James Healy and Ivan Sutherland came to visit from New Zealand and invited me to see how their past vintages of Dog Point wines fared with Michael Mina’s food over dinner. Oh, twist my arm.
Healy and Sutherland started Dog Point in 2004 after making their names as winemaker (Healy) and viticulturist (Sutherland) at Cloudy Bay, which for years was the flag carrier for upscale Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. For years, Cloudy Bay swam among the best of New Zealand’s tangy, racy, deliciously herbal Sauvies. Even today, while other wineries have caught up to it and a few surpassed it, Cloudy Bay continues to do well.
Both men had turned 50 and decided that if they didn’t break away and follow their bliss when they did, they wouldn’t ever. They didn’t turn in an entirely new direction with Dog Point. The wine lineup looks remarkably similar, with a classic steely version of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc as the flagship wine and a barrel-fermented alternate take. There’s also a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir.
But there is a difference. One is size. Cloudy Bay makes several hundred thousand cases of wine, Dog Point about 25,000, which allows them to hand-pick all of the fruit. Also, Dog Point’s wines mostly come from their own vineyard. It used to provide some of the grapes for Cloudy Bay’s wine, to be blended with dozens of other vineyards in the Wairau Valley.
Sutherland’s vineyard was one of the earliest planted in Marlborough when it turned toward Sauvignon Blanc in the late 1970s, and it makes wines with the classic tension between grass and fruit, acidity and concentration. Plus, it has significant vine age, important in a region that has exploded in vineyard acreage in the past decade.
So far, the new dog has been in the hunt in most vintages, but I have never been blown away by the wines. The basic Sauvignon Blanc shows more specific character and veers more toward grapefruit, pears and apples in the fruit profile than Cloudy Bay’s passion fruit, lime and sweet peas. They’re not better, just different.
At Cloudy Bay, Healy also made an unusual barrel-fermented Sauvignon called Te Koko. I have had a love-hate relationship with this wine. I can admire its differences, the extra fleshiness from the barrel, without liking its extra-weedy flavors. At Dog Point, the barrel-fermented wine is called Section 94. With one vintage exception (the weird 2006), I have found this one more to my taste, with a distinct tropical fruit character.
Dog Point seems to place more importance on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir than many Marlborough wineries. In general, Healy and Sutherland have outperformed their old employers with both wines, which show more finesse than Cloudy Bay’s versions. And in that regard, it looks like the best is yet to come. The previews of 2007 struck me as much more silky in texture, more refined.
“We have been working very hard on when to stop pressing,” Healy explains. “The difference you see is from backing off. We’re extracting about 10 to 15 gallons less, and getting less phenolics in the wine.”
“We are also harvesting earlier, to get more freshness into the wine,” Sutherland adds.
So how did the wines do with the food? For me, the match of the night was the Section 94 2007 with Mina’s take on salade Niçoise, the fresh vegetables topped with a perfect little fresh anchovy. Another seamless match paired the Chardonnays with a seared scallop over a saffron risotto. The food brought out some latent depth in the 2004, which seemed tart and crisp on its own.
Clearly, Dog Point is making some nice wines. By aiming for elegance and refinement, Healy and Sutherland have set themselves a more difficult task, because it’s harder to stand out when you’re trying to be subtle. But the wines are worthy, and they seem to be on the right path toward more harmonious bottlings.
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