Peter Ranscombe gets a first look at the 2021 Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc and explores how New Zealand’s most famous wine ages.
FEW wines are more closely linked with a region and a country than Cloudy Bay and Marlborough in New Zealand.
David Hohnen was one of the first five winemakers to arrive in Marlborough back in 1985 and his Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc is credited with putting the region on the world wine map.
The free-draining soils in the area turned out to be good for growing grapes, but less so for simple plants, like grass.
“The estate agent who sold David the land told him that even the rabbits here bring packed lunches,” laughed Jim White, who oversees both grape farming and winemaking at Cloudy Bay as its technical director.
While the words “sauvignon blanc” may conjure up images of asparagus and green pepper for many drinkers, White is quick to point out that Cloudy Bay’s style has moved away from those “green” flavours over the years towards more citrus tastes.
His team farms with fewer leaves to give more open canopies, letting more sunlight in to ripen the grapes, and he opts for lower yields to help intensify the flavours.
As well as that stylistic progression over the years, the winery has also changed hands.
Champagne house Veuve Clicquot invested in 1990 and then parent company Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) bought the brand in 2003.
That change in ownership saw the wine elevated from cult status into the mainstream, going from a few bottles in independent wine merchant’s shops to a cornerstone of many supermarkets’ and multiples’ shelves.
What does Cloud Bay sauvignon blanc taste like?
White’s stylistic change was on show when the 2021 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (£22.99, Majestic Wine) made its UK debut at a tasting in London.
It’s still the yardstick by which all Marlborough sauvignon blancs are measured.
Pronounced gooseberry, mandarin, guava, and passionfruit on the nose are joined by an intense hit of asparagus on the palate, which develops into more savoury lemon rind notes.
Its mouth-wateringly high acidity is balanced by the concentrated gooseberry flavours all the way through to its long finish.
New Zealand sauvignon blanc is a wine that’s designed to be drunk young – it’s fresh, it’s fruity, it’s very much “of the moment”.
So, what happens if you can resist temptation to unscrew the cap, and instead leave the wine to age?
The London tasting included the 2017 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (£29.33, Christopher Keiller Fine Wine Services), which White described as the year that made him go grey due to it being a “headache vintage”, with two tropical cylones hitting Marlborough.
Ironically, the resulting wine perhaps needs a little bit longer in the bottle to mature – the high acidity was sticking out for me, although the developing tinned peach aromas and lemon rind flavours give a nod towards what joys may still lie ahead for this bottle.
In contrast, a sneaky sample of the 2003 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc still had enough steely acidity to cut through canapes of fatty duck, but showed lovely balance too, with honey and a touch of nut joining the waxy lemon and tinned peach aromas on the nose.
On the palate, it had an almost meaty quality to it, with lemon curd, a bit of butter, and plenty of those tropical guava, passionfruit, and grapefruit flavours.
What does Te Koko sauvignon blanc taste like?
As well as releasing its 2021 sauvignon blanc, Cloudy Bay also used the London tasting to mark the return of the wine’s sibling – Te Koko.
White doesn’t make the wine every year – his grey hair-inducing nightmare vintage in 2017 being a prime example – and the recent break in production has allowed him to look again at the wine’s style.
He explained that Te Koko had gone through three stages of development.
The original in the late 1990s and early noughties had seen sauvignon blanc treated like chardonnay, with the wine ageing in new oak barrels to impart vanilla flavours and all the liquid going through malolactic conversion, a natural process that turns the green apple-like malic acid into more milk-like lactic acid.
Its second incarnation between 2011 and 2016 saw less malolactic conversion and more focus on “acid drive”, meaning the wine retained more freshness and was less flabby.
The bad weather of 2017 and 2018 has allowed White to look again at the wine; while he still ferments all the grapes in oak barriques, he’s now using older, neutral barrels, with only 8% new oak.
The result in the 2019 Cloud Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc (£52.19, Tannico UK) is definitely racer acidity – perhaps a little too racy and unintegrated at the moment.
But there’s lots of promise there, with reductive woodsmoke notes on the nose and then toast and butter joining the lemon rind on the palate, before opening up to reveal more peach and passionfruit after a lot of swirling in the glass.
In contrast, the 2016 Cloud Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc (£38.49, Majestic Wine) was quite chewy and food-friendly, with hay, asparagus, and green bean on the nose, plus buttered white toast segueing into biscuit on the palate.
When it comes to the “slightly more interesting New Zealand sauvignon blanc” category, I’d still opt for former Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd’s Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc, made using wild yeasts to kick-off its fermentation, or the 2018 Huia Sauvignon Blanc, which has a viognier-like quality to it that makes it harder to tell its sauvignon blanc but is still a delicious white.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer, and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain