20 Sep 2023

Half a century on from first planting of world famous Marlborough wine grapes

8:54 pm on 20 September 2023
Hunter's Wines on Rapaura Road, Marlborough.

Hunter's Wines on Rapaura Road, Marlborough. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

It has been 50 years since the first commercial wine grapes were planted in Marlborough, when Montana Wines founder Frank Yukich claimed wine from the region would become world famous.

He was right. In half a century, the region has achieved worldwide recognition for its Sauvignon Blanc.

It makes up close to 90 percent of the wine New Zealand exports, and the majority of it is grown in Marlborough.

Jane Hunter said it was sheer Irish luck her husband Ernie planted seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc on farming land in Blenheim's Rapaura Road in the early 80s.

Hunter's Wines owner and managing director Jane Hunter.

Jane Hunter. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

In 1986, their Fumé Blanc, an oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc won big at the Sunday Times Wine Festival in London, putting Marlborough on the map.

"People just kept saying you've got to go and taste that wine ... even the wine judges were like, this is so unusual, you've got to taste it and by the time Ernie got back to New Zealand he had letters from the prime minister and [the response from] radio and TV was absolutely amazing."

There are now 163 wineries in Marlborough, making it the biggest wine producing region in the country.

The region's vineyard producing area has grown from almost 7000 hectares twenty years ago, to nearly 30,000 hectares today - about 70 percent of the national total.

Annually, Marlborough produces 300 million to 400 million bottles of wine - most of it Sauvignon Blanc.

"It's pretty obvious if you drive around Marlborough now, there's just acre after acre, well probably kilometre after kilometre of Sauvignon Blanc," Hunter said.

"In my view the New Zealand wine industry wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc."

Pernod Ricard NZ operations director Tony Robb said the industry had undergone significant transformation since Montana's first vines went into the ground Marlborough in the early 1970s.

Pernod Ricard Winemakers operations director Tony Robb.

Tony Robb. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

The global company owns wine brands Brancott Estate, Stoneleigh and Church Road.

Robb said the Kaikōura earthquake caused significant damage to its Marlborough winery seven years ago.

"We've completely redesigned our wine tank standard, so our tanks are now resilient up to a magnitude eight earthquake and we've redesigned all the technology around the tank so that our staff no longer need to climb up to the top of them to access the wine."

He said the industry was also facing the challenge of a changing climate.

"Like most people we are preparing our vineyards to be more resilient, able to cope with potentially what could be wetter weather during the summer growing season or drought as well.

"We just have to be prepared for for any eventuality."

Some wineries have hit hard times - Sacred Hill collapsed in 2021 owing $100 million, with its Marlborough Vineyards later bought by VinLink, and Villa Maria was bought out of receivership by the Indevin Group, in the same year.

Anna Flowerday and her husband Jason own Te Whare Ra in Renwick, one of the region's smallest and oldest wineries.

Te Whare Ra owner Anna Flowerday in the cellar.

Anna Flowerday. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

A sixth generation winemaker who originally hails from South Australia, she said the next chapter for Marlborough, will be when people discover it produces more than just great sav.

"I love that people come here because of Sauvignon Blanc, but I'm almost more chuffed when they walk away with something that's not Sauvignon Blanc because equally, we've sort of opened their eyes up to Marlborough is an amazing place for growing so many different varieties."

She said protecting the region's reputation should be every winemaker's main focus.

Te Whare Ra - one of the smallest and oldest vineyards in Marlborough.

Te Whare Ra is one of the region's smallest and oldest wineries. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

"If the world suddenly falls out of love with what we do, or we start to lose the trust of consumers, we're in a hurr of trouble.

"That's why I'm so ultra passionate about it and I think everyone who's committed to Marlborough long term should be because it's our reputation for our wines and it's the love of consumers that got us to where we are, that's to be protected at all costs."

Meanwhile, the demand for New Zealand's wine overseas continues to grow. Exports hit a record $2.4 billion in the year to May, up $450m on the year before.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs