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Published: Saturday December 28, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday December 28, 2013 MYT 10:57:31 AM

Cloudy with a chance of wine

There are few things better than enjoying a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at the winemakers’ vineyards. -- THE STAR / Michael Cheang

There are few things better than enjoying a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at the winemakers’ vineyards. -- THE STAR / Michael Cheang

We pay a visit to Cloudy Bay Vineyards, arguably New Zealand’s best-known wine producer, for a special celebration of Pinot Noir.

IT was a sunny day at Cloudy Bay. The rays of sunshine cast its warm rays across the rolling hills of the Wairau Valley, illuminating the rows and rows of gnarly, leafless grapevines that dominated the landscape.

These gnarly plants may not seem like much now, but they would later burst into lush bushes and vines of green and gold, with glistening round grapes hanging from their boughs, ready to be harvested and turned into the liquid nectar that is Cloudy Bay wine.

However, it was only September during the time of my visit – winter was just about over, and springtime was looming on the horizon. It was a time to prune the vines, to give these wise old vines their annual haircut, so to speak, and prepare them for the approaching summer.

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Cloudy Bay winemaker and viticulturist Jim White, explaining the viticultural practises at Cloudy Bay Vineyards.

Cloudy Bay winemaker and viticulturist Jim White explaining the viticultural practices at Cloudy Bay
Vineyards.

As part of the media visit to Cloudy Bay in conjunction with their Pinot At Cloudy Bay event (more on that later), we were given an in-depth look at the winery’s viticulture practices. Besides a visit to the vineyards, as well as a wine-blending session, we were given a chance to prune some grapevines as well, which explains why I was standing in the middle of a vineyard, holding a pair of pruning shears in my hand, looking slightly confused, and hoping to high heavens that I don’t unintentionally ruin an entire harvest of grapes for Cloudy Bay.

Fortunately, pruning grapevines is quite simple, actually, and Cloudy Bay winemaker and viticulturist Jim White assured us that a bunch of journalists accidentally cutting a few wrong branches hardly constituted a plague of locusts.

“Don’t be scared about damaging the grapevines because we’re going to cut them all off next year anyway, and you can’t really do too much damage here,” he said. “Just don’t cut the trunks!”

After summer, grapevines tend to lose all their leaves and what they are left with is one strong, stout trunk, a few older and stronger branches, and a whole mess of smaller, upward-growing little branches that used to be those lush bushes of leaves and fruit. The job of the pruner, therefore, is to cut off these excess branches, determine which ones are strong enough to keep, and then tie them to the wire frames horizontally.

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Every year, Cloudy Bay hosts the annual Pinot At Cloudy Bay event, where wine lovers and critics congregate at the winery¿s cellar door to do a blind tasting of 18 different pinot noir wines from all over the world.

Every year, Cloudy Bay hosts the annual Pinot At Cloudy Bay event, where wine lovers and critics
congregate at the winery to do a blind tasting of 18 different pinot noir wines from all over the world.

Leaving just enough buds (about eight, on average) on each vine ensures there isn’t too much competition among the vines when they start shooting upwards, and that there is the optimal amount of fruit, not too much or too little, required to make their wines. It also ensures that the vines get enough sunlight exposure, which is important for the development of the fruit’s flavour.

So there I was, making my own little mark on a Cloudy Bay grapevine, and contributing a tiny bit towards the making of arguably the best-known wines from New Zealand. It may have been just a simple exercise, but it was a fascinating look at how every bottle of wine starts from a simple little task like cutting a few branches off an old vine.

Established in 1985 by David Hohnen, the founder of Australian winery Cape Mentelle from the Margaret River region, Cloudy Bay Vineyards is located in the Wairau Valley in Marlborough at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, just a stone’s throw away from the town of Blenheim.

The winery takes its name from the bay at the eastern end of the Wairau Valley, named by Captain Cook on his voyage to New Zealand in 1770, and is known as one of the pioneers of New Zealand wines and for establishing Marlborough as a renowned wine-growing region. Though they are probably most famous for their Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay’s other main varieties include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as lesser quantities of Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.

Cloudy Bay wines are exported to over 30 markets worldwide, the principal ones being Australia, Britian, Europe, Japan and the United States. It is distributed in Malaysia by Moët Hennessy Diageo Malaysia.

