It’s 10:20am on a Wednesday morning as we nose our way through the pea-green waters of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds and inch closer to the Cloudy Bay experience.
This northern tip of Te Waipounamu (South Island of New Zealand) is one of the main entry points to Marlborough, the country’s largest wine region, noted for producing intense, aromatic sauvignon blanc, but is now just as celebrated for outstanding chardonnay and pinot noir.
It’s fitting, then, as Viola skipper Pete McLean and crewman David McGill tack to catch the changeable breezes of Grove Arm, Cloudy Bay’s Natasha Goosen is in the galley chilling bottles of Pelorus, the vineyard’s fresh, aperitif-style sparkling wine.
Sip and Sail with Cloudy Bay…
I’ll enjoy two wines on this half-day sailing excursion with Cloudy Bay (and several more throughout my two-day stay). While the boat is under sail, I’ll down a flute of fizzing Pelorus, biting into chef Yolande McGill’s grilled figs topped with goat cheese, Mānuka honey and roasted pistachio nuts (the figs are fresh from Yolande’s Blenheim garden). Later, I’ll sip a glass of Cloudy Bay’s world-famous sauvignon blanc moored in sunny Kumutoto Bay as Yolande’s sweet, nutty pumpkin soup is served for lunch.
Right now, however, it’s all hands (and feet) on deck. One of our eight-person crew has spied what looks like a black fin poking out of the waves across the channel. “Quick, over there!” Destination Marlborough media executive Bri Flowerday calls out, getting her iPhone in position to video what she suspects is a pod of feeding dolphins.
Sails down, engine on, Pete motors towards the curious shapes in the distance. But before we even arrive, Bri’s hopes are realized as a tiny gray and black Hector’s dolphin breaks the ocean’s surface to ride the yacht’s wake.
Just as well. Instead of dolphins, we’re eventually greeted by half a dozen New Zealand fur seals lolling on their backs, holding their flippers aloft to catch the warmth of the New Zealand sun.
Marlborough: New Zealand’s World-Famous Wine Region…
According to Tourism New Zealand, approximately 242,000 US visitors traveled to New Zealand in the year before Covid.
Some traveled to the 6,500 square mile (10,500km2) Marlborough region to relax in nature by hiking or biking the 43-mile (70km) Queen Charlotte Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Others came to explore the region’s ancient waterways by air or boat, see wildlife like dolphins and stay in a local resort or crib (vacation home).
Those in-the-know, traveled to Marlborough to experience its world-class food and wine, understanding something of Marlborough’s reputation as the capital of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and its production heft (the region produces 75 percent of New Zealand’s wine).
The Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Story…
On the foredeck of Voila, guest relations manager Nicola Hewett explains Cloudy Bay’s vital role in Marlborough’s wine story.
“Cloudy Bay’s 1985 sauvignon blanc not only became one of the world’s most famous white wines, but it also forever changed the world’s view of what white wine could and should taste like.”
We can thank the man behind that first vintage, says Nicola, an Australian named David Hohnen, founder of Margaret River’s Cape Mentelle winery in Western Australia.
The story goes that not long after tasting Marlborough sauvignon blanc at home in Australia, David went on to recruit winemaker Kevin Judd, acquire tonnes of Marlborough grapes and famously launch the wine that would stir up the London Wine Show, win gold at the New Zealand Export Wine awards and achieve the accolade of best sauvignon in the world as voted by Wine magazine.
“The stories of that time are pretty incredible,” adds Nicola, as the wind picks up and Voila pushes deeper into the Sounds. “In those early years, some markets would completely sell out. Stores in Australia and in London would advertise the number of days until the new Cloudy Bay would be released on blackboards. Harrods, so I’m told, had a clock counting down the days to the first of October, our annual release date. I remember one year we had our newest release under lock and key! There just wasn’t the same stock availability in those early days. But the interest and customer demand was huge.”
Today, Marlborough is considered a region synonymous with world-class wine, in part, due to the popularity of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc. In 1996, it became the first New Zealand wine to rank in the Wine Spectator Top Wines of the World list (it ranked seventh).
These days, the region is home to more than 150 wineries producing a range of varieties from pinot noir to Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Since the purchase of Cloudy Bay by global luxury goods brand Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) in 2003, Cloudy Bay’s own range has expanded to include the Champagne-influenced sparkling Pelorus, a smooth, elegant chardonnay as well as the Te Wahi pinot noir (following Cloudy Bay’s move into Central Otago) and others.
“It’s a far cry from the 1970s,” says Nicola, as David drops the anchor, and we gather in the cockpit for a glass of 2021 sauvignon blanc in the sun. “Back then, only a few hundred hectares of vines existed in the region. New Zealand’s wine industry has grown quicker in one generation than anyone can quite believe.”
Vineyard Tour with Jimmy Rawdon…
It’s easy, yet informative chats like these that punctuate my stay with Cloudy Bay.
