Grapes were first planted on a large scale commercially in Marlborough by Montana Wines of Auckland in 1973. At the time, vineyards were concentrated in year-round warm areas like Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland, and Marlborough was thought to be too dry and too cold for grapes. Ivan Yukich of Montana recognised that the Wairau valley had favourable grape-growing and winemaking conditions – in particular, a summer combination of hot sunny days and cool nights.
Ahead of their time
Marlborough’s first wine cellar was built in 1873, a century before the first of the new-era vines were planted in the region. David Herd, manager of Meadowbank station in the 1870s, planted vines on around 0.4 hectares, naming his vineyard Auntsfield and producing a red muscatel port-like wine. The vines were removed in 1931 but the cellar built to store the wine survived. In the 2010s the property was owned by the Cowley family, who had restored the wine cellar and were making wine under the name Auntsfield. They planned to replant Herd’s vineyard with the original grape varieties.
Blenheim has a January mean monthly temperature of 18.0°C, but a large daily temperature range – from a daytime high of nearly 24°C to a night-time low of around 14°C. It is that 10-degree range which gives the grapes a crisp, herbaceous character and intensifies the colour of the pinot noir grape.
Montana’s commitment to grape growing and winemaking was emulated by local landowners. In 1992 Marlborough’s vineyards covered 1,744 hectares; by 2012 the area had increased more than tenfold, to 22,600 hectares. What started as a venture by one company transformed the Marlborough economy – although between 2008 and 2012 lower prices than previous years challenged growers.
Vineyards and grapes
The biggest concentration of vineyards is in the lower Wairau valley. Further plantings are found in the north-facing valleys that open into the Wairau, and in the lower Awatere valley. These areas have cooler climates, with longer growing seasons and, in the case of the southern valleys, later ripening. The soils are typically fast draining, which is ideal for the vines.
The commonest grape variety in Marlborough is sauvignon blanc, and well over three-quarters of New Zealand's sauvignon blanc vines are to be found in Marlborough. In 2013 around 76% of Marlborough’s vineyard hectarage was sauvignon blanc. Other wine styles are also produced; the pinot noir grape, increasingly favoured in Marlborough, accounted for 10% of hectarage in 2013.
The biggest vineyards and winemakers are corporate, with outside investors. Substantial investment has enabled Marlborough to grow more grapes than the total from the rest of the country. In the 2000s, most of the biggest vineyards and wineries were operated by overseas investors.
A second tier of companies are owner-operator businesses, for instance Hunter’s Wines. There is also a mixture of Marlborough locals (often landowners who have converted to grapes) and outside investors, plus some who have come to the area for lifestyle reasons. Tohu Wines is Māori-owned. Viticulturalists and winemakers have come from many northern-hemisphere grape-growing countries and also from Chile, Australia and South Africa.
A third tier of the industry comprises those who grow grapes but do not make wine. Many of these are members of the Marlborough grape-producers association. Most of their output is sold to one or other of the big winemaking companies.
Marlborough’s wine-industry boom led to a high demand for workers, making it difficult for some vineyards to find enough staff. Some unscrupulous contractors hired illegal migrants as workers, paid them less than legal rates and provided substandard accommodation, knowing that many of them spoke little English and were unwilling to go to the authorities in case they were deported.
In winter and spring, when pruning and other labour-intensive tasks are carried out, the seasonal demand for workers is at its peak. Overseas-recruited workers make up the numbers. In recent years most such workers have come from the Pacific, in particular Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, under approved schemes set up in 2006. This has curtailed some of the more blatant forms of exploitation of migrant labour that previously took place.
The ‘downstream’ labour force includes those working in numerous vineyard and cellar-related restaurants and cafés and in the accommodation industry. It also includes those who provide or serve in new or expanded hospital wards, retail outlets and classrooms, including those who teach viticulture and oenology (winemaking).