As we step into autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s hard to believe that Cloudy Bay has just released the 34th vintage of its classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc here in Asia. Along with beachwear and barbecues, what has also become for many an enduring symbol for the summer is a glass of chilled Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. With its trademark fruit-forward aromas, lemon-lime citrus notes and racy acidity, it can be lovely alone or when paired with a plate of seafood by the pool. According to Cloudy Bay Technical Director and winemaker-in-residence Jim White, we love it so much in Asia that markets like Hong Kong and Singapore occupy more bottles of it on their shelf space than anywhere else in the world.
Having travelled to the cellar door in Marlborough earlier this year during the growing season (see our review here), it was fitting to taste the wines that have now come full circle. Unlike 2017’s more citrus-focused wines, it wasn’t a surprise to see that a warmer-than-usual growing season in 2018 that ended with rainfall resulted in an early harvest. The result is a more aromatic wine with more subtle tropical passion fruit aromas and concentrated flavours of stone fruit like peach and nectarine, with minerality and Meyer lemon acidity.
We had a chance to catch up with Jim while he was in Hong Kong for the launch of the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc. With former Cloudy Bay winemaker Tim Heath stepping down earlier this year, Jim now figures prominently in a dual role, overseeing both the vine growing and winemaking at the winery. Read on to learn more about what it’s like to be responsible for making one of New Zealand’s most popular Sauvignon Blancs.
How did you discover your passion for wine and become responsible for winemaking at Cloudy Bay?
I tasted a bottle of ’92 Mitchelton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon while I was a second-year student at the University of Victoria, and that did it for me – all I wanted to do was get into wine agriculture. I got my first job as a vineyard manager 18 months later and have now been in the wine industry for 22 years. I was with Domaine Chandon and Cape Mentelle in Margaret Valley and now Cloudy Bay for the past eight years.
In the past six months, my role has changed from pure viticulture to technical direction, and I now oversee all vine growing and winemaking at Cloudy Bay. The two are wholly interconnected in that the key to being a viticulturist is that the focus is on the bottle, not just delivering grapes to the winery. I shared a clear vision with Tim for the wine styles and where we wanted to go for many years. After he resigned earlier this year to move back to Australia with his family, it made sense to have me continue in that role and elevate the rest of the team while adding on an assistant winemaker.
How is the 2018 Sauvignon Blanc different from previous year’s vintage?
2018 was one of the warmest harvest seasons on record, with an early harvest. The warm vintage gave us great concentration and ripeness early on, thought it was bit of a tricky end to the harvest with rainfall. The result is that the 2018 has more of an aromatic, heady sort of perfume. It’s more about having a good-quality vineyard location and free-draining soils, so when there is rain, there’s no loss of concentration. With these wines, we have lots of passion fruit, stone fruit, peach and nectarine. In 2017, it was more citrus focused, less ripe. We had to pick earlier that year because of cyclones from the tropics that forced our hand.
What’s the vision for Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc going forward and how are the climate and terroir of Marlborough central to this vision?
Winemaking is an exercise in capturing the flavours that we’re crafting and the concentration of wine into a bottle. The winery can’t add or subtract anything along the way, only highlight or enhance things. It’s similar to being in the kitchen – if you don’t have the right raw ingredients, you can’t make a wonderful dish.
My job is to have clear vision of what we aim to achieve and to tie the wine and viticulture departments together so that we have a singular vision. Once we’ve finished with the harvest, we go back and evaluate what happened in the vineyards and see what we can do better. [Yet] wine is a representation of the season. We can’t change the weather, and one of the beauties of weather and viticulture is that you never get the same thing twice. We can always try different growing techniques and things in the vineyard to coerce wine in a certain direction that we’d like it to go to, but often we’re not in control.
There will always be different characteristics from year to year, yet these variations in New Zealand are not enormous. Consumers don’t worry too much about the vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. The wines have a different representation each season, but ultimately represent the terroir where the grapes are grown – and that’s due to the consistency of the place from year to year.
As a viticulturist at heart, what can you tell us about the terroir in Marlborough and how it distinguishes itself from the rest of the wine regions in New Zealand? How does it compare to other New World regions that produce Sauvignon Blanc?
The key characteristics that drive the quality of wine are climate, followed by soil, viticulture and the people growing the grapes and making the wine. We have an amazing climate and soil that give New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that fruit-forward flavour. It also doesn’t get too hot or too cold, due to the maritime influence and relatively stable conditions throughout the growing period.
