Right now the new 2015 vintage of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is heading to our shores. For many people this taste bud-tingling, citrus-charged, gooseberry and herb-flavoured wine is their natural reviver at the end of the day. It sets up the palate for dinner, it is good to drink on its own and it goes with many of today’s light-styled dishes.
The bad news is that the 2015 vintage was small, around 27 per cent down on the normal harvest, mainly because of cool weather during the flowering period. To counterbalance the lack of quantity, the long hot summer ripened the grapes well and the quality is good though prices may be slightly higher.
It is odd to try and think of a world before New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but there was such a time. Grapes were first planted in the top end of New Zealand’s South Island in 1973 and it took a few years for those gooseberry-fresh flavours to burst on to our palates. Montana was first to the shelves but it was a wine company started by David Hohnen called Cloudy Bay that really hit the headlines. With a combination of high quality wine and clever marketing, Cloudy Bay became the wine that everyone talked about. Not only was the wine fresh and cool, so was the misty, moody label, although it didn’t appear much on wine shop shelves. This was a wine you had to put your name down for and wait for the phone call from your merchant to tell you that it, and your subsequent dinner party had finally arrived.
That was in 1985, and over the last 30 years Cloudy Bay has built on its reputation and key to that has been consistency in its grape sourcing and winemaking. Kevin Judd was in charge of winemaking at Cloudy Bay from the start and he steered the wine from its early days to worldwide icon for 25 years. During that time Cloudy Bay grew from a small operation to one that was part of one of the most prestigious multinational wine and luxury goods corporations in the world.
After 25 years Kevin left to make his own wine, Greywacke, and into his very big shoes stepped Tim Heath. He had already worked within the LVMH corporation for several years and had played understudy to Kevin for five years, so it was a fairly smooth transfer. Certainly the quality of Cloudy Bay wines has stayed high. A few weeks ago I met up with Tim as he toured the UK celebrating 30 years of Cloudy Bay wines and we tasted some of the older vintages he had brought along.
The first thing I noticed was that the 1998 vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was sealed with a cork. Screwcaps had already been around for decades but didn’t come into mainstream use for high- quality wines for several more years. The 1998 vintage Sauvignon still showed classic pure fruit clarity with lemon and buttered toast character. Tasted alongside the newly arrived 2015 vintage, it was clear that the style has evolved over the years. “Those early vintages had more of the fresh, green herbal notes, but with the help of viticulturalist Dr Richard Smart, Cloudy Bay has captured more of the citrus and ripe stone fruit flavours of the grapes. He showed us how to reveal the deliciousness of the Sauvignon Blanc grape,” said Tim. Sourcing grapes for any wine has its challenges, but Cloudy Bay has held on to many of its growers from those early days and is now working to a programme it calls “soft organics”, with open canopy management and under-row ploughing replacing the use of sprays. Surprisingly a tiny proportion of the wines are aged for three months in small and large oak, a process that adds texture and depth of flavour.
Other wines tasted included Te Koko 2012, a wild-fermentation, oak-aged Sauvignon, but even that has evolved. “This used to go through 100 per cent malolactic fermentation but now it is just 20- 25 per cent,” said Tim. The result is a wine with fresher flavours, but still with aromatic stone fruits, lime and layered with spice. This is a complex food wine, hardly suggesting the herbal notes of regular Sauvignon Blanc, and perfectly at ease alongside scallops, lobster and turbot.
As well as a an elegant Chardonnay, a world-class sparkling wine, Pelorus, and a fabulously balanced Late Harvest Riesling (Field & Fawcett, £20.80 for half a bottle), Cloudy Bay now produces two Pinot Noirs. The 2013 Marlborough Pinot (around £29) has savoury strawberry fruit and silky, polished tannins. Te Wahi 2010, from Central Otago, marks a major change for Cloudy Bay, using grapes from outside its home region of Marlborough, to make a wine with deep, cherry fruit with layers of liquorice, spice and just a hint of chocolate (Harvey Nichols £62.50).
After 30 years Cloudy Bay is still at the top of its game, producing quality wines that excite the taste buds. Find them at Harvey Nichols, Field & Fawcett, York Wines, Ake and Humphris and Yorkshire Vintners.