Marlborough on a mission

This New Zealand region is best known for its Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s now making pinot noir that justifies itself as a quality red partner. Jamie Goode reports


MARLBOROUGH IS world-famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. The first vines went into the ground in 1973 and it’s now New Zealand’s largest wine region by far. With its singular style of Sauvignon, Marlborough put New Zealand on the wine map and has helped propel Sauvignon into the premier league of white varieties. It has also benefited from being seen as a monovarietal region: the marketing message is a simple one – we make the world’s most popular style of Sauvignon Blanc. And, just as Marlborough is all about Sauvignon, another New Zealand region has had a success story with Pinot Noir and has a similarly clear marketing message. Since the late 1980s Central Otago has gained a reputation as the best region in the country for the grape.

New Zealand has hung its marketing hat on adopting Pinot Noir as the red partner to Sauvignon Blanc. With its triennial Pinot Noir event (2010, 2013 and 2017, the latter delayed a year to make room for a similar Sauvignon event), it invites the world of wine to come to Wellington and take a deep dive into the country’s Pinot Noirs. Whereas Kiwi Sauvignon had a clear run in the market, New Zealand’s Pinots entered a fray where California, Oregon and a small band of Australian producers working in cooler spots had already made a reputation for New World Pinot.

The big surprise for many of the attendees at the last two Pinot celebrations was the quality of some of the Marlborough Pinot Noirs. Everyone is used to the idea that Central Otago, Martinborough (recently rebadged as Wellington Wine Country) and North Canterbury (the new name for the region that includes the Waipara Valley and Waikari) can make excellent Pinot. But Marlborough Pinot is unfairly dismissed as a commodity and generally fetches lower prices in the market.

Why is Marlborough Pinot struggling to establish its place among the top New Zealand Pinots in terms of reputation? Hätsch Kalberer, winemaker of Fromm, one of the region’s Pinot experts, has some explanations. “Marlborough’s reputation worldwide is Sauvignon Blanc and it is mass produced,” says Kalberer. “The other regions in New Zealand that do well with Pinot Noir, particularly Martinborough and Central Otago, have built their reputation and marketing around Pinot. That’s what they do best and they benefit from the image of smaller productions.

This, however, does not mean that their wines are superior to the finer wines of Marlborough, which are neither mass-produced nor grown where the bulk of Sauvignon Blanc is planted.’


Kalberer makes that point that there’s much more awareness of terroir in Marlborough than there used to be, and viticulture and site are important for Pinot quality. “Most high-quality producers of Pinot Noir are these days on close-planted vineyards, often on hill sites in the Southern Valleys,” he says, “and are absolutely comparable with the approach quality producers have in other regions.”

Perhaps one of the reasons there’s lots of excitement about Marlborough Pinot is that it doesn’t compete for top sites with the region’s star turn, Sauvignon Blanc. “Marlborough is pretty lucky in the respect that where SB is grown well is typically not so good for Pinot Noir, and vice versa,” says Natalie Christensen, senior winemaker at Yealands. “One of the most exceptional areas for growing the high thiol style of Sauvignon Blanc is on the deep fertile silts of the lower Wairau. But Pinot Noir grown in this area tends to lack concentration and finesse. Sauvignon seems to produce the best flavours when it’s not put under any stress, whereas good quality Pinot tends to come from sites where the vine has to battle a bit for survival.”

She continues: “In my opinion the best sites for Pinot in Marlborough are the Southern Valleys and also the Awatere Valley. Sites that are clay dominant with low vigour tend to produce the best Pinot.

“Another very interesting site for Pinot Noir is the Ure Valley (40km south of Blenheim, just as you hit the Kaikoura coastline). It has a high limestone content in the soils, which makes for an interesting acid structure and beautifully textured wines.’

Kevin Judd, now of Greywacke but formerly with Cloudy Bay, has a good historical perspective on Pinot Noir in the region. “When we first started working with Pinot Noir at Cloudy Bay it was for sparkling wine production, and that was the case in the early days for most Pinot grown in Marlborough.” This Pinot was planted mainly with sparkling wine in mind, with high-producing Swiss clones such as Bactobel, Mariafeld and AM10/5. “The first red wines we made were from AM 10/5 as, at the time, it was the best we had in the ground. We thought originally that the stony, free-draining, early-ripening alluvial soils of Rapaura would produce good results, so new plantings were made in this sub-region.

