Juddy Mosies On
1984. Kevin Judd, probably the quietest man in the wine business, walked into my office grinning like a giant clam and said he was into this new thing with David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle. But New Zealand? Yep. A place called Marlborough.
“We’re gonna plant sauvignon blanc”, he gurgled through his smoke. “Best place for it.”
I liked two sauvignons blanc: one yellow softy made at Angle Vale by Rocky O’Callaghan; the other was Hardy’s tawny fortified made from Bob Hardy’s ancient vines at upper Tintara. Wolf Blass had been buggering about with some, blended with riesling and aged in mostly American oak(!).
Then came the radical Vales blitzkriegs Iain Riggs made in ’81 and ’82, at Hazelmere Estate (now Serafino Maglieri’s). Riggsy used fruit from the Edge Dennis vineyard that d’Arenberg has just bought. He picked it into milk crates so the grapes wouldn’t squash and oxidise, chilled it, then gave it the Oenotech treatment devised by Dr. Tony Jordan and Brian Croser, using their distinctive R2 yeast. The wine was a blast: crisp, grassy and fresh as a lemon, with all those alarming R2 whiffs of banana and passionfruit.
R2 had been isolated by Croser at Chateau Rahoul near Sauternes in Bordeaux, where Len Evans was spending Peter Fox’s money. But the financially-challenged Fox solved his Adelaide Holdings problems by driving his Ferrari flat out into a concrete wall, and Peter Vinding-Diers bought Rahoul, to make exquisitely fine, almost brittle sauvignon blanc. The savvy-B explosion ignited, and soon Rob and Michael Hill Smith had a great lunch at Yalumba, where they served Vinding-Diers’ inspiration: “Y”, the dry savvy-B from the mighty home of sticky, Chateau d’Yquem, in Sauternes.
Sometimes d’Yquem picks its sauvignon early in the vintage to make a dry wine, rather than letting it botrytise with the semillon and go into the mighty sticky for which that Chateau is revered. There have been only 23 vintages of “Y” since the first in 1959.
So we guzzled our “Y” while the Smiths quizzed us over the chance of dry savvy-B becoming the next chardonnay. Rob eventually went in the viognier direction, and while I have a tape recording of Michael deriding savvy-B that day, he went on to make it a stalwart at Shaw and Smith. There was much discussion of the cat’s piss grassiness of the variety, which comes from its natural methoxypyrazines (3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine and 3-isopropyl-2-methoxypyrazine). These compounds are common to cabernet sauvignon, soursob, rhubarb, tomato leaves, and grass. Hemp, and jute, or hessian, is full of it, and sometimes austere sauvignons smell rather like superphosphate sacks, which combine the remnant methoxypyrazine with the smell of guano, which I reckon comes from combinations of sulphur, soil, and yeast.
Humans detect methoxypyrazine at around one part per trillion, which is like smelling one grape in the entire Australian crush. The grape manufactures it to deter predators, and only when the pip is ripe enough for germination does the vine suddenly cease its production and instead pumps sugar to attract said predators, which become incubators for those seeds.
Vignerons panic if they can’t get their savvy-B off quick enough in heatwaves, as the plants quite abruptly cease manufacturing this compound. On a hot day, the value of a crop can plummet in hours. The winery wants the methoxypyrazine for its distinction, but suddenly it disappears, leaving the grower with a grapeyard full of sugar but devoid of character and smothered in birds.
“I knew Stephen Hickinbotham was sniffing around Marlborough - he knew sauvignon had a future there”, Hohnen says. “He was first into everything. Kiwi sauvignon had the eyebrow factor: nose in the glass and up goes the eyebrows. But it was all too sweet and too acidic.
“Juddy instinctively knew what to do. He’d worked four vintages with Merrill at Reynella, then went to Selacks in New Zealand. We found three or four growers with 120 tonnes. They didn’t know what to do with it. Juddy made it after work. We built Cloudy Bay in ’86, and off it went.”
Kiwi savvy-B is now an international hit. Hohnen sold Cloudy Bay to Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey in 2000. In the twelve months to October, Australia drank 26 million litres ($206 million worth) of Kiwi white, most of it sauvignon blanc. Like Hohnen, Juddy’s off to make a little wine for himself, and get on with his first love, photography.
I would have liked to talk to Juddy about all this, but at the time of writing the Cloudy Bay people haven't responded to my enquiries.
You couldn’t squeeze another grape onto the Marlborough plain now - the vineyards are climbing over the hills. Google Yealands and you’ll get my drift. But too much of it’s mean greed, all acid and sugar, devoid of soul or balance. Same old tale.
At home, the world’s biggest wine company, Constellation, just won the top sauvignon blanc gong in the Adelaide Hills show with Oomoo, and while Rob Hill Smith’s waiting for viognier to become the next chardonnay, he still imports d’Yquem and, when they make one, the crunchy “Y”. They’re only $685.