New Zealand has 10 wine-producing regions. Marlborough is easily the biggest. It makes 70 per cent of Kiwi wine. For publication in the week starting 1 July 2019.
Marlborough remains the giant among New Zealand’s wine-producing regions with its 26,850 hectares of vines. The region has about 80 per cent of all plantings in the country and produces seven in 10 bottles of the country’s wine.
To put the size into perspective, Hawkes Bay is the second-biggest region with only 4,500 hectares of vines.
Growth in Marlborough has been significant. Only half a decade ago the region had about 20,000 hectares, with 17,725 of those devoted to Sauvignon Blanc.
Exports dominate the New Zealand wine market and will become increasingly important because domestic consumption continues to slide. Last year the value of New Zealand wine exports grew for the 23rd consecutive year to reach NZD 1.75 billion (about USD 1.15 billion).
Matt Duggan is the chief viticulturist for Jackson Estate Wines, based in Marlborough. He was in the UK this week for a series of meetings with the company’s suppliers. “Marlborough is getting planted out,” Duggan said. Most of the growth had come from big companies. Water storage prices meant only the big players could afford the costs. “The region has very few small family estates,” Duggan noted.
Jackson Estate continues to be one of the leading family estates. It has 70 hectares of vines. Duggan joined Jackson Estate last year from neighbouring Cloudy Bay. “I completed my science degree in Dunedin, before moving north to study viticulture and oenology at Lincoln University. Family and work opportunities led me to Marlborough where I was named Marlborough’s young viticulturist of the year three times in my early career,” the company’s web site notes.
At least two bottles in three made in Marlborough are Sauvignon Blanc. Duggan believes Marlborough is adopting a three-pronged approach to this variety. It continues to produce a commercially-focused fresh and aromatic or “green” style for the millions around the world who love this type of wine. For many young people it is the “entry point” for their wine journey.
The next level is a premium style of Sauvignon Blanc that has some bottle age. An example of this is the Jackson Estate Stich. It is named in honour of John “Stich” Stichbury, the founder of Jackson Estate. His family has farmed the land for more than 160 years.
Cloudy Bay, who many believe started the fashion for Kiwi-style sauvignon blanc, is a neighbour. I enjoyed the pithy lemon character of the Stitch with its intense length of flavours. A wine that could be cellared for another five years.
The third style is textured and mineral like a quality Sancerre from the Loire in France. We will probably see a push for this style in the next few years. A fine example of this is the company’s Grey Ghost. It is almost old world in style and slightly riper than Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.
The Grey Ghost is named after an old gum tree planted by John Stichbury’s grandmother in 1867. She often told her grandchildren a story about a grey ghost groaning outside on windy nights.
Half of the wine spends about 10 months in old oak barrels, with the rest in stainless steel, before it is cellared. The current release is the 2015. This is a delicious and different wine that is worth seeking. Only about 20,000 bottles are made. “We want flavours of savoury herbs and to avoid aromas of grassy herbs,” Duggan said.
Peter McCombie, a Master of Wine based in Europe, was born in New Zealand. “Oak ageing for Sauvignon Blanc is coming of age in New Zealand,” he said, noting that these wines could be cellared for many years unlike the fruit-driven version of the wine designed to be consumed in the year of the vintage.
Duggan’s main role is ensuring Jackson Estate continues to grow high-quality grapes. But he is unofficially involved with winemaking because the team is small and members have many roles. “Winemaking is something I’d like to get more involved with.”
Four family-focused estates in Marlborough have been pioneers in wine-making innovation. In 2001 Jackson Estate along with Forrest Wines, Lawson’s Dry Hills and John Belsham introduced the use of screw-cap instead of cork closures.
Since then what was pioneering has become accepted. More than 90 per cent of wines in New Zealand are sealed with a screw-cap, and in neighbouring Australia the percentage is higher.
Dr John Forrest of Forrest Wines has long maintained the Marlborough region would be world famous for its Pinot Noir if Sauvignon Blanc had not become the dominant grape. Peter McCombie MW agrees with him, noting that vines were being planted on clay soils to get more “substantial” wines.
Jackson Estate has two Pinot Noir vineyards totalling about 4.5 hectares. Each year the company produces a wine named after each vineyard: The Gum Emperor, on heavy clay soils and named after the Gum Emperor moth, and the Somerset. They also make a blend of both vineyards called the Vintage Widow. The current vintage, the 2015, of the blend is a “cracker from a cracker vintage,” Duggan said. It has graceful tannins and is perfumed and floral.
The Cental Otago region in the deep south of the country is better known for Pinot Noir but Marlborough offers better value for money because of its lower production costs.
Until 2001 Chardonnay was the most-planted grape variety in New Zealand. Massive plantings of Sauvignon Blanc from the late 1990s reduced Chardonnay’s influence. By 2005 Sauvignon Blanc had double the number of hectares as Chardonnay, and by 2017 Chardonnay plantings had declined to the point they represented only 9 per cent of the country’s total production.
The 2016 Jackson Estate Shelter Belt Chardonnay reminds me what fine Chardonnays New Zealand can make (see earlier column). Jackson Estate has 4.5 hectares of Chardonnay clone 95 and they make an elegant and balanced wine with flavours and aromas of white peach. If placed in a blind tasting it could be mistaken for a good white burgundy. In terms of price it is much better value.
Jackson Estates exports at least 90 per cent of its production. Key markets are the UK and Australia though soon the US will overtake Australia. It makes about 35,000 12-bottle cases a year.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the lunch guest of RandR Communications, the PR company representing Jackson Estate in the UK. Bottle images and photo of Matt Duggan courtesy of RandR.