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Cloudy Bay shows that Sauvignon Blanc can age with style

Opportunities to taste long-aged Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand are few and far between. But it can actually age remarkably well, as Giles Fallowfield found at a recent Cloudy Bay event.

Wairau Valley, Marlborough

In the early days of Seagram’s ownership of Montana, I had the chance to taste a long line-up of its Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs going back to the first vintages it made in 1979 and 1980.

While Montana was the first producer to plant Sauvignon Blanc there back in 1975, having purchased some 1620 hectares of farmland in Marlborough in 1973, one of the other early investors in Marlborough was David Hohnen who established the Cloudy Bay winery in 1985, making it one of the first five wineries there. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc quickly became the wine style on which New Zealand’s reputation was built.

Cloudy Bay has just launched its 2022 Sauvignon Blanc vintage, and earlier this month current winemaker Daniel Sorrell, who has been in charge since the 2015 harvest, also bought some older bottlings of their Sauvignon Blanc along with him for the trade to try. This was partly to contrast and compare with the new 2022 vintage, but also to see the evolution of the wines and demonstrate that, contrary to many people’s expectations, NZ Sauvignon Blanc can age in an exciting way.

Having recently tasted his way through Cloudy Bay’s entire Sauvignon Blanc library stock, recorking and only keeping those wines he was happy with, Sorrell chose the vintages he viewed as particularly good for ageing, all of which had in turn been the result of ‘warmest and earliest harvests’ at the time – the 2003, 2006 and 2019.

Sorrell is keen to emphasise that Cloudy Bay today is not one of the ‘larger’ producers in Marlborough,  and it hasn’t moved its vineyards since (David) Hohnen’s original land purchases in the mid-80s. Their yields, too, are lower than many wineries in the region.

“We do things differently to others in Marlborough, we are quite small, and we only have vineyards in Wairau Valley,” says Sorrell. “They are located on the old riverbed, on free draining alluvial soils and we struggle to get much more than 12 tonnes per hectare. We like to pick earlier, but we are looking for substance as well as aromatics. There’s more in the glass than with a lot of other producers.

“Everything is kept separate. In 2022 we had 107 different plots vinified and we taste everything plot by plot to pick the fruit that suits our style, while the rest gets sold off on the bulk market.”

Even though Cloudy Bay sells out of wine each year Sorrel sees this approach as being crucial to preserving the brand’s image.

In a vintage like 2021, “the best I’ve experienced in my seven years at the winery, only 4%-5% of the grapes didn’t make the grade, but this year (2022) 25% didn’t and in 2017 it was closer to 30% that was rejected. Being part of Moët-Hennessy, we are lucky [in being able to do this].”

“It was quite a wet year with often high humidity and with a potentially large crop after successful flowering,” continues Sorrell. “We undertook extensive crop thinning to create optimal balance in the vines. Partly because of this, we can crop earlier as the fruit is riper sooner and this was important this year, when we managed to pick a lot before the rain came and we only lost the fruit from one vineyard. We can pick all the fruit in just seven days if we need to and the purchase of a third harvester, bought this year, has made that easier,” says Sorrel. “Everything is very close to the winery so we can get the grapes in quickly.

“It was a challenging harvest, and the 2022 vintage is proof that a bit of adversity brings out the best. In these more difficult years, we really see the strength and importance of our vineyard sites and despite the troublesome weather, the fruit was perfect, which is pretty remarkable really.

“The bad weather, historically experienced after the harvest has ended, arrives earlier these days. We pick by taste and not by numbers. We’re looking for stoned fruit with lime citrus notes, a dash of ‘salt and pepper’ and a beautiful backbone of acidity. I don’t want tropical fruit notes like pineapple as those wines tend to fall apart quickly.”

The 2022 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is a fine example of the vibrant up-front fruit and deeply aromatic Sauvignon that Marlborough is righty famous for and a style many people love.

For me the older vintages – particularly the 2003 and 2006 — hold more interest and excitement, amplified by the knowledge that I went to the original launch of the 2006 vintage with Kevin Judd, the creator of the Cloudy Bay style, back in October 2006.

Judd described it at the time as a year with “plenty of sunshine but not hot, almost never above 30 degrees. Great fruit and fantastic natural acids.”

Sixteen years on for Sorrell, while the 2006 “maybe doesn’t have the same level of concentration as the 2003, it still has that fresh acidity which helps it hold up impressively. It was a warmer year than 2003 and very dry.”

Both these older Sauvignons show something akin to aged Riesling or fine Semillon, with aromas of honeysuckle and a waxy textural feel. And in the 2003 he sees a “crushed oyster shell note you don’t find in many Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs today”.

As he said at the time of the 2020 launch, ““Cloudy Bay Sauvignon ages gracefully like a Vouvray – it gains in intensity and complexity – you get a lot of nougat and honeysuckle notes – and the acid becomes broader and more approachable. Now that Cloudy Bay is under stelvin, the wines will age consistency, and you’ll be able to put them down for 20+ years, not that anyone does, which is a shame.”

While he believes the 2019 will age in a similarly attractive way, he says its at about five years ageing that the metamorphosis begins to take place and at the moment, while it’s lost the initial juicy vibrancy of youth it hasn’t yet moved into that world of secondary and tertiary aromas and flavours.

After the Sauvignon Blanc we have a glass of the latest NV Cloudy Bay Pelorus, a style I’ve always found attractive, but which now seems to have been raised to a higher level by Sorrell.

A 60/40 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, that usually sees 30 months lees ageing as a minimum, this bottling showed attractive honeyed notes and a good mid-palate intensity and depth, no doubt enhanced by the 25% or so reserve wines in the blend. And Sorrell told us since he’s been there they have saved some of each bottling produced to add to future blends, so building up additional layers of complexity over time in each new release.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2022 is available from Majestic, BBR, Jeroboams, Ocado, Clos19, RRP £25.

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