“Let me introduce, Dave!” says vineyard guide Jimmy Rawdon cheerfully, when he picks me up for a vineyard tour in a vintage 1985 Land Rover Defender affectionately known as ‘Dave’. During the 75-minute tour, we drive and walk amongst the grapes, taking time to jump out and run the vineyard’s sandy free-draining soils between our fingers and discuss the winery’s commitment to sustainable wine growing.
Cloudy Bay’s Central Otago vineyards are on track to achieve organic certification shortly. In Marlborough, the goal is to eliminate herbicides from nearly all vineyards by 2027.
From the literal high point of the tour, on a golden hill overlooking Cloudy Bay’s Mustang vineyard, Jimmy parks up and pours him and me a chilled glass of Pelorus. Strolling across the dry grass, flute in hand, he explains the sparkling wine is made using the time-honored méthode traditionnelle of Champagne before going on to explain the story behind its name.
“I’m not kidding, we can thank a famous dolphin, says Jimmy. “Pelorus Jack became well known for escorting ships traveling between Pelorus Sound and the tricky waters of French Pass between Wellington and Nelson during the late 1800s. People reported seeing him for more than 20 years and thought of him as a mascot of warmth and hospitality, which is why he’s part of the Cloudy Bay identity today.” (He features on the top of every bottle).
Private Dining at the Cloudy Bay Guest House…
That afternoon, at Cloudy Bay’s luxury guest house, I sink into a deck chair on the lawn and look across the valley to the Richmond Range, drowned in tawny light. Behind me, Natasha sets the table for tonight’s chef-cooked dinner.
On the menu is a range of dishes designed to showcase the best seasonal ingredients of the region. We’ll start with fresh Marlborough oysters topped with a Pelorus and grapefruit granita, followed by salmon tartare and a main dish of tender New Zealand lamb paired with Cloudy Bay’s 2019 pinot noir. To finish, we’ll have dark chocolate mousse and a glass of earthy Te Wahi pinot noir from Cloudy Bay’s Central Otago vineyards.
Pausing briefly to join me on the lawn, Natasha says: “In the very early days of Cloudy Bay, on sunny afternoons just like this one, David and his team would stand on the grass where you are now. With a glass and a bottle of Cloudy Bay, they’d just look at that range, take a minute and reflect.”
Today, the luminous outline of the Richmond Range features on the label of every bottle of Cloudy Bay wine, referencing this very view.
“We have three distinct winegrowing regions here in Marlborough,” explains Cloudy Bay communications manager Kat Mason later that night as we gather around the open fire before dinner. “The Awatere Valley is known for minerality and crispness. The Southern Valleys with its clay soils were the region’s first vineyards. And, finally, Wairau Valley where we are now. Here, the maritime climate is warm and its soils perfect for producing wines that are delicious and easy to drink.”
To underline Kat’s point, the Pelorus rosé, smelling like strawberries and fresh bread and subtly tasting of cranberries and roasted almonds, is served. And with that first sip dissolving in our mouths, we raise our glasses to great company and the delicious meal – and wines – to come.
Visit Cloudy Bay in Marlborough, New Zealand…
Base yourself at The Secret Shack, a striking luxury guest house in the heart of Cloudy Bay’s Marlborough vineyards. Designed to connect the landscape, sunlight, and vineyard, you’ll find it’s an easy walk from Cloudy Bay’s cellar door. Suitable for up to eight guests, The Shack is an ideal place to relax, eat and drink the best Marlborough has to offer, while contemplating where Cloudy Bay began (the original farmhouse occupied the same site).
Get there by driving down a gravel road through a copse of trees to an open gateway. Enter the front door to experience an open plan timber interior, floor-to-ceiling glass windows and views across the valley. Guests are invited to make full use of the private guest house as part of a two-or-three-day stay designed by Cloudy Bay especially for you. Schedule a vineyard tour by car or helicopter. Have a local chef cook you a wine-paired lunch or dinner. Enjoy a private tasting of Cloudy Bay wines at The Shack or on Cloudy Bay’s yacht as you sail the pea-green waters of the Marlborough Sounds. (You can even listen to the sounds of Cloudy Bay on Spotify as a preparation before you come).
Discover more: cloudybay.co.nz
About New Zealand…
New Zealand is about 1,100 miles southeast of Australia, with a population of five million people. Seasons in New Zealand are the opposite of those in the United States. Known as Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, New Zealand comprises two large islands, the North and South Islands, as well as hundreds of smaller ones. Currency is the New Zealand Dollar. Tipping is not typically practiced in New Zealand.
Travel to New Zealand | Air New Zealand has resumed direct flights from six major US centers to New Zealand. Learn more online at: airnewzealand.com/flights-to-new-zealand
Travel to Marlborough | Marlborough is a 90-minute flight from Auckland and a 30-minute flight from Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. By car, it’s 20 minutes from Picton, if you’re arriving by ferry, 90 minutes from Nelson and a scenic four-hour drive from Christchurch.
Getting to Cloudy Bay | Find the Cloudy Bay cellar door at 230 Jackson Road, Blenheim.