There’s more to Cloudy Bay than a drinkable glass of chilled sauvignon blanc, writes James Suckling
loudy bay isn’t taken seriously by most people, but it should be. I doubt many of the thousands of ice-cold bottles drunk in cool bars are ever consumed with much reverence or thought. The famous sauvignon blanc of New Zealand has become synonymous with white-wine-cocktail chic for many. I am sure it fuels all sorts of chatter and fun, which in the end is what wine should do for the most part. Yet I think the white deserves more respect.
I went to a small tasting in October in London for the 35th anniversary of Cloudy Bay and I was surprised by how well the wines age. The 1987, made just a few years after the first vintage, was a stylish old white that showed ripeness and richness, with lots of dried fruit such as apricots and pineapples. It was layered and persistent on the palate, and still of outstanding quality. Meanwhile, the 1998 was also pretty amazing. It smelled like a mature dry white Bordeaux with candle wax, sliced apple and lemon, and undertones of liquorice and aniseed. Maybe I was being too generous, but I rated it 93 points.
I expected the pinot noirs to show pretty well and they did. The handful of different vintages, including 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2010, delivered plenty of the plum, smoke and light earth character one would expect in a high-quality pinot noir. It’s funny that people have not caught on to the high quality of the Cloudy Bay pinot noirs, both from the Marlborough and Central Otago regions. But it’s easy for the wines to get lost in the shuffle with so much sauvignon blanc being made at Cloudy Bay—some say as many as 1.6 million bottles per year, but the winery has never confirmed this.
It was only a few years ago that I visited Cloudy Bay and other producers on the South Island of New Zealand. I remember flying into Marlborough Airport in a small plane from Wellington and landing in what seemed to be a sea of vineyards surrounded by distant mountains. It made me aware that most of the sauvignon blancs from the area are commercial whites made from high-yielding vineyards and industrial wineries. Unfortunately, these wines have become synonymous with New Zealand wine for many consumers. I can’t drink them. They taste too contrived and convoluted. Some are also too sweet. Luckily, top names such as Dog Point, Greywacke and Cloudy Bay are completely different and prove that the Marlborough region makes world-class wines with subtle aromas and flavours, and dense and firm structure.
Cloudy Bay winemaker Tim Heath touched on how the brand is making real wine in Marlborough. “People are thinking less about aroma and more about flavour. We are looking at structure now. This is the future. We need to look at the structure and architecture of the wine. It’s less about varietal character.”
Indeed, I found his latest release—2015 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough— probably the best ever from the winery, with lots of dried pineapple and grapefruit aromas and flavours, a full body and a tangy finish. It had wonderful zest and acid backbone, and I rated it at 93 points.
Whether anyone really cares about how good the wine is, I can’t comment, but I’m sure they’re loving it at various classy bars.