In the middle of the earthquakes, the tornado and the torrential storms that hit New Zealand last week, a visiting Frenchman discussed a new lease of life for one of this country’s oldest wine brands – Cloudy Bay Vineyards in Marlborough

Meet Jean-Guillaume Prats, president and CEO for Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines. This interview took place in Auckland, New Zealand on 17 November.

Wellington city is shaking as the plane flies through grey clouds to Auckland for an early morning interview with Jean-Guillaume Prats, president and chief exec’ for Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines. He’s here for a busy time, not for a long time, and his trip coincides with that of his newest staff member – Yang Shen.

You could say that Prats and Yang are anything but typical in their management roles.

Prats is a father of five and a keen tennis player who describes himself as very hands-off when it comes to managing wineries all over the globe. Meanwhile,  Yang Shen spends his spare time singing, playing basketball and studying wine in France. At least, that’s how he got into the wine industry.

Yang was born in China, studied wine in France and this month took up residence in Marlborough to take on the role of general manager at Cloudy Bay Vineyards. Despite his new home, his new job will be all about growing the sales of wine in China. It will be done here on the ground in New Zealand so that he is in direct touch with where that growth happens – starting from the ground up, in other words.

The announcement of his new role was made on 17 November in a softly-softly fashion when Prats met with less than a handful of writers to explain the new appointment – so that the Cloudy Bay wine brand can grow strongly in China.

Exactly how this happens is is in Yang Shen’s hands, says Prats. He manages the Moët Hennessy wineries outside of France, which is a long roll call of big names, such as Domain Chandon wineries (California, Brazil, Argentina, China, Australia and India); Cloudy Bay in Marlborough and Terrazas de los Andes in Argentina, among many others. He is not a winemaker, but Prats reveals in conversation that he’s all over winemaking methods, markets and how to make them grow. Not that he will dictate that to Yang Shen.

“Being French we are very good at giving lessons to the world and showing that we know everything when it comes to wine but that is not how we operate as a company. The winemaking and viticultural team at Cloudy Bay is currently very strong and they don’t need a leader to guide their style so it has been interesting and even strange, in a way, to appoint a new general manager when the team there are so outstanding at winemaking and in the vineyards.”

So, why appoint a new general manager?

Prats pragmatically points out that the company’s biggest focus going forward is breaking into the Chinese market and that Yang will play the biggest role in spear heading this vast new wine drinking market.

How will Cloudy Bay break into the Chinese market?

“I don’t think we can run after too many fishes. We have to stick to a few fundamentals, one being that Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc will remain a relatively limited edition wine. It’s our flagship and we are committed to keeping its high quality image,” says Prats.

Will you grow Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc production?

“Unfortunately, no. We are not able to expand within Marlborough. Today Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is on allocation internationally and we don’t want to expand. If we go any further, we will change the style and that is something we don’t want to do.”

Which wines will grow then for the Chinese market?

Sauvignon blanc allocation may be able to be shifted from some markets to others but this is unlikely to meet the demand for high volumes that the Chinese market may require.

Pinot Noir and sparkling wine are made in volumes that will remain limited, but there is more room to manouvre, especially in terms of Central Otago  Pinot Noir and also with Pinot Noir from Marlborough.

“I truly believe that both Central Otago and Marlborough Pinot can help us to open up larger volumes of high quality wine for China,” says Prats.

When it comes to exporting New Zealand wine to China, Prats suggests the market will explode, but in limited volumes. Pinot Noir is a more expensive grape to grow (and more expensive wine to make) than Sauvignon Blanc. As is high quality sparkling wine made in the traditional method (also known, in the past, as ‘methode champenois’ – a term now outlawed in Europe, due to its close resemblance to the name Champagne). Enter Pelorus, which is Cloudy Bay’s traditional method sparkling wine. These days it is an NV (non vintage – as are most champagnes) but in the past it has been made as both an NV and a vintage sparkling wine. This may be the case again. Prats suggests a wide range of styles and possibilities for Pelorus.

“But this will be Yang’s job to decide. Not mine. I am not here to dictate what he does. He’s got a great team who know what they’re doing and we want them to have the freedom to work with what they think is going to be the best way forward to continue raising the quality of Pelorus.”

Pinot Noir will come first, however, because Cloudy Bay now has significant vineyards of its own in Central Otago at both Northburn Station and at the Calvert Vineyard. The latter is managed by Felton Road and Prats describes it as “one of the best vineyards in New Zealand, in terms of how it’s managed and the grape that come from there.

He is at pains to point out continuously during this interview that “The Pinots from Marlborough and Central Otago are equivalent to some of the great Pinots of the world and this makes Pinot Noir is the ideal starting point for major growth from New Zealand because the Chinese market is more into red wine.”

Another ideal starting point is the addition to the team of a general manager who understands the Chinese culture. The winemaking capacity at Cloudy Bay is currently being increased, which also bodes well for the significant future growth of the brand in the world’s biggest – and newest – wine drinking market.

Watch this space.