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Sauvignon Stilettos: Marlborough, NZ

By Debra Meiburg MW

by Debra Meiburg MW

It’s hard to believe that New Zealand restaurants weren’t allowed to sell wine until the 1960’s. Even then, servers were required to stopper the bottles by 10:00pm. It’s also hard to believe that just over thirty years ago there wasn’t a single grape vine planted in New Zealand’s largest and most famous wine region, Marlborough. In fact, fifteen years ago there were only thirty-one winemakers in all of New Zealand. This series of “did-you-knows” is significant when considering the New Zealand, in particularly Marlborough, wine scene today.

Nestled between two mountain ranges on the north-eastern most tip of South Island, Marlborough is one of the few wine producing regions in the world that has managed to bump a French wine region off its high heels. Less than two decades ago, the grassy, bracing wines of Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley, defined sauvignon blanc, not New Zealand. Marlborough gave the world a different sauvignon blanc, packed with the same grassy, herbal notes, but vibrant and taut with explosive green fruits, figs and gooseberries. The Loire’s Sancerre was decidedly stingy by comparison. Upstart Marlborough winemakers put out a sauvignon blanc that lived up to its name: sauvignon is derived from the French word sauvage, which means wild.

One of the key’s to Marlborough’s success is its diurnal temperatures, where warm sunny days are off-set by cool, nippy evenings: singlets are worn by day, but wraps or jackets are de riguer after chilly nightfall. The result is a long, slow, slow-ripening season, which intensifies fruit flavours. Most of Marlborough’s important vineyards are planted on the Wairau Plain, grouped around the towns of Blenheim and Renwick, near Cloudy Bay, just south of the Marlborough Sounds. The Wairau Plain owes its success to soil that’s surprisingly unfertile for a river valley floor. No matter, grape vines thrive in soil that forces their roots to burrow deep for nutrition. Vines have a tendency to binge drink, so top Marlborough producers keep their vines away from the region’s generous water table. If left unchecked, water-fuelled vines can enthusiastically over-produce resulting in dilute, unripe, overly herbaceous wines. Luckily both the Wairau Plain and the Awatere Valley, which lies further south in the Marlborough region, have shallow soils that drain quickly.

There’s no end of focused, high quality sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region, all with basketfuls of intense, pure gooseberry fruit and herb-scented fruit supported by razor-sharp acidity. Marlborough’s reputation for sauvignon blanc is so high that many producers based elsewhere in the country buy fruit from Marlborough to ensure they have a striking sauvignon blanc in their portfolio. Though Marlborough built its reputation on wildly exuberant fruit, teetering on stiletto acidity, some producers are experimenting with a richer, round style, along the lines of white Bordeaux, fermenting the wines in barrels, kicking up lees activity and maturing a portion of the blend in oak barrels.

If ‘savvy’ doesn’t hold your interest, then look to Marlborough for excellent pinot noir or chardonnay. Ata Rangi and Dog Point Vineyards both make superb chardonnays that have fooled more than one taster as to their origin. Top producers of sauvignon blanc include Cloudy Bay, Craggy Range, Wairau River and Seresin. Also delicious, fresh and feisty are the ‘double L’ savvies: Sacred Hill, Oyster Hills, Wither Hills, Grove Mill and Villa Maria.

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