“It turned out that those soils were not so ideal for red wine production after all, so all those vineyards ended up becoming sparkling wine source blocks. By this time it had become evident that the Dijon clones were a better bet for NZ. Subsequently we started planting these clones and, at the same time, started working with the more clay-based gravels of the Southern Valleys, originally the valley floor and subsequently the hillsides.

“As time went on the wines improved as our experience grew in both viticulture and winemaking and as the vines grew out of their youthful stage.”


Now, Marlborough Pinot has some traction. “Over the past few years it has been gaining momentum and people have begun to recognise this,” says Christensen. “Now that producers have more vine age and wines are consistently obtaining top accolades in shows, Marlborough has been proving that it is definitely not a one-trick pony.” She also thinks one of the strengths of Marlborough Pinot is its reliability.

“As quality started to build and the fame of Kiwi Pinot spread through the markets, Marlborough winemakers started exploring other sub-regions,” says Judd. “The plantings have extended into all sorts of sub-regions in both the Wairau and Awatere Valley systems. So the right clones were in the right place at last and the winemakers of Marlborough developed a keen interest in taking quality to another level. Now that we are moving into working with vines with some respectable age I believe the best wines in Marlborough are as good as anywhere else in New Zealand.”

Another benefit is that, unlike other regions, Marlborough can produce decent Pinot Noir cheaply, even though cheap Pinot isn’t always good. So decent, affordable Pinot can help introduce consumers to the variety, as a sort of gateway to better examples from the region.

“I think that when someone is buying a $15 bottle of Pinot Noir from the supermarket they expect something that is fruit-forward and easy drinking,” says Christensen. “A lot of the inexpensive Pinots over-deliver for their price point so, if anything they provide exposure to Marlborough Pinot. As a result of this consumers may have the confidence in the product to seek out higher price point wines to try.”

Kalberer is in agreement. “To me the strength of Marlborough Pinot is in the entry-level wines, the consistency of quality and ripeness in most years,” he says. “There is a generosity and drinkability in so many wines at a price point that offers a great introduction to Pinot Noir for a wide audience. These wines offer far better value compared with many underperforming wines from other regions that simply benefit from the reputation fine producers in those areas have achieved.”

Judd thinks variation in quality at the bottom end is inevitable. “Marlborough is, of course, the home of most of the larger players in the Kiwi wine industry,” he says. “So as well as the more quality-focused smaller players a large proportion of Marlborough production is aimed at hitting lower price points.”

The result is a variation in quality from the top end down to the entry level. “Clearly for the more inexperienced and less informed consumer whose first experience of Marlborough Pinot is at the lower end the first impression may be tarnished by wines of less than ideal quality,” adds Jud. “But this is a fact of life in any larger wine region anywhere in the world. I used to think it was impossible to make cheap Pinot. I still think it is impossible to make really cheap Pinot, but in good years experienced makers can often do a damned good job in the middle ground.”

This is something Kalberer agrees with, but he’s concerned about some of the private-label wines and soft brands that crop up at lower prices in large retailers and supermarkets. “Can Pinot be made cheaply?” he asks. “No, but Marlborough can produce very respectable Pinot Noirs at an affordable price. If they are in supermarkets with an identity (eg a winery or a known winemaker), then I don’t see any problem. What damages the reputation of any good wine brand are poor quality wines sold under a good region’s name with random labels and no identity.”

With consistent over-delivery of quality at all levels in the market, the hope is that Marlborough Pinot will gradually begin to be taken more seriously.

“Marlborough producers do get frustrated by the fact that most of the focus on Kiwi Pinot has been in other regions,” says Judd. “Firstly Wairarapa, and, these days, Central Otago. We were slow off the blocks and other regions had more focus on Pinot. But any glance at the international media commentary on Kiwi Pinot these days will reveal that Marlborough Pinot holds a very firm place at the top end and is often ranked alongside (or above) the best NZ has to offer.” It will take time. “We need to be patient,” he concludes.