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Marlborough - New Zealand's flagship wine region
By Sue Courtney ©
26 August 2001
updated 19 September 2004

Most people think that the history of the Marlborough vineyards began in 1973, when Montana made the courageous move to plant up large tracts of the Wairau Valley in this unknown wine region.

But Marlborough grape growing's heritage actually began well over a 100 years before.

Darryl Woolley, the Chief winemaker for the Nobilo Wine Group, said in a September 2001 interview to The Flying Wine Man, Andrew Jones (www.wineontheweb.com), that there were four Marlborough winemakers in the period 1853 to 1873, while Cynthia Brooks, in her book 'Marlborough Wines and Vines' (1992) reports how pioneer wine makers David Herd and Charles Empson planted the first Marlborough vineyard in 1873, exactly 100 years before Montana's revival of NZ's premier grape growing region.

Although Empson died soon after the first harvest in 1875, Herd went on to win prize after prize for his well regarded red muscatel wine. The winery survived until 1931. During this time, other tiny operations in the region that came and went, prohibition and poor prices for grapes being the doom for Massor Peters, but the start of winemaking for Harry Patchett, who continued until frost destroyed his vines in the 1960's.

It is rumoured that at least one other well-known vintner of today showed interest in Marlborough, but instead chose Hawkes Bay to establish his successful vineyard.

In the early 1970's when Montana was looking to expand they found that Hawkes Bay was quite expensive. DSIR scientist, Wayne Thomas, suggested to Montana founder Frank Yukich, that Marlborough might be worth considering. After extensive research, the go ahead was given and Montana secretly bough up 1600 hectares (4000 acres) of prime grape growing land on the southern side of the Wairau Valley in the areas we know as Fairhall as Brancott Estate. Planting began on 11 August 1973.

Coincidentally, the farm and vineyard of Herd and Empson was in this same area, at the end of Paynter's Road.

Drought destroyed much of Montana's first planting but that did not deter them. They replanted in 1974 with well rooted vines and the first harvest, shipped to Gisborne for processing, was made in March 1976. The Montana Riverlands Winery was built to receive the next vintage.

Yukich left Montana in 1977 and bought a controlling interest in Penfolds New Zealand so it was no surprise that the following year, Penfolds had also bought land in Marlborough. Next to arrive, in 1979, was Corbans. Both bought land on the stony Rapaura river gravels. Coincidentally, now in 2001, Montana long having taken over Penfolds and just last year Corbans, now owns all these properties.

At the same time as the giants were moving in, Te Whare Ra was being established as Marlborough's first 'boutique' winery, followed by Hunters and Daniel Le Brun. There were the first of many to come in the next twenty years.

Although their first Marlborough wines were produced earlier, Montana marketed the Marlborough Estate range of wines from the 1980 vintage. These quality wines, which included sauvignon blanc and riesling, sparked plenty of interest, including from overseas - the most notable being David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle, whose Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc is now synonymous with fine Marlborough sauvignon blanc, the world over.

Despite the success of these early Marlborough pioneers, Marlborough was slow to take off.

Wine Industry statistics show there were just three Marlborough-based licensed winemakers in Marlborough in 1984 - the big companies of Montana, Penfolds and Corbans being regarded as Auckland-based. The number of licensed producers had grown to nine, by 1990.

The statistics to the end of August, 2001 give a total of licensed winemakers based in Marlborough as 63. Many more producers based elsewhere source grapes from Marlborough and some even have a second winery in Marlborough. The region has grown into New Zealand's largest producing vineyard area and vines are still being planted at a phenomenal rate. The vineyard area that started at Brancott and Fairhall has expanded right along the plains of the Wairau Valley, into the feeder valleys and now even on the higher country. The Awatere Valley, the next big valley heading south down the main highway to Christchurch is quickly being planted, as is the northern side of the Redwood pass, which links the Wairau and Awatere Valleys. Smaller plots can be seen to the north between Picton and Blenheim as well and trial plots on river terraces can be spotted by the astute tourist heading south down State Highway One.

Marlborough Grape Variety tonnages harvested 2002, 2003 & 2004

In 2002 there was approximately 5450 hectares of producing vine area in Marlborough.  This is expected to increase by a whopping 1370 hectares over the next two years to 6820 hectares.  Not surprisingly the major growth area is sauvignon blanc (expected 860ha), followed by pinot noir (expected 340ha). Although much of the pinot noir grown in Marlborough used to be used for sparkling wines, the pinot noir growth is focussed on still red wine.

Variety

2002*

2003*

2004*

Chardonnay

9,688

5,704

11,399

Chenin Blanc

5

4

3

Gewurztraminer

308

175

442

Muller Thurgau

481

128

155

Pinot Gris

468

371

1,012

Riesling

3,720

2,427

3,985

Sauvignon Blanc

31,030

24,132

60,205

Semillon

1,400

603

1,282

Other White Vinifera

19

2

65

Cabernet Franc

103

7

51

Cabernet Sauvignon

668

389

577

Malbec

61

35

84

Merlot

961

592

1,013

Pinot Noir

5,186

5,631

11,852

Pinotage

281

265

288

Syrah

31

17

32

Other Red Vinifera                 

84

54

137

Total

54,494

40,536

92,581

* Figures are rounded and may not add to the total as supplied by New Zealand Winegrowers.

Marlborough-based Wineries
New Zealand Winegrowers (at www.nzwine.com) list over 70 Marlborough wineries as at August 2002. There are too many for me to list so check out their info although it does include opening hours. Not does the Winegrower's commentary recognise the pioneering winemakers who grew grapes and made wine prior to 1973.

Other links
Go to www.winemarlborough.net.nz - check out their winery list and download the wine trail map.

www.winesofmarlborough.co.nz - Marlborough's Wine and Viticultural Directory.

www.dinemarlborough.co.nz - the Marlborough Restaurant Guide.

A Day in Marlborough My whirlwind trip to Marlborough on November 10th 2000 with visiting US wine lover, Robin Garr.
Includes map and visits to Seresin, Grove Mill, Isabel Estate, Villa Maria Estate, Wither Hills, Stoneleigh (now incorporated into Montana) and Cloudy Bay.

Marlborough Wine Trail Interesting overview of the area and a table of wineries with links to those who had web sites at the time of writing this website.

Wine Tours by Bike Tour the Marlborough Vineyards by pedal power at your own leisure.

Deluxe Coach Travel Tours Or do it the deluxe way, by coach.

© Sue Courtney
The information on this page was researched by Sue Courtney and normal copyright applies, including the html code.


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