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How the Kiwis Got Smart

January 21, 1998|DAN BERGER

The Marlborough wine-growing region is one of the world's most striking--and least traveled. New Zealanders (there are 4 million people here, as against 60 million sheep) stick pretty much to the major cities.

It's quite a new wine-growing region. It was only in 1974 that a Yugoslav investment group did the grape planting trials that led them to found Montana Wines there three years later. Today Montana makes nearly half of New Zealand's wine, including a lovely, if decidedly simple, Sauvignon Blanc.

Other wineries followed and found a local restaurant clientele in Blenheim and down the coast in Kaikoura, and also in Grey Mouth and Hokitika on the south island's wild and woolly west coast. Other than that, though, demand for these wines was limited because they were so erratic from vintage to vintage. Cold winds, variable rainfall and many other problems made for wines that were distinctive, yes, but occasionally nasty.

Cloudy Bay was founded in 1985. At the time, most wine journalists considered the New Zealand wine industry mainly a north island phenomenon.

It was David Hohnen, founder-wine maker at Cape Mentelle Winery in the Margaret River area of Western Australia, who made the big gamble. At a site off a main road in Marlborough, he planted extensive vineyards--an expensive proposition--and called the property Cloudy Bay for the nearby cove.

When the financial burden of running both wineries became too much for Hohnen, the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot stepped in, acquiring a majority ownership in both Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay. The new owner pretty much left the wine-making to Hohnen, who in turn handed the reins at Cloudy Bay to a talented, taciturn Aussie named Kevin Judd.

It wasn't until 1992 or so that the Cloudy Bay mystique began to penetrate America. Cloudy Bay caught on in the U.S. for a number of reasons; one of them was improved grape quality, which can be credited to one man, the indefatigable Richard Smart.

Smart is a peripatetic viticulturist who understands the growing of grape vines better than anyone alive--or so his many acolytes believe. Literally dozens of winery and grower clients just in California have taken up his techniques and have been rewarded with ever-better wines.

Smart determined that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc grapes needed greater exposure to the sun as they grew. So he developed trellising and pruning systems that opened the canopies of leaves to permit sun onto the fruit, dramatically increasing mature fruit flavors. Very soon, the immature, underripe flavors that had marked various past vintages of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc were gone.

At Cloudy Bay, Judd takes advantage of the riper fruit and adds a wine-making twist not used by other wineries in the area. Instead of simply fermenting the wine in a steel tank and bottling it, he barrel-ferments a small portion of the wine, not to gain oak flavors but to add textural softness.

The result: Though Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc is still tart and lean, it has a mid-palate richness that is wonderful with food, giving a remarkable cleansing effect on the palate yet leaving a fruit-like taste.

Some purists pooh-pooh this, arguing that if a wine is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, it should be slightly nasty. But the consumer apparently loves this wine, and today it sells for almost $20 a bottle, a top-end price for Sauvignon Blancs. (Possibly the first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc exported to this country, from Kumeu River Winery on the north island, sank like a stone at that price in 1990.)

It's not just the public that likes it. Connoisseurs compare Cloudy Bay favorably with the famed Baron de L from the French wine house of LaDoucette. Baron de L sells for three times as much and is considered a sublime example of a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley (where, of course, this varietal is known as Pouilly-Fume).

Kathleen Meek, who handles distribution of the Cloudy Bay wines for Clicquot Inc., says demand for the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc over the last 18 months has been astounding. "I don't sell Cloudy Bay," says Meek, "I allocate it." A small amount of 1996 vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc remains in retail shops and upscale restaurants, but it's dwindling fast.

Total production of Sauvignon Blanc at Cloudy Bay is about 30,000 cases a year, though the company would like to make more, and additional acreage is being planted. About 7,000 cases are exported to the United States. So high has been the demand for the wine that the company said this week that it will release the 1997 version at the end of January, three months earlier than usual.

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