The word that needs to be emphasised here, however, is “eating” because the grapes are White’s babies, which each season he and the estate mangers help to protect and nurture on the vines. Then winemakers Tim Heath, Nick Blampied-Lane and Sarah Burton have the job of pressing them and later blending the precious barrel contents to make the wine.
But before that, there’s much grape tasting to be done, which like wine tasting, is vital to producing good wine.
Cloudy Bay has 200 hectares of grapes, and another 200 hectares of grower vineyards spread throughout the Wairau Valley. White spends much of his time driving from vineyard to vineyard, tasting and checking the grapes, until he judges them to be just right.
Sauvignon Blanc, says White, “is an incredibly naked wine. What you taste on the vine you taste in the wine” which is why “fruit quality is everything to us”. And why many grapes must be eaten, including a lot of under-ripe, tart fruit, before perfect juicy goodness explodes in the mouth.
“Our job is to catch sauvignon blanc on the ideal day. We have a two day window to get the flavor right,” White says.
Then it’s full production mode. The sauvignon blanc grapes are sourced from estate and grower vineyards in the Rapaura, Fairhall, Renwick and Brancott sub-regions of the Wairau Valley and harvested by machine. There are several reasons for not picking by hand. It allows Cloudy Bay to harvest the grapes at dawn and dusk, when the fruit is still cool which means the grapes retain their vibrancy. Machine harvesting also breaks the skins which helps extract phenolic compounds from the skin. When these compounds make contact with yeast it ferments and creates a passionfruit flavour that has helped create Cloudy Bay sauvignon for what it is today, and “shown to be an important part of the wine style”.
Spring frosts are a viticultural challenge where temperatures can get to minus 2 degrees celsius on the ground. When frost threatens helicopters are used to fly over the vines and stir up the cold air so it doesn’t settle. The rotors blow the warm air from up high down to the ground to ensure the temperature is not below zero.
It’s a crucial time when the vines are flowering or in bud. The new tendrils and shoots are incredibly delicate and vulnerable to frost, and if “frosted” they won’t produce fruit.
Last year Cloudy Bay had seven helicopter callouts which adds up in cost, but as White points out “you can lose an entire crop in an evening here”.
“Spring time is pretty scary. It comes down to how much you are willing to risk? We have high value fruit and we really need to make sure we protect that,” he says.
White sums up the 2012 season as “nerve wracking”. It started as a record-breaking season but not for the reasons one would like. Summer had the lowest temperature and sunshine levels Marlborough had experienced in 80 years with the cool conditions resulting in poor flower set, reducing yields by 25 per cent.
“There was a time during the season when it was hard to believe the fruit was ever going to ripen,” says White.
However, autumn provided a month of mild, sunny and dry weather which relieved all concerns.
With cold growing season temperatures there is a risk of acquiring an edge of unripe, green characters in Sauvignon Blanc.
Cloudy Bay vineyards are located on stony, free draining soils and these sites act as heat traps, helping the fruit achieve optimal ripeness. Cloudy Bay’s carefully selected vineyards have produced consistently ripe, attractive flavours in its 2012 wines.
Harvest commenced two weeks later than average but allowed for excellent flavour development without any associated increase in alcohol.
“The flavours that I saw in our vineyards were some of the strongest I have seen in my eight years at Cloudy Bay,” says winemaker Tim Heath. “It was a season that really put your decision making to the test but it had all the ingredients that a winery team would have on their harvest ‘wish list’ … a sense of excitement, low yields, long slow ripening, and resulting wines with excellent concentration and balance.”