Benchmarks matter. Especially for wine. And on Saturday night, despite a few too many IPA warm up beers, I managed a peek at the latest vintage of a Marlborough icon – the 2018 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
Cloudy Bay is the OG Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. An umbrella product, with a history dating back to a time when New Zealand was still Muller Thurgau country, that has served as a high tide to lift up many Marlborough Savvy boats.
I can clearly remember working in retail bottleshops fifteen years ago when Cloudy Bay was so popular that stocks were allocated and sold out within a few weeks of release. It was/is an icon. The milkshake that brought all the (thirsty hordes) to the yard.
But what about in 2019?
Locally, the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc market segment has changed dramatically. Prices are down (average price per litre was $10.01 in 2008, and just $6.22 in 2017), while volumes are up, and there remains an ocean of innocuous own brand Sauv washing around.
At the premium end, the competition for top dog Savvy is tougher than ever. And the best wines aren’t just machine harvested, pyrazine-heavy, one-wild-fermented-barrel, but-the-rest-in-tank, one trick ponies like they once were.
Look at the complexity of wines from Dog Point, Greywacke, Auntsfield, Churton et al. They’re genuinely clever, textural whites.
Which leads back to this 2018 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc – and a load of rhetorical questions. Has the veteran kept up with the contenders? Is it worth forking out $38 a bottle, when contemporary benchmarks are significantly cheaper? Or are you just paying a premium for the sticker?
Well, let’s start with the good bits. What I like is the unrelenting distinctiveness. From the opening lid twist you’re in Marlborough SB land. Gooseberry, passionfruit, a little herbs, ripe fruits and and ultra snappy finish. Aromatics and acid aplenty. I had it at Sydney’s East Ocean restaurant (aka the middling place you go when you can’t get into Golden Century), and with salty calamari it was perfectly refreshing. A wine in it’s natural environment (Sauv Blanc + mud crab = yeah).
But there’s this voice in my head that asks – where are the layers? I looked hard, searching, seeking Something More. A texture, a nuance. Something to say ‘there’s more going on than you realise’. There’s this subtle roundness on the edges that no doubt comes from some clever barrel work. Though it’s just that – sitting on the edges.
I know the vitality and the purity are key planks here. Like good, basic Trocken Riesling. Energy, not complexity. Yet there’s just this flat spot, as if it’s missing that 6th gear, and the acid just ends up harder than you really want.
Ultimately, the answer to all my questions was a resounding ‘meh’. There’s always this point when you second guess your judgement on great wines. You ask ‘is this it?’. It was it, and silver medal quality wine, no more.
Obviously I need to have it in a blind lineup of contemporaries, not following an icy Tsingtao at 9pm on a Saturday, to make a definitive judgement. 2018 was a hard year for Marlborough too (rainy finish). But I still wanted more. Expected more. Especially from a real luminary of NZ wine.
Am I asking too much?