The last time I visited Marlborough, in 2009, the region had experienced two large vintages in a row and winemakers were nervous. Grape prices were falling; unsold wine was mounting up in tanks and warehouses. It felt like New Zealand was in danger of heading down the same path towards oversupply and brand devaluation as Australia had a few short years before. Turns out it was only a hiccup.
I went back to Marlborough last month and was surprised to find the wine business there still expanding – albeit at a far less frantic pace than the early 2000s. Clearly, the world is still thirsty for the region’s trademark varietal wine. I was in Marlborough primarily for a three-day Organic and Biodynamic Winegrowing Conference, but I also spent some time visiting these mould-breakers.
Some strong themes emerged from my visits: the quality of the Pinot Noirs in the region is better than ever; organic and biodynamic viticulture is being adopted on a large scale; and there is a small but steady move towards greater viticultural diversity in the region – indeed some of the best wines I tasted in Marlborough last month were produced from grapes other than Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir.
All three themes come together at Churton, Sam and Mandy Weaver’s 22-hectare (54-acre) vineyard (pictured above right) draped across a hill in the region’s southern valleys. Biodynamically farmed (Sam Weaver was particularly keen for me to meet his small herd of Red Devon cattle happily winter grazing in one of the Sauvignon Blanc blocks) and low yielding (less than 4 tonnes per hectare (c 28 hl/ha) for the top wines), this hillside site produces Sauvignon with exceptional concentration and weight and Pinot Noir with more depth and structure than many others I tasted – as well as gloriously perfumed Viognier and tiny quantities of intense, sweet Petit Manseng.
As impressive as the vineyard is and as good as the wines are, though, the Weavers have reluctantly put the property on the market, ideally hoping to find a buyer who will sell the fruit back to them to allow them to continue producing Churton wines. Part of the reason for this decision is the financially devastating loss of 50% of their crop to hail in 2014 (the picture below is of their harvest); but it’s also a stark illustration that doing things the hard way – planting anything other than Sauvignon, on a hill rather than the flats, chasing low yields, etc – in a region so utterly dominated by broad-acre viticulture and a homogeneity of wine style can wear you down.
As Mandy Weaver told me: ‘It requires strenuous effort to get to our markets and constantly remind people there is another side to Marlborough. It’s just not easy being the ones who break the mould”
Courtesy of Max Allen, Jancis Robinson Purple pages 1st August 2015