In 1975 Montana Winery, located in Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, decided to risk planting a trial block of vines on a plot of land they called Brancott Estate on the South Island. Conventional wisdom was that the South Island was too cold to grow vinifera. Official Government advice was that only hybrid or American species of vines could be successfully cultivated there.
One of the varieties Montana chose was Sauvignon Blanc. At that time it was quite rare in New Zealand and not fashionable elsewhere. Indeed, a few years previously Robert Mondavi in California had labelled his wine Fume Blanc to avoid using the variety name.
However Sauvignon Blanc proved to make an exceptional wine in Marlborough and within ten years of its first vintage Montana won the trophy for best Sauvignon Blanc at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.
There was no commercial wine made on the South Island until the mid 1970’s. The North Island produced all the country’s requirements and there were no exports worth mentioning. But things were about to change dramatically.
Hermann and Agnes Seifried had established the South Island’s first winery and vineyard planted with five different varieties in 1973 by the sea at Nelson on the northern coast. Far down south in Otago at the same time Rolfe Mills was planting 200 hybrid vines then, two years later, added 100 vinifera vines on his property that would later become famous as Rippon Vineyards.
Montana’s Sauvignon Blanc fast gained an international reputation for its zingy fresh gooseberry acidy and new mown grassy aromas. They couldn’t export enough to meet demand and the fruit orchards of Marlborough were converted to growing grapes as more wineries opened. Australian winery owner, David Hohnen, opened Cloudy Bay winery which was soon to achieve iconic status for its Sauvignon Blanc.
The export success of New Zealand’s premier white variety opened the way for other wines. Pinot Noir from the central Otago region was gaining critical approval. The region had last found fame as the site of an all too short lived gold rush. Vineyards established in the twisted tortured sandy red soils excavated and sluiced from long abandoned gold mines proved to grow world class Pinot.
The South Island wine lands are protected from the worst effects of icy Antarctic winds by a snow capped mountain chain along the west coast known as the Southern Alps. Although it can be hot during the summer daytimes, nights are cool and frosts are common. This cool climate produces flavoursome textured Pinot, planted in 85% of Central Otago vineyards.
Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc are just the beginning of the story. I think Pinot Gris could be the next ‘big thing’, there are superb Syrah and Cabernet-Merlot blends and a whole raft of less well known varieties becoming available.
My South Island picks.
Sauvignon Blanc – the single vineyard Pioneer Block series by Saint Clair Vineyards (Marlborough)
Pinot Noir – Mt Difficulty (Central Otago)
(Note: Montana’s success led them to change their name to Brancott Estate to avoid confusion with the American State)
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.