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Friday 13 October 2023

Major milestone for one of the world's top wine regions

Younger wine lovers may find find it hard to believe, but there was a time when Marlborough sauvignon blanc did not exist. 

While the style is now ubiquitous - and arguably more famous than Sancerre - Marlborough's rapid ascent to become New Zealand’s major wine-growing region has happened quickly. 

This year, the region’s winemakers and growers are celebrating 50 years since Marlborough’s official beginning as a wine region - and its progression to international renown. 

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens says although planting vines in Marlborough 50 years ago might have appeared to be a gamble, the region has the perfect climate for grapes.

“For many of our winegrowing pioneers - Frank Yukich, the Rose, Sutherland, Ibbotson, Marris and Scott families, just to name a few - it would have been gut instinct backed by climate science,” Pickens says.

Marlborough’s first vines - containing muscat grapes - was planted at Auntsfield by Scotsman David Herd in 1873. But commercial plantings didn’t begin until 1973, led by Montana Wines (now known as Brancott Estate) in Fairhall. 

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, many boutique wine brands - including Cloudy Bay - opened their cellar doors and, by 1986, the name Marlborough was known around the world. 

Viticulture expanded from 6,831 hectares in 2003 to the nearly 30,000 hectares of vineyard Marlborough boasts today - about 71% of New Zealand's national total. 

Marlborough produces between 300 million to 400 million bottles of wine annually, depending on the vintage. 

“From humble beginnings to now producing 79% of New Zealand wine, celebrating this 50-year milestone is something Marlborough, and the entire New Zealand wine industry, can be proud of,” says Charlotte Read, general manager brand of New Zealand Winegrowers. 

“There is no other wine region of the world that has moved from ‘zero to hero’ in just five decades.

“With the value of New Zealand wine exports at an all-time high of $2.4 billion, this proves that globally customers continue to appreciate the vibrant flavours, commitment to quality and sustainability of New Zealand wines, and the distinctive Marlborough character has laid the foundation for our international renown." 

Beth Forrest is the Marlborough Winegrowers Association Board chair. Her parents first planted vines in Marlborough in 1988, and today farm on over 100 hectares. 

She says Marlborough has diverse microclimates in a small space, which contributes to some of the region’s signature sauvignon blanc styles.

“You don’t have to go far to experience a change in soil profile," she says. 

"Sauvignon blanc from the mid-Wairau has an old-school elegance and is austere and mineral-driven. But in the Lower Wairau it has more of a tropical fruit profile. And then in the Awatere it has that punchy, herbal tomato-leaf character."

Although Marlborough is best-known for its sauvignon blanc, Pickens says the region has been well-regarded by aficionados since the 1980s for its traditionally made sparkling wine and, from the late 2000s, for its pinot noir. 

“Wine has made Marlborough an area with a real global presence," Pickens says. "It’s just changed the demographic and made it more multinational. It’s a connection to the rest of the planet that has brought vibrancy and innovation to the region.” 

Pickens hopes the 50-year milestone inspires wine appreciators to re-visit the region. 

“Wine in Marlborough is a big high-value tourism drawcard. The diversity of our wines, particularly our aromatic varieties. It is a real draw - everyone who comes to the region is surprised at the range we have to offer."

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