Discover the Marlborough Wine Region
Marlborough is most well known for their Sauvignon Blanc, a grape which they have embraced and redefined over the last four decades. Located in the Northeast of the Southern Island of New Zealand, it benefits from the cooling and moderating effects of the ocean surrounding it. High amounts of sunshine and low rainfall every year helps producers create fruit forward wines that are high in acidity.
The History of Winemaking in Marlborough
New Zealand in general is fairly new to winemaking. Prior to colonization by Europeans, the islands were not producing any grape-based wines, and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the British and French began planting vineyards. Settlers in Marlborough began planting vineyards in the 1870s, but all would be removed by the 1930s due to low production and an overall depression. However, changes to government regulations and agricultural priorities in the 1970s allowed the fledgling industry to grow, and by the 1980s, wine production began to expand.
Winemakers in Marlborough were some of the first to profit from these changes in regulations, starting wineries that focused on traditional method sparkling and zesty Sauvignon Blancs. By 1985, Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blancs were receiving international attention for their high quality and unique flavors. This led to further investment in the region.
Now, Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine region, producing three fourths of the country’s wine. While it’s the perfect escape for Sauvignon Blanc lovers, they are also producing a range of other varietals to appease any palate.
Currently, the region of Marlborough contains over 500 wine producers, spread out over three sub-regions: the Wairau Valley, Southern Valleys, and Awatere Valley.
If you’re looking for a unique way to explore the region, consider a bike tour where you’ll get to take in the incredible landscapes. The region is also renowned for its food, so check out the wine and food pairings that are available as you traverse the gastronomic scene throughout.
New Zealand Grape Varieties
Marlborough has come to define what many think of as Sauvignon Blanc; crisp and zingy flavors of gooseberry, boxwood, fresh cut grass, and lemongrass. These bright and aromatic wines flourish in the moderate climate of the region, particularly the cooler weather paired with high sunshine. Marlborough makes nearly 90% of Sauvignon Blanc produced in the entire country, making it the perfect destination for travelers who love this grape.
Pinot Noir is the second-most popular grape grown in the region. The cooler weather of Marlborough helps the wine develop fruit forward, lighter style Pinot Noirs with bright red berry noses. While many of these are meant to be enjoyed immediately, the region is also producing some that have aging potential, with time developing earthy, mushroom-like notes.
Pinot Gris is the dark horse of Marlborough production, going from non-existent in the 1990s to the second most produced white wine. Even outpacing classics like Chardonnay and Riesling. Pinot Gris is well suited to the long growing season, producing wines with aromatic stone fruit, quince, apple and pear notes. The fuller body of this wine, sometimes emphasized through partial oak aging, make it an interesting alternative for Chardonnay lovers.
Early on Marlborough’s potential for sparkling wine was recognized by producers from Champagne, and over the last two decades those speculations have come to fruition. Sparkling Wine here is produced primarily using the traditional method, creating bubblies that are nutty, fruity, and well-balanced. While they are using traditional varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for the bulk of their sparkling, it should come as no surprise this region produces many sparkling Sauvignon Blancs.
Recently, Methode Marlborough was formed, a society of sparkling wine producers that adhere to high standards of production. For an interesting tour, considering doing a tour that visits the producers in this group.
The Wairau Valley was the first to produce Sauvignon Blanc in the country and remains a major force in production. Wines here benefit from the light, free-draining soil and slightly warmer temperatures that lead to fruit forward, aromatic wines. It is the northernmost sub-region and includes the town of Blenheim. This region includes pioneering vineyards like Brancott Estate and Cloudy Bay Vineyards, which put New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc into the international spotlight.
The Southern Valleys are the largest of the sub-regions geographically, and include side-regions like Waihopai, Omaka and Brancott. Tucked beside the Wither Hills, the soils here are more stony loam, clay, and crushed rock, with the hills providing protection against the cooler weather. The richer clay soils tend to produce heavier bodied and more dense wines than the Wairau.
Running from the coast inwards and most southern of the sub-regions, this area is cooler, windier, and drier than the others. While this combination can lead to lower yields and smaller production, it also allows for the development of secondary characteristics and some unique grassier and herbal notes in the wines.
Marlborough Wine Recommendations Available Internationally
Finding a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is a fairly easy feat no matter where you are; other varieties can be slightly more of a challenge depending on distribution. If you’re looking to sample the classics, Brancott Estate and Cloudy Bay Vineyards are widely available. Other wineries worth seeking out include Wither Hills, Babich, No. 1 Family Estate, Huia Vineyards, Te Whare Ra, and Peter Yealands.
If you’re interested in visiting the Marlborough Wine Region of New Zealand, please see below for wineries and itineraries you should add to your travel list or search on the Winetraveler App.
Written By Kate Meyers Emery
Kate Meyers Emery is a Finger Lakes wine evangelist, sharing the love and knowledge of her region through the classes she teaches and in her writing. She is the author of VinifeROC, a personal chronicle of her adventures in exploring the wines of New York, with a particular focus on Rochester and the Finger Lakes. Follow her wine adventures on Instagram at @kmeyersemery.