It’s Always Sunny…In Cloudy Bay by Ed Joliffe

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a talk and vertical tasting to mark the 30th vintage of Cloudy Bay’s iconic Sauvignon Blanc.

This event was hosted by Jean-Sebastien Philippe, Business Development manager for Cloudy Bay in Europe, who is not only a finance major from the London School of Economics but also a world champion wine taster and thoroughly nice guy to boot.

Jean-Sebastien Philippe

We started the afternoon with a little history lesson, Jean-Sebastien relating the three levels of exploration at Cloudy Bay:

On 7th February 1770 Captain Cook discovered and named Cloudy Bay, the name being a reference to the silty sediment from the Wairau River which caused the water in the bay to be cloudy (this answers what was going to be my first question, as I had always wondered why anyone would condemn a place to a perception of perpetual overcastness!)

In the early 1980s David Hohnen, of Cape Mentelle winery in Western Australia’s Margaret River region travelled to New Zealand’s North Island and spent a year exploring various sites after having tasted some Sauvignon Blanc that had been produced by the fledgling Brancott Estate. Having secured what he and his winemaker Kevin Judd believed to be excellent sites for Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, they set about planting and cultivating Sauvignon Blanc, with their first vintage coming to fruition in 1985, even though the winery was yet to be built!.

Since then, Cloudy Bay has changed hands, being purchased by the luxury brands group Louis Viton-Moet-Hennessy (LVMH), but the ethos of innovation and creativity in winemaking and terroir has endured; vineyard holdings have increased to over 200 hectares, with vines planted not just in the Marlborough region but also in Central Otago (the Southernmost vineyards in the World) and Hawkes Bay on the North Island. The exploration of innovation continues with the transfer of ideas between other wine brands in the LVMH stable, most notably Veuve Cliquot in Champagne and the iconic Clos de Lambrays in Burgundy.

We then set about tasting four vintages of Cloudy Bay sauvignon Blanc: 2015, 2011, 2005 and 1999 followed by four vintages of Pinot noir: 2013, 2005, 2001 and 1996.

Sauvignon Blanc 2015:

A warm, dry growing season resulted in an abundant vintage, with slightly poorer quality of fruit, which necessitated a rigorous selection process.

Fermentation was carried out with a combination of wild and cultured yeasts in stainless steel, with approximately 10% being aged in older French oak barriques and larger vats.

This wine leaps out of the glass with aromas of grapefruit, lime and passion fruit.

The palate is silky and supple with ripe stone-fruit, lemongrass and passion fruit supported by a rapier acidity that makes this incredibly refreshing and points toward a wine that will age well (when I started learning about wine I was taught that Sauvignon Blanc should be consumed as young as possible and to always remember the three p’s: the wine should be ‘picked, pressed and pissed’ within a year! Cloudy Bay, along with some other notable producers from around the World are the exceptions to this way of thinking.)

Sauvignon Blanc 2011:

Perfect vintage conditions lead to an abundance of grapes, which were thinned out in late January to maximise fruit quality and advance ripening.

Fermentation took place with natural yeast in stainless steel tanks at a low temperature to preserve freshness and aromatics.

This has a richer smokier nose than the 2015 with a strong mineral character – I could smell crushed sea shells.

On the palate, ripe tropical fruit: mango and papaya with a wonderful lime driven acidity. This is softer and plusher than the 2015.

Sauvignon Blanc 2005:

2005 was a challenging vintage with unseasonably cool cloudy weather at the start of the growing season, but the vintage caught up with itself over the fine summer. Some rain and cool weather delayed harvest a little over Easter, followed by a thankfully dry April.

Fermentation took place with natural yeasts in stainless steel and the wine remained in contact with the lees for two months prior to bottling in order to extract more richness.

Aromatics are a combination of exotic spices and minerality – think ginger, lemongrass and sweet basil combined with the classic sea shell and lime characters.

These flavours transfer beautifully to the palate, with slightly less weight than the 2011 but a lovely honeycomb note present on the incredibly long finish.

Sauvignon Blanc 1999:

A classic Marlborough vintage and interestingly, the last vintage to be bottled under cork.

This seems very different to the other wines we have tasted – perhaps due to the closure not preserving the aromatics as well as the Stelvin screwcaps of the other Sauvignons.

Aromas of mint and blackcurrant leaf with notes of ginger and a slightly medicinal edge – I wrote ‘Algipan’ in my tasting notes: the aroma of a rugby club changing room perhaps?

This is a big, rich spicy style of Sauvignon which doesn’t feel typically Marlborough in style, more Old World in character, think an older Sancerre or Pouilly Fume.

Pinot Noir 2013:

2013 was an ideal growing season, leading to optimal fruit with perfect ripeness.

All fruit was de-stemmed (leading to a softer tannic structure) and then went through a cold soak for several days before fermentation commenced with naturally occurring yeast. Pigeage (punching down of the cap) during fermentation ensures complete and gentle extraction of colour, flavour and tannins.

After three weeks on skins, the wine was then matured in French oak barrels (40% new) for 12 months before blending and bottling.

A lovely spicy plummy nose with notes of black cherries. On the palate it is silky and soft with sweet plummy fruit, fine grained tannins and understated acidity.

Pinot Noir 2005:

2005 was a challenging growing season, redeemed by an ideal Autumn producing a modest but intensely flavoured crop.

The winemaking process was virtually identical to the 2013 vintage with perhaps slightly more new French oak (up to about 50%) being used in the maturation.

This has a richer nose than the 2013 with more earthy spice and a touch of savoury smoky aromas.

Plush and lush on the palate with an opulent mouthfeel. Dark plum and black cherry with touches of leathery spice and a hint of iron (some might say blood). This is very appealing!

Pinot Noir 2001:

An exceptionally dry season producing lower yields with excellent concentration.

Vinification was very similar to 2005 with the addition of some lightly pressed juice at fermentation.

Slightly oxidative in style, due probably to the fact that it was bottled under cork as opposed to the 2013 and 2005 which were under screwcap.

This wine therefore seems more Old World in style with notes of cherry and violets, intertwined with some mushroom and truffle notes. Probably the star of the show for the reds.

Pinot Noir 1996:

1996 was a moderately warm, yet low yielding vintage.

Winemaking was similar to the previous mentioned vintages, with some pumping over as well as pigeage during fermentation and maturation in French oak (30% new).

There is some bricking evident on the rim of the wine indicating the level of maturity.

Aromas of leather, blood and sous-bois (French term for earthy forest floor).

This is beautifully textured with  a still youthful tannic structure, musky spice and a lovely development away from primary fruit towards a more raisined flavour.

Cloudy Bay Winery

All in all this was an excellent showing of what it is that Cloudy Bay do so well, making top notch wines that express their sense of place and time and mature as well as any wines from the Old World.

In celebration of the 30th vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, the 2015 will be available by the glass at Chapter One Restaurant from now while stocks last.