Marlborough, New Zealand’s flagship, largest and best-known region. Located on the north-eastern corner of the South Island, Marlborough is synonymous with a distinctively pungent style of Sauvignon Blanc which is now internationally renowned.

Vineyards: 2020 27,808ha out of a national total of 39,935 ha (WINZ). 56% of New Zealand production is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (WINZ).

Sub-regionsAwatere Valley. | Brancott Valley. | Fairhall. | Kaituna. | Rapaura. | Renwick. | Southern Valleys. | Waihopai Valley. | Wairau Valley. | Wither Hills. 

Climate: Marlborough’s latitude of 41.3 degrees south is equal to Sardinia in the northern hemisphere. Blenheim, the main town, is often New Zealand’s sunniest and Marlborough is the South Island’s warmest region. The region is sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds, derived from the roaring forties and from the southerly winds which funnel up from Antarctica. Brian Bicknell told me (when I visited Mahi in 2015) ‘Rain from the west is stopped by the Richmond Ranges. Cold, moist winds from the south are blocked by the Seaward Kaikura and Inland Kaikura Ranges, meaning these winds go on to hit the city of Wellington on the south of the north island instead. Cyclones from the Pacific are blocked by the bottom part of the north island.’

Degree days are similar to Burgundy (Marlborough enjoys some of the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand, averaging 2,449 annually), yet the climate is moderated by Marlborough’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean. This creates cool, maritime-influenced conditions. The average summer (January) temperature of 23.8°C and winter (July) average of 12.8°C belie a large diurnal temperature range: a variation of 15°C/60°F between the cool clear nights and bright sunny days is not uncommon. Daytime temperatures over the harvest period of March/April average 19°C – 21.5 °C with a night time temperature range of 7.5°C – 10.5°C. This diurnal temperature range is significant for the accumulation and retention of flavours. (Source: Clive Jones of Nautilus).

At 655mm levels of annual rainfall recall maritime Bordeaux. Strong drying northwesterlies can provoked grape dehydration but also help limit plant disease. Budding and ripening here are typically three weeks later than in Hawke’s Bay. Rainfall between February and April is 75mm (tbc). Frost can be a problem (see Clos Henri).

Viticulture: Clive Jones of Nautilus says ‘viticulture in Marlborough has evolved rapidly, from an early general farming approach towards more specialised wine-growing techniques which target the unique requirements of each site and variety.’

Irrigation: ‘Irrigation is widely used throughout the valley to establish vines in the sometimes arid, free-draining soils and to relieve vine stress during the typically dry Marlborough summer,’ (Oxford Companion 2006, p.483).

Organics: How easy is organics in Marlborough? In 2011 Anna Flowerday of Te Whare Ra told me: i) there is little pressure from mealy bug (which is much more of an issue in Hawke’s Bay). ii) Conveniently it rains in winter and spring and harvest is normally dry. iii) The prevailing NW wind is dry (blows from Oct-April). iv) Bunch rot is a sign of excess yield, and poor canopy management (shoot and leaf positioning etc.) v) Both downy mildew (peronospera) and powdery mildew (oidium) are easy to control. Organic consultant Bart Arnst of Marlborough Organics concurss, saying ‘We don’t really get much downy mildew here in Marlborough, but if spring is cool and wet we will put a copper-based spray on pre- and post-flowering (300 grammes/hectare) in conjunction with sulfur (1.7 kg/ha). But in many seasons we don’t need to use copper at all.’

Wine styles. varietals

Chardonnay: The cool climate gives Chardonnay a narrow window of ripeness meaning picking at physiological ripeness without excess potential alcohol is crucial. Chardonnay usually undergoes malolactic fermentation, with a proportion barrel fermented.

Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir is still undergoing clonal selection, but the market is there for sparkling wines, and the light wines are cheaper than the Martinborough equivalent. Cabernet Sauvignon does not ripen every year, so Merlot is used as a filler. Sam Weaver told me in 2015 ‘there is a danger in Marlborough with Pinot Noir of over-aerating or over-extracting it during winemaking.’

