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Peter May's view from 'Snorbens'
Episode Three: Cloudy Bay
© Peter May
4 August 2002

We had a New Zealand teacher at school who filled our heads with tales from the land of the long white clouds. One that grabbed our attention was about the fierce Mary's, a tribe with an awesome war dance that we could often prompt our teacher to demonstrate. Their name - Mary - didn't seem very warlike, but we had visions of an Amazon like race of ferocious female warriors. It was some weeks before we realised that he was talking about Maori's.

Our perception of New Zealand wines has gone through a similar transition. First we didn't believe wine was made, then we doubted it was any good, through acceptance that white wines are good but decent reds couldn't be made to the position we are in today. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the standard against which other countries are measured. Red wines are getting rave reviews and Pinot Noir looks set to finally break the 'can't be made outside Burgundy' mindset.

Cloudy Bay is an icon. It's the New Zealand wine everyone has heard of and the one that everyone wants. You need to cultivate a store manager to get a bottle of Cloudy Bay from his back room, or buy a mixed case containing eleven wines they are having trouble moving to get the one Cloudy Bay you want.

Before I go any further let me make it clear that when I - and anyone else in the UK - says Cloudy Bay, they mean the Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other wines may be sold under the CB label, but the only one that matters here is the Sauvignon Blanc.

I have never seen a bottle of Cloudy Bay in a UK wine shop. The wine has achieved such a cult status that if the shop staff don't keep it for themselves they ration it out to favoured customers.

My friend Paul Mapplebeck, who runs the Central London Wine Society, organises an annual wine dinner for a country wine club. Many years ago he bought a case of Cloudy Bay which became an instant club tradition. Every year since then the dinner has been graced by a case of CB. But where originally Paul just bought a case of the wine, nowadays he expends a lot of effort over many months to try and collect a dozen bottles from sometimes a dozen sources. I've seen him chatting up a store manager at a tasting to get a promise of one bottle saved for him, and all his friends know to phone him immediately they hear of any CB for sale.

Earlier this year the UK Wine Discussion forum was abuzz with news of a small branch of Unwin's wine store chain with bottles of Cloudy Bay on view in their chiller cabinet. It seems the regular manager was on holiday when the wine was delivered and an assistant, not realising its status, put it on display.

Only once have I managed to buy a bottle of Cloudy Bay. That was in 2000 while working in Texas when I found a lonely bottle from an old vintage in a wine store in Austin. Hugging myself with glee I bought it and eventually brought it home to the UK. When I opened it with dinner I was rather disappointed. Pleasant, but not as good as other New Zealand SBs; it wasn't as intense and the gooseberry flavours I love were muted. It had probably faded with age, or storage or all the travelling it had seen.

But many UK pundits now say that Cloudy Bay isn't as good as it was and recommend other NZ Sauvignon Blancs offering better quality and value. They remark on the change of ownership, say that many of the vineyards that provided grapes for CB are now using them to make their own wine, and that production has been expanded at the expense of quality. But to make those dismissive comments you have to be able to drink the wine, and it's rarer than a free parking space in London.

An amazing coincidence occurred. While writing this episode about Cloudy Bay's iconic status in the UK and its rarity, the Wine Society's summer list arrived. Browsing it over lunch I found, highlighted in the red ink used for new entries:-

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2001. New Zealand's leading sauvignon blanc which has a cult following in this country. Demand outstrips supply. Hence quantities are restricted. Low Stock. Maximum three bottles per member. 12.50.

Oh no, I thought. If only I'd opened the envelope when it arrived this morning instead of waiting till lunchtime. Fearing the allocation had already been snapped up I phoned the Wine Society and learned that, although it was selling fast, they still had some bottles. I immediately drove to the Society's cellars in Stevenage, about 40 minutes from Snorbens. Running in I found the NZ section and - wonder of wonders - saw the monochrome labels lurking on a bottom shelf. With a spring in my step and soppy smile on my face I gathered my allowed three bottles.

After resting my Cloudy Bay in a wine cabinet for a week I opened the first one with a dinner of grilled plaice, boiled baby potatoes, peas and side salad. Pale straw colour, good grassy nose, full bodied with grassy tones, green peppers and a medium length aftertaste. Good but not earthmoving. Where were my wheelbarrow loads of gooseberries? Oh dear, I'm turning into one of those who say Cloudy Bay isn't as good as it was. I never had it when it was making its name, but I've had other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs that I prefer to the 2001 Cloudy Bay. I want my gooseberries!

Just as I've finally managed to get some Cloudy Bay in my cellar I find they've moved the goal posts. Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc has been downgraded in the cult stakes by their introduction of a premium label, 'Te Koko' supposedly 'offering character and complexity'. What's that about? You couldn't get more premium than Cloudy Bay, so is this new wine an admission that Cloudy Bay isn't what it was and no longer has 'character and complexity'? Why not put the effort into maintaining Cloudy Bay's quality?

One thing is certain - if Te Koko is as difficult to buy as Cloudy Bay has been, then I don't expect to be seeing any for ten years.

Your correspondent ends this episode slightly disappointed and rather confused.

© Peter May
4 August 2002

Any feedback? Send it to Peter.

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