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The Cloudy Bay phenomenon

see a more recent review of these wines (January 2007) 

Ask any wine retailer which question they are asked most frequently, and the chances are it will be, 'Have you got any Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc?', to which the answer will invariably be, 'No!'. It is remarkable that one of the most highly sought after wines in the UK should be a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, retailing at about 11, and with a pedigree stretching back just a dozen years. In this brief article, I'll attempt to uncover just how Cloudy Bay has become one of the great wine marketing success stories of recent times.

We begin in 1983, when David Hohnen, co-founder of Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, first tasted a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and was astonished. In 1984 he travelled to New Zealand and attended a wine show at which he was then able to identify the region responsible for this remarkable Sauvignon Blanc as Marlborough. The next year, 1985, he talked his financial backers into buying some land in Marlborough, which was a risky strategy given the economic climate at the time -- in Australia he was then paying 23.5% interest on his bank loan. The first release was 1985, but he winery had not yet been built, so the 40 tons of grapes that were harvested had to be trucked 400 miles north to Gisborne, and winemaker Kevin Judd effectively made the wine by phone. The second release, 1986, found its way to the UK, and was rapturously received by the media. The legend of Cloudy Bay was born! The winery now crushes about 800 tons of grapes annually, some of which are produced by six long-term contract growers.

The wine is certainly a head-turner. With up-front gooseberry, green pepper and elderflower character typical of the region, together with a touch of fatness from the oak and often a slight dash of Semillon, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is undoubtedly one of the best examples of this variety to come from New Zealand. But this doesn't explain its scarcity in the UK, especially when other similarly priced and equally meritorious New Zealand Sauvignons sit on the shelf all year round.

Each October, the allocation arrives from New Zealand of the current vintage. Most retailers have a waiting list policy, and will ration the wines among their regular customers. Oddbins Fine Wine receives an allocation, but they will only sell the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon in a tasting pack with five other wines. Some retailers (Jeroboam is one example) put it on the shelves, but at double the usual retail price, hoping that there will be enough customers who 'must' have the wine and who will be willing to pay over the odds for it. I am aware of just one retailer who puts their allocation on the shelf at normal price, but I'm not telling. It all disappears pretty quickly! In contrast, I have wandered into several average-sized bottle shops in various small towns in Australia and seen the wine sitting on the shelf. I've had the same experience in the USA. It seems that the UK situation is unique.

I managed to catch David Hohnen on a recent visit to the UK and asked him about whether Cloudy Bay had a deliberate policy of restricting imports into the UK to maintain an aura of scarcity. After all, if people had the impression that the wine was widely available, they might not find it as desirable; make it like gold dust, and people will happily buy as much as they can lay their hands on. This has the knock-on effect of raising the status of both this wine and the rest of the Cloudy Bay range. Hohnen denied this (after asking whether I was a journalist), and suggested that it is simply the exceptional popularity of the wine that causes it to sell out so fast. Overall, he said that some 60 000 cases of the Sauvignon are produced each year, with the UK being allocated the lion's share along with Australia; slightly less goes to the USA. Overall, I think the wine is probably worthy of its elevated reputation. I can understand the frustrations of retailers who are faced with legions of customers who 'must' have Cloudy Bay, when equally good examples lie neglected on the shelves, but it would be churlish to criticise Cloudy Bay for their effective marketing of what is an excellent product.

Tasting note:
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 1999, Marlborough, New Zealand
The 1999 incarnation has a huge nose of gooseberries and elderflower, which on the palate are joined by grapefruit-like flavours. Crisp and intense, very well balanced. Notes of grapefruit, gooseberries and elderflower combine with freshly cut green peppers to produce a mouth-watering and sophisticated wine of real impact. (Around 11, the 2000 vintage is released in October 2000.) 

Jamie Goode, July 2000 

See also: The wines of Cloudy Bay Vineyards; David Hohnen presents the wines of Cape Mentelle/Cloudy Bay

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