Why Marlborough Is Looking To Up Its New World Wine Game

Posted: Jun 21, 2017

Source: NZWines.Com | You Tube

This month, wine commentator Chris Losh heads to Marlborough in New Zealand, to see how some folk in the wine region are trying to make its wine less 'meh' and more ... more.

Along with cows, I reckon that New Zealand's winemakers are among the most phlegmatic creatures on the planet. So, when I met not one, but two recently who were actively excited by something my interest was piqued.

Both based in Marlborough, they were positively fizzing about a new voluntary code that is being worked on by 35 of the region's top wineries. The intention is that these wineries will come together to sign up to a kind of voluntary AOC, with certain minimum participation criteria, all aimed at guaranteeing - or at least raising - quality.

Admittedly, the details thus far are still sketchy. The code of ethics has no official name, no logo, and the exact elements of its make-up are still to be agreed as well. It seems almost certain, though, that minimum brix levels at harvest and a guarantee that the wine has been bottled in New Zealand will both be part of it.

I realise that this absence of concrete facts might make it all sound rather half-baked, but it shouldn't. The winemakers I spoke to were deadly serious about what they're doing - not to say driven - and it's clearly something that a section of the Marlborough wine fraternity has been thinking about for a while.

Now that vintage is safely out of the way, I'd expect things to move pretty fast. It's not unreasonable to assume that the 2018 vintage could well be the first where the new code - whatever it's called - is available for those who wish to sign up to it.

Of course, New Zealand does have a history of winegrowers coming together to create an association in areas where they felt officialdom wasn't doing enough. But, whereas membership of the Gimblett Gravels Wine Growing District (set up in 2001) is dependent solely on having 95% of one's vineyards on the famous alluvial soils, and has no viticultural or winemaking preconditions, the new Marlborough AOC-Lite is the opposite.

It will, as far as I can gather, allow members from anywhere in Marlborough, provided they subscribe to the more stringent production criteria.

And, this, for me, is what makes it interesting.

That Marlborough is one of the most successful regional wine 'brands' on the planet is no longer in question. Along with regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux and Chablis, it has an enviable level of consumer recognition and is a staple of wine lists and retailer shelves all over the world.

Unlike this French triumvirate, however, it does not have any means of qualitative differentiation. No grands crus, premiers crus or village-designated vineyards.

This, frankly, is starting to hold the region back.

A sommelier recently told me that his strategy for Marlborough Sauvignon was, essentially, to buy the cheapest he can find, put a huge mark-up on it and that it would "sell and sell all day". You could argue that this is a damning indictment of the cynicism of the on-premise and/or the lack of critical appreciation of your average consumer. But, few would be surprised at the sentiment – particularly around Blenheim.

There has been talk of pushing regional diversity (particularly of Sauvignon) in Marlborough for at least five years, but it seems to be struggling to gain traction. As a brand, Marlborough is so strong that, without any formalised system of differentiation, it's simply swamping most attempts to establish a more nuanced approach.

"I get frustrated by lists that only have one Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on them," Matt Thomson of St Clair told me recently. "Would they only have one red from Bordeaux? No."

Of course, not all of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the gatekeepers, whether retailer or restaurant. The region has been at least partly complicit in its own stagnation by the sheer tsunami of 'meh' wine that it floods onto the market on a regular basis.

Volume shifts clearly play a part in this – the crush regularly varies by 40% from one year to the next. And, for a young wine like Sauvignon Blanc, there's no means of holding any back to smooth over supply and demand issues.

Yet, as global demand has grown, there's a feeling too that corners are starting to be cut to hit price points (particularly with yields) and that Marlborough's reputation is suffering as a result. It's starting to be seen as a faceless, branded wine factory, and it's to the credit of the producers that they've a) picked up on this and b) are trying to do something about it.

"Being unregulated has got us where we are, but there's a feeling that now we need to consolidate our ideas," says Simon Waghorn of Astrolabe – one of the 35 wineries helping to draft the proposals. "We need to start acting to protect what we have built up and, in the absence of low-cropping years, we need to let people know that the wine has been grown with some care and attention."

Interestingly, I'm not sure that this 'need for guarantees' is necessarily a criticism of the more utilitarian wines, more a recognition that while the strength of the Marlborough brand might serve some wines well, it also has a depressing effect on those with more ambition.

The Europeans, of course, realised this around 100 years ago, with appellations like Chablis and Chianti created in the 1930s and an arcane network of crus designed to rate a vineyard's potential.

There doesn't - yet - appear to be an appetite for this level of classification in the New World. But, frankly, even five years ago, it was rare to find a single New World producer who agreed with any form of classification beyond geographical boundaries.

Since then, we've seen Chile's Vigno project (for old-vine Carignan), and the Swartland Independent Producers as well as the project mentioned above.

Could this be the start of a process that will end with a cru system in the Wairau before 2030? Increasingly, I'd say, that's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

By Chris Losh
June 7, 2017
Source: Just Drinks

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