Marlborough is by far New Zealand's most important wine region. Situated at the north-eastern tip of the South Island, it produces around three-quarters of all the country's wine. The pungent, zesty white wines made from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc are world famous, and Marlborough is widely considered to be the New World home of the variety.
The region consists of a sunny, dry pair of valleys – the Wairau and the Awatere – which run parallel to each other. It stretches down the South Island's Pacific (east) coast from the small port town of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds to the town of Kaikoura. The long, straight Wairau Valley has more plantings than the more recently developed Awatere Valley. In 2010, Marlborough had 58,300 acres (23,600ha) under vine.
Although some vines were planted by settlers in the 1870s, viticulture on a commercial scale did not take off until the 1970s, when the Auckland-based wine producer Montana (now Brancott Estate) surveyed the area and bought land. The first vines were planted in 1973, and after a few issues with the dry soils and strong winds, the first wines were produced in the early 1980s. Rapid expansion followed, and by 1985, Marlborough was awash in a sea of average wines. Phylloxera and a government vine-pulling scheme helped to refocus the efforts of vignerons during this time, and the high-yielding Muller-Thurgau variety that dominated vineyards was ripped out in favor of the now-iconic Sauvignon Blanc.
Marlborough's valleys were created millions of years ago by a large glacier. The Wairau Valley, home to the region's main center, Blenheim, and the sub-regions of Rapaura and Renwick, has a warm, sunny climate that is cooled daily by winds from the Pacific Ocean. Awatere Valley in the south-east has a slightly cooler climate due to its proximity to the ocean on both its northern and eastern sides. The sea breezes are a vital part of the terroir in Marlborough. Sunshine during the day is tempered by the wind, leading to a substantial diurnal temperature variation. This, along with the long, dry autumns, leads to a long growing season during which grapes can develop varietal character while also retaining their characteristic acidity.
The varied soils are geologically young and largely alluvial, having been deposited throughout the two valleys by the Wairau and Awatere rivers. Gravelly soils are common on the river terraces, while silty loams can be found in the hills further from the river. These soils are excellent for viticulture because of their rapid drainage and low fertility. The vines are forced to work hard for hydration and nutrients, meaning that they focus their energy on the production of small, concentrated grapes, which translates into intensity of flavor in the finished wines.
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc exploded onto the world wine scene in the 1980s and 1990s, to the rapture of wine critics and consumers around the globe. It is noted for its complete lack of subtlety, its intense flavors of green pepper and gooseberry and a sweaty character that has been famously described as 'cat's pee on a gooseberry bush'. There are few New World wine regions that are as closely associated with one grape variety as is Marlborough – Mendoza, with its Malbec, is perhaps the only other example that comes close.
Although Sauvignon Blanc dominates the vineyards of Marlborough, several other varieties flourish here. Among the white-wine grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling are the most common. In recent years, Pinot Noir vines have matured, enhancing the reputation of these often elegant, fruity, red table wines. Pinot Noir from Marlborough tends to be lighter in body than Pinot wines from Central Otago and Martinborough.
Marlborough is also an important producer of New Zealand’s sparkling wine: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are made into quality, dry sparkling wines, usually using the methode traditionnelle.