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For grape growers, wine enterprises and consumers, Sauvignon Blanc’s affinity with Marlborough’s natural environment has proved a much more lasting legacy. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was initially a wine made in the vineyard. Its distinctive aromas and flavours baffled the wine community when it first appeared on the New Zealand and Marlborough grape-growing graphs of 1980 (Table 7.3). By then Sauvignon Blanc made up less than 2 per cent of the New Zealand vineyard. It reached 18 per cent by 1995 to eclipse the rapidly declining Muller Thurgau. By 2005, Sauvignon Blanc was 35 per cent of the national vineyard and by 2010 it was 53 per cent. Its rise to be the dominant New Zealand white wine was startling but not surprising. Its particular contribution was to introduce many New Zealand and international wine consumers to a new, palatable, crisp white table wine, with strong aromas and flavours that most of them could recognise instantly.
Pinot Noir entered Marlborough’s mix of varieties in a very deliberate way. Montana, with Peter Hubscher as CEO and Tony Hoksbergen running the viticulture, instigated a planned Pinot Noir programme in 2000. This initiative, together with other Marlborough enterprises increasing their plantings of Pinot, saw its area grow from 528 hectares in the year 2000 to 1986 hectares in 2010 – an average growth rate of 146 hectares per year over the decade (Table 7.4). But this increase was dwarfed by the expansion in the area of Sauvignon Blanc over the same decade. Its Marlborough vineyard increased from 1900 hectares to 14,611 – an average rate of 1271 hectares per year despite the annual plea from Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, for enterprises to manage the supply of Sauvignon Blanc being cultivated in the regions.
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Despite the babble of the ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ set in the United States, New Zealand Chardonnay between 1980 and 2000 showed a very similar sequence of growth to Sauvignon Blanc. Indeed, for these two decades, Chardonnay was a slightly higher proportion of the national vineyard, reaching almost 28 per cent by 2000 before falling to 18 per cent in 2005 as more Sauvignon Blanc was planted. Between 2000 and 2010, the slight increase in the area of Chardonnay planted in the Marlborough vineyard was much more similar to Pinot Noir’s sequence than to Sauvignon Blanc’s (Table 7.4). From 887 hectares at the millennium, Chardonnay reached 1089 hectares by 2010 – an increase of just 202 hectares or an average of 20 hectares per year. Marlborough, like most of New Zealand’s winegrowing regions, also has Chardonnay among its top five varieties, but only in Gisborne is Chardonnay the most planted variety. Without the unique characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough’s vineyard would probably be much closer to Hawke’s Bay’s in size.
This transformation of the Wairau and Awatere valleys into Sauvignon Blanc vineyards largely happened in the first decade of the new millennium. In the year 2000 these two valleys were growing 1900 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc. Five years later their Sauvignon vineyards were 3.3 times bigger with 6212 hectares planted. By 2010, New Zealand was growing 16,910 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, of which Marlborough grew 14,611 hectares. All other viticultural regions of New Zealand (Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Nelson, Canterbury, Waipara and Central Otago) made up the remaining 2299 hectares.
From the first commercial plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough in 1980 through to the present, grape growers, winemakers and scientists have considered, contemplated and analysed the strong aromas, flavours and textures that give Sauvignon Blanc grown in Marlborough its unique qualities. As early as 1974 when John Marris was project manager for Montana Properties Ltd, he boldly proclaimed in a seminar presented at Lincoln College that ‘the Marlborough region is a proven wine grape-growing area’. He emphasised in particular the suitability of the soils of the Wairau Plain, pointing out that he had already investigated soil profiles on a variety of different sites:
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