Dynamic Duo Changing the Face of Kiwi Wine . . . Again

After helping Cloudy Bay bring New Zealand wines to the world’s attention with its racy Sauvignon Blanc — Cloudy Bay’s 1985 Sauvignon Blanc awakened Americans to New Zealand’s potential for making unique wine — Ivan Sutherland and James Healy are changing the New Zealand wine industry again.

This time it’s with their winery, Dog Point.  Despite their longstanding and continuing connection with Cloudy Bay, Dog Point Winery is not a clone of Cloudy Bay.  Sutherland and Healy, along with other New Zealand producers, are moving in a new direction — and I bet more New Zealand wineries will follow — with a focus on up-scale, high-quality barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Sutherland, who became Cloudy Bay’s viticulturist in 1986, met Healy when he became Cloudy Bay’s winemaker in 1991.  They’ve worked well together there for over a decade.  Sutherland’s connection to Cloudy Bay goes back to before he was their viticulturist, to when he sold them grapes. Sutherland and his wife, Margaret, are one of the largest private vineyard owners in Marlborough, the area at the northern tip of the South Island that has become renowned for Sauvignon Blanc.

They have continued to supply Cloudy Bay with grapes even after the establishment of Dog Point Vineyard and have no plans to discontinue that relationship. About 25 percent of their harvest will be used in Dog Point wines.  Cloudy Bay has long-term contracts to purchase the rest.

A Man with Vision

Sutherland has always had vision and determination.  He won an Olympic Bronze Medal in 1976 as a member of the New Zealand rowing team.  He and his wife were among the first to see the potential for Sauvignon Blanc and other premium varietals in Marlborough, a cattle grazing region as recently as the mid-1970s.  Although he was not the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough — the large New Zealand company, Montana, takes credit for that — they were among the first private vineyard owners in Marlborough when they planted what was to become Dog Point Vineyard in 1979.

The land they purchased was already planted with Muller-Thurgau vines, which they promptly uprooted and replanted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, because their research told them these varietals were superior for their location.

They were smart enough — although at the time the locals thought them to be crazy and worse, wasteful — to plant these varietals on rootstock, an expensive undertaking, but which protected them from phylloxera, the vine-destroying bug, when it tore through the region in the 1980s.  As a result, the Sutherlands have now some of the oldest Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines in the Marlborough region. (Old vines typically produce grapes — hence wine — with the greatest complexity).

Sutherland’s passion in wine is Burgundy — that’s what he and his wife like to drink — which goes a long way in explaining the style of Dog Point’s Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  He and Healy think Marlborough is particularly well suited to Pinot Noir, better than New Zealand’s Central Otago, which they say has an even more marginal climate than Burgundy.

Marlborough’s Pinot Noir in the past have been hampered by clones more suited to sparkling as opposed to still wines and very young vines.  They predict that some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir will be coming from the Marlborough region in the future.

Sauvignon has been Good/Bad for Marlborough

Although Sauvignon Blanc is the most widely planted grape in Marlborough and certainly the wine that is emblematic of the New Zealand wine industry, Sutherland believes it is the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Marlborough region.  It has, accordingly to Sutherland, ‘distracted us from the other varieties, such as Pinot Noir, for which the region is extremely well suited.’

Ironically, he believes the phylloxera epidemic in the 1980s was the ‘best thing that happened in Marlborough,’ because it allowed ‘us to get rid of Muller Thurgau, Chenin Blanc, Palomino and other lower quality grapes’ and plant Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and other, better, varieties.

Most Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks to capture the inherent zesty quality of the grape grown in that region.  This technique produces consistently refreshing and satisfying wines ideal for matching with seafood or spicy Asian cuisine.  Sauvignon Blanc’s only drawback — whether it’s from Marlborough, California or France — is that, with rare exception, it lacks complexity.

Top producers in Sancerre, such as Didier Gageneau or Henri Bourgeois, make complex wine from Sauvignon Blanc — combining minerality with the refreshing citric edge — because the vines are planted in unique sites.  Winemakers in the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux often blend Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc or employ subtle barrel fermentation and aging to add complexity to the wine.

Barrel Fermentation and Aging

Sutherland believes they can add complexity with barrel fermentation and aging without obliterating the inherent character of the grape.  Their aim is to increase the texture and broaden the flavors of the wines, as in Burgundy, not to make them ‘bigger.’

