Ultimate Guide to the Marlborough Wine Region

The Marlborough region is the leading wine-producing area in New Zealand. See our collection of wine pictures.
iStockphoto.com/Mark Senior

­A truly successful wine must have its own flav­or, its own character. It must be distinctive in style, taste and aroma -- after all, dozens of regions produce the same types of wine, their own Cabernets, their own Merlots, their own Chardonnays, their own Rieslings. So what, then, makes one wine so much better over its counterpart in a different region? You'd probably guess that an area with a long history of winemaking would be the winner. After all, experience counts. However, you'd be hard-pressed to explain the overwhelming popularity and success of the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

The Marlborough wine region, located on the eastern coast of New Zealand's South Island, is the leading wine producer in the country, but it's been making wines only within the last half-century. And it wasn't until the mid-1970s that the Sauvignon Blanc grape, for which the region has received worldwide acclaim, was even planted [source: Apstein].

­Luckily for Marlborough, the region seems to have the exact climate that the Sauvignon Blanc grape loves. Somehow, a perfect storm is created and these grapes have a bold, zingy flavor (called piercing, thrilling and electrifying by various critics) that wine lovers can't get enough of. It's so good that even the French -- who have been at this a lot longer than the Kiwis -- ar­e trying to copy them [source: Quaffers]. It's all pretty impressive for a region that's only been at this for about 30 years.

So how did a small New Zealand region that had no interest in winemaking 50 years ago become the leader of its country's wine production? How did this wine become the envy of its competitors? In this article you'll learn the key as you discover the history, culture and agriculture of the Marlborough wine region, as well as the other wines of the region that respectfully hold their own.

Let's start at the beginning by learning about the Marlborough region's short but sweet winemaking history.

Marlborough Wine Region History and Culture

The Marlborough wine region is the largest producer of wine in New Zealand, but only a generation or two ago the region was barely producing any wine at all. Though evidence of grape vines in the area date back to the 1870s, it wasn't for almost another century that viniculturists began planting grapes and cultivating them for wine production. Marlborough didn't begin exporting wine until 1963 and didn't begin planting the Sauvignon Blanc, the grape to which it owes its fame and fortune, until the 1970s [source: Wine Marlborough].

In just a few short years, Marlborough's more than 27,000 acres (11,000 hectares) of vines have pushed to become the leader in New Zealand wine [source: Wine Marlborough]. Though New Zealand is definitely not the top wine country in the world, if you know anything about its wine you've probably heard about the Marlborough wine region. It's responsible for more than half of the entire country's total wine production -- a figure that has quadrupled in just the past decade.

Read on to learn about the agriculture of the Marlborough wine region.

Marlborough Wine Region Agriculture

Distinct contrast is the key when discussing the Marlborough wine region's agriculture, in both the soil and the climate. With the mountains to the west and water to the east, the area gets a lot of sun. How much? The town of Blenheim has the most sunshine of any place in New Zealand, coupled with low average rainfalls [source: Wine Marlborough]. The warm, sunny summer days -- with a pleasant seasonal average temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) -- give way to cool nights. This day/night contrast makes a perfect environment for the grapes. It enhances the grapes' acidity and flavors and gives them better color [source: Discover Marlborough].

The soils of the Wairau Plain and Awatere Valley are traditionally poor for growing. They aren't very fertile and are full of stones and sand [source: Wine Marlborough]. However, one person's trash is another person's -- or in this case, grape's -- treasure. This quickly draining, shallow soil is ideal for grapes and their vines, which thrive in growing conditions that would cause many other plants to wither.

Meanwhile, in Kaikoura, the area near the coast, the soils are much more chalky and full of sandy limestone from the sea. It's a bit cooler here, but the area gets a tad more sun than the Wairau Plain or Awatere Valley, allowing the grapes to ripen slowly and evenly [source: Discover Marlborough].

Read on to discover what kinds of wine are popular in New Zealand's leading wine-producing region.

Famous Wines of the Marlborough Wine Region

In some regions, one wine is the clear leader. Other areas produce seemingly everything and anything, making it tough to pick a winner. New Zealand's Marlborough wine region falls somewhere in between. There are about five quality wines within the region, so you have a few to choose from. However, Sauvignon Blanc is the definite winner here -- it takes up 65 percent of the region's production and is inarguably the cause for Marlborough's leadership and fame in New Zealand's wine production: Sauvignon Blanc [source: Wine Marlborough].

The Sauvignon Blanc of Marlborough is easily characterized by its distinctive qualities, which make it a bit unlike any other Sauvignon Blanc you might find from another country or region. It's known as having "a piercing citric quality and electrifying edge" [source: Apstein]. This white wine doesn't need to be aged -- in fact, its intensity is best enjoyed right after production, as aging can dull what makes it unique. That's why many wineries in Marlborough use screw caps instead of corks. This increasingly popular technique is often used with the region's Sauvignon Blanc -- a cork could change its flavor and cause it to lose its forceful, bold flavors.

The region's generally fruity wines also include:

  • Pinot Noir -- approximately 13 percent of production
  • Chardonnay -- approximately 10 percent of production
  • Riesling -- approximately 4 percent of production
  • Pinot Gris -- approximately 2 percent of production [source: Wine Marlborough]

This late-bloomer winemaking region is quickly taking the wine world by storm. If you like an in-your-face wine, you'll certainly want to check out Marlborough's famed Sauvignon Blanc.

For more information, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Apstein, Michael. "Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough: A True New Work Terrior." October 25, 2005. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.winereviewonline.com/apstein_on_marlborough.cfm
  • Destination Marlborough. "About Marlborough." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.destinationmarlborough.com/About/
  • Discover Marlborough, "Wineries and Viticulture." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.marlborough.co.nz/wineries.asp
  • iExplore. "Wine Marlborough Festival." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.iexplore.com/dmap/New+Zealand/Event/15954
  • Local Wine Events. "The Marlborough Wine Festival." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.localwineevents.com/The-Big-List/festival-577.html
  • My Aching Head. "Marlborough Wine Region, New Zealand." December 24, 2008. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://myachinghead.net/2008/12/marlborough-wine-region-new-zealand/
  • NZ Wine. "Accredited Vineyards." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.nzwine.com/swnz/accred_vineyard.html
  • Quaffers. "Stuff of legends: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc." April 2002. (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.quaffers.co.uk/features/archive/0402_SauvignonBlanc/index.html
  • Snooth. "Marlborough Wine." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.snooth.com/region/new zealand/marlborough/
  • Wine Marlborough. "New Zealand's Premier Wine Region." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.wine-marlborough.co.nz/home.htm
  • Wine Marlborough Festival. "Wine and Food." (Accessed 2/22/09) http://www.wine-marlborough-festival.co.nz/winefood.htm