Riesling: Riesling has the ability to age (unlike SB). Riesling performs excellently when wet weather during ripening is followed by dry weather for late picked styles.

Sauvignon BlancClones: Brian Bicknell told me in 2015 that most Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough is from a single Davis clone which has worked well; but he feels Bordeaux clones 316 and 317 merit further investigation as newer plantings of have shown increased complexity.

Marlborough Vintages

1989 Showed positive bottle development, but the intense summer heat meant some wines have gone ‘blowsy’. | 1990 Hot growing season, marred by autumnal frost (24 April) which forced early picking for some Chardonnay. | 1991 Excellent, ripe, concentrated wines. A warm flowering preceded a hot summer. An extended ripening period caused by cool weather helped protect aromas in the SB and Chardonnay. High Brix, good acid. Some late harvest Rieslings (up to 40 Brix) made due to a burst of rain in early April. | 1992 A cool season, variable. | 1993 Coldest vintage in the last 50 years. Lean, due to autumnal frost, and overshadowed by 1994. | 1994 | Big wines. | 1995 A generous flowering meant the crop was so huge some wineries turned away fruit which, due to rain, was disappointingly dilute. Wettest vintage for 50 years. | 1996 A warm autumn with settled spring conditions meant fruit set was moderate to heavy, which caused rot later on due to warm low pressure troughs at vintage. These were less severe than 1995. Thin, not completely ripe, and very variable. | 1998 Hottest vintage in the last 50 years. Warm, dry but windy spring produced an average crop set; dry summer and autumn meant berry weights were small, with 25% crop reduction; the warmest year on record for Wairau.

2000 A low yield year, especially for Pinot Noir. | 2001 2001 was the driest vintage in the last 50 years. | 2003 40,537 tonnes. | 2004 92,581 tonnes (up 128% on 2003). Marlborough was again the largest producing region in 2004, comprising 57% of the country’s total grape crop (Hawkes Bay was second; Gisborne third). | 2005 81,034 tonnes (down 12% on 2004). | 2006 A very early vintage. 113,436 tonnes (up 40% on 2005 and up 23% on 2004). | 2007 | Alastair Maling MW, Group Winemaker for Villa Maria called the 2007 harvest in Marlborough ‘a long one with the first fruit arriving in the winery on the 13th of March and the last on the 3rd of May. We harvested 11% more fruit than in 2006 however this was less than our original estimates due to cool flowering and frost in some isolated areas. 2007 will be remembered for fantastic flavours across all varieties, low Sauvignon Blanc yields out of the Awatere [Valley] with lower potential alcohols due to the early physiological ripeness and great weather. Even with the lower than anticipated yields this year, 2007 will still be the largest intake in Marlborough ever, with an approximate tonnage of over 70,000.’

2014: Warmer than usual spring. Temperate summer. 22,907 hectares in production produced 330,000 tonnes (77% of the NZ crop). The main grapes are Sauvignon Blanc with 17,725 hectares, Pinot Noir with 2,492 hectares, Chardonnay with 1,038 hectares, Pinot Gris with 968 hectares, Riesling with 309 hectares, Gewurztraminer with 92 hectares, Viognier with 72 hectares, Also Syrah, Arneis, Tempranillo. | 2015 Vintage, Marlborough | Sam Churton told me in 2015 that ‘2015 was a fantastic year for Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough. Yields are low.’ | 2017 ‘2017 was a testing vintage weather wise but low cropping and hand picking carried the day,’ Ivan Sutherland told me (by email).

Wineries

Certified Biodynamic: Seresin.

Certified organic, Biodynamic practices: Churton. | Loveblock. | Te Whare Ra.

Certified organic: Dog Point. | The Darling.

No certification: Brancott Estate. | Cloudy Bay. | Nautilus. | Te Pa. | Wairau River.

Bibliography

The Oxford Companion to Wine 3rd edition ed. Jancis Robinson MW (Oxford University Press, 2006).