Marlborough 101: New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc Sanctuary

Nearing the most southern boundaries of the winegrowing world, New Zealand has created a sanctuary for Sauvignon Blanc in its most famous winegrowing region: Marlborough. Situated on the northeastern edge of New Zealand’s South Island, Marlborough is the country’s largest and most important appellation – so much so that it harvests more grapes than the rest of New Zealand combined, nearly twofold. It’s also New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc Mecca – 90% of the country’s total plantings come from this area. No other region outside of the Central Vineyards of France’s Loire Valley has adopted Sauvignon Blanc as its signature while doing it so well – and often for tremendously affordable prices, at that. A Brief History While Marlborough today cultivates more wine than any other New Zealand region, its emergence is rather recent. New Zealand’s history of wine growing dates back to the early 19th century. The first grapevines were brought by English missionaries in 1819 in the northeastern corner of New Zealand’s North Island. Seventeen years later, James Busby, “the father of Australian viticulture,” crafted New Zealand’s first wines. Marlborough’s first commercial vineyard, however, did not arrive until 1973, when Montana (now known as Brancott Estate) planted vines, ultimately vinifying the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc six years later. In 1985, Cloudy Bay entered the arena and quickly captured the attention of the international wine media, putting Marlborough and New Zealand wine on the map. Today, Marlborough cements itself as the reference-point region for New World Sauvignon Blanc, growing more of the variety than any country outside of France. The Terroir Why is Marlborough’s terroir so well suited to Sauvignon Blanc? “I think the unique combination of high sunshine hours combined with a crisp, cool, ocean-moderated climate is very important,” notes Paul Bourgeois, winemaker for Spy Valley. Marlborough spans a series of large, relatively flat river valleys, blanketed by silt and gravel soils. Its intensity of light, coupled with its maritime influences yield a climate perfectly adapted for the production of vibrant Sauvignon Blancs, while the daily shifts in temperature help preserve their freshness. “During late summer and autumn our large diurnal variation (warm days and cool nights) helps protect natural acidity important for winemaking, and enhance grape aromatics leading to our success with Sauvignon Blanc,” explains Helen Morrison, winemaker at Villa Maria. Marlborough’s viticultural landscape can be divided into three sub-regions: The Wairau Valley, the Awatere Valley and the Southern Valleys. The Wairau Valley is Marlborough’s historic heart. Situated in Marlborough’s northern sector, the district follows the Wairau River as it meets the Pacific at the Cloudy Bay, boasting some of New Zealand’s most aromatic Sauvignon Blancs. To the south, the Awatere Valley is more elevated and exposed to intense, cool southern winds. In response, the grapes grow thicker skins that some say offer a distinctive “tomato stalk” flavor in their wines. Further inland, the Southern Valleys find a greater concentration of clay in their vineyards, and have proven particularly suitable for Pinot Noir. Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough Perhaps nowhere else on earth does Sauvignon Blanc more fully embrace its savage wildness than it does in Marlborough. At its best, Marlborough produces Sauvignon Blanc unhinged – a flamboyantly herbaceous interpretation of the variety that can make French renditions taste quiet and composed by comparison. It’s nearly impossible to discuss Marlborough without using the word “green.” In their most classic form, the wines taste like an amalgam of all things verdant. Green apples, gooseberry, Thai basil, lemongrass – the list of possible green descriptors is nearly endless. Traditionally bottled under screw cap, Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are typically enjoyed young, although Kim Crawford considers that a shame. He explains, “they age beautifully, or the good ones do!” Regardless the age, these wines prove the quintessential accompaniment to oysters, goat cheese, and other boldly flavored, fresh things. Most Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are vinified in stainless steel to preserve the grape’s natural crispness and acidity. A selection of top producers, however, will also include a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc in their portfolio. More aromatically subdued, yet more structured and textured, these oak-influenced bottlings are designed for the long haul – Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs meant to develop in the cellar. While more expensive than their stainless brethren, they’re not necessarily better or worse – and some drinkers may prefer the leaner, more explosive expressions. Marlborough’s Other Grapes Marlborough has grown nearly synonymous with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - its vines are 86% planted to the variety. But, within that remaining vineyard space, a suite of additional grapes demonstrate their potential in Marlborough. The appellation’s second most popular is Pinot Noir , a variety that’s swiftly earning its place as New Zealand’s signature red, particularly further south in Central Otago . “Admittedly it has taken Marlborough winegrowers time to work out the best soils and vineyard sites for Pinot Noir, as it is more fickle to grow and needs to be nurtured carefully to make great wines,” explains Helen Morrison. “We were slow off the mark with Pinot, but now that there are vineyards with 15 or so years vine age, we are now seeing some spectacular wines being produced,” adds Kevin Judd, proprietor at Greywacke and former winemaker at Cloudy Bay. While primarily used to create intriguing still wines of purity and precision, a small portion of Marlborough Pinot Noir also contributes to sparkling wine production. Chardonnay too has yielded excellent results in Marlborough, but the region’s unsung heroes are its Alsatian, or “aromatic” white wines. “Alsatian white varieties do exceptionally well in Blenheim [a city sandwiched between the Wairau and Awatere Valleys] - Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer thrive,” explains Kim Crawford, proprietor of Loveblock and formerly his own eponymous label. Pinot Gris trails just behind Chardonnay as Marlborough’s fourth most cultivated grape, and alongside Riesling and Gewürztraminer , the aromatic trifecta achieves some of its most alluring expressions in the New World. Their dizzying fragrances can prove just as boisterously floral as Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are herbal. As in Alsace , vintners bottle both dry and sweet late harvest and botrytized renditions from these varieties, the latter a delicacy that merits a place on the table with any of the great dessert wines of the world. — Bryce Wiatrak #SauvBlanc Day is May 4th! Will you be celebrating with a glass this Friday? Scan the bottle and rate your Sauvignon Blancs on Delectable!

