Yealands. Richard Briggs Photography

The Region

Our geographically diverse landscape, combined with an enviable climate, grow wines of unmatched intensity and aroma. 

Explore the Marlborough Wine Heritage Trail story map.

Marlborough is home to New Zealand’s signature wine, Sauvignon Blanc, alongside a range of other mouth-watering varieties.

The Region

Situated at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, with Cook Strait to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the east, Marlborough experiences a maritime climate. This provides a cooling influence which, coupled with some of the highest sunshine hours in the country, creates the perfect environment for grape growing.

Hot days and cooler nights add to the complexity of fruit grown in Marlborough, especially the diurnal range of around 11 degrees during summer. It allows fruit to ripen slowly, ensuring intensity and naturally high acidity; the perfect combination for producing delicious Sauvignon Blanc.

Those ideal conditions also suit a number of other varieties that Marlborough is becoming increasingly known for. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Sparkling Wines have long been stars in Marlborough’s portfolio. More recently, varieties such as Syrah, Albariño, Arneis and Grüner Veltliner are steadily making their mark on the region.

It could well be that the best is yet to come, especially given Marlborough’s wine history only goes back to 1973.

The Subregions

Marlborough has three main grape growing subregions, each having distinctive soils and climate characteristics. These are the Wairau Valley, Southern Valleys and Awatere Valley.

Wairau Valley

Wairau Valley vineyards are planted in the old, gravelly, riverbed soils of the Wairau River which now form the base of the Richmond Range. The humps and hollows are very obvious down vine rows running from North to South, showing where the river has changed its course and flowed over many centuries. The soils here are naturally free draining and range from old stony riverbeds to fine, deep, alluvial soils. The Richmond Ranges and Wither Hills protect the Wairau Valley from incoming rain. They create a zone of high sunshine as clouds are buffered by the hills, preventing any rain from spilling over into the main valley.

 

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Southern Valleys stretch across the valley floor and rise up towards the Wither Hills and Black Birch Range. The soils here are older, heavier in clay, and hold more moisture than the Wairau Valley subregion. The rolling hills and valleys mean the majority of sites have good northerly orientation which assists ripening on this cooler, drier side of the Wairau Valley. Pinot Noir is widely planted in the Southern Valleys, often on the lower slopes of the rolling hills. This area provides a different flavour profile and structure due to the clay-based soils.

 

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Southern Valleys
Awatere Valley

Awatere Valley Marlborough’s driest, coolest, and windiest subregion is also dominated by its river and flood plains. Flanked by Black Birch and the Kaikoura Ranges, the Awatere Valley is the most geographically distinct subregion and stretches a long way south to the edge of Marlborough’s Geographical Indication. Dramatic river terraces have been carved out, creating free draining sites with alluvial gravels along the banks of the river and clay and sandstone subsoils on the wider river plains. This terroir alongside cooler, winder conditions influence the profiles of wines produced here, making them highly regarded and distinctive.

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History

  • 1873

    First grapes planted by Scotsman David Herd in the southern valleys.

  • 1973

    Commercial planting began at Montana’s Brancott Estate at Fairhall.

  • 1980

    Marlborough Grapegrowers Association Incorporated established.

  • 1984

    Phylloxera outbreak first recorded and widespread by 1992.

  • 1985

    First Marlborough Wine & Food Festival.

  • 1986

    Oversupply of unsuitable varieties leading to Government-sponsored vine pull.

  • 1986

    Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (Hunters) awarded the top three trophies at London International Wine Show.

  • 1992

    Wine Marlborough Limited formed as the trading company for Marlborough Winegrowers Association.

  • 2009

    30th anniversary of the regions first Sauvignon Blanc vintage.

  • 2012

    Marlborough produces 72% of New Zealand’s 2012 vintage.

  • 2013

    40th anniversary of Marlborough’s first commercial plantings.

  • 2016

    The first International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration is held in Marlborough.

  • 2016

    Winepress Magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary.

  • 2020

    Marlborough Winegrowers Association celebrates 40 years.

Vintage Summaries

2021

Growers

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Wine Companies

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Vineyard (ha)

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Tonnes

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A Small and Mighty Vintage 2021 “It is an opportunity for our industry to refocus on premium.” Matt Thomson

Marlborough’s 2021 vintage story is one of low crops and “exceptional” wines, according to Forrest Estate General Manager Beth Forrest. “For me it was the year for Sauvignon Blanc,” says the winemaker, describing the complexity of Marlborough’s flagship variety. “They were overly aromatic and beautiful, with multi-layered flavour levels as well.”

Plant & Food Research weather expert Rob Agnew says lower yields were due to a variety of factors, including inclement flowering conditions, with Marlborough temperatures mostly lower than average from mid-November to the first week of December last year. A late frost on September 30 last year also played its part, coinciding with early budburst for Sauvignon Blanc in some parts of Marlborough.

Beth, a director on the Marlborough Winegrowers board, says the lighter crops enabled viticulturists to pick blocks three or four times to ensure the fruit’s “peak” profile. “It gave you time to wait for the absolute best.” The great quality of the harvest, following on from excellent 2019 and 2020 vintages, is a prime opportunity for premiumisation in “small and mighty Marlborough”, adds Beth. “For us it will be a focus on ‘great’ this year.”

Blank Canvas co-owner and winemaker Matt Thomson, a consultant for several wine companies, says crops ranging from “extraordinarily light” through to fairly light, promise wines of “great intensity and balance”. He believes the 2021 vintage is an “industry changing event”, as low yields meet strong demand for Marlborough and New Zealand wine. The vintage will bring “short term intense pain, for a longer term gain”, he adds. “It is an opportunity for our industry to refocus on premium.”

Villa Maria’s Chief Global Sales and Marketing Officer Matt Deller agrees, saying there is “absolute opportunity” in the lower yields. “It gives us the opportunity to prioritise our higher tiers, so proportionately it will accelerate our premiumisation.”

But it’s also a challenge, says Wairau River Wines General Manager Lindsay Parkinson, who is working to manage expectations, as buyers run low of 2020 wine and clamour for their share of the limited 2021 supply. “It’s quite a complicated methodology on who you restrict, or where you change the price… And there’s not one solution to fit them all.” 

The 2021 harvest won’t only be remembered for light and lovely crops, with the earliest ever harvest finish for many companies, says Wine Marlborough General Manager Marcus Pickens. “It also stands out because of increased costs and labour shortfalls,” he says. International workers were locked out by Covid-19 border closures, but individual companies proved light on their feet in recruiting and training new people from around the country, while also employing foreign cellar hands and vineyard workers who remained in New Zealand during the global pandemic. “The season was also a credit to industry collaboration, with companies, suppliers and organisations all working together to find and implement efficient solutions,” says Marcus. Meanwhile, Covid-19 precautions were rolled out, to ensure “excellent operating plans for a safe harvest”.

Allan Scott Winemakers Managing Director Sara Stocker says having a harvest with no rain, disease pressure or isolation bubbles was a relief after the tension of the 2020 harvest, operated under strict Alert Level-4 criteria. “Harvest is a really exciting time of the year and the fact that we could enjoy that with others and be able to create some fantastic wines this year - knowing the fruit coming in was awesome - gave us a whole new level of excitement really."

 

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