Profile: Kevin Judd

(by peter)

Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is famous for its extrovert, exuberant style – the kind of wine that leaps out of the glass to grab you by the nose and drag you almost bodily into the glass. It’s undeniably a prima donna among global wine styles.

So it’s ironic that one of the key players in pioneering this style and then helping make it a runaway global success was a taciturn winemaker originally born in Totton (just down the road from us) whose favourite variety is Chardonnay.

You can’t help but feel when you meet him that Kevin Judd is a man who enjoys defying stereotypes. And it’s a role he’s relishing in his new incarnation.

To understand Judd, however, you have to understand his history.

After his parents emigrated to Australia when he was nine years old, the young Judd studied winemaking and began working life in Château Reynella in Australia’s famous McLaren Vale. After the company was bought out by BRL Hardy, at the age of 23 Judd was struggling to get another job in Australia so instead persuaded his wife to move to New Zealand, where he worked with Selaks, at a time when the Kiwi fine wine industry was still in its infancy.

Then, in 1984, came the fateful call from David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle, offering Judd a job as head winemaker in a new start-up project in Marlborough. Its name? Cloudy Bay.

‘So I spent 25 years on that’, says Judd, in his characteristically laconic style, before moving on to talk about his new project, Greywacke (pronounced Grey-wackee).

Reading between the lines, Judd is man with considerably less weight on his shoulders having left behind the corporate shackles of Cloudy Bay – now owned by French multinational LVMH.

It’s hardly surprising after a quarter of a century of hard work for what is no doubt a hard taskmaster.

An amusing story surrounds Judd’s departure. While Judd is clearly not the kind of man to covet baubles, he was secretly looking forward to receiving the traditional ‘gold watch’ from a company that owns TAG Heuer. However, his wife informed the company that he husband would prefer something different…a coffee machine was the result.

‘The funny thing is,’ comments Judd wryly, ‘that it doesn’t even work properly. Something’s gone wrong with it already…’

Where once Cloudy Bay was Marlborough’s most iconic brand, arguably its most significant value today is its legacy.

Many successful wines – and not just Sauvignons – have been spawned by its example, and many successful careers launched from its work pool.

Former Cloudy Bay viticulturist Ivan Sutherland recently teamed up with former winemaker James Healy to create Dog Point, which has rapidly established itself as one of the region’s top producers. (You can read about our recent visit there in this blog.)

And then there’s Judd with Greywacke. Judd had previously owned a vineyard of this name (which he later sold), fruit from which went into Cloudy Bay’s famous Te Koko oaked Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, this wine was first labelled Cloudy Bay Greywacke Vineyard 1992 – but after that name fell by the wayside, Judd cannily decided to register the name in case it came in useful in the future.

Nearly two decades later, his foresight paid off and Judd made the first Greywacke vintage in 2009. He makes the wines at Dog Point’s facilities – inviting wags to dub the winery the ‘Cloudy Bay retirement home’. He buys fruit from a number of vineyards, mainly from the Sutherland family, who are large vineyard owners in the region.

Sauvignon Blanc is the main focus of production in terms of volume – it also makes, in my opinion, Greywacke’s best wines for the moment. In addition to the wines tasted below, Judd also makes a Riesling and a Pinot Gris.

Many of Judd’s Greywacke wines share similar characteristics to the man: restrained, reserved, but which reward patience and persistence of attention. They don’t come cheap, and there’s a sense with some of the wines as being works in progress (the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, specifically).

But this is undoubtedly one of Marlborough and New Zealand’s most exciting new projects. It will be well worth watching – and waiting for.

(As a post-script, I apologise for the quality of the images in this blog. Not least to Kevin Judd himself, a very fine photographer. I can only plead battery failure on my camera, resulting in my iphone being dragged into service…)


NB: all wines are available from Hampshire independent merchant Caviste.

Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Marlborough, 13.5% (£14.95, Caviste) – this was one of our wines of the week recently. Judd harvests ripe, with low yields, and aims for a ‘gentle style with real mouth-feel, not a pungent style’. It’s a very well made example of the ‘new’ Marlborough Sauvignon – less of the pungency, more of the food-friendly restraint and minerality. Lovely flinty nose with hints of nettles. On the palate it has elegant texture and real persistence. Delicious stuff. 7.5/10

Greywacke Wild Sauvignon 2009, Marlborough, 13% (£22.95, Caviste) – this wine was all fermented with native yeasts in oak barrels, 10% of which were new, over 12 months. Its aromatics show lovely toasty nutty hints, with a fresh lemon rind character. It has wonderfully elegant texture and a glycerol richness. In fact, the wine is all about texture rather than obvious flavour – it glides across the palate, with gentle resonance. Versatile and understated. A nod to white Graves, but a successful and distinct style in its own right. It differs to Dog’ Point’s Section 94 wine, made in a similar way, in that Judd ferments the juice cleaner, does 2/3 malolactic fermentation (to soften the acidity) and has 10% new oak. All in all, while it doesn’t quite hit the heady heights of Section 94, it’s the best wine in this portfolio and a brilliant white. 8-8.5/10

Greywacke Chardonnay 2009, Marlborough, 14.5% (£22.95, Caviste, from Oct 2011) – nutty, creamy nose with acetone hints. Lemon pith. Decent, plump palate, with pleasantly balancing acidity. But it lacks the structure and vibrancy that I’d like, and which is typical of New Zealand’s best Chardonnays. The alcohol is also too high for my liking. Judd confesses there’s more residual sugar in there than he’d ideally like – the result of the barrels simply not finishing fermentation. I sense there’s more to come from Greywacke’s Chardonnay – it is Judd’s favourite variety, after all. But this one isn’t delivering yet. 6.5-7/10

Greywacke Pinot Noir 2009, Marlborough, 14% (£30, Caviste) – elegant smoky red berry nose, scented and attractive. On the palate it shows fine tannin, smoke and classic pinot juiciness. It’s a self-consciously light, pale style, aiming for drinkability. But it leaves me a little underwhelmed. It seems a work in progress. Judd says he’s aiming to make a ‘pretty, elegant, fruity’ wine, not a ‘muscular’ style, but admitds he’d like to get more concentration in the future. The wine needs it – and Judd mentions that the 2010 vintage is altogether deeper and darker in style. He uses 20% whole bunch fermentation for a ‘floral lift’. 6.5/10

Greywacke Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2009, 12% (£22.50 for a half bottle, Caviste) – Judd apparently spotted some nobly rotten Gewurz grapes in a vineyard he was consulting in – the grapes had been left by conscientious pickers who’d been told to leave rotten grapes. He bought up the fruit and made this elegantly lychee and rose petal scented wine, with hints of honey and orange rind. It’s not overly sweet – it has a restraint and reserve typical of all Judd’s wines in this range. Lightness of touch so that it’s 90 g/l of residual sugar seems deft and lifted on the palate. Along with the sauvignons, it’s one of the stand-out wines in the range. 7/10