Greywacke

Kevin Judd Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Greywacke is Kevin Judd's present label, after serving as winemaker at Cloudy Bay and propelling the winery to global acclaim. The name Greywacke refers to a type of river stones found throughout New Zealand. At Greywacke, Judd proves to still be a master of Sauvignon Blanc, and his "Wild Sauvignon" is no excpetion. This is the apex of what oak-fermented New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can be - one doesn’t lose the untethered audacity of its varietal character. Tactile and lengthy, it tastes of sesame seeds, grapefruit, thyme, parsley, green apple skin, and sea salt. Palate coating, but still feral and daring. — 2 years ago

Ron, Daniel P. and 8 others liked this

Villa Maria

Taylors Pass Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015

From the northern banks of the Awatere Valley, Villa Maria crafts a fabulous Pinot Noir from the Taylors Pass Vineyard. An intensely herbaceous, medicinal expression of Marlborough Pinot - it almost reminds me of Fernet, with its pleasant amaro-like flavors - sage, quinine, mint, hibiscus, black sesame, smoke, and damp bark. Captivating and lengthy. — 2 years ago

Marc, Ron and 12 others liked this

Greywacke

Marlborough Pinot Noir 2014

Another winner from Greywacke, Kevin Judd sources his Pinot Noir from the more clay-dominant Southern Valleys. The wine finds a more exotic profile for Pinot - macerated blood orange peel and pomegranate meet a dizzying array of spices and herbs - curry, saffron, smoke, spearmint, and thyme. Savory, well structured, and long. — 2 years ago

Ron, Anthony De and 14 others liked this

Cloudy Bay

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc was the New Zealand shot heard around the wine world. Today, they still prove to be leaders with the grape. Drawn from the Wairau Valley, if you like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, it's hard not to be captivated by Cloudy Bay's. Explosive and beaming with its audacious greenness, the wine shouts of oregano, green pepper, thyme, tomato leaf, and most every other classic flavor you can associate with New Zealand SB. Cloudy Bay's still got it - and with the 2017 you can taste their mastery. — 2 years ago

David, Maria and 1 other liked this

Loveblock

Marlborough Pinot Gris 2016

I’ve never understood why New Zealand’s aromatic wines haven’t amassed more attention - they’re Pinot Gris wines are consistently some of my favorites outside of Alsace. Loveblock is Erica and Kim Crawford's present project, after selling the popular Kim Crawford label. While still 5 g/l residual sugar, Loveblock's Pinot Gris captivates with its spice and savory flavors - jasmine, white rose, peach skin and white pepper. Beaming with aroma, on the palate the wine finds a more taut precision. A delicious challenge to Sauvignon Blanc's dominance of the Marlborough landscape. — 2 years ago

Marc, Ron and 15 others liked this
Kimberly Anderson

Kimberly Anderson

Met the winemaker a couple of months ago. She was the orig Kim Crawford winemaker! Loved this white

Giesen

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017

One of the earliest viticultural inhabitants of Marlborough, the Giesen Brothers offer a fantastic portfolio - including a Pinot Noir from the pedigreed Clayvin Vineyard. When it comes to value in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, however, it's hard to beat Giesen's entry-level. Tart, clean, and mineral - it tastes of sea water-splashed bell peppers, mixed with cold grapefruit slices and cilantro. — 2 years ago

David and Maria liked this

Spy Valley

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Harvested from the Wairau Valley, Spy Valley crafts a total steal of a Sauvignon Blanc with character. Perhaps a bit more body than expected - its outrageously juicy in its herbaceous flavors. Tomato leaf, gooseberry, grapefruit pith, and salt. The quintessential sipper for the warm months to come. — 2 years ago

Isaac, David and 9 others liked this

Esk Valley

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017

A blend of vineyard sites in the Wairau and Awatere Valleys - Esk Valley's Sauvignon Blanc captures the essence of what people love about Marlborough. Melon rind, grapefruit pith, lemongrass, Thai basil, and a subtle rose quality - the wine is bright, boisterous, and so very easy to enjoy. — 2 years ago

Isaac, David and 7 others liked this

Framingham

Classic Riesling 2016

When it comes to the minuscule amount of Marlborough Riesling exported, Framingham remains a reference-point. Framingham is the first New Zealand winery to replicate every tier of the German Prädikats scale - from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese. Their entry-level Riesling too merits consideration - a wine of purity and freshness that resonates with gorgeous flavors of apple skin, white petals, and frozen pears. — 2 years ago

David, Maria and 2 others liked this

Huia

Marlborough Pinot Gris 2017

Grown from their estate Winsome Vineyard in the Southern Valley, Huia crafts a beautiful Pinot Gris of texture. Resinous and waxen with the flavor of dried honeycomb but without the sweetness, it tastes of rosewater and white peaches. Another reminder to the majestic potential of aromatic whites in Marlborough. — 2 years ago

David, Maria and 1 other liked this
Jason Brater

Jason Brater

this has always been a fav marlborough producer of mine. love it!