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Marlborough’s producers are out to prove there’s more to New Zealand’s most famous region than grassy Sauvignon. By rosemary george mw

Marlborough producers are unsettled. Their distinct style of Sauvignon Blanc, with its intense aromas and flavours, catapulted the region to success in the 1980s. Now it is being questioned. The wine’s popularity led to a rush to plant new Sauvignon vines, and a massive 2008 crop meant a glut of wine on the shelves, raising the spectre of discounting. Such downgrading of the wine’s image could destroy the premium reputation the region has crafted.

There’s no escaping the fact that Marlborough remains synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, but many of its leading exponents are painfully aware that the consumer love affair with the style could end as suddenly as it began. Keen to move the story on and show there is more to Marlborough, producers are rethinking new plantings, defining sub-regional styles and experimenting with both winemaking and viticultural techniques.

At the forefront of pioneering new areas, Wines of Ara has planted where others feared to go, along the Waihopai Valley. The most westerly of the southern valleys, frost is a hazard here, and the winery uses sprinklers to protect the vines. ‘This is the price we pay for growing grapes here,’ says general manager Damian Martin. The sprinklers can also provide irrigation, if need, but once the root systems are established, this should become superfluous.

A deep root system will also help to express the terroir. Martin wants his wines to have a real sense of place, working to retain the differences between one block of vines and another. The entry-level wine is Pathway, while the best blocks go into Composite (the idea being that the blend is greater than the sum of its parts; see p72) while Resolute is a single-vineyard wine.

Martin says: ‘Marginal sites give a different style of Sauvignon. And they require lower yields for the grapes to ripen.’ The bright sunshine provides good conditions for photosynthesis, while the cooler temperatures help retain the aromas.

The vines are also pruned harder and planted at a higher density than is the norm in the region. With all these considerations, Martin is looking to add a different dimension to Marlborough Sauvignon. It’s still early days, but my view is that he is succeeding. He observes: ‘Soil and climate are just half the picture; much also depends upon man’s choices’.

Sam Weaver makes the wine for Wines of Ara, but also has his own vineyards at Churton, further down the Waihopai Valley. These are hillside vineyards, at an altitude of 200m. Once unusual in Marlborough, where viticulture initially stayed firmly on the Wairau Plain, higher vineyards are increasingly common.

Weaver began planting in 1999, and only completed his vineyard last year. It is a dramatic site, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Omaka River. His Sauvignon (see p72) is grown on clay soil, and picked at a low yield, about 50hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare). The crop is mostly handpicked, and only when it is fully ripe, as he wants to avoid any grassy characters. Much of it is whole-bunch pressed, and part fermented in oak.

The wine is aged on the lees for five months, with some lees stirring. Weaver also recovers the lees, aerates them and reincorporates them into the wine, to give more character. The result is a bone-dry, textured Sauvignon with length and layers, what he would call ‘a traditional European approach, rather than the simple, primary fruit of basic Marlborough Sauvignon’. As well as Sauvignon, he makes textured Pinot Noir, and has also planted Viognier and Petit Manseng which will come into production in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Variety show

Grape varieties other than Sauvignon are gaining in importance, with Pinot Noir the obvious example. Where once less satisfactory clones were grown, destined mainly for sparkling wine, now the newer Dijon clones are well established and some deliciously silky wines are being made. Aromatic whites too are worth considering, with some stunning examples of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris emerging as the range of styles is explored and fine-tuned.

There are convincing examples of Syrah, while Cabernet Sauvignon has virtually been abandoned – not without reason. The choice of grapes is growing apace, with Viognier, Arneis, Gruner Veltliner, Montepulciano, Dolcetto all to be found – I even enjoyed a remarkably convincing Merlot Amarone.

Among those experimenting with new varieties is Vavasour, the pioneering winery of the Awatere Valley, south of the Wither Hills and Wairau Plain. More recently Peter Yealands has made an impact with a vast new estate. He planted his first vines in 2002, with a first vintage in 2008, from eight farms, across 1,000ha, making it the largest single vineyard in the country. As well as Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, there are small plantings of Tempranillo, Riesling (see p72), Gruner, Viognier and Gewurz.

Yealands describes himself as a jack-of-all-trades; he worked in the mussel industry for 20 years and then the quarrying business. You sense that this is a man not content with half measures. He is also clearly fervent in his adherence to the carbon-zero facilities of his winery, aiming to be ‘as lean and green as possible’.

