Marl­bor­ough, NZ

We check in on this thriv­ing New Zealand wine re­gion

Halliday - - Contents - Words Dave Brookes

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.

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