Cloudy Bay senior winemaker Tim Heath and viticulturist Jim White. Picture / Supplied.

How Cloudy Bay Helped Put NZ on the Global Wine Map

Sauvignon blanc powerhouse Cloudy Bay is marking its 30th birthday

As a country we produce less than 1 per cent of the world’s wines — yet we are globally renowned for making some of the best. Last year wine was our eighth biggest international export, while this year it has leaped to sixth place.

One of the biggest players is Cloudy Bay and, on the eve of its sauvignon blanc’s 30th anniversary, I flew to sunny Blenheim for a trip through the vines, to sample early vintages and talk to the next generation of staff at Cloudy Bay. I was able to look back on one of the first wineries from Marlborough to receive international acclaim, and discover how it forged a path for others, helping put New Zealand wine on the map.

This is the wine John Key chose to serve to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during the royal tour, gifting them a bottle of Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko, the oaked, richer-tasting sauvignon blanc to take home to the Queen. It is reportedly Victoria Beckham’s favourite drop (she is rumoured to have ordered 40 bottles for a football party for husband, David Beckham) and it is a favourite drink of actor Russell Crowe, while ex-Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson is fond of both the sav and pinot noir.

Cloudy Bay has a reputation for selling out as soon as it hits shelves in England and is in growing demand in Japan. So how did this Marlborough wine which pioneered the industry in the 1980s, achieve its glittering international reputation?

Senior winemaker Tim Heath, an Australian who has worked at Cloudy Bay for the past 10 years, lowers his voice when asked how significant this wine is to New Zealand. “This should be answered without any tone of arrogance, because I didn’t start the place, but this winery is hugely important in what the wine industry has done over the years. We were one of the first five wineries, and the original intent was to sell wine to Australia and the UK. Clever marketing, yes, everyone says that, but it was deeper than that.”

The very first vines were planted in Marlborough in the early 70s. Before then it was a relatively poor farming area with low rainfall, not great for growing grass for livestock, although there were few orchards at the time.

“They used to call this area 10-acres-per-sheep country,”says Jim White, Cloudy Bay’s viticulturist. “It was terrible for agriculture, but perfect for winemaking.”

Cloudy Bay vines with the picturesque Richmond Ranges in the background. Picture / Supplied.

In 1973 Montana, today known as Brancott Estate, was the first to experiment planting vineyards in the region.

“The land was so poor and sauvignon blanc is known for being a vigorous grape variety, so the poor soil suited it really well,” says Jim.

The story of Cloudy Bay goes a little something like this: two New Zealand winemakers went to visit wineries in Australia and took a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

They found their way to Margaret River’s Cape Mentelle Vineyard where David Hohnen sampled the wine and described it as the “most amazing smelling wine he had ever smelled”. He had been making sauvignon blanc in Western Australia and had never been able to create something like it.

“In Dave’s words,” says Jim, “he thought while it smelled good, they needed to be taught how to make it taste good”. So, two years later David came to New Zealand and in 1985 established Cloudy Bay using borrowed grapes from other vineyards in the region at the time.

“He was a bit of a maverick and was willing to do things outside the norm and he still does that today. I guess there is a significant risk in making wine,” says Jim.

Before starting Cloudy Bay, David already had some strong networks abroad and a big reputation as a winemaker, and he didn’t plan to sell the wine in New Zealand, but into his channels in Australia and Britain.

A good wine should reflect the region in the taste of the wine and, says Jim, Marlborough wine is undoubtedly unique.

“We have a ripeness of fruit and an aromatic lift that the wines from the old world, such as the Loire Valley or Bordeaux, just don’t have. And those wines excite people.”

Sometimes the hardest part is not actually making the wine, he says. “In a lot of terms, growing grapes and making wine is the easy bit, it’s the selling them and the route to market that’s the hard bit.”

In those early days, David’s nature was very unconventional.

“He was a raconteur, a great personality, who could really talk about the wine. That worked in Dave’s favour but he also had a wine that was so breathtaking and was such a shock to the wine world at the time that people couldn’t ignore it.”

Today David has departed from the vineyard he started. Cloudy Bay is now owned by the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey Group and the next generation of viticulturists and winemakers at the helm are just as passionate and proud of the history and flavours they are producing.

The backing of the luxury French conglomerate is proving to be a big advantage, with Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc and Te Koko the only sauvignons on the company’s portfolio. This extends their distribution around the world — plus it helps that it sits alongside some of the best French Champagnes in the world including Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot and Moet et Chandon.

Only six bottles remain of Cloudy Bay’s first 1985 vintage. Now described as “museum pieces”, they are unfortunately oxidised and no longer as tasty as they would have been.

As Tim reminisces on how far the winery has come, he says, “If it wasn’t for the success 30 years ago, I doubt the New Zealand wine industry would be what it is today and that is a pretty humbling thing — but, ultimately, we need to keep going and pushing boundaries.”

• The Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2015 vintage is in stores tomorrow, $36.99.

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