New Zealand’s largest wine region has enjoyed an almost unbroken run of success since the world first discovered its distinctive Sauvignon Blanc style and fell in love with it. It has grown so dramatically over the last two decades — it now has 27,000 ha of vines — that visitors can drive for an hour, from Blenheim to the Wairau Valley, and enjoy an unbroken view of vineyards. But now Marlborough is almost completed planted and the scope for expansion is limited to just a few, fairly marginal sites. Now that the region can no longer expand, what comes next?
It has been more than 40 years since Sauvignon Blanc vines were first planted in Marlborough, in 1973, at the top of South Island. The original motivation for Montana to plant here was a domestic shortage of wine, coupled with overseas investment from drinks giant Seagram, which had taken a 40 percent share in the company. After an initial burst of planting — 1,173 hectares of land was bought overnight by Frank Yukich and 486 ha of vines went into the ground soon after — things grew slowly and steadily until the mid-1980s.
Then two producers in particular, Hunters and Cloudy Bay, achieved the export success that was to bring the world’s attention to this previously unknown New Zealand region. The UK market was the first to fall in love with the pungently grassy, gooseberry-led aromas of Marlborough Sauvignon and other markets soon followed.
James Healy, who was winemaker at Cloudy Bay during its glory years of the 1990s and who now partners with another former Cloudy Bay employee Ivan Sutherland in Dog Point, began working for Corbans in Auckland in 1979. “We were handling fruit from Marlborough in the early 1980s, because we had some plantings there,” he recalls. “And the fruit quality was just so much better than anything else. It was light years ahead of what we were picking in Auckland.”
By 1990, Sauvignon’s stock was rising, but the planting patterns in Marlborough reflected the past as much as the future. The dominant variety was still Müller-Thurgau at 1,305 ha, followed by Chardonnay at 689 ha. Sauvignon was in third place at 427 ha with Cabernet Sauvignon fourth at 396 ha. “In the mid-1990s we probably thought Marlborough was already maxed out,” says Healy, adding that in that period there were 5,000 to 6,000 planted hectares, while today it’s closer to 30,000. “When we were driving around New Zealand, every time we saw a bit of land that didn’t have a vineyard on it — which was everywhere — we’d joke and say that would be a good vineyard.’
A decade later Sauvignon reached 47 percent of plantings. After a big burst of planting between 2000 and 2010, when vineyard area increased by 500 percent. Sauvignon finally asserted its dominance, representing 76 percent of vines in the ground.
Ivan Sutherland, the other partner in Dog Point, founded in 2001, had worked as a land agent in Marlborough. He planted his first vineyard in 1979, which was early days for the wine region, and began working as a consultant viticulturist. When David Hohen established Cloudy Bay he employed Sutherland on the condition that he’d give up his consultancy and contract his land to the company. So Sutherland has seen all the changes in the region. “When I look back I feel quite proud and privileged to have been part of this,” he says. “It’s an amazing story. They should have given Frank and Maté Yukich a knighthood, because [without wine] what we’d have here now would be stinking dairy cows.”
What comes next?
Despite the stunning export success of Marlborough’s wines, there is a price ceiling on bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. While customers are willing to pay more for top examples of varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnays, it has always been a struggle to up-sell Sauvignon. One exception has been Cloudy Bay, which has enjoyed a higher price point than its rivals for some time, on the back of a strong brand image. Others have experimented with alternative styles of Sauvignon, such as hand-picked, barrel-fermented kinds, in a hope of adding an extra price point. The danger here is that consumers come to Marlborough because of the distinctive style of Sauvignon that it produces and to change it risks surprising and perhaps alienating them.
There’s another worry at the back of producers’ minds and this is that export markets might lose their appetite for Sauvignon. There is little they can do to stop this happening, but they could ameliorate some of the risk by planting other varieties and promoting them. Pinot Noir is a case in point, as is Chardonnay. Pinot Gris is currently very popular and producers can’t get enough of it to satisfy demand. Still, though, the demand for Sauvignon remains strong and most new plantings focus on this variety.
Another concern is that Brand Marlborough might be being compromised by low-quality wines. There are some contract producers who buy fruit rejected by the larger companies or is surplus to yield cap. Typically, a grower’s contract will specify brix (for example at least 22), rot (less than five percent) and have a yield cap (15 tons/ha). If it fails to meet the first two criteria it may be rejected. And anything above cap may be harvested and sold on, depending on the specific contract.
