The Marlborough region is bound by the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Mount Richmond Forest Park to the west, the Kaikoura Ranges to the south, and the Cook Strait to the north. Marlborough's sunny climate allowed early settlers to build an economy reliant on agriculture, which is now mostly based on aquaculture, forestry, tourism, and wine production.
The first Marlborough vineyard dates back to the 1870's, when David Herd established Auntsfield in the lower Wairau Valley. Unfortunately, the industry didn't take hold and vineyards were scarce until a new era of plantings in the 1970's. The establishment of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the international wine scene in the 1980's led to a rapid increase in vineyard acreage, largely focused around Blenheim and Renwick in the Wairau Valley. Today, Marlborough is definitely the largest wine region in New Zealand, representing 75% of the country's total wine production.
Prevailing southerlies marching north from the Southern Ocean batter most of New Zealand's South Island. Marlborough is largely spared thanks to the Kaikura Range along its southern boundary, and instead enjoys a dry and sunny climate. The Pacific Ocean's maritime influence creates moderate daytime temperatures with high diurnal variation. These cooler temperatures combined with high sunshine hours makes Marlborough perfect for cool-climate viticulture.
Any discussion about Marlborough must begin with its iconic Sauvignon Blanc. Nearly 80% of the region's 23,000 hectares of vineyards are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, characterized by bright fruit with crisp herbaceous flavors. Its acclaim has led to increased interest in the region and the prevalence of other grape varieties, particularly Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir is the most popular red wine in New Zealand and the second most planted grape in Marlborough. Marlborugh Pinot Noir is generally produced in a fruit-forward, early to market style which is far lighter in body than examples from the rivaling regions of Central Otago and Martinborough. Fortunately, vintners are increasingly striving for higher quality. There are plenty of stunningly elegant and complex Pinot Noirs to be found here.
Varietal experimentation has led to the success of several other grape varieties in the region. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, and to a lesser extent Riesling and Gewurztraminer, have gained considerable acreage over the past decade.
Marlborough's viticulturists and winemakers have begun defining sub-regional variations in flavor profiles. This knowledge will help determine things like best suited viticultural methods, grape varieties, and clones. It will also prove important for wineries, particularly larger producers such as Brancott Estate and Villa Maria, as they try to differentiate their products in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The three primary regions of Wairau Valley, Awatere Valley, and the Southern Valleys can each be divided into several distinct districts which are still being defined.
The Wairau Valley refers to a broad area following the winding Wairau River, which terminates in Cloudy Bay. The towns of Blenheim and Renwick are situated on the valley plains, likely due to the valley's propensity to have the warmest climate of the region. The primarily stoney, well-draining, and infertile alluvial soils and warmer temperatures create Sauvignon Blanc with riper tropical flavors and distinctive flinty notes. Wairau Valley does contain significant variations, which makes it the most important area for Marlborough's lesser grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Riesling. Heavier, clay-rich soils in the Rapaura districts are primarily planted to Pinot Noir.
South and east of the Wairau lies this much smaller and younger region (shown left). The Awatere enjoys a cooler, maritime climate with less annual rainfall compared to its northern neighbor. Semi-fertile, sedimentary soil with underlying gravel provides excellent drainage and tends to promote more herbaceous characteristics. Look no further for Sauvignon Blanc with iconic tomato stalk or bell pepper (called capsicum in NZ) flavors. Awatere's Pinot Noir is known for bright fruit flavors but tends to be thin in body.
This sub-region is situated on the southern end of the Wairau plains, encompassing several famous areas including the Brancott, Omaka, and Waihopai Valleys. The Southern Valleys were the focal point of the 1970's vineyard plantings that spawned the growth of Marlborough. Primarily glacial outwash, the soils found here are older than most of Marlborough and composed of an interesting mix of gravel, silt, and clay. Without the mediating effects of the river, the Southern Valleys have a cooler climate and later ripening period than the Wairau region. Its vineyards tend to produce grassy, herbal flavors in Sauvignon Blanc and textural, earthy flavors in Pinot Noir.