The Future of Cloudy Bay: Interview with Jean-Guillaume Prats


Interview conducted and written by Elissa Jordan of  Winefulness.

When Ian Morden made the decision to swap Cloudy Bay for Mission Bay in September of this year, President and CEO of Estates & Wines for the Moët Hennessy Wine Division, Jean-Guillaume Prats, saw two choices available to him: hire again from within Australasia or look further afield. Prats opted for the latter. 

“We have a strong technical team at Cloudy Bay,” said Prats. “There is no need to change what is working extremely well. This allowed us to look outside New Zealand and Australia for someone who could increase exports without losing the domestic market.”

Exports to China, specifically. 

“China is a boiling market for red wines, especially Pinot Noir,” he said. “There is an upper middle class there that is extremely thirsty for quality red wines.”

And so the new Estate Director for Cloudy Bay will be Yang Shen, who joins Cloudy Bay after five years in Ningxia, China, where he played an integral role in establishing Domaine Chandon China. Yang has also helped the Cloudy Bay team establish a foothold in both China and India, so he’s familiar with the brand, the wine and the people involved.

While the appointment of Yang Shen is certain, much else remains unconfirmed. 

“We’re still on a learning curve with Central Otago, so exactly what will happen there, I don’t know,” Prats explained. “And beyond Central Otago, what do we want to do with Pelorus? And where do we want to grow and how do we do it properly? These are all questions Yang will need to work through with the team already in place.

“Yang’s clear mandate is to not change what is working. We don’t want a revolution. What we do want is to fine tune the strategy. We’re in a strong position where we can take the time needed to do just that.”

Jean-Guillaume Prats was in New Zealand late last week and he made the time for a handful of interviews to talk about the appointment of Yang Shen as the new Estate Director for Cloudy Bay as well as the strategy for the brand. A strategy that is heavy on Pinot Noir. 

Cloudy Bay has been producing Pinot Noir in Marlborough since 1989 but in 2011 they expanded into Central Otago with the purchase of two vineyards, including part of the iconic Calvert vineyard on Felton Road. In short they plan to make use of their brand and vast distribution network to reach a greater audience than Burgundy for both the good, reliable Pinot Noir made in Marlborough and the more serious, age-worthy wines of Central Otago. The longer version of the strategy is fleshed out in the Q&A below. 

President and CEO of Estates & Wines for the Moët Hennessy Wine Division, Jean-Guillaume Prats

President and CEO of Estates & Wines for the Moët Hennessy Wine Division, Jean-Guillaume Prats

Wine Sentience: So why Central Otago and why Pinot Noir? For a brand that made its name on Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, why put so much emphasis going forward outside both the region and the variety you’re known for?  

Essentially we can’t increase production of Sauvignon Blanc. If we expand outside our current plantings we’ll lose style and quality, so we have little room to maneuver with Sauvignon. And so we’re going to push Pinot Noir and develop it alongside Sauvignon Blanc as a second pillar.

And while Marlborough is already an extremely important pinot producing region for us, the wines produced there are lifestyle wines for early drinking with less ageability. Central Otago has an edge and we want (...) high-end, luxury, iconic Pinot Noir.

Central Otago as a regional brand is notoriously close knit. Moët Hennessy has the distribution network and financial reserves to do its own thing. What is the focus for Cloudy Bay in Central? 

We definitely don’t want to go it alone. When we held our Pinot Salon tasting of great Pinot Noirs in the UK we invited Nigel (of Felton Road) and we have been in touch with NZ Winegrowers as we want to be a part of the upcoming Otago trip to Burgundy. Coming from France, the camaraderie that exists amongst New Zealand winegrowers is amazing to us - this is something we’re not used to seeing.

It’s with a great sense of humility that we look to become a part of the Otago community. And we want to work to reinforce the exchange between Burgundy and Otago. When we go to Burgundy next year we plan to spend some time at Clos de Lambray.

Will Cloudy Bay follow the trend towards single vineyard expressions of Pinot Noir that has been on the increase in Central?

With this we’re still on the learning curve. I see three options. We can make one brand and one label from a blend, which is what we’re doing today.

We can go down the Burgundian Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village route that Felton Road do an exceptional job of, but I doubt we will go this way.

Or we can do both, which we may.

But first we need Yang to join the team and for them to decide that together.

Do you see the international interest in Pinot Noir paralleling the explosion in popularity Sauvignon Blanc had in the 1990s?

No, it’s not the same. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough has very little competition, it’s like Malbec from Argentina. The wines are distinctive in their quality. 

At Cloudy Bay we don’t want to lose that positioning for New Zealand. Unfortunately it looks like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is moving towards mass production. To me that’s like losing your DNA, your roots and ability.

With Pinot Noir the modern consumer is looking for lighter, distinctive, high fruit wines. So where can these be produced? Oregon, Washington and Otago. Meaning New Zealand has an opportunity to make great pinot outside of Burgundy.

And great Pinot Noir, this is what the Chinese consumer is after?

No, apart from Hong Kong they’re not ready at all. Instead they’re wanting the easy, early drinking style that Marlborough produces. Yang will spend a lot of his time in China educating consumers on styles of Pinot Noir and he needs to open China up to high-end reds. 

Apart from Pinot Noir what else does the future hold for Cloudy Bay?

We are also working to position Cloudy Bay as making the best sparkling wines outside of Champagne.

Pelorus is a great wine that is very strong mainly on the domestic market, in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK. But there’s a gap between Chandon and Champagne houses and Pelorus. We want a sparkling wine made in a very traditional way but first we need to make up our mind on the variety, the dosage, the ageing, etc.

With so many questions on style and direction for Cloudy Bay still to be confirmed, it will be interesting to follow up with Yang Shen in a few months’ time once he's settled into his new role to see how things are taking shape. Watch this space.