By Sue Lewis
Deep in the South Pacific on the 41st parallel, a small, passionate team of winemakers are growing grapes and producing wines. For the last 30 years these wines have turned heads, captivated palates and set the bar around the world.
It’s easy to forget that New Zealand is still a very “young winemaking and grape growing nation,” says Tim Heath, senior winemaker at Cloudy Bay, Marlborough. The first grapes were planted in the region some 150 years ago, whereas in France it’s believed vines have been growing for more than 12,000 years.
Marking 30 years of tradition
Gone are the days of eagerly awaiting a handwritten note from your merchant letting you know the latest Cloudy Bay vintage has arrived. But the level of anticipation around each year’s release certainly hasn’t diminished these days.
Consider the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2015. This vintage, a wine that has matured and is considered to be at its best, was recently released to mark the winery’s 30-year milestone, along with a pinot noir.
From the ancient glacial soils of the Wairau Valley and the surrounding misty Richmond Ranges that inspired the distinctive Cloudy Bay label, to the Royal Albert Hall in London and restaurants across the world; Cloudy Bay has been making waves since 1985, and the 2015 vintage is no exception.
Moving with the times
Heath, who has been with Cloudy Bay for the last 10 years, says viticulturist Jim White has captured more intense “citrus and ripe stone-fruit flavours”. White has been integral in showing the team how to “reveal the deliciousness of the sauvignon blanc grape”.
Although the 2015 harvest was almost 30 per cent down on usual volumes, due to cooler weather, the particular mesoclimates (the climates particular to each vineyard) of the valley meant a long and hot summer ripened the grapes well.
Changes implemented across the winery and on the vines over the last three years are coming to fruition. More concentrated fruit means the winemaking team has been more easily able “to achieve the desired body of aroma and intensity of flavour” that are signatures of sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region.
Cloudy Bay has adopted a soft organics and viticulture approach to farming grapes, using natural methods of cultivation. This often involves planting clovers and peas to capture atmospheric nitrogen, and using sheep in winter for fertilisation and to keep weeds under control.
Adopting a natural response means that the winemakers have greater flexibility “to respond to each season as it plays out” and more nimbly counter the vagaries of the weather. Importantly, it gives the team the freedom to evolve the variety to cater to “what people around the world want”. At the moment wine drinkers want “more mineral and texture in the wine, and fruit intensity,” says Heath.
More attention has been paid to the understorey — what’s growing beneath and between the vines. This has been a critical shift in direction, with individual blocks of vines in each vineyard managed separately. Seasonal planting has made the most of that interaction with the vines, and encouraged stronger flavours, richness in the wine and healthier fruit.
Not being afraid to learn, adapt and evolve, while being respectful of what has been, is central to Heath’s philosophy. Cloudy Bay’s future lies in embracing its heritage, while not being too caught up in the past or “tying ourselves to recipes”.
Heath wants to “go beyond a pretty body of aromatics” and maintain a flexible approach to learning. He is an advocate of barrel fermentation, which adds a distinct texture and depth of flavour.
“We want wines that convey a sense of place. We also want them to have a greater degree of complexity and more structural interest, with fruit moving beyond the primary to a more mineral expression. While never forgetting that these wines need to express the purity and fruit that has been so popular over the years,” says Heath.
With a background in organic chemistry and vinology, Heath still believes in instinct over data. “Good wine comes from what the wine is telling you, rather than what the numbers are saying,” he says.
Heath advises that to enjoy this vintage at its very best it should not be drunk too cold. Chilling aromatic whites too low “tends to not only dull the fruit aromas, but it also locks the palate up in terms of its ability to express volume.”
“If you’re going to enjoy a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2015, don’t chill it down to 4°C in your fridge. Allow it to be a little bit warmer than that, so that it expresses its rounder, richer attributes.”