It's my birthday and my poor husband has desperately been trying to find me a suitable birthday present. Very, very difficult I know, because - well I have everything. I have lived a long, prosperous and happy life and have absolutely everything I need. And I have never been one for jewels and suchlike. So I think he tried to find a bottle of Meursault wine from Burgundy - for sentimental reasons, couldn't find any, so in the end settled for a 2014 bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc which he found tucked away in our wine cellar. I am very much looking forward to tasting it this evening when we go to my son's house for a joint birthday celebration - my daughter-in-law and husband as well also have birthdays in the next week.
I saw that the founder of Cloudy Bay - David Hohnen - states on the website that everyone remembers their first taste of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. And that's certainly true for me. It's one of the taste sensations of my lifetime. There aren't many.
I was taken out to lunch by my boss to the now defunct but wonderful restaurant Stella, in Spring Street Melbourne. It was one of chef Andrew Blake's early ventures. Why did my boss take me out to lunch? Well I had resigned - long and not very happy story, mostly mismanaged by me. So he took me out to lunch to thank me for my service I think. Maybe to say he was sorry. I don't know. Anyway the food was delicious and we - probably he - chose a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc as our wine. I can still remember that first taste. I was completely blown away. So fresh and zingy. Grassy is what I remember. It must have been at about the time that this particular wine, dragging the rest of the New Zealand sauvignon blanc winemakers along with it, conquered the world. Their own website describes the nose of my 2014 vintage as "Bright, with aromas of kaffir lime and grapefruit" and the palate as "Generous ripe citrus, stone fruit and lemongrass flavours balanced by crunchy acidity". Which is a pretty typical description of any NZ sauvignon blanc. They generally talk about various citrus fruits, tropical fruits such as passionfruit, and gooseberries seem to come up frequently too. Not to mention a cat's piss smell, which sounds awful but somehow isn't. And did I mention mineral and vegetal?
Whatever the right words are to describe this truly unique and magnificent wine, it took the world by storm. The British were complaining that there was never enough stock in the shops. And it is now huge in China and other parts of Asia. Such is the success of Cloudy Bay and all the other excellent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc producers - I am sure there is intense rivalry these days as to whose is best - that it has been a victim of the tall poppy syndrome, with many deriding it. Jokes are made and remarks about lack of subtlety. And let me say that, once again, I think some of this may be because it's very popular with women. Women, white wine, sauvignon blanc - to be scoffed at.
Never mind though. NZ sav blanc - that's what the naysayers call it in their dismissive way - is a huge seller, so I doubt the producers are bothered. Just go into any bottle shop and see how much of it there is on the shelf in comparison to everything else.
Another memory of Cloudy Bay that I have is of a visit we made back in the early 2000s with two of our oldest friends from England. We had two weeks, or was it three, with our friends on a grand tour of the country. Marlborough was our first stop in the South Island. Well we overnighted in Picton, at the head of one of the stunning sounds at the top of the South Island, and the ferry terminus, and next morning headed for Marlborough which is just a little south. Cloudy Bay wasn't the only vineyard we visited, but it was definitely an absolute must. As you can just see from the photograph of the billboard at their front entrance, their beautiful logo picture mirrors the hills beyond. I couldn't quite get the match right, so it will have to do. I suppose I can't say that the vineyard visit was any different to most other vineyard visits, but nevertheless it was a beautiful spot and I am pleased that we went there.
And I certainly remember that holiday. New Zealand is one photo opportunity after another after all, and the people, food and wine are just lovely. We only booked our first and last hotels and made the rest of it up as we went along. This began with an immediate change of plan on arrival. We had planned to travel north to the Bay of Islands from Auckland, but were told by the female Maori immigration officer that this would be a very bad idea because it was the weekend anniversary of the Waitangi treaty and that the area would be packed with drunk Maoris having a good time. She was Maori herself remember and this was said with some humour. So we changed direction and discovered the beautiful Coromandel peninsular instead. And so it continued, helped along the way by warm people in the tourist offices finding us accommodation, detours according to a word here and there and perfect weather. It was a very memorable holiday and one I would repeat any time. So much in fact that we did not see and just waiting to be discovered.