To that end, they block malolactic fermentation (the bacterial transformation of harsher malic acid to creamier lactic acid) to avoid masking the varietal character of Sauvignon Blanc.  Although blending Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc could add complexity to the finished wine, he notes that producers in Marlborough are moving away from that grape because it doesn’t ripen well, imparting grassy flavors to the wine.

Although Dog Point Vineyard’s largest production — accounting for 60 percent of its 12,000 annual cases – is a stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc, the first wine they released was a barrel fermented one, the 2002 Sauvignon Blanc Section 94, named after a plot in the vineyard.  Healy said, ‘It put everyone on notice that we were doing things differently.’

It would have been easy, even natural, for them to release a stainless steel Sauvignon Blanc, the type of wine they perfected while working at Cloudy Bay.  But, Healy continued, ‘We wanted to make a point that we were serious about quality.’ Their aim is to produce a quality brand with a distinct regional definition.

They believe that both hand harvesting and low yields help account for the quality of their wines.  Although expensive and rarely employed for Sauvignon Blanc, Healy and Sutherland believe hand harvesting allows them to work with cleaner fruit, which means less manipulation in the winery.

Their yields are low.  While the average Sauvignon Blanc yield in New Zealand is about 4.3 tons of grapes per acre, theirs is just less than 3 tons per acre for Sauvignon Blanc and about 2 tons per acre for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (Grapes from low yielding plots are more flavor-packed, which translates into more concentrated wines).

The Wines

While Sutherland and Healy were in Boston visiting with their importer, Fred Ek of ExCellars, I had the opportunity to taste all of the Dog Point wines they have made except the 2004 Sauvignon Blanc, the first stainless steel fermented wine they produced.  Ek’s track record at introducing us to leading producers, such as Guigal, Baumard and Comte Lafon when they were unknown on these shores, is superb and is reason enough to look long and hard at any addition to his portfolio.

Sutherland and Healy were both still working at Cloudy Bay in 2002 and 2003, Dog Point Vineyard’s first two vintages.  By the 2004 vintage they both had left Cloudy Bay and had their own winery and total control of vinification, which explains the unmistakable leap in quality and finesse in the wines between the 2003 and 2004 vintage.  Both Sutherland and Healy, echoing other New Zealand producers, were raving about the quality across all varietals, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in 2006.

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($22, ExCellars): Clean and bright, with nuances of grapefruit rind, Dog Point’s 2005 Sauvignon Blanc is a worthy example from that vintage.  89

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2006 ($21, ExCellars): Herbal, even slightly minty flavors complement the emblematic citric quality of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It’s lively without being aggressive.  Even without barrel fermentation, Dog Point manages to coax complexity from the grapes.  91

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc ‘Section 94’ 2004 ($33, ExCellars): You feel, but do not taste, the effect of barrel fermentation and aging.  It enhances and contributes to the wine’s length and elegance.  A lovely creamy texture atop the typical grapefruit edginess gives it remarkable balance and makes this a unique Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. 94

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc ‘Section 94’ 2005 (Not yet released, ExCellars):  A younger version of the 2004, the vibrant citric edge predominates at this stage.  Judging by the 2004, this wine will come together nicely by the time it reaches our shores in March.90

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Chardonnay 2004 ($33, ExCellars):  Although I haven’t tasted them all, this Chardonnay must rank with the very best ones New Zealand has to offer.  Creamy, classy and rich, the texture and flavors are balanced by invigorating acidity.  The mineral quality so common in white Burgundy, but so often lacking in New World Chardonnay, is apparent. 94

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Chardonnay 2005 (Not yet released, ExCellars): A younger version of the 2004, it has all the hallmarks of great wine — balance and length.  It’s just tightly wound at this stage, but should open beautifully in another year. 91

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 2004 ($40, ExCellars): They are correct about the potential for Pinot Noir in Marlborough judging from their 2004 and 2005.  The 2004 has an alluring — and surprising given its young age — maturity of leafy nuances in the nose and on the palate.  Lovely red fruit flavors and a dried mushroom character emerge with time as the wine sits in the glass. 92

Dog Point, Marlborough (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 2005 (Not yet released, ExCellars):  Dog Point’s 2005 Pinot Noir is a gorgeous wine that combines bright fruit flavors and an enchanting gamy earthiness.  Its ripe — but not overdone — flavors grab your attention, but its complexity and length is what makes you come back for more. 94

January 16, 2007