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: Marlborough region

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Marlborough Winegrowers Association: www.wine-marborough.co.nz

Marlborough region

Marlborough is the home to the global phenomenon of its super-pungent Sauvignon Blanc. The love it or hate it style is full of intensely grassy and tangy tropical fruit, gooseberry and blackcurrant with capsicum and basil flavours and bracing acidity. Those who hate the style call it 'cat's pee'.

Certainly it's the opposite of those delicate minerally French Sancerres. In New Zealand the Marlborough has gone from a viticultural no man's land to the country's largest wine region in less than three decades. In Australia the Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs dominate the mid-price white wine shelves of the retail chains and easily outsell their Australian competitors.

Blenheim
A view of the Blenheim, the main city in the Marlborough's Wairau Valley

The climate is quite cool but has a dry, summer with long sunshine hours. Prior to the 1970s there was some minor viticultural activity. At least four families of the early European settlers in the region planted vines during 1853-73. David Herd maintained a winery after this and won a number of prizes for his red muscatel. The winery survived until 1931.

Frosts, poor prices and the threat of prohibition meant that there was only minor viticulture until the Montana, the Auckland based corporate wine giant, made the prescient decision establish vineyards in the region in 1973.

Unlike the push into Hawke's Bay there was no big hurry by the wine corporations to get into the region. Montana (now called Brancott Estate) saw the investment as a cheap alternative to buying up in Hawke's Bay. They secretly bought 1600 hectares in the south of the Wairau Valley at what is now known as Fairhall. The fall back was that the land could be resold easily as it was prime grazing land.

Drought quickly wiped out Montana's first unirrigated vines. The vines were replanted with deeper rootstock and the first vintage was produced in 1976 and processed at Gisborne. However, it was not until 1980 that Montana began releasing its first regionally designated 'Marlborough' range.

hannah
Hannah and Pam on the Marlborough Wine Trail

Montana's founder, Frank Yukich, had moved to run Penfolds New Zealand operations and brought them to the region. Corbans, the other main corporation of the era, quickly followed in 1979. Te Whare Ra, the region's first independent boutique winery was established around that time. However, Marlborough's take-off was slow - in 1984 there were only three Marlborough-based winemakers (excluding the Auckland wine corporations).

The Marlborough global phenonemon took off in 1985 when David Hohhen of Western Australia's Cape Mentelle launched the Cloudy Bay brand. The brand spearheaded the broader global discovery of the region as Sauvignon Blanc's new frontier. Noted world wine writer Hugh Johnson recalls that:

New Zealand's true potential as a producer of fine wine burst upon the world in the mid-1980s: to be precise in February 1985, when British wine critics, buyers and journalists attended a tasting (now an annual event) held at New Zealand House in London. Those present are unlikely to forget the excitement of that morning, as it became apparent that a dozen different wineries had produced a number of white wines of racy vitality and tingling fruitiness that are only met on rare occasions elsewhere in the world.

It has been up and up for the region in the two decades since then. The big change is that many of the local growers who were supplying the corporates have now set up their own wineries. There are now over seventy separate producers in the region.

The suitable low yielding gravelly and silty land in the Wairau Valley is now all being used so the viticultural is spilling southwards into the Awatere Valley, and some small plots are now being established northwards towards Picton.

According to 2014 data 77% of the region's vines are Sauvignon Blanc. There is also Pinot Noir (11%), Chardonnay (4.5%), Pinot Gris (4.4%), Riesling (1.3%) and a little bit of Gerwurztraminer and Gruner Veltliner. top

Winter vines at Summerhouse (photo courtesy Summerhouse)

Cloudy bay label

Cloudy Bay is the famous name associated with the discovery of the region's potential for intense Sauvignon Blanc

Huia

Huia's Pinot Gris show that there is more to the region than Sauvignon Blanc

Antonia Davison, O:Tu's sales and marketing manager (and sixth generation Marlburnian). O:Tu is a top Sauvignon Blanc specialist in the newer Awatere Valley sub-region

There is now quite a cluster of wineries in the Wairau Valley so it pays to do some research before visiting. The Marlborough wine cellar trail map is available from the Marlborough Winegrowers Association website that this page links to.