A wine world rarity

26 June, 2018

New Zealand’s Marlborough seems to have it all. Jamie Goode charts the rise and rise of one of sauvignon blanc’s great regions


IT'S STRANGE TO think it was as recently as 1973 that the first vines of the current era were planted in what is now by far New Zealand’s largest wine region.

At the time, the domestic demand for wine was outstripping supply and Montana, then part-owned by Canadian drinks giant Seagram, was on the lookout for new vineyard land. It was considering expanding operations in existing regions, but Frank Yukich, who with his brother Maté was heading the family firm, set his sights on a new region, spurred on by favourable reports from young Department of Scientific and Industrial Research scientist Wayne Thomas.

Thomas had studied 60 years of historical weather data from Woodbourne Airport, and he reckoned that the sheep-grazing country in the Wairau Valley at the tip of South Island was promising vineyard land. The Yukich brothers travelled with Thomas and UC Davis Professor Harold Berg to Marlborough. Together with local land agent John Marris they went scouting properties at the southern end of the Wairau. Paying over the odds for farming land – which, after a recent drought, was less profitable than ever – Yukich managed to secure 1173ha in one go. But the Montana board wasn’t impressed – Yukich hadn’t sought approval prior to the purchase and had paid the deposit out of his own pocket, and the board decided not to go ahead.

After what must have been some sleepless nights, Yukich persuaded Thomas, who had moved to study in California, to get four professors from UC Davis to validate the report Thomas had originally drawn up. Fortunately, the board felt this was sufficient evidence to allow it to back the Yukich gamble. So began the Marlborough story.

Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t in the first plantings, but it followed a couple of years later and turned out to be brilliantly adapted to Marlborough’s soils and climates. But it was to be another decade before things really got going in the region.

After Montana’s original plantings at what is now the Brancott Estate, other companies followed somewhat cautiously, relying on growers who were spreading the risk of farming such marginal country by planting vineyards. By the early-1980s, the only wineries in the region were Montana and the boutique operations Te Whare Ra, Daniel Le Brun and Hunter’s. The pace quickened in 1985, with two success stories that kicked off international interest in the region.

Hunter’s was one of the first Marlborough wineries to make international waves. In 1979, northern Irish emigrant Ernie Hunter paid NZ$3,000 per hectare for a 26ha block in Rapaura. His first wine, the 1982, was made in Bill Turner’s Cider Factory in Christchurch by a 25-year-old German winemaker, Almuth Lorenz, who he’d met shortly before at a New Year’s Eve party. It won six medals at the National Wine Show. In London, the 1985 Hunter’s Fumé Blanc was voted the most popular wine at the 1986 Sunday Times Wine Club Festival, and the UK began to wake up to this new style.

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