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Montana’s first Marlborough vine planting, 1973. From left, Alex Corban (president of the Wine Council), Frank Yukich (managing director of Montana), David Beattie (former Montana chairman and later Governor-General), Ronald Davison QC (the new chairman of Montana), and the local priest conducting the blessing. Alex Corban seems more interested in the vine cutting than the ceremony. Dick Scott Collection, Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tamaki Paenga Hira, PH-2008-4
New Zealand included the Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk. Kirk was not available, but David Beattie (Chief Justice and former chair of the Montana board, later to be Governor-General) took his place. Yukich turned on the full Dalmatian ceremony of the time – the blessing of the vineyard by the local priest, the taste of wine for the new vine, lambs barbecued on the spit. Other dignitaries from the adolescent wine industry were there including R. K. Davison QC, the chair of directors of Montana at the time, as well as Alex Corban, who in 1975 became the first chair of the newly formed Wine Institute of New Zealand.
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By the end of 1973, Montana had planted 1200 acres (486 hectares) of vines in the Brancott, Fairhall and Woodbourne vineyards. During the dry summer of 1973/74, 80 per cent of the cuttings of some varieties died – not an auspicious beginning for the region that by 2000 would grow over 40 per cent of New Zealand’s vineyard and provide 80 per cent of its major export wine – Sauvignon Blanc. Those growing grapes in Marlborough had much to learn. They learned quickly.
Sauvignon Blanc was not the preferred variety in 1973. The special qualities of the aromas it achieves in Marlborough were yet to be discovered. Instead, Riesling-Sylvaner, the cult white variety and wine of the moment (now called Muller Thurgau), and Cabernet Sauvignon (certainly not an ‘early maturing’ variety) dominated the vineyards planted by Montana in the twelve weeks from late August 1973. The decision to plant Cabernet was influenced by its international standing as one of the primary varieties of Bordeaux and by the quality of the wines recently produced out of Hawke’s Bay.