But back to Cloudy Bay. As I said before (I think) it was founded by David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle wines in WA. He tasted a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, was blown away and just two years later in 1985 was producing his first Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc. So he must have used already planted vines I guess. The vineyard, according to its own website, was named
"after Cloudy Bay, a body of water explorer Captain James Cook came across during his voyage to New Zealand in 1770. His discovery coincided with flooding in the region, which washed large amounts of sediment into the sea. Noticing the water’s opaque appearance, Cook cleverly christened the area Cloudy Bay."
However, I am still a little confused by the name as, according to Google Maps Cloudy Bay, is of course a bay or series of inlets on the coast and the vineyard and Marlborough itself is several kilometres inland. So why name if after the bay? I cannot find an answer and can only assume that one of the nine vineyards the company now owns was actually on the bay. And I'm not even sure that the photograph below, which is said to be Cloudy Bay, is really Cloudy Bay, because Google Maps seems to imply that it is indeed more of a bay and a large one at that - more of a general curve in the coastline than inlets like this, that look rather more like the sounds at the top of the South Island.
Wherever it is, and why the wine is called Cloudy Bay, we can certainly agree that this is a stunningly beautiful part of the world, which produces one of the world's great wines.
Cloudy Bay the company produces a relatively small selection of wines. Two sauvignon blancs - the one we know and another called Te Koko which I believe is the Maori name for Cloudy Bay, two pinot noirs - from their new Central Otago vineyards, a chardonnay and a sparkling wine called Pelorus. I also believe that the pinot noirs are becoming even more respected than the sauvignon blanc, but then the Central Otago pinot noirs are themselves becoming a world phenomenon.
At some point David Hohnen sold the company - maybe around 2013, I cannot quite work it out, and It is now owned by the French luxury company LMVH which owns Moët et Chandon and Veuve Cliquot. So the French have sort of recognised how good this wine is, though maybe they would never say so. I do not remember seeing a lot of it in French supermarkets. They tend to scoff a bit about Australian and NZ wines. Also very interestingly the current boss man at Cloudy Bay is Chinese. Born in China, Yang Shen, grew to love wine, so much so that he went to France to study oenology at Montpellier University. Eventually he was hired by Moët et Chandon and sent to oversee Chandon China. (I didn't know that Chandon existed in China - you learn something everyday). Now he is in charge of Cloudy Bay with two winemakers - a Frenchman, Victor Joyeux and an Australian, originally from Cape Mentelle - Daniel Sorrell. Obviously there is now big money in the mix as can be seen with the three glossy videos which welcome you to the website. Stunning photography - have a look. And did I say they are now into hospitality and tourism in a fairly big way at their Otago vineyards, including yacht trips?
And what of my bottle? The 2014 vintage. Cloudy Bay's notes on the making of the wine are as follows:
"A generous season was proactively managed in the vineyard resulting in balanced crops and our second earliest harvest in 30 years at Cloudy Bay. Our commitment to quality saw the perils of rain avoided by a single day."
According to one of their viticulturists, sauvignon blanc depends on a lot of tasting of the actual grapes to get the moment of picking just right. He said you usually have a window of just a couple of days.
Jamie Goode, a British wine writer wrote of my particular vintage - the 2014 we drank last night - that it was one of their very best:
"Really aromatic with lovely green pepper and grapefruit as well as some exotic passionfruit notes. Quite delicate and expressive with lovely balance. Real finesse on the palate with the riper, more tropical notes balanced by fine, mineral, chalky and subtly green notes."
Now I'm not a wine connoisseur - I mostly can't get all those tastes they rave about, and Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc is said to be best drunk young, but I have to say that I concur with what he says about the delicate, expressive and lovely balance. It was just beautiful. Not as strongly grassy and cat's piss as I remember that first Cloudy Bay I tasted way back when, but gorgeous none the less. And there is perhaps one glass left in the bottle for dinner tonight.