Stories of entrepreneurs are usually inspiring, but not many tales are as dramatic as that of Cloudy Bay wines, whose makers are celebrating its 30th vintage.

This is the stuff of urban legend. One minute, a gung-ho Australian takes a couple of sips of Marlborough sauvignon blanc (1983), the following year he is travelling to Marlborough and unwittingly planting the seeds of one of the most successful wine brands in the last half century.

The man in question is David Hohnen. He was in Western Australia when he first tasted Marlborough sauvignon blanc, so he wasn't exactly handy to the region.

But his sixth sense back then of right time-right place enabled him to take the plunge and investigate further.


Today, Marlborough is New Zealand's largest wine region and home to approximately two-thirds of this country's roughly 35,000ha of grapes. Back then, the region was still devoted almost entirely to farming.

Wine was in its infancy. There were only a handful of wineries and muller-thurgau was the most-planted grape.

In 1985, Hohnen hired winemaker Kevin Judd, a fellow Australian who was working for Selaks at the time.

They bought sauvignon blanc grapes from growers in the region and made the first Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, later building what was to become one of the region's first five wineries.

Phrases such as fast journey, short time spring to mind but Hohnen was known for his business acumen, too.

His vibe about Marlborough, sauvignon blanc and New Zealand's cool climate all being ideal for aromatic white grapes was spot on.

He had already founded Cape Mentelle in Western Australia so he knew how to market a high-quality wine brand in a relatively small wine region.

His influence helped to cement Marlborough in the minds of wine drinkers globally, but it wasn't devoid of clever planning.


"Hohnen's gift to the New Zealand wine industry was not just a quality Marlborough sauvignon blanc sufficiently differentiated in taste to make it stand out from its grassy contemporaries, but a cleverly planned and implemented marketing plan," says Terry Dunleavy, the retired founder of the Wine Institute of New Zealand, also known as New Zealand Winegrowers.

"He did this by restricting supply to just below market demand, which was complemented by intelligent use of allocations. So buyers took up their full allocations as soon as they were offered," Dunleavy says.

Hohnen has long since severed his ties with the Cloudy Bay brand. He sold it to Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy in 2003, declaring that the company had become so large he had lost the ability to take part in the roles he most enjoyed.

Today, some of those roles are overseen by senior winemaker Tim Heath, who has had a busy year hosting events to mark the 30th anniversary of the brand.

Jim White, left, and Tim Heath from Cloudy Bay.
Jim White, left, and Tim Heath from Cloudy Bay.

The Cloudy Bay team recently launched the 30th vintage of their wine with the 2015 Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc. It landed on wine shelves earlier this month.

This wine is a little rounder, a little softer and has a slightly fuller body than many in the past, because of Heath's judicious use of oak.


"We have often used a touch of oak in the wine but this year we dialled it up to 10 per cent," Heath told me last month.

This is not because Heath plans to bring back the big fume blanc styles of the 1980s, but because the controlled oxidative effects of oak on a wine can pique wine drinkers' tastebuds by creating a point of difference.

Turns out, Heath is on trend.

Many Marlborough winemakers are delving into oak barrels to ferment portions of their most widely produced wine - sauvignon blanc, which now makes up 75 per cent of the grapes grown in the region.

Jamie Marfell, winemaker for Stoneleigh, has just released large volumes of the new Wild Valley brand, in which he incorporates oak in sauvignon blanc as well as using entirely indigenous yeasts to ferment the wine.

He did not add yeast to his ferment tanks, but waited for the yeasts in the environment to do the wild thing in the wine. Risky? Well, yes, but life would be dull otherwise, says Marfell.


"There's a reason Marlborough sauvignon blanc is successful today. It's because the winemakers here are trying harder than ever to make wines that taste good," he says.

"As a result, the wines today are a lot better than they were 10 years ago.

"They used to err on mean and green and, if you do a tasting that goes back five, six, seven or eight years, you can see we've moved a long way, in terms of overall style, taste and drinkability but also in the ability to make wines that can age and improve in the bottle," Marfell says.

Like Cloudy Bay's head winemaker, Tim Heath, Marfell recognises that wine drinkers want softness, roundness and seductive mouth feel as well as explosive flavour combos.

The two winemakers are being joined by a growing number of others who are working softness back into their wines by using oak.

"It's more about giving sauvignon blanc softness and approachability, which is supported by the wine's naturally high acidity, giving it freshness and zing," Heath says.


"We've been finding that people like the richness of flavour, the softness and approachability of the wine when it has had some oak influence. It doesn't make it taste oaky at all, but it adds complexity."

Tasting older sauvignon blancs is an interesting exercise, as Marfell suggests. It's a bit like watching MasterChef, but without the hype.

And rather than having to do it at home, wine drinkers are now able to pop to the supermarket to get their hands on interesting, divergent sauvignon blancs, as well as mainstream bottlings.

A lot has changed since 1985 when muller-thurgau ruled the vineyard roost in this country. And it has been a fast evolution rather than a revolution. Vive la difference.