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The Mystery of Cloudy Bay

January 21, 1998|DAN BERGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BLENHEIM, New Zealand — Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc has quickly become one of the most popular wines anywhere. And it may be all the average wine drinker knows about New Zealand wine. Even wine collectors would be hard pressed to name another wine from this small, isolated nation (its nearest neighbor, apart from Australia, is Antarctica).

It was a long shot that a delicate white wine from a small New Zealand winery would ever be in such demand, and not least because it's a Sauvignon Blanc. If this wine were a Chardonnay with bold, extractive flavors of butterscotch and oak, it would be spoken about in hushed tones and compared with the great white Burgundies of France, with Le Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne or some of California's superstar Chardonnays.

But this is a lean, crisp, green-apple-tart sort of wine that needs to be served with delicate seafood or the like to be fully appreciated. Newcomers to Cloudy Bay Sauvignon often say it's like a first taste of pickles or sauerkraut. Some love it; others can't bear it.

When I visited the Cloudy Bay tasting room, where a three-legged cat walks around nuzzling patrons, I was so focused on the Sauvignon Blanc that I was surprised to find people there were as interested in trying the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The Sauvignon is just the only Cloudy Bay wine the outside world knows. "We can't get enough of it," said a wine merchant in Christchurch. "And now they're sending it to the States. Why can't they let us have it? We could sell it all."

What Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc represents to the world wine market is vital to the interests of the entire New Zealand wine industry, says David Mason, wine maker for Sacred Hill Winery in Hawkes Bay, on the north island. "Cloudy Bay has done a great job making New Zealand wine visible overseas," said Mason. "That's why I'm looking to export."

Sacred Hill's attractive Sauvignon Blanc, now imported by Bartholomew Broadbent of San Francisco, is gaining attention in part because of the demand for Cloudy Bay. Sacred Hill's Sauvignon Blanc potentially may have a little broader appeal than Cloudy Bay's, because its aromas are not quite so assertive.

It's fascinating that it would take a Sauvignon Blanc, rather than a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, to put New Zealand on the map. Most Sauvignon Blanc made in France is delicate wine. The best white Graves of Bordeaux, the most intense wines of the Loire (such as Pouilly-Fume or Sancerre) and even Sonoma County's Sauvignons are lean, rather than "impressive."

What New Zealand does best--the Marlborough region specifically and Cloudy Bay in particular--is grow Sauvignon Blanc grapes that exhibit a distinctive and intriguing aroma. It's a hard one to describe; I think of it as a scent of lime peel with hints of fresh tarragon and fresh cured olives and a faint note of quince.

Australian wine author-columnist James Halliday, who has perhaps the most astute wine palate in the Southern Hemisphere, suggests that the wine is a bit grassy and smells like gooseberry and passion fruit. "One has to, however, admit that some leading wine critics around the world would [define the aroma of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as] cat's pee," Halliday wrote in a 1991 book on New Zealand wines. He then vigorously disputed the charge.

There is no disputing that most Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, whether from Cloudy Bay or any of its compatriots, such as Cairnbrae, Allan Scott, Jackson, Montana, Nautilus, Stoneleigh and Forrest, are distinctive. Those who like a glass of Chardonnay to wet the whistle before dinner might find that a better palate primer would be a sip of a high-acid, appetite-enhancing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Alas, though the wine works for that purpose, somebody who's never tasted it before would shriek at first sip, it's so dry and austere. This is a love-it-or-hate-it wine and rarely a love-at-first-sip wine.

Yet it's that very crispness that makes it so appealing with oysters and simple seafood and vegetable dishes. It brings out the delicate flavors in the dish, rather than masking them, as a buttery Chardonnay would.

But there's more to the New Zealand wine scene than Sauvignon Blanc. The country is fast becoming known (at least in Australia and England) as an important region for great Pinot Noir, too. Ata Rangi, Martinborough and Pegasus Bay are among the current superstar Pinot Noirs in New Zealand, ranking with Australia's Coldstream Hills and Yarra Yering. British and Aussie demand for New Zealand's best Pinot Noirs is even greater than for its Sauvignon Blanc, partly because, on the one hand, Australia produces so little great Pinot Noir and, on the other, the European counterpart, French red Burgundy, is so expensive.

New Zealand also has the potential to make splendid sparkling wine, and recently Champagne Deutz of France entered into a joint agreement to make sparkling wine there.

And finally, as if that's not enough, a few brave souls in New Zealand are experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and having a great degree of success. During my tour of New Zealand, I tasted one remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. It was round, with full flavors of anise, clove and black cherry, and had loads of charm.

The winery that made this wine? Cloudy Bay. (And no, the wine is not exported. And yes, I bought a bottle, for $30, and carried it home.)

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