New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs: My Love Letter to The Marlborough Region

Sometime in my mid-30’s I burned out on Chardonnay. The rich, oaky, buttery flavors and golden hues that I’d savored for years suddenly felt dull and heavy on my palate. Soon thereafter, my epiphany was affirmed: I found myself in the Loire Valley in France and was introduced to the prized special wine of the region, Sancerre, made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes. In a nano-second, I knew I was smitten. The light, crisp notes of citrus, flint, and honeysuckle exalted my taste buds and it was equally delightful paired with food or as a stand-alone aperitif. I began to practice my ABC’s (Anything But Chardonnay…) like some sort of mantra.

But my true love affair with Sauvignon Blanc began with the first sips of a “Sav Blanc” from New Zealand’s Marlborough Region. I’ll never forget—it was a bottle of Cloudy Bay, chosen for its appealing label design—like a fog-enshrouded Brigadoon. I fell head over heels and have never looked back. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough has a charmingly addictive quality and transmits its terroir, or “sense of place,” in a very distinct way. The high, mouthwatering acidity complements rich tropical flavors contrasted by an asparagus, green grass savory character. It can range from bone dry to subtly sweet. Because The Marlborough is an isolated region, stainless steel is a common aging method as shipping French oak casks across the sea is expensive and difficult. Aging in stainless steel means distinctive fruit flavors, light to medium body, and a highly aromatic expression.

Twenty years later with a reconnaissance trip to New Zealand on my horizon, I knew I had to add on a couple of extra days for a pilgrimage to the Marlborough “motherland.” Located at the top end of the South Island and at the head of the Southern Alps, Marlborough’s airport, Blenheim, is an easy 90-minute flight from Auckland. Protected by mountains, the cool, maritime climate and high sunshine hours of the area allow for a long and steady growing season in which the grapes can ripen and develop a natural balance of acids and sugars. This brings out the flavors and intensity that distinguish the wines from this region.

 

Marlborough Lodge, former Victorian convent, now a 10-room luxury hotel.

The Kingfisher Suite, Marlborough Lodge.

The Kingfisher Suite, Marlborough Lodge.

I arrived on a gorgeous late April day unfortunately without luggage and already anticipating a glass of my favorite libation to restore my sense of humor. Just 15 minutes from the airport is The Marlborough Lodge which would be home for the next few nights. Equal parts of exhaustion after the long journey from the USA and exhilaration for finally being here washed over me. Formerly a 100-year old Victorian convent, painstakingly moved from its location in town to a 16-acre spot in and amongst the vineyards, the lodge has been beautifully reinvented into a 10-room luxury property with an outstanding restaurant, “Harvest.” Overnight guests have half board included in their rate (think freshly collected eggs from their free-range chickens, homemade breads and fresh-squeezed juice from their citrus trees for breakfast and sumptuous dinners showcasing local ingredients.) My room was called Kingfisher, a premium suite with a spacious sitting area, nice well-lit bathroom with heated floors, a Nespresso machine and a complimentary minibar stocked with…you guessed it: Sav Blanc! All rooms have step-out balconies or porches which overlook the well-manicured gardens.

We did a garden tour with “Maria,” a German lady who’s been at the property for 14 years. We plucked raspberries off the vine and indulged in a fresh fig. Maria also had artichokes, beets, and so much more in her autumnal garden. We met our local guide, Stephen, who was deeply knowledgeable and fine company. He laid out the plan for the days ahead and gave an excellent introduction to the area and history of the wine-making here that has not only captured my heart but taken the world by storm.

It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago, there were no vineyards here—this was sheep country. The soil was rocky and poor for cultivation, but its sunny, breezy climate (with some 2500 hours of sunshine per year) was compelling. The first vines were planted in 1973 when the land was cheap and only about 30% of them survived. There were plenty of mistakes made in the early days and although, remarkably, Sauvignon Blanc was planted as an afterthought, it thrived!  To everyone’s surprise, this harsh rocky soil produced a stellar wine noted for notes of minerals, tropical fruit and citrus. Today, 75% of all wine produced in New Zealand comes from The Marlborough and 75% of that production is Sauvignon Blanc. Of the 80-plus wineries in the area, there are 30 “Cellar Doors” open to the public for tasting and winery visits.

