We check in on this thriving New Zealand wine region
IT’S FAIRLY SAFE TO SAY that if a glass of sauvignon blanc has graced your lips, you would be aware of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine region. Where once if you were to mention this grape variety, any wine geek would instantly retort with France’s Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, today Marlborough has taken the mantle. It is ubiquitous: on every wine list and in every bottle shop. It’s expected. And not without good reason. It is what many new wine drinkers cut their teeth on. For those who are newer to wine, it offers great value, is packed with flavour, is instantly recognisable and, for the most part, when you order a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, you know exactly what you are going to get. For many others, it’s crisp, refreshing, dry and just delicious, and these are very good things. In short, it over-delivers.
You could call Marlborough the ‘engine room’ of New Prinzipal. Zealand wine. A total of 71.5 per cent of New Zealand’s wine growers come from the region, as do 21 per cent of the nation’s wineries. Last year, there were 141 wineries, with 24,000 hectares under vine and the crush accounted for three-quarters of New Zealand’s total harvest. It’s a vinous juggernaut. But despite its size and importance to the New Zealand wine industry, Marlborough is more than sauvignon blanc. There is diversity and subtlety within the folds of its valleys, and the people who farm its vines. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Despite an early viticultural planting in the 1870s, it wasn’t until
100 years later that the ball started rolling in Marlborough, and by the 1980s, the punchy, vibrant sauvignon blanc from the region began stealing people’s hearts.
The main valley is centred around the town of Blenheim and cut by the braided Wairau River as it drains into Cloudy Bay. If you were to climb one of the surrounding hills, the view down the valley offers the illusion of fecundity, with verdant rows of vines stretching as far as the eye can see. The reality is that these free-draining river
gravels offer up only medium fertility and were laid down fairly recently in geological terms – some 14,000 years ago.
Being relatively protected by the surrounding mountain ranges, its climate is sunny and dry during the growing season and the winds flowing down the valleys do a good job of nullifying any real disease pressure. Cold air flowing down these slopes can pool in the valleys and frost is a real danger in the region, with the producers of frost fans and helicopter pilots doing a roaring trade.
Essentially a young region, Marlborough certainly undergoes evolution as it matures. Sub-regionality is explored and new pockets of interesting soils and aspects are planted, bringing nuance and site-specific character to the wines. The French would call it terroir, but here in New Zealand, the Maori phrase turangawaewae is more appropriate, translating to ‘a place to stand’; a place where someone or something has a deep sense of connection to the land on which they stand. It’s somewhere that defines their identity.
Beyond the fragrant, perfumed wines of the main Wairau Plain, with its river gravel soils and alluvial seams, plantings extend into the Southern Valleys of the Waihopai, Omaka, Brancott and Taylors Pass. Stony soils and clays washed down from the Wither Hills give rise to weightier wines of greater concentration and heft than the main valley floor. The Villa Maria Southern Clays Sauvignon Blanc is a good example. To the south lies the Awatere Valley where the weather is more extreme – drier, windier and cooler, with gravelly, silty loams and wines that show increased pungency and minerality. The Peter Yealands Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc hails from here. Further south, there are plantings around the Kekerengu Coast in soils with scattered limestone deposits that show increased nerve and a savoury, mineral swagger, such as the Astrolabe Valleys Kekerengu Coast Sauvignon Blanc.
Add in winemaking nuances such as wild ferments and oak ageing, and one thing is for certain: all sauvignon blancs are not equal. Diversity is indeed a beautiful thing.
Beyond the ‘S’ word, the region is home to many wonderful wines from other grape varieties. Riesling does particularly well here and producers to try include Framingham, Hans Herzog, Lawson's Dry Hill and Hunter's. Pinot gris and gewurztraminer also excel, or consider a blend of all three as found in the dangerously drinkable Te Whare Ra Toru white blend, a riff on some of the famous blends of France’s Alsace region.
While famous for its whites, Marlborough's pinot noir is excellent, perhaps showing a more supple line with great clarity of aroma and flavour, with great examples coming from the Neudorf Home Vineyard, Esk Valley, Framingham F-Series, Fromm Clayvin Vineyard, Greywacke and Cloudy Bay. Other red varieties planted include montepulciano, syrah and the Bordeaux grapes. While there are some brilliant wines made from these grapes, pinot noir is what the region does well.
Organic and biodynamic viticulture also has a strong foothold in the region, and producers who are leading the way in this regard include Te Whare Ra, Dog Point, Huia, Fromm, Hans Herzog and Seresin.
A project to keep an eye on is the fledgling The Coterie enterprise of Glover Family Vineyards founder Ben Glover and business partner Rhyan Wardman. Due to Seresin relocating, they recently bought its old winery, along with three hectares of organic vines. They plan to turn the winery into a hub for winemakers, championing smallbatch, single-site wines. Again, evolution.
Marlborough will continue to propel the New Zealand wine industry forward in the future, but we will no doubt see more intricacy and diversity from its vinous offerings as time moves on. The big guys – think Brancott Estate, Oyster Bay, Wither Hills and Cloudy Bay – are pretty much household names, but it is a region with so much more to offer than the oft-touted ‘Sauvalanche’ moniker. It deserves more than that.