New Zealand Whites: The Great Divide


Did you know it’s been 50 years since the first vine was planted in Marlborough? The year was 1973. An international oil crisis was in full swing, a fraud case involving Bordeaux wine royalty went global and an optimistic New Zealander claimed that Marlborough wine would be “world famous” at the planting of the region’s first vine. It was considered a mad endeavor in a rural backwater, but the vines and wines of this region have set New Zealand on a path to international wine stardom. Yet, the celebrations are conspicuous by their absence. This milestone has failed to create fireworks. A short article in the local wine producer magazine is all I’ve yet to see. I fear it will pass without acknowledgment or pause for the reflection it deserves.

Vines planted on the rolling hills of Marlborough are producing some of the region's finest wines.

Back in the early 1970s, it was deemed too cold to grow grapes in the region. But that didn't stop Frank Yukich, the man behind the first modern Marlborough vineyard. He purchased land in Marlborough without the approval of Montana Wines Limited’s board (now renamed Brancott Estate to avoid confusion with the state of Montana) and paid the deposit from his own pocket. His colleagues weren’t pleased and didn’t want to embark on this seemingly foolhardy venture. In a bid to change their mind, Yukich asked several wine professors in California to give their expert opinion on the viability of growing grapes in the top corner of New Zealand’s south island. They gave the thumbs up, and the project went ahead. The first vines were planted with much fanfare, but they failed miserably; a summer drought put an end to the fledgling vines. Undeterred, Yukich trialed more plantings, including hybrids and a fruit salad of vitis vinifera varieties. It was a happy accident that Sauvignon Blanc was chosen in 1975. The first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was released in 1979. At that time, only the most optimistic could predict that this sheep farming community’s future would change dramatically. 

Vines were soon taking over the fields previously reserved for local flocks. In the mid-1980s, 1.6 million sheep called Marlborough home while there were just 1,000 hectares of vines; 20 years later, the sheep population had fallen by two-thirds, and vines carpeted the valley floor with more than 17,000 hectares (42,008 acres) of Marlborough’s land. In the years following the global financial crisis and a record harvest (2008), the world did not have the appetite to mop up what became known as the “Savalanche” and expansion came to a halt. There were claims that Marlborough vineyard land was close to its saturation point. Just a few thousand hectares were unplanted and considered suitable for vines. Industry figures said that further expansion would have to come from acquiring existing vineyards. And yet, eight years later, Marlborough’s vineyards have increased by another 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) with more land deals in the cards. The largest companies are expanding into areas that have long been considered too marginal, including the remote village of Wairau Valley, leaving locals shaking their heads about the likely quality of the wines made on this land and the damage it will do to the region that is home to their families and businesses.

More than ever, it is clear that fissures are opening within a once-remarkably united region and country. New Zealand is no stranger to earthquakes, sitting on a fault line, but the cracks separating the commercial players and the small, quality-conscious producers are growing ever wider. Until recently, the bigger companies were still owned and run by locals with pride in their products. Now, multinationals and bulk-focused companies are abusing the liquid that put this rural community on the map. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has been commoditized. With international owners sitting in corporate offices thousands of miles away, volume concerns are a greater priority than quality, which has been underlined in the challenging 2022 season. When nature is on their side, the divide between the best and the rest is narrower, but in a challenging year, a gulf separates producers.

New Zealand Chardonnay continues to impress.

Vintage 2022

After a small harvest in 2021 that failed to fill the tanks and left the cellars empty, producers were desperate to replenish their stocks. Many wineries planned to bottle and release early in a bid to sate thirsty markets clamoring for New Zealand wine. But the country faced challenges: the COVID-19 Omicron variant finally infected the population, the country’s labor shortage continued and heavy summer rainfall left growers battling diseases.

Spring started warm, according to the Marlborough Research Centre. Still, the December flowering period was wet, recording almost double the usual rainfall for the month, setting up what’s known as latent botrytis infection, which would be triggered later in the season. While the overall rainfall was only a splash over the long-term average, February was quite wet. It received more than three times the monthly norm and was slightly cooler than projected, which activated botrytis. While dry weather in the first three weeks of March kept fungal pressure at manageable levels, four days of rain from 21 March onwards sent wineries into overdrive, racing to get their crop in before botrytis or slipskin turned their healthy bunches to rotten grapes.

The prospect of losing their crop at the last moment was too much to bear, and harvesters were sent out into the vineyard early to save the yield from rot. The logistics of picking a slowly ripening, large production of fruit with high botrytis pressure was a headache, particularly for larger companies, who may have started early, picking clean but underripe fruit to get ahead of the rot. Still, time was against them. When they reached their final parcels, botrytized fruit was not uncommon – even smaller wineries admit that time was of the essence and conditions deteriorated rapidly. There is no differentiation between botrytis and healthy fruit for those machine harvesting, representing most of the fruit collected in Marlborough. While winemakers have techniques to clean up their juice, some wines show the honeyed or dusty characteristics of unwanted botrytized fruit. Common themes across the vintage include wines lacking full flavor development due to premature picking dates caused by deteriorating berry health. This also means lower alcohol levels (even after chaptalization) and high acid levels, creating a sense of hardness.

