Marlborough sauvignon blanc still in top form after 30 years

Huon Hooke
The picturesque Cloudy Bay vineyard, with the Richmond Ranges behind.
The picturesque Cloudy Bay vineyard, with the Richmond Ranges behind. Photo: Supplied

The world has never seen a revolution in wine taste like Marlborough sauvignon blanc. It turned the accepted benchmarks upside down. The old world classics were threatened. Sauvignon blanc had never tasted like this. So pungent; so fruity; so excitingly vibrant; almost shocking to the senses.

It was such a revolution that winemakers from France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria came to Marlborough, New Zealand, to be a part of it. Henri Bourgeois, famous for sauvignon blanc in Sancerre​ and Pouilly​ Fume, set up shop in Marlborough to see what they could do in a totally new land with the grape they considered their own.

Cloudy Bay wasn't the first to produce a Marlborough sauvignon blanc but it was one of them, and for many years it was the best. If it's lost any of its lustre, it's because there are so many wineries in Marlborough now, and the standard of wine has improved out of sight from those early efforts. It's not so easy for one outstanding producer to be noticed among many.

The highly regarded label.
The highly regarded label. Photo: Supplied

Cloudy Bay's first vintage was in 1985 and the winery, now owned by French drinks company Moet Hennessy, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Thirty years ago, Marlborough was mostly sheep farms and orchards. Montana, now called Brancott Estate, marketed the first Marlborough sauvignon blancs and I remember them well: they smelled like the water you drain off boiled asparagus, or cabbage. Not exactly attractive, but undeniably pungent, intense and different. In amongst the vegetal odours there were other, more interesting aromas - of citrus and tropical fruits, especially passionfruit and pineapple. Wine drinkers were transfixed.

David Hohnen, founder of Margaret River winery Cape Mentelle​, was fascinated. He visited Auckland and tasted a Selak's Marlborough sauvignon blanc. It was made by a young Aussie winemaker working in New Zealand, Kevin Judd. Hohnen recognised something in that wine that struck a chord with him and would do the same with millions of others. He resolved to plant vines and make wine in Marlborough.

The name Cloudy Bay already existed – it is the place the Wairau River empties into the ocean  near Blenheim – and the scene on the label also existed. It's the layered range of forested hills flanking the Wairau Valley. It just needed a brilliant sensibility to put it on a label together with that name. Most of us had never seen such a beautiful label on a bottle of wine, coupled with an evocative, romantic sounding name. Thanks to Hohnen, a legend was born.

Thirty years later, according to Moet Hennessy CEO Jean-Guillaume Prats, Cloudy Bay is exported to 120 countries and is better known than many of the classified growths of his home, Bordeaux. "And it sells for twice the price of other volume Marlborough sauvignon blanc producers in export markets," he boasts.

As an indication of how highly regarded Cloudy Bay is, the 30th anniversary was attended by Prats, who made the trip from Paris; the French ambassador to New Zealand, Florence Jeanblanc-Risler; the New Zealand Minister for Trade, Tim Groser​; the CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, Philip Gregan; former consultant to Moet Hennessy Dr Tony Jordan, and the winemaker at Burgundy estate Domaine​ des Lambrays​, Thierry Brouin, who had come to see the vintage at Cloudy Bay. Domaine des Lambrays is also owned by Moet Hennessy.

The Cloudy Bay wines are, I believe, better than ever at the moment and the winemaking and vineyard team are very strong. The 2014 vintage of the  sauvignon blanc is one of the best ever, and the barrel-fermented version, Te Koko, has been refocused since the 2011 vintage as a finer, less overt, less manipulated style with more subtlety and drinkability. The pinot noirs are a work in progress but the regular Marlborough wine is good and the Central Otago wine, Te Wahi, is excellent, especially the next release, 2013.

The bay may be cloudy, but the sun is truly shining on this winery.