Getting to know Pinot

Every year around September, Cloudy Bay hosts the annual Pinot At Cloudy Bay event, where wine-lovers and critics congregate at the winery’s cellar door to do a blind tasting of 18 different Pinot Noir wines from all over the world, carefully selected by the curators from Cloudy Bay, and to further appreciate the wonders of Pinot Noir.

The wines were divided into three ¿brackets¿ of six, presumably to allow the palate to rest in between each bracket.
The wines were divided into three ¿brackets¿ of six, presumably to allow the palate to rest in between each bracket.

This was more than a tasting for me. It was an education of sorts. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not exactly a wine expert, and that this was probably the first time I was participating in a blind tasting of that scale. However, as the first six wines were poured (the wines were divided into three “brackets” of six, presumably to allow the palate to rest in between wines), I was drawn, sip by sip, into a world of wine I never knew existed, and given a lesson on the finer points of Pinot Noir wines, on how different regions can produce different pinots, how Old World and New World wines can be so similar yet so different, and how even though each wine comes from the same variety of grapes, each wine would have its own uniqueness. 

Anyway, this was not a competition. We were not out to decide which Pinot Noir was better than the other. This was more of an appreciation of what good Pinot Noir is, and to see how New Zealand’s own Pinot Noir stands up to the rest of the world.

“This is Cloudy Bay’s perspective of what we think are interesting Pinot Noir wines, and you’re seeing the world of Pinot Noir from the lens of the Cloudy Bay team,” said Cloudy Bay estate director Ian Morden during an interview after the tasting.

According to him, Pinot At Cloudy Bay was conceived 14 years ago as a forum to expose local New Zealand winemakers to the best Pinot Noir wines from all over the world.

“To make great wine, one needs to taste great wine,” he said “Since the event started, New Zealand Pinot Noir has evolved and developed and has become much more sophisticated than it was 14 years ago.

“One of the purposes of this event is to show an interesting and representative example of the great Pinot Noirs of the world to the audience here, and to challenge ourselves, to see how our own wines compare.

“We also want encourage debate and discussion about how a great Pinot Noir should be, so that we can keep improving. We’re really only at the beginning of the journey with Pinot Noir in New Zealand.”

For this year’s Pinot event, Cloudy Bay winemaker Nick Lane worked with Australian writer, judge and independent wine consultant Sophie Otton in curating the wine selection.

“The wines I chose were the ones I know in the Australian market and had quite a reputation too. Our main criteria were based on reputation, consistency,” said Otton. “Vine age was very important to us, because it’s really hard to get that depth and complexity and wow factor if you haven’t got some strong vine material.”

Two of Cloudy Bay’s wines were also included in the line-up, namely the Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 2010, and the Te Wahi Pinot Noir 2010, the winery’s first Pinot Noir away from Marlborough, made with grapes from its Central Otago vineyards.

“We put our own wines in there as a challenge to ourselves, and it’s always nerve-wracking to see how people respond to our wines without the label!” Morden said with a laugh. “But it’s a really good challenge to do this every year and make sure our wines stay relevant and stand up there with the rest.”

White, who was also at the event, reckoned that the Cloudy Bay wines manage to hold their own, though he stressed that that was not the point of the exercise.

“In this sort of tasting, there’s always a temptation to try and pick your own wines, but I try to avoid that and keep an open mind and just examine the wines purely and try not to guess which are mine!” he said. “Blind tastings are interesting because once you take the labels away, you’re only judging the wine purely on quality.”

According to him, what he found surprising about this year’s Pinot At Cloudy Bay was that some of the highest rating wines in the line-up turned out to be some of the cheapest.

“It shows that there are some great value wines out there. Pinots tend to generally be on the more expensive end of things in the world of red wines, and that’s reflective of the work that goes into the vineyard and where they are grown. But this proves that there are some delicious wines for not a huge amount of money.”

So, what exactly is a good Pinot Noir, then? “With a Pinot, you’re looking for that pure expression of Pinot Noir fruits, so we’re in that red fruit and dark red fruit spectrums, you want floral notes, and flowing through on the palate, you want a wine that’s got good structure, with a generous juiciness of fruit, interplayed with some savoury spice characters and earthiness,” said White. “It should have good character, good acidity on the palate, and some good length – ultimately, that’s what we’re looking for in a good Pinot Noir.”

> For further information about Cloudy Bay, visit www.cloudybay.co.nz or www.mhdm.com.my.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, pinot noir, wine, Cloudy Bay, New Zealand

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