The most quality-conscious producers dropped fruit before the machine harvesters were sent in or handpicked exclusively, often relying on the office staff, friends, family and retirees to help amid the labor shortage. Harvest crews are often an international affair in New Zealand, with young backpackers providing important additional picking hands and experienced overseas cellar hands doing the heavy lifting in the winery. It was a real headache for all producers, with many using machine harvesters where they would usually handpick purely due to a lack of hands. It was an unforgiving year, but the final wines' quality and balance make it clear who paid attention to detail and who simply wanted to get something in a bottle.

Marlborough's later ripening Awatere Valley appears to have fared better than the main Wairau Valley in 2022.

The 2022 white wines smell and taste like someone dialed down the volume. The exuberance and vibrancy that we’ve come to know are missing in far too many examples. Where are all the tropical, wear-a-grass-skirt flavors? The solution could lie in the laccase enzyme associated with botrytis. This can ultimately lead to the diminution of aroma compounds or mask them, which is a big deal for Sauvignon Blanc lovers. There are a greater number of wines with green flavors, while acid levels leave you wincing. The best producers that restricted yields, fruit thinned before harvest and hand-picked healthy fruit have performed well in the face of challenging conditions, but I have yet to find a truly remarkable 2022. There is a higher proportion of poor whites than usual in 2022 – wines that lack balance and intensity. Buyers must select carefully. In general, the standard across the Awatere Valley is more consistent than the Wairau Valley. The Awatere is typically cooler and drier than the Wairau Valley, which means that botrytis risk is naturally lower, but growers in this region still had to be super vigilant to avoid losing their crop at the eleventh hour.

Don’t despair; there are plenty of 2021s that are just hitting the market, including some excellent Chardonnay that I’ll happily be ordering in the months ahead. It seems that I am turning into a broken record, but the quality of New Zealand Chardonnay never fails to impress me. With each vintage that passes, there are more exciting new cuvées to discover, making for an ever-longer Chardonnay shopping list. What’s more, there isn’t just one region claiming a monopoly on outstanding New Zealand Chardonnay: from Auckland in the north to Central Otago in the far south, some 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) apart, there is a growing number of wines that I’d happily pour alongside white Burgundy and would be proud to do so.

A greater range of clonal options is also producing exciting results – Mendoza and UCD clones have traditionally been responsible for the best Chardonnays in New Zealand mainly because that was what was available in the early years. But New Zealand’s leading nursery, Riversun, found that there was a much greater clonal variety in Burgundy in the early 2000s and reported that they were surprised to find a lot of ENTAV-INRA clones in the hallowed vineyards of Burgundy. They went about importing them and undergoing the lengthy quarantine period before releasing them to the local wine industry. Now you’ll hear vineyard managers discussing the Corton-Charlemagne clones of 548, 809 and 1066, which inevitably leads to someone making a smart comment about William the Conqueror. Rootstocks might not be a sexy topic of discussion, but there’s growing interest in their role too. What works in Burgundy doesn’t work on the young, free-draining alluvial soils of New Zealand. A single rootstock – 3309 – dominates the New Zealand vineyard area. Still, there are new challenges ahead for the vineyard: drought and future water availability require a rethink on rootstocks. At the same time, organic practices and the increased use of cover crops make different demands on the vine. Thoughtful grape growers are looking to the future and wondering whether what has gone before is necessarily what should stay. It’s a question that could be applied to many more areas of the New Zealand wine scene. But with just 50 years since Marlborough was first planted, the hope is that the next chapter will be equally illustrious.

The recently launched Wine Map of Marlborough by Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW) delineates the Marlborough wine-growing region. Used with permission.

Mapping Marlborough

There’s a late-afternoon television show in the UK called House of Games in which four British C-list celebrities compete in a quiz over five 30-minute episodes to win prizes, including a dart board, silk dressing gown and toolbox. In one show, the contestants are asked to pinpoint Marlborough, the wine region. For a wine lover, the answers are cringeworthy. It was lucky if they were even in New Zealand – mainland Australia and Tasmania were popular choices. And yet, those who care deeply about Marlborough and its credentials as a fine wine district are drilling deep. Cue the birth of the Marlborough Wine Map Collective.

We’ve been relying too long on outdated maps that fail to properly define the subregions that have grown up since those first vines met Marlborough’s soils in 1973. This new map aims to address cartographers’ inability or apathy toward the pace of change in this viticultural landscape. I have long referred to the entire area south of Marlborough’s main valley, the Wairau, as the Awatere – as has 99% of the wine industry – but this map suggests that is incorrect and a more detailed, or accurate, geographical approach should be adopted. It shows a vast, widely dispersed vineyard area that is not clearly delineated in many instances but shows marked locations, as boundaries are still yet to be defined in many slices of this region. I applaud the effort and endeavor to study the new map and challenge my ideas and thoughts about these areas of land, but I also appreciate that I am the 0.01%. This map speaks to highly involved professionals and high-level wine nerds. It may have little use to the general public, but when have geographical borders and subregional accuracies appealed to the mass consumer? This work shows love, care and attention and a desire for detail. These are qualities every great wine producer - and their customer - values.

The wines for this report were tasted in several settings: at home in England and regional line-ups organized by local wine associations in New Zealand and at individual wine estates.

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