Much has been written about Marlborough, so I’ll skip the historical details. The region is still NZ’s largest by a wide margin, its 24,000 hectares representing 66% of NZ’s vineyards. Despite the international success with sauvignon blanc, which still dominates plantings, I got a real sense of innovative spirit permeating even the thickest corporate walls in the region when I visited in February of this year. By their own admission, Marlborough pinot noir growers are ten years behind Martinborough and Central Otago in terms of clonal and site selection and vineyard management. Most of what was planted in the early days in the flat, gravelly soils is best suited for sparkling wine, or at best light and fruity pinot noir – not what most would consider serious or age-worthy pinot. And growers treated the grape as if it were sauvignon blanc, which is like trying to make soufflé and pound cake from the same recipe. But one gets the sense they will catch up quickly, as indeed some growers already have.
The serious pinot action since the early 2000s has moved into the heavier soils of the (north-facing) Southern Valleys, an unofficial sub-zone of the region that really should be called Southern Hills, since that’s where most of the best vineyards are situated. This drier, sunnier side of Marlborough was unplantable until recently due to a lack of water, a situation that was addressed just a decade or so ago by an irrigation scheme. Suitable Dijon clones are replacing earlier clones, planting densities have increased, and farming techniques have been adapted to the foibles of pinot. Some of the results are excellent. At any rate, the Marlborough style is distinct from other regions in NZ, characterized by fresh, red fruit-driven wines with light tannins and bright acids, versus the darker fruit character of Otago or the savoury Martinborough style, for example.
Marlborough sauvignon blanc is also undergoing a radical make-over by serious producers, in an effort both to distinguish their own brands, and to add diversity to what has been a fairly straightforward and homogenous offer from Marlborough for the past twenty years. The cookie-cutter, pungent, overtly grassy, grapefruit and asparagus flavours are being traded in for riper, richer tropical fruit tones, lees contact, and quite often barrel fermentation in mostly old oak, in an effort to add layers of complexity and make the wines more age-worthy. It’s mostly a question of reducing yields and tweaking the harvest time, in addition to of course being in the right site in the first place, and fermenting with wild (or neutral) yeasts as opposed to the commercial yeast strains selected to pump up volume of thiols (the compounds responsible for the sweaty grapefruit aromas). In the words of Ivan Sutherland and James Healy of Dog Point Vineyards, ““If all you’re doing is chasing the cat’s piss [aromas/flavours], you’re going to find yourself with a wine that unravels pretty quickly. Thiols are a short-lived wine aroma component.”
I suspect we’ll see sub-appellations emerge in the not too distant future, as the differences across the region can be quite dramatic where all other things are equal. Already we’ve started to see unofficial sub-regional designations such as Awatere Valley, Wairau Valley and the Southern Valleys appear on labels, and we haven’t even begun to add on further refinements like “upper” and “lower” to these.
Finally, one of the un-written stories about Marlborough, and of New Zealand in general, is the astonishing quality of the chardonnays. Now that it’s cool to like (cool climate) chardonnay again, don’t miss some of the great examples from Marlborough and elsewhere in the country. This pliable variety has adapted well to various conditions, and more serious attention to sites, clones and winemaking techniques is resulting a remarkable range of quality examples. Get these now while the prices for all but the top end wines remain relatively accessible.
Margaret and Ivan Sutherland purchased land at the convergence of the Brancott and Omaka Valleys in 1979 and planted vines. The fruit was initially sold to Cloudy Bay, where Sutherland and his future partner James Healy worked together, until 2003, when the pair left to launch Dog Point Vineyards. Their 100 hectares are farmed organically and hand picked (a rarity in Marlborough). Some fruit still goes to Cloudy Bay, but Sutherland and Healy keep the top, hillside vineyard fruit for their own label. The style is intense and edgy, with lots of lees contact and wild yeast complexity, some of the finest wines in the region.
A full day amid the vines and olive groves of pretty Dog Point Vineyard, outside Marlborough, broken by lunch in the barrel room is a rare treat, amde even more enticing by the prospect of food by Wellington's own Logan Brown restaurant. (note lunch is held outside where weather allows!!)