Ask any old farmer about the state of New Zealand agriculture and the conversation will inevitably trickle back to ’73, “the year the Brits abandoned us.” Kiwis love to talk about the betrayal of their mother country and the crisis that followed. They had blindly followed the English for years. As one farmer put it, “my grandfather survived WWI fighting for the Brits, then I practically starved because of them.” It’s a little known fact, I have been told, that New Zealand’s Anzacs suffered more casualties per capita than any other country fighting in the war as the Brits deployed them into the murky fringes of Europe. While I can find no proof of this, the amount of casualties suffered by Kiwi soldiers in WWI is certainly astounding. So in 1973, when the United Kingdom entered into the European Economic Committee and effectively ended longstanding trade terms with New Zealand, the Kiwis were left with their jaws open and their pockets empty.
The effect to the meat and dairy industry was devastating. Farmers were left feeding racks of lamb, destined for the finest restaurants in London, to their dogs. Changes were needed. A restructuring of the farming and agricultural landscape led to a diversification of the land tending towards crops with potentially higher returns. Thus, out of these hard times, New Zealand’s viticulture industry was born.
A wine region is like a brand. When you order a Chardonnay, your thinking Napa. When it’s Riesling you’re after, something Alsace would be nice. When you are going for a Sauvignon Blanc, you had better hope it’s from Marlborough. Sauvignon Blanc is an earthy, grassy, white wine originating in the Bordeaux region of France. In the Marlborough region, sandy soils over slate shingles became the most desirable locations for plantings due to good drainage of the soil and poor fertility (encouraging vines to concentrate flavors in lower yields). Like Napa Valley’s Chardonnay that opened critic’s eyes to American vines, so too did Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc for New Zealand twenty years later. The Kiwi wine industry had it’s eureka moment in the mid-nineties with an audacious claim from British wine critic Oz Clark that this small island nation on the far side of the earth’s Sauvignon Blancs were, “arguably the best in the world.” Oz later wrote in his Wine Atlas of the impact of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc, “no previous wine had shocked, thrilled, and entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavors of gooseberries, passion fruit, and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears… an entirely new, brilliantly successful wine style that the rest of the world has been attempting to copy ever since.” Thus, the New Zealand wine industry commenced its steady growth and the nation as a whole slowly embraced a wine culture.
New Zealand’s hallmark wine region lies on the northern plains of the South Island just below the Marlborough Sounds, one of the country’s most charming natural features. The marble water of the sounds meets the bunchy, bushy hills of its isthmuses and islands as tiny ducks break through reflections below, leaving delicate wakes in the placid water. It is a landscape of daze-inducing serenity. The protected terrain, virtually inaccessible by car, is home to the country’s poshest of hikes, the Queen Charlotte Track. The Queen Charlotte Drive, a scenic road on the edge of the Sounds to the port town of Picton, is the perfect preview of the region and an ideal gateway to the flat expanse of the nearby vineyards – a mere thirty minutes south.
Most vineyards pattern the sides of New Renwick, Old Renwick or Middle Renwick Roads, connecting the agricultural city of Blenheim with the quaint township of, you guessed it, Renwick. If not entirely based here, most internationally marketed wines in New Zealand at least grow a portion of their grapes in Marlborough. The big guys like Montana, Villa Maria, Cloudy Bay, and Saint Clair all have plots scattered throughout the land. Their “cellar doors” for tastings loom at the end of winding roads whose manicured entry gates and sleek signs are vaguely reminiscent of a Fortune 500 Company’s headquarters. Scared of these giant monsters in the fields, most of our day in wine country was spent exploring the smaller, boutique vineyards. Besides, we had drunk enough $8.00 bottles of Montana in our day.
The Lonely Planet recommended Lawson’s Dry Hills had the most outstanding collection of wines sampled all day including two Chardonnays that were particularly complex and bold. With aroma demonstrations, a vine library, and a reputation as the world’s first carboNZero vineyard, the tasting at Grove Mill was quite the educational experience. I really wanted to like their wine, but it appears the art of winemaking got lost somewhere amidst the vineyard’s other lofty goals. Highfield Vineyard’s tower had the best view of the area’s wispy, dry hills, but the wine down the hill in Mahi’s five-star-rustic “cellar door” was far superior. Just up the street from Mahi on the outskirts of Renwick was the largish Forrest Vineyard, whose 2009 Doc’s Riesling was far to easily drowned by the fireplace.
With a new vineyard offering complementary tastings around every corner, one becomes a bit drowsy and overly enchanted with the region by mid-afternoon. Surveying the day as I sipped away at the final cellar door, there was one striking similarity between each vineyard. Winos in Marlborough hate Sauvignon Blanc. They’re over it. “Try the Riesling!” “Try the Chardonnay!” “Try our Pinot Noir!” Nobody wanted to talk about Sav Blanc. So, we tried the Rieslings, and we tried the Chardonnay, and we tried the Pinot Noir. Sauvignon Blanc draws people to Marlborough but, if our trip was any indication, it’s the Riesling and Chardonnay that will bring them back.
I’m not saying that the Sauvignon Blancs were bad – they were far from it. The Sauvignon Blancs are bottled and exported to pay the bills and, although they remain critically lauded, some experts point to a drop in quality due to the dramatic rise in demand. The other wines rounding out each vineyard’s selections in Marlborough seemed to give the winemakers a chance for their own creative expressions and there is something to be said for a grape that is grown out of necessity, and a grape that is grown out of passion.
In 1996 there were 238 vineyards in New Zealand. In 2010 that number has almost tripled with Sauvignon Blanc representing more than 50% of the wine production in the country. Production is increasing, but so too is the quality of many labels thanks to greater vine maturity and adaptation of new viticultural and winemaking methods to bring out the best in the country’s flagship wine. So, go to your supermarket and try some NZ Sauvignon Blanc, but if you’re lucky enough to fine a Riesling or Chardonnay, give it a swirl.