Despite its relatively small size, the Marlborough region, in the north of New Zealand's South Island, is a vinous goliath and the popularity of its sauvignon blanc shows no sign of slowing down. It's still one of the most commercially successful and fashionable styles of wine here in the UK where, after the States, we are its biggest market. So what's the secret of its success?
The wine's unique, instantly recognisable style – think ripe passionfruit, fresh citrus and that characteristic piercing acidity – has to be key to Marlborough's success, but the pioneering spirit and teamwork of the producers behind the wines was crucial too. Working together towards the common goal of putting this worldclass wine style on the map, they have always represented a united front and it has clearly paid off. Marlborough as we know it today is still a young wine region, dating back only to the mid-1980s. Early pioneers like Ernie and Jane Hunter and David Hohnen of Cloudy Bay saw the potential of this region for sauvignon blanc, with its moderate climate, influenced by the ocean and balanced by ripening sunshine; it's a vision that was realised in 1985 when their wines, together with Montana (now Brancott Estate), received international acclaim. From an almost standing start, a new wine style had taken the first steps on its meteoric rise to fame.
Cloudy Bay, the wine that originally brought this tiny region to the attention of the world, remains the flag bearer for top-end Marlborough sauvignon; an iconic label, ingenious brand positioning and consistently excellent results in the bottle have all assured their place in wine legend. Their 2020 vintage Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020, with its remarkable intensity, lemon-peel aromas and delicious twist of grapefruit, is not to be missed. We have had the privilege and pleasure of working particularly closely with Marlborough 'royalty' Hunter's, who have produced our Exhibition wine exclusively for us for a number of years now. The superb quality of the 2020 vintage shines through in the latest bottling of The Society's Exhibition Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020, with its elegant, flint and citrus-driven aromas.
Collaboration & crossover: Pushing boundaries with premium sauvignon
In a small region like Marlborough where everyone knows each other, it's not surprising that there are crossovers and collaborations between wineries. Dog Point's Ivan Sutherland and James Healy and Greywacke's Kevin Judd are all former Cloudy Bay colleagues; both ventures have taken the Marlborough fine wine scene to another level, pushing boundaries and making some of the region's most soughtafter wines, though their approach is very different, bringing a whole new dimension to the classic Marlborough sauvignon style in a range of stunning wines. Their separate interpretations of the 2020 vintage show this nicely, with Judd's straight sauvignon displaying mouthwatering salinity, pithy apple and lemon-zest notes and remarkable length: Greywacke Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020. Dog Point's wine is light, bright, full of pepp and vigour and an utterly perfect pick-me-up: Dog Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2020.
For me though, it is the barrel fermented sauvignons of both producers which really offer something unique. In contrast to the pure, fruit-forward and zesty sauvignons which put the region on the map, Dog Point and Greywacke produce Section 94 and Wild Sauvignon respectively; a wonderful step-change in style and a hint at the versatility that the region can offer if you dare to look beyond the mainstream. Greywacke Wild Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc shows intriguing aromatic complexity: toast, nuts, dried rosemary, apricot and charred peach, while the palate is fresh, peppery and focused. Dog Point's single-vineyard Section 94 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is somewhat reminiscent of white Burgundy on the nose, albeit without losing sauvignon's tell-tale hints of passionfruit and zesty lemon. Like their standard sauvignon, this has wonderful lift and freshness and provides a nice stepping stone into the world of barrel-fermented sauvignon thanks to the masterclass in well-managed oak.
The region's forward-thinking star
Ben Glover is a winemaker to follow in Marlborough's continued success. Having worked for a number of key wineries, such as Wither Hills, and with more than 25 years' experience as a national and international wine judge, he has turned his attention to the family winery, Zephyr. Aside from the superb chardonnay and pinot noir, the Zephyr 6 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc remains one of my favourite go-to wines, and offers incredible value for money.
Straight sauvignons, especially in vintages like 2020, bring us full circle and remind us why Marlborough sauvignon isn't just a household favourite, but is practically a brand name in itself; a global icon and in my opinion, deservedly so.