Marlborough, the region that put New Zealand wine on the map and Sauvignon Blanc into the glasses of millions of wine drinkers, marks its 50th birthday this year. After emerging from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, the appellation is using the milestone to refocus its image on quality over quantity.
One way it’s doing this is through a newly released map, the first of its kind to detail Marlborough’s subregional differences. Defining the “subregional hierarchy” of the region is vital for understanding the diversity of the region, says the map’s creator, Appellation Marlborough Wine (AMW). Founded in 2018, AMW endeavors to safeguard regionally-grown Sauvignon Blanc and, more recently, other varieties, in a manner similar to Europe’s appellation program.
The map was designed by five winemakers, all AMW members. Over two years, the map’s lines were “robustly debated” and laid out with help from a Wellington-based cartographer and local designer.
“Naturally, subregions with distinct microclimates and stylistic features have been identified over time,” says John Buchanan, AMW’s chair. “The Wine Map of Marlborough represents the first genuine attempt to map these in a detailed way.”
The map’s debut comes at an important time for Marlborough. Sauvignon Blanc is one of the wine world’s greatest success stories, having enjoyed unprecedented growth over the past five decades. Today’s 30,000ha (74,130 acres) of vines represent two-thirds of the New Zealand’s total vine plantings and 80% of its total wine exports. The U.S. remains the nation’s biggest export market by a long shot, valued at over $NZ 550 million ($US 341 million) in 2022.
But weather events in recent vintages have resulted in reduced yields. They’ve hit small to medium-sized producers especially hard, as many have found themselves with a demand-over-supply issue. To fill the gap, an increased number of rogue operators, keen to profit from the Marlborough name, have swooped in. The companies buy wines in bulk—sometimes from fruit grown outside of Marlborough and often farmed above the region’s cropping and disease thresholds—and bottle them overseas.
“Marlborough’s rapid success and market growth has occurred this past half century without any real controls in place, and certainly not the regulations the appellations and wines of Europe must comply with to protect the provenance, quality and value of their products,” says Matt Thomson, founder and winemaker of Blank Canvas Wines and one the map’s co-creators. “This situation has conjured up a dangerous tipping point where the dilution of the brand value of Marlborough is occurring because of the dilution of the product itself.”
When it comes to product recognition, Marlborough excels. It’s known for viticulture and winemaking techniques that result in vibrant, bombastically aromatic Sauvignon Blanc with zingy acidity and distinctive flavors like grapefruit, lime, passionfruit, grass and green pepper. It’s a head-turning style for many first-time wine drinkers, and a comforting one to long-time fans who appreciate its consistency and affordability.
“I think most people, and let’s be honest, a lot of women, very much enjoy a cold, crisp Sauvignon Blanc,” says Zwann Grays, a longtime wine buyer, educator and consultant based in New York. “I think most people ask for it because it’s a no-brainer when people think about a dry white wine.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s mass appeal, wine professionals can sometimes be snobbish about the style, declaring it overly simple or homogenous. Marlborough winemakers want to change that.
“While some cynics may argue that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc all taste the same, the truth is that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in the styles produced within the region,” says Josh Scott, the CEO and co-owner of Allan Scott Family Winemakers, whose father Allan planted the first vines in Marlborough in 1973 for Montana Wines, now Brancott Estate.
“While some larger wineries may produce regional blends that emphasize the variety over terroir, many premium brands are focusing on showcasing the unique characteristics of Marlborough’s sub regions and vineyards.”
These premium producers want to make it clear that, say, the alluvial riverbed soils of the central Wairau will give drinkers more bold tropical fruit in their Sauvignon than the sea swept, fertile soils of the lower Wairau, which tend toward a more herbaceous style. The map lays these differences out by going way beyond regional maps of the past, which simply split Marlborough into three valleys: Wairau, Awatere and Southern.
Wairau, Marlborough’s biggest and most prominent subregion, now has four distinct zones (Southern Valleys is now folded into one of these zones) and 16 regional subsets, or micro zones. Meanwhile, Awatere Valley now also includes the land just south, called Blind River, and is split into three zones with two subsets. Southern Coast, which hasn’t traditionally even appeared on Marlborough maps, has three subsets.
Whether these subregional nuances will catch on with Marlborough Sauvignon fans is yet to be seen. In the meantime, the region’s winemakers are doing what they can to educate.
“We are barely 40 years into Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, still finding our feet, and the second generation may well be the drivers of this advancement,” says Scott.
“Without a universal and accurate map, the default is a dangerous assumption that Marlborough is all the same,” says Thomson. “We know that is definitely not the case and we know this map will now enable everyone to start a more nuanced journey to understand sub-regionality and quality within our diverse region.”
Last Updated: June 6, 2023