Cloudy Bay cellar door.

It was fitting that our first stop was at Cloudy Bay harkening back to my early fascination with the label which I now recognize was the view of the valley from the vineyard! Established in 1985 by Aussie winemaker, David Hohnen, at the time, it was almost an unimaginable place to set up a vineyard. But he was convinced of its potential to produce great wine and invested in the best land in the region.

We had vertical tasting of a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc alongside a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc and it was very interesting to see how the wine had aged gracefully, yet no trace of oak.

Vertical tasting of Sauvignon Blancs at Cloudy Bay.

Cloudy Bay is now owned by luxury conglomerate, LVMH, and one immediately notices the polish and attention to details:

  • Their 1985 Land Rover Defender—same year as their first vintage used for vineyard tours

  • “Forage Experiences” splitting a group into teams and going off into the countryside to source local ingredients to prepare a meal
  • The 4-bedroom VIP accommodation called “The Shack”—anything but a shack—rather a sleek, contemporary structure with floor to ceiling glass walls—an ideal venue for a private event.“Jack’s Raw Bar” an attractive outdoor dining venue open during the summer with fresh-shucked Marlborough oysters and clams to pair with Cloudy Bay bubbles.

    Jack’s Raw Bar at Cloudy Bay’s Cellar Door.

  • (In addition to their award-winning Sav blancs, they produce wonderful champagne-like sparkling wines, using the “methode traditional…” The Polorus Rose was a favorite of mine.)

Cloudy Bay Pelorus Rose, A delightful sparkling wine.

Next up was Saint Clair, a family run, informal vineyard with an excellent lunch venue. I had an outstanding Duck Confit salad with paper-thick slices of pickled pumpkin, radish and carrot served on artisanal greens.

We tried a number of interesting wines including their Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (one of my favorites on the trip), their light-bodied pinot noir which British expat-sommelier, Owen, suggested could even be served chilled on a hot summer day, and a Pinot Blanc which I’d never heard of—a grape whose juice is often added to other wines to provide body. It’s rare to see it as its own varietal—very apple-like flavor and suggested with seafood.

The endless vineyards at Brancott Estate.

Excellent lunch at Brancott Estate.

We also called on Brancott, the site of the first Sauvignon Blanc plantings in Marlborough and one of the first vineyards established in the area. They have a beautiful contemporary glass visitor center with tasting room and restaurant on a promontory overlooking the vines which seem to extend as far as the eye can see. We enjoyed another excellent meal of freshly baked crusty bread (still hot from the oven), steamed clams, smoked salmon, and beef carpaccio with rocket all with interesting wine pairings.

Casual boutique winery experience at Mahi, specializing in Pinot noir.

Caitlyn Harvey welcomes us to Mahi winery for a private tasting.

Last up was a stop at Mahi, a casual boutique winery started in 2001. Their winemaking focus is on the “texture” of the wine for real palate satisfaction and the goal of being shared around a table, complementing, not overpowering, the food. My favorite here was their 2014 Ward Farm Pinot Noir—yes, branching out a bit, and surprising even myself, I had a case shipped home.

Lest you think that The Marlborough is only for confirmed “wine-o’s” like me, there are lots of other things to do there!

  • Enjoy a Seafood Odyssea Cruise through the Marlborough Sound that combines amazing scenery, delicious clams and Greenshell mussels served on board, complemented by yet another glass or two of Sav Blanc. The Marlborough Sound comprises 932 miles of coastline (20% of New Zealand’s coast) and 70% of New Zealand’s mussel export comes from this area.
  • Walk or cycle the stunning Queen Charlotte Track, a 72 km journey from past to present, via panoramic ocean views, thriving native bush and encounters with the likes of weka, fantail, wood pigeon and even seals.
  • Visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center, featuring filmmaker, Sir Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings) personal collection of WW1 aircraft and flight memorabilia
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth at Makana Confections, a boutique chocolate factory in the heart of the Marlborough Wine Trail.

It was with a twinge of sadness that I bade farewell to my beloved Marlborough, vowing to return one day. Although the rest of New Zealand beckoned, this will always be the brightest memory for me!

 

Some photos courtesy of Marlborough Lodge and MarlboroughNZ.

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