Time is a whirligig, says Feste in Twelfth Night. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. An orrery, more like – with each mechanical planet spinning in its unique orbit around a brazen sun, now distant, now aligned. Sometimes thing coincide, apparently serendipitously, quite probably in an entirely random way, unless you happen to believe in Fate or God or other supernatures. This week was like that. First (and I wish I could tiptoe around this tragedy), France defeated England at the Rugby World Cup. BLOW WINDS AND CRACK YOUR CHEEKS, SPOUT , SPOUT YOU HURRICANOES… !! I know… I know. Hush, my love… There is no more to be said. Calma… Calma… It happened in New Zealand. So perhaps you can appreciate my surprise when a bottle of the new vintage of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc appeared before me.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is THE wine that started the whole New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc thing, back in the late 1980s. I was brought up to appreciate Sauvignon Blanc as one of the two grapes in the holy partnership of dry white Bordeaux and sweet Sauternes and also as the tart, tight-lipped spinster responsible for Sancerre. Then, circa 1988, we uncorked a SB from New Zealand’s South Island – from Marlborough – and WOW! It was like bright green light streaming up from the glass, filling the room with the aroma of gooseberries and passion fruit, the very definition of the word “tangy.” We looked at the label – that vaguely Chinese depiction of tiered mountain ranges – Cloudy Bay. It had the romance – New Zealand was a very long way away – the opposite side of the world if you gazed into the brightly lit well at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington (always a destination for birthday parties when I was about seven years old). It was also a really well-made wine, perfectly balanced, intense, gliding into a long vibrant finish. The French have drifted slyly towards the style, without admitting it, and a bunch of Sancerres are now much more fruit-forward and generous than they ever were before New Zealand made its mark on the world. Meanwhile, other NZ SBs have lured us, priced at about a quarter of the dollars demanded by Cloudy Bay. But there’s something to be said for the original.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days at Cloudy Bay back in 1997, when Kevin Judd was still the winemaker. They put me up in the “Shack,” an extremely comfortable bungalow surrounded by lush gardens (only the English are more conscientious gardeners than the New Zealanders) on the edge of the vineyards. England’s cricket team had stayed there just before me – so that was extremely exciting.
There had been no vines planted in the South Island before 1973 – the experts had declared it was too cold (which may ring a bell amongst winemakers in Niagara and Prince Edward County). Montana took the chance, up in Marlborough, the very northernmost part of the island, and lo, the vines took root and multiplied. Cloudy Bay was established in 1985 by Cape Mentelle, the Western Australian company which was a partnership between Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and David Hohnen, the immensely courageous pioneer of the Margaret River region. Presumably Veuve Clicquot had their eyes on making bubbly in these cold but gifted hills – and they weren’t wrong. Cloudy Bay’s Pelorus is a lovely sparkler made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with pin-prick mousse and a classic yeasty nose. I tasted the 1993 when I was in Marlborough and loved it. But the 1991 was already showing its age – a tad jammy and oxidized. I have no doubt that the team has figured out the solution by now.
The Cloudy Bay, however, was simply dazzling – lean and svelt but sophisticated, powerful but elegant – I’m trying to think of an analogous movie star but no one springs to mind – wines are more perfect than actors. Kevin Judd poured three for me. The young 1997, just months old, was smashing – all gooseberries and passion fruit and the scent of green grass, full-bodied yet creamy, rich… There’s a dash of Semillon in there, à la Bordelaise, and some very discreet oak ageing – maybe 10 percent – just enough to add a little enriching cadmium yellow to the singing green of the Sauvignon Blanc.
We also tasted the 1994 which was going through some kind of in-vitro mid-life crisis, the fruit vanished from the nose, replaced by the scent of canned white asparagus. Then we opened a 1991 and the asparagus had completely disappeared, giving way to mature petrolly notes, a toastiness, as different from its own youth as a mature gasoline-citrus Mosel is from its steep, slate-clenched, lime-washed, minerally childhood. I asked if the 1991 had had more oak but Judd said no, it was just the maturity of the wine.
It was interesting to glimpse the future of the young, vibrant Cloudy Bay I had just tasted – to see what would become of the world-class athlete’s physical perfection when the whirligig of time had brought in his revenges.
And today I drank the latest vintage, now on sale at the LCBO. Still all youth and vigour and brilliance and creamy skin. The Apollonian God of Sauvignon Blanc. I tasted it alongside another treat, the cheddar and black pepper butter-based shortbread savoury figure-destroyers that are one of President’s Choice new Black Label products. Little drum-shaped temptations. Really really good. Right up there with Harbord Bakery’s spicy, anchovy-laced cheese straws – and that is praise indeed. The combo worked for me. But it was the Cloudy Bay that had the true cachet of genius.