Calgary Wine Life: Cloudy Bay Winemaker Tasting at Alloy

26 09 2013

If you’re into New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you’ve heard of Cloudy Bay.  When I bought my first book about wine a few years ago, the first couple pages of the chapter on New Zealand were the story of this winery:  one of very few producers scattered across the Marlborough region of New Zealand in the mid-1980s, when nobody was paying any attention to NZ wine and nobody on the northern half of the globe was buying it, without any vineyards of its own, making Sauvignon Blanc in a style that has since become synonymous with the nation and the grape (crisp, aromatic, intense, herbaceous), exploding onto the international scene, and shining the spotlight of the wine world on this scenic region on the northern tip of the country’s South Island.  This isn’t ancient history:  New Zealand was an afterthought of a wine nation with only a small handful of producers at a point during my lifetime (I’m 33).  Now it has turned into a thriving and exciting contributor to the world of wine that is home to over 700 wineries, and in large part Cloudy Bay is to thank for this surge of success.  One of the main reasons that “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” possesses the same instant and tangible sense of identity in the psyche of wine drinkers as “Australian Shiraz” (or “Cali Cab”, or “German Riesling”, or “Argentinian Malbec”) is the work of this trendsetting producer that started small and turned itself into a national icon with a world-renowned style.

photo 1

In 2003, Cloudy Bay was purchased by luxury brand supergroup LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), which was charged with maintaining the legacy of New Zealand’s most famous liquid export.  This responsibility is now in the capable hands of lead winemaker Tim Heath, who has spent the past 9 years at the winery trying to ensure that Cloudy Bay’s historic voice is as strong as ever within its wines while simultaneously helping them evolve and grow.  Heath recently made his inaugural journey to Canada to showcase his latest creations and discuss the impending release of Cloudy Bay’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (just put in bottle in August!), which should be out on the shelves in a matter of weeks.  I was fortunate enough to join him and a few others for a stellar lunch at Alloy, my favourite restaurant in town, to talk and taste New Zealand wine.

This was one of the more educational winery tastings I’ve been to, because we got to try the 2012 and 2013 Sauvignon Blancs back to back, which brought into sharp relief the difference that a vintage can make.  Even in a wine made from multiple parcels across the region and in fairly significant quantities, the imprint of the individual growing season could not have been more apparent.  We also got to taste Cloudy Bay’s 2011 Pinot Noir (which went staggeringly well with the pork tenderloin and sweet potato puree that Alloy matched with it), which was my pleasant surprise of the day and a reminder that New Zealand is more than Sauvignon’s second home.  Here are my notes on each wine, scribbled as quickly as I could without spilling on myself.

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2012 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc

You could immediately tell that 2012 was not Tim Heath’s favourite vintage by the almost apologetic way he talked about it.  He politely referred to it as “atypical”, although what I presume he meant was “nearly disastrous”:  it was the coldest summer/growing period on record in 80 years, paired with an uncommonly warm autumn, the combination of which reduced yields and led to less classically styled NZSBs than most years.  Heath interestingly noted that he has been recently trying to add palate weight and texture to Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon Blancs by barrel-fermenting 5% of the blend, which creates a rounder, heftier final product than the usual stainless steel fermentation that the rest of the batch sees.  This is an alternative method for improving mouthfeel than leaving residual sugar in the wine, which apparently is more common with Sauvignon Blanc than I expected but from which he is trying to steer clear.

This wine was a bit of an oddity for me.  Usually in colder-than-normal vintages you would expect to see the wines come across thinner, less ripe and more acidic than normal, but I got the opposite impression from this 2012:  it was soft, musky and almost creamy, with a flavour profile that trended much more to the tropical end of the spectrum than I would expect from Marlborough Sauvignon.  Guava and papaya fruit drifted underneath a current of floral, perfumed muskiness, and as the wine opened up, an even broader array of (somewhat unusual) flavours emerged, from banana to rubber to green pepper.  The wine had a smooth, almost plush texture, something that I don’t commonly associate with this varietal.  It was still quite enjoyable, but as Heath put it, atypical.

87 to 88 points

$25 to $35 CDN

2013 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc

Heath was much more excited about the just-bottled 2013s, and for good reason.  He called it a classic, nearly ideal Sauvignon Blanc vintage in Marlborough, a mild and easy growing season allowing for optimal flavour development and hang time.  The difference was immediately apparent in the glass, even at a glance, where the 2013’s green-tinged water white hue screamed Sauvignon as compared to the deeper lemon yellow of the 2012.  The nose was also greener, icier, sharper:  refreshing and clinical, yet powerful and aromatic.  But what I remember most is the first taste, which instantly ticked all of the boxes that made NZSB famous:  the piquant acid practically vibrated on my tongue, the wild grassy/herbaceous streak is channeled by a lean mineral chalkiness that frames the palate, and the texture was biting and sharp and unflinching.  There was grapefruit, gooseberry and citrus fruit in spades, but thinking back on the experience I barely remember them at all; I remember the rampant greenness held in check by the laser precision of the other flavours.  I remember thinking:  “This is what I came for.”  This is a bottle worth tracking down.

90 to 92 points

$25 to $35 CDN

2011 Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir

photo 2And now for something completely different.  I had never had a non-SB Cloudy Bay wine before this lunch, although I learned that the winery actually has a number of different bottlings, including this Pinot, a Chardonnay, a sparkling wine, and a fully barrel-fermented, oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc called Te Koko that offers a completely different expression of New Zealand’s signature grape.  I want one.  Desperately.  (Unfortunately there is VERY little that ever comes into the province, and I’ve never seen it on retail shelves.)  And after trying this Pinot Noir, sign me up for one of those too.

I could smell this wine all day:  the open, inviting, layered nose offered tons of pillowy fruit, cherry and red currant and raspberry, made more intriguing by a slight animal and linament note lingering around the edges.  Based on the aromas coming out of the glass I expected a smooth, gentle ride on the palate, but was surprised to find it tighter and sharper, with less evident fruit and a profoundly mineral framework (especially for a red).  Earth and citrus notes surrounded a taut core of red fruit, and a medicinal note on the finish reminded me somewhat of the more well-known NZ Pinots from Central Otago, a few hours south of Marlborough.  The wine gained some heft from the 14.5% alcohol, fairly substantial for this region, but it remained pure and elegant, and it absolutely came to life with food.  I will make a point of tracking this down again.

89 to 90+ points

$35 to $45 CDN

There is something about meeting people who are passionate about wine and who get as excited at what’s in their glass as I do — judging from the open and earnest way Tim Heath talked about his wines and the way that the appreciative crowd at lunch enjoyed them, I’d say that Cloudy Bay is in good hands.



2 responses

5 10 2013

My wife and I set out one morning, on a monsoon of a bicycle wine tour in Blenheim, NZ. After our cold, wet, 9km ride, we arrived at our first winery, Cloudy Bay. It was beautiful, warm and inviting. We sampled 4 wines, and rode away with a bottle of Te Koko. I’m not saying that the wine made the trip… but I’d go back just for that.


5 10 2013

Wow – great story! I’d love to get my hands on a bottle of Te Koko…will be keeping my eyes open around here for sure.


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