Morrisons, £10: Arriving on the shelves soon, this Sauvignon has impressed me twice at recent tastings. With lifted citrus and white peach flavours and a green-grassy note on the finish, it is one to buy and put away for a month or two to let the flavours expand and settle.
Patient Cottat Anciennes Vignes Sancerre 2020, France, Tesco, £16: When Kiwi Sauvignon increase in price to meet the French classics, then it is time to try them. Crisp and crunchy, more minerals than passionfruit, this is a different, delicious style of Sauvignon Blanc.
Cloudy Bay 2020, Marlborough, New Zealand, Majestic, £22.99 on a mix six deal: This vintage is just hitting its stride, so stock up on a few bottles and tuck them away.