Now here is a surprise…an Atlas email focusing on a wine from Cloudy Bay.
This Sauvignon Blanc producer burst onto the scene in 1985 and rapidly put the region of Marlborough, in the north-eastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, on the map. In fact, Cloudy Bay’s success encouraged huge plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in the region. Today, Marlborough accounts for around three quarters of NZ Sauvignon Blanc production and Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about three quarters of New Zealand wine production. Understandably, within the category there are vastly different qualities and a fair proportion of uninspiring wine. The UK is a big market for NZ Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of which is consolidated in larger scale brands - the average retail price of NZ wine is £7.42 per bottle.
You might not be surprised to learn that I quickly became tired of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – consequently I don’t taste many examples any more as our market, and my palate, have moved on. To me, there is a ceiling to the complexity that Sauvignon Blanc can deliver, and that ceiling is lower than say, Chardonnay, for example. That said, there are a number of producers whose Sauvignon Blanc has an extra dimension, but it takes skilled winemaking. I have been hugely impressed in recent years by examples such as Les Champs Libres (from the enterprising team at Château Lafleur in Bordeaux), the crystalline single cru wines from Weingut Tement (in South Styria, Austria) and the stunning and diverse array of Sancerre from Domaine Vacheron (in the Loire Valley). Aside from being at the upper end of the quality spectrum, most examples that gain my attention share some common features – the winemaking often involves barrel-fermentation and there is likely to have been a period of ageing in barrel on the fine lees. The wine will probably have been aged in larger oak vessels too to limit the impact of the oak, which is often a mix of old and new. Winemaking techniques for this type of Sauvignon Blanc have really marched on and I find the more savoury nuances in the resultant wines far more interesting alongside the zestiness that is inherent in the variety. Better clones have been selected and planted and there is a better understanding of the vineyards, as well as the use of indigenous or cultured yeast to carry out the fermentation. It all adds up to a significant advance in many areas of the wine world.
Many moons ago, I had the chance to taste one of the early vintages of Te Koko – the barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc that Cloudy Bay first introduced in the mid to late 1990s. It is a wine that shook up a category – it was a complete surprise to me, though if the truth be told I felt the fruit and the oak ran on different tracks. There was something slightly awkward about the style of the fruit and the winemaking approach in those first vintages, though the initiative had to be applauded. Since those early examples, the team at Cloudy Bay continued to tweak the approach with a view to elevating quality. I hadn’t had cause to taste the wine in recent years, though I recall reading about the changes that had been brought in – the vineyard sites that had been selected to provide the fruit for the wine, the reduction in yields, the opening of the canopies to ease away from those pungent fruit characters that many associate with Marlborough and the adjustment to the timing of harvest in order to produce a wine at just over 13 degrees in alcohol and with a slight reduction in acidity. To anyone fascinated by the multitude of decisions that influence quality and style, a project like Te Koko is intriguing to have seen in its infancy and revisited two decades on.
Te Koko was not made in 2017 as the vintage was affected by two tropical cyclones, nor was there any made in 2018 as there was heavy rain and significant botrytis pressure, but this gave the team at Cloudy Bay the chance to refine their approach further. In 2019, the proportion of wine to go through malolactic fermentation dropped from 100% previously to 52% - another significant move in winemaking. I note today that they employ 6,000 litre oak casks as well as barriques (8% new) for fermentation, allowing sufficient lees contact but retaining freshness. Warmer temperatures for fermentation move the fruit spectrum from the tropical end towards citrus and stone fruit and the use of indigenous yeast adds complexity, but the cultured yeast ensures the wine ferments to dryness, dispensing with that hint of residual sweetness that seemed magnified by the full malolactic fermentation in older examples. Clever, clever, clever. What more can I say? With all these ongoing tweaks, you can see why I call it a project.
Yesterday, I had the chance to taste the 2019 – I tasted out of curiosity, not because I saw an offer in prospect. What I found was a completely different style than I expected – some very classy winemaking and a whole host of smart decisions have delivered a wine of superb quality in a high quality Marlborough vintage. Frankly, there was no reason not to offer it. If like me you haven’t revisited Cloudy Bay, thinking you had outgrown it, or moved on, think again. The Te Koko is a terrific glass of Sauvignon Blanc even if the name may seem overfamiliar to you.
Please see my note below as well as Rebecca Gibb’s note for Vinous.