New Zealand wine: The Cloudy Bay effect

A love affair with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

If you ask me, there is no better white wine to introduce to a novice wine drinker than a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I am proud to say that I have converted many a cautious dinner guest to the pleasures of this delicious variety. A typical evening usually starts with my friends or colleagues politely refusing the offer. "I really don't like white wine, most of all Chardonnay," they insist. "Don't worry," I answer, "this is nothing like Chardonnay, go on, try a glass." And they do, and in my experience the first sip is the start of a life-time love affair.

Of course, the variety has its critics and detractors: it is often said in the wine world that while there might be good Sauvignon Blancs, there are no great ones. I suspect though, that the vast majority of us simply fall in love with its pungent aromatics, without worrying too much about the difference between a good and great wine. Indeed, the growth of the popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc over the last 15-20 years in the UK is nothing short of phenomenal. Quite simply, the aromatic, intense style that New Zealand has produced from this grape variety has completely captivated our palates.

I also plead guilty to this affliction, much more now since I visited this stunning region in September and received the wonderful hospitality that the Kiwis are famous for. Marlborough is essentially a wine tourist's paradise: every major winery welcomes visitors, there are excellent restaurants, tasting rooms and guided tours. It is remarkable how geared up they are to welcome guests of all shapes and sizes, in contrast to regions like Bordeaux.

But what is more incredible about the rise of New Zealand Sauvignon, is the relatively short amount of time it has taken to win the hearts and minds of the UK's white wine drinkers. Prior to the early 1970s, New Zealand's most important wine region -Marlborough - didn't boast a single Sauvignon Blanc vine. In fact, Marlborough, at the northern tip of the South Island, is one of the newest wine regions in the country. Almost no wine was produced here until 1973, and now there are more than 100 growers, producing some of the country's best wines - Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.

For this phenomenon, we must give due credit to an Australian with a vision, David Hohnen. In 1984, Hohnen attended a wine fair in New Zealand at which he was able to identify Marlborough as the region responsible for a remarkably aromatic and intense flavoured wine. The next year he managed to raise enough money to buy some land in the region and founded the iconic winery Cloudy Bay. He brought their first vintage of Sauvignon Blanc to London in 1986, which quickly met with critical acclaim. The love-affair had started.

Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc set the template for many other New Zealand producers to follow and today various brands compete for our attention. Yet, despite ever bigger volumes and changing vineyard sources, Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon remains one of New Zealand's best. The stylish aromas and range of fruit flavours (nettles, blackcurrant leaf and tropical notes) are complemented by a structure that uncharacteristically (in Marlborough), allows the wine to age for years.

In addition, the evidence from the UK retail and restaurant trade suggests that the love affair with Cloudy Bay and Sauvignon continues unabated - of all wine-producing countries, New Zealand fetches the highest average price and even in these times of economic austerity, the latest Cloudy Bay vintage still sells out quickly after release. These wines command a price premium, one that consumers, both in restaurants and supermarkets have been more than willing to pay. The secret to Cloudy Bay's and Marlborough success - at least in my view - has been their acute understanding of what most of us want from our wines. It is all very well for wine writers to talk about length, elegance finesse, terroir, (the list goes on) but most of us want easily identifiable, delicious flavours, not abstract descriptors and Cloudy Bay/Marlborough Sauvignon has those in abundance.

That said, I don't want to give the impression that Marlborough is New Zealand's only important wine region. Some excellent Sauvignon Blancs emanate from Nelson in the south island and Hawke's Bay in the north, while superlative Bordeaux blends are Hawke's Bay's triumph, Central Otago in the south island produces powerful, dense Pinot Noir. New Zealand is simply a wine paradise and I suspect that the visitor would need at least a month to do it justice.

For those now in search of some excellent, but good value Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, I offer the five recommendations below. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc can be obtained from Majestic, although at a price, more than £20 in fact! The following bottles are on sale for less than £12.

2010/11 Jackson Estate Stich Sauvignon Blanc £11.99

Where to buy: www.majestic.co.uk

2012 The Ned Black Label Waihopai River Sauvignon Blanc £9.99

Where to buy: www.majestic.co.uk

2012 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc £9.99

Where to buy: Tesco

2011 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc £9.99

Where to buy: Tesco

2011 The Society's Exhibition Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc £10.50

Where to buy: www.thewinesociety.com