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Cloudy Bay winemaker weighs up 2014

Cloudy Bay senior winemaker Tim Heath has welcomed a “buoyant” phase for the New Zealand wine industry, but acknowledged that the bumper 2014 crop “won’t come without its challenges.”

Cloudy Bay winemaker, Tim Heath

Introducing the Moët Hennessy-owned estate’s 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Heath drew comparisons with the large 2008 harvest, although stressed that the estate employed “pretty militant yield control”.

He also noted the potential impact of heavy rain which hit Marlborough and parts of Nelson on 9 April. However, while conceding that this may have forced some producers to pick before their grapes were fully ripe, Heath told the drinks business: “We had nice ripe fruit that was good to go so we weren’t really racing the weather.”

Despite some of these potential pitfalls of 2014, he insisted: “It’s important not to let one small blip affect what was otherwise a really good season.”

In response to those producers who earlier voiced concerns about the danger of similar oversupply issues to 2008, Heath maintained: “There’s a lot of doom and gloom but, personally, that’s not the right message. 2014 has its challenges if we’re honest, but there are some great wines and it’s important to recognise that these kinds of situations are common to many regions.”

In the wake of record wine exports from his country worth a total of NZ$1.33 billion (£672 million) last year, Heath confirmed: “The New Zealand industry is pretty buoyant after the doom and gloom of 2008 and the GFC [global financial crisis]. Grape prices and land prices are going up in Marlborough and there’s an air of positivity.”

This year saw Cloudy Bay build further on a gradual move shared by a number of fellow Marlborough producers to build more structure, texture and complexity into the region’s Sauvignon Blanc wines.

Alongside a steady shift towards using less clarified juice and adding an element of barrel fermentation, 2014 saw Heath use some wild yeasts for his tank fermentation. “It does take a bit of emphasis off the fruit and makes it more about that wet stone, mineral edge,” he explained.

The last year has seen Heath spend time in both Sancerre and Burgundy, where parent company LVMH recently acquired Clos des Lambrays. As Cloudy Bay steps up its Pinot Noir focus, having launched its first Central Otago expression last year, he outlined the influence of Burgundian methods on his own approach.

“In Burgundy some whole bunch fermentation with Pinot Noir is great, but it’s something we need to be a little mindful of in Marlborough,” remarked Heath. “We don’t really get much stem lignification in New Zealand so we end up with really green, chewy flavours.”

As a result, he noted, “They might use 50% whole bunch in Burgundy but we’re typically 10-15%. It’s about looking at what they’re trying to do with it and seeing how that can apply to our own region.”

Having produced the brand’s first Central Otago Pinot Noir expression, Te Wahi, from the 2010 vintage, Heath reported: “The first four years were really about getting an understanding of the region. We’ve done that now so it’s about putting our stake in the ground.”

As a result, Te Wahi is now produced using two different sources in Central Otago: 25 hectares in Northburn, which Heath described as “really its own sub-region between Bannockburn and Bendigo, and about six hectares worth of fruit from the prized Calvert Vineyard, which also supplies grapes for Felton Road and Craggy Range.

Having “jumped at the opportunity” to take up the Calvert Vineyard lease last year, Heath observed: “The fruit is gorgeous, really elegant – we often say it’s like Chambolle Musigny.” By contrast, he described Northburn’s character as “more Gevrey Chambertin,” concluding: “The two sites counterbalance each other really nicely.”

As for Cloudy Bay’s other white wines beyond its signature Sauvignon Blanc, Heath observed: “We’re putting our focus where it should be,” adding: “We had a bit of a dabble with Pinot Gris a few years ago but we don’t like what it does here.”

He was more upbeat about Chardonnay, which accounts for around 10% of total production, although conceded that – in common with the country’s other expressions of this variety – it struggles to attract the attention it deserves.

“There’s so many different things being done with Chardonnay in all parts of New Zealand but it’s still in the shadow of Sauvignon Blanc,” remarked Heath.

Pointing to the UK and Australia as currently accounting for “the lion’s share” of Cloudy Bay Chardonnay sales, he noted that despite being the country’s second largest market by value, the US was so far proving more difficult territory.

“I don’t think the US really gets that side of New Zealand at all,” commented Heath, “but its awareness of Pinot Noir is getting better.”

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