In California and parts of Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc is an early-ripening grape variety, while in Marlborough, it’s the latest variety to ripen. For me, the great wines could be Riesling in Germany, Pinot Noir in Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux; it’s the latest ripening variety, that last gasp before winter arrives that gives grapes that long time to hang on the vines, develop flavour and retain acidity.
There’s lots of sunshine to help develop flavour in the grapes and stony soils. We grow 85–90% on very stony, free-draining soils, so it tends to restrict the vigour of Sauvignon Blanc. You get very concentrated flavours, and we’re looking for the citrus and stone fruit spectrum – lime, lemon, grapefruit, nectarine and peach. We want to be in sites warm enough to avoid getting green, asparagus, herbaceous, bell pepper, capsicum-type flavours. Nor do want to end up with mango and tropical fruit in the wines and lose that freshness.
Marlborough has that combination of climate and grape variety, and being a relatively new region, that synergy between Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc is undeniable. It’s a distinctive style that is recognised around the world. We don’t want both ends of the spectrum, like asparagus and mango together, so we use viticulture to tighten up the flavour profile to get uniform ripeness in grapes in the parcel. The result is a beautiful flavour profile with neither of the extremes.
How did the new Appellation Marlborough Wine come about and what does it mean for the consumer?
It’s a self-imposed appellation from 40 producers who wanted to self-regulate and brand the region to distinguish ourselves from volume producers who are using grapes from other regions and bottling locally instead of on-site. We’ve seen wine in Marlborough become a large commercial industry where the grapes are blended with other parts of New Zealand (i.e., Nelson, Hawke’s Bay) where grape costs are lower, with more entry-level commercial wines blending with other varieties. It’s about quality control, similar to the appellation system in France. The appellation system is voluntary and stipulates that the grapes must be 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, meet certain yield targets so they have a level of quality that comes from location and viticulture and bottled in New Zealand,
We’re trying to provide to the consumer a mark of quality. We just started with the 2018 vintage, so this latest vintage of Sauvignon Blanc has the certification. We think it’s a great way to guarantee great quality to consumers.
What are the biggest misconceptions about New Zealand wine?
Well, Jancis Robinson’s description of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not appealing, but the wines are delicious, upfront and easy to like. They give you a lot and don’t require you to invest much to give the pleasure that you get from them. People don’t need to be looking in the glass and thinking too hard about it; they just want a delicious beverage. David Hohnen, who established Cloudy Bay in 1985, reminded us that you should never forget wine is just a beverage – just make sure it’s a delicious one. Sometimes we get caught up with the “blah blah” with wine – it’s great to have fine wines, with great depth and complexity, but ultimately it’s a drink.
What New Zealand and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc do so well is that we just deliver a delicious drink and have done this consistently for the past 30-something years – they are just lovable. On a warm day, either by themselves or with a plate of fresh seafood, the wines are delicious, and ultimately that’s what we aim to make.
With you at the winemaking helm, will we see new wines coming from Cloudy Bay?
Never say never, but for now, we have a focused portfolio that only produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Our energy is spent doing less things, but doing them better. What do we do best and more unique than anyone else – it’s really the three grape varieties that we work with.
We currently have two kinds of Sauvignon Blanc: the Classic Sauvignon Blanc and the complex, barrel- fermented Sauvignon Blanc called Te Koko. It’s a wine connoisseur’s wine, made in small quantities. It shows another side of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, a counterpoint to the freshness and vibrancy of classic Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
Then there’s the Chardonnay, the unsung hero of the portfolio. It has freshness and complexity combined with ageing in new oak that’s there to season and frame the wine rather than overpower it.
We have two kinds of Pinot Noir. A Marlborough Pinot Noir with enough weight and substance to give it a level of seriousness that’s juicy and fresh. The other is Te Wahi, a much more serious wine from Central Otago where we just released the 2014 and 2015. It’s a Pinot Noir built with structure, architecture and tannins, with more depth and ageability than the Marlborough Pinot Noir. Rather than the fruit-forward style of New Zealand, we were thinking about Burgundy, where it’s about structure first and fruit as secondary, so we had that vision in mind. But fruit will always be an important part of our wines – we’re not trying to make Burgundy; we’re trying to make a representation of a very unique place that is Central Otago.
We export wine to 66 countries and sell only 3% of our wine in New Zealand. We’re not interested in becoming a massive commercial winery. Our biggest competitors are white wines from other regions like Sancerre and Chablis – I don’t think other brands are our competitors. People go in and choose Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc because it’s a guaranteed experience.