Back in the 1960s, New Zealand's North Island had started to be serious about wine production, but there was not a single vine planted on the South Island. The first plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough did not occur until 1973. It was due to travelling New Zealanders who visited European wine regions and returned, and had the vision that the international status of the country as a wine producing nation was established. Leading wine producers such as Te Mata and Matua valley saw the potential, and in the case of Marlborough, it was Matua who took the lead, along with the now famous Brancott, or Montana company, and started the worldwide passion for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
The impact of those first vineyard plantings has been nothing short of revolutionary, catapulting a quiet region of New Zealand onto the worldwide stage, within 10 years of the first vines being planted, and producing international acclaim for its Sauvignon Blanc, which is now revered as amongst the very best in the world. The speed of the discovery of this new international gem was unexpected, and took the wine world by storm. Suddenly, a new star was born, in the form of an intense, full on, vibrant, and intensely fruity and pure interpretation of Sauvignon Blanc, with not even the slightest whiff of barrels. The rest is pretty much history.
Of the region’s 10,000 hectare vineyard plantings (half of the total country’s), Sauvignon Blanc accounts for over one third, and the region is now home to over 300 wineries. Situated on the north east coast of the South Island, close to the Cook Straits, Marlborough enjoys a warm, dry climate, but with cold nights, and a long ripening season, which suits the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
Although Sauvignon Blanc is the star, Marlborough is also becoming well known for high quality whites from the Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay grapes, as well as some Pinot Noir, although, generally lighter in style than its southerly neighbour, Central Otago. It’s also the most important area of production in New Zealand for Sparkling wine, made from the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, in the traditional Champagne method, with some wineries now also experimenting with sparkling Sauvignon Blanc.
The region is divided into two main grape-growing areas, split into the Wairau and the Awatere Valleys. The Wairau Valley has the greatest number of vineyards, and a warm, wet climate, situated by the Wairau River, which runs from the mountains in the west to the sea, at Cloudy Bay. It’s the areas soil structure with its stony, gravelly, infertile soil, combined with the climate, which is responsible for the unique character of the region’s Sauvignon Blanc. Typically, the wines are pungent, and intense, with lime zest and tropical fruit character.
The Awatere Valley which lies to the south east of the region is drier, but cooler, and has fewer vineyards, but is increasingly making its presence on the world stage. The style is different from the Wairau Valley, and closer to the European style of Sauvignon Blanc, with a fresh, grassy, herbaceous edge, and a fresh minerality.
Some of the best known New Zealand wine producers are based in this area, including Brancott/Montana, Cloudy Bay, Oyster Bay, Jackson Estate, Saint Clair, Astrolabe, Kim Crawford, Grove Mill and Lawsons.