After harvest, there will be Sauvignon available at NZ$500 ($344) per ton — as opposed to an average price of NZ$1,800 per ton — and this will be snapped up by contract wineries and turned into cheap Sauvignon. While bulk shipping is sometimes unfairly maligned — there are some high-quality branded wines being shipped in bulk to be bottled in market — cheap bulk wine from rejected fruit made by opportunists is seen as a threat to the image of Marlborough Sauvignon.
Indeed, in 2017 40 percent of the region’s exports were in bulk, up from 34 percent the previous year. “Our biggest worry is the image of Marlborough,” says Sutherland. “This cowboy stuff, and the cooperatives and one or two big companies allowing growers to have ridiculous tonnages, ignoring quality and going for quantity.”
Dog Point represents the good side of Marlborough: a respected brand, made from sensible yields achieved by organic farming across interesting terroirs, mostly in the southern valleys. It now farms more than 160 ha organically and report that the demand for organic grapes — they sell them as well as grow for themselves — is currently strong in the region.
So what are the ways out of these potential difficulties?
A project recently undertaken in a collaboration between yeast producer Lallemand, the Institute of the Masters of Wine (IMW) and the Saint Clair winery suggests one potential way forwards: differentiation of Marlborough Sauvignon by style.
A student from the IMW — Sarah Benson, a buyer with the Co-op — was sponsored to study consumer attitudes to four distinctive styles of Marlborough Sauvignon. Heather Stewart, the white winemaker at Saint Clair, was tasked with using specific vineyard sources, combined with a range of winemaking protocols, to produce four different wines. These were made at commercial scales of up to 60,000 litres.
The first wine was made from Dillons Point fruit, using a yeast known for making higher levels of the polyfunctional thiols. The second was a green and herbaceous style made from a Dillons Point site that usually produces very green wines, and a different yeast was used to bring out that character. The third wine was intended to be classic mineral and citrus in character and in this case a rocky site in the Waihopai Valley was chosen and fermented with a yeast called Cross Evolution. Finally, a barrel-fermented wine was made from Dillons Point using second-use oak barrels. All wines were from the 2017 vintage.
Benson took these trial wines and showed them to three different groups: regular consumers (247), trade buyers (20) and wine journalists (24). All answered the same questionnaire, which consisted of 10 questions for each wine. The consumers and journalists both preferred the citrus wine, while the buyers preferred the tropical wine, with the citrus wine their third choice. For the flavour preference, the consumers preferred the tropical then the citrus, the journalists preferred the citrus then the tropical, and the buyers preferred the herbal. Digging into the results showed that in fact there are different groups of consumers. Benson also showed that the journalists, the buyers and the consumers described the citrus wine quite differently. She proposed that, on the basis of these results, it might be worth considering targeting different wines to specific groups.
The next stage in Marlborough’s journey will be to communicate the diversity of this region, focusing on some of the interesting sites and the emerging fine wine dimension, while not diluting the clear and concise Sauvignon-centred marketing message. As one winemaker said, the days of Marlborough as a collective wine region are over. Along these lines a group of 34 producers is in the advanced stages of drawing up appellation rules for Marlborough, aiming at preserving a notion of high quality in the midst of the bulk shipped wine destined for private label and soft brands.
“My biggest concern is over-cropping and all the downsides of this,” says Healy. “There’s the effect on quality and it allows bottom feeders to come in.” But Sutherland adds: “I think this is a concern in every region in the world.” Still, the appellation Marlborough proposal is intelligently thought out, even if it has some potential difficulties.
The future, then, is not Marlborough — but many Marlboroughs.
Marlborough in figures
Area under vine: 27,471 ha
Percentage of total plantings represented by Sauvignon Blanc: 79 percent
Management costs per hectare of
Average yield, Sauvignon:
Price per ton, Sauvignon: NZ$1,850
Average profit per hectare for a grower: NZ$14,000
Cost of 1 hectare of vines:
NZ$300,000 (Lower Wairau)
NZ$200,000 (Rapaura, Southern Valleys) NZ$150,000 (Awatere)