Part of his vineyard is organic, but not registered as such. He uses chemicals only when absolutely necessary, observing that there is no organic equivalent for a fungicide at flowering. Organic viticulture is not necessarily more sustainable, he points out; you need more tractor use than for a non-organic vineyard.

A flock of Baby Doll sheep helps with grass control; the breed is so short that the sheep are unable to change their diet from grass to vine leaves at bud break. The original idea was to use guinea pigs to keep the grass at bay, but that misfired when the local falcon population realised there were easy pickings in the vineyards. The winery is superbly streamlined to cope with a 2m-litre capacity. You get the feeling that nothing will stand still here.

Mike Eaton at Terravin is also pushing back viticultural and winemaking limits. He has worked extensively in Burgundy, the Jura and the Loire and has a more European approach than some. He also planted the first hillside vineyard in Marlborough – the Clayvin vineyard.

Today Eaton makes three quite different Sauvignons; one is mainly tank-fermented, with a small proportion of barrel fermentation and lees stirring, for richness. The single-vineyard wine is still very fruit driven, even though a third of it is fermented in oak. It is multi-faceted, with restrained oak and underlying acidity and minerality.

With Te Ahu (see p72), Eaton is looking for ‘an expression of place rather than variety’. Yields are low and it is all barrel fermented, with wild ferments and whole bunches. He also makes two Pinot Noirs, Terravin and Hillside. The differences come from the vineyard, with vines from the top of the hill ‘giving a more austere flavour, while those from the bottom are more lush’. Hillside comes from the middle slope; the palate is textured and silky, and quite Burgundian in style.

Cabernet challenge

Eaton is the only person still to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Marlborough, ‘to prove what you can do with good viticulture’. Jo, named after his wife, is a Cabernet-Merlot-Malbec co-fermented blend. He manipulates the viticulture, so the three varieties ripen together. The wine spends 18 months in oak, and its elegant, cedary flavours are a revelation.

Brian Bicknell, after a career with Babich and Seresin, is pushing Sauvignon to the extremes, at his own winery, Mahi. In 2006, he made three Sauvignons from three different areas. Ballot Block comes from the Brancott valley, from stony soil; Boundary Farm is grown on clay, near the coast, which makes for early ripening grapes; the Alias comes from and is grown in the heart of the Wairau Plain, on stony greywacke soil. The three wines neatly illustrate some of the variations within the broad Marlborough region.

Loire leanings

At Clos Henri, developed by Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé producer Henri Bourgeois, you can sense the European background. So far Bourgeois is the only grower from the Loire to extend his horizons as far as New Zealand. A young Frenchman, Damien Yvon, makes the wine here. Bourgeois spent 10 years looking for a site in Marlborough, after rejecting possibilities elsewhere in New Zealand.

As you’d expect from a French grower, he took the issue of terroir seriously, carrying out soil profiles to find something similar to Sancerre. Eventually he chose a 110ha plot, with three different soils – two clay and one stony. Yvon took me up to a spot above the vineyards, and pointed out the fault line that runs through the middle of them, dividing the stone and clay soils. Vines are planted in narrow rows, minimal irrigation is used and grass is allowed to grow between the vines, to retain a level of stress. Above all, they are looking for minerality.

‘The Bourgeois family is not keen on varietal character,’ observed Yvon, who is adamant that Sauvignon Blanc must be tamed. ‘You must control the vigour, and pick when everything is ripe, to avoid greenness.’ He makes two cuvées of Sauvignon; Bel Echo is a younger style, while the estate wine (see right) spends longer on the lees, with a small proportion fermented in old oak. There is no skin contact – Yvon strives for purity and finesse, and skin contact can result in coarse tannins. Both wines have lovely, elegant minerality.

Other new wineries in Marlborough are creating increasingly individual wines. James Healy and Ivan Sutherland left Cloudy Bay to set up Dog Point; Kevin Judd, the founder winemaker at Cloudy Bay, made his first vintage of Greywacke in 2009, concentrating on Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, as well as aromatic varieties. Little Beauty is a new label, with dramatic hillside vineyards, in the Waihopai Valley, celebrating its first vintage in 2008. Eveline Fraser, also ex-Cloudy Bay, is winemaker here.

Marlborough Sauvignon may be well established in New Zealand’s repertoire, but it is no longer a simple proposition. By pushing back the boundaries on site selection, and questioning accepted practices in vineyard and cellar, new and established producers are showing just what the region can achieve.

Written by Rosemary George

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