Boom and bust. Then boom again. That has been the recent story of Marlborough. The commercial success of Marlborough Sauvignon led to a massive increase in plantings throughout the late 1990s and noughties. The rate of growth was phenomenal. Then the boom turned to bust in 2008, with a large vintage of questionable quality, coupled with a slump in demand. It was an utter disaster.
This is a region where a significant slice of the action involves growers selling grapes to large producers. It is also a region where the demand is for the most recent vintage (everyone wants the most recent Sauvignon production). Thus overproduction plus softening demand hits hard. The result was a lot of bulk-shippped Kiwi Sauvignon hitting supermarket shelves under soft brands and private labels at rock bottom prices. For a while it was looking quite bleak.
But things changed. A steady place of rebuilding, some good New Zealand-style common sense and pragmatism, and we see the demand begin to come back, grape and bulk wine prices climbing, and a renewed sense of optimism. New markets have certainly helped. Now you can see new vineyards going into the ground, largely in the Waihopai (one of the valleys at the end of the Wairau) and the Awatere, where there’s still space (and there isn’t an awful lot of promising vineyard land left unplanted in the region).
There is, however, a potential cloud on the horizon. After the successful, large but rather compressed 2013 vintage, 2014 is currently on the vine a few weeks away from harvest. It’s a little early (by two weeks or so), and it’s potentially massive. There are Sauvignon vineyards with grapes on them, that if left, would yield 30-35 tons per hectare. This needs to be put into perspective: the average Sauvignon yield is usually 12 tons/hectare. It’s not unusual to have to drop crop (if the yield is too heavy the grapes won’t ripen properly), or to reduce yield by shoot thinning much earlier in the season. But the temptation is there for growers to take a bit more than normal, especially if the season is early and they think they might be able to get it ripe. Another problem is that there’s a shortage of contract workers at the moment to do this crop thinning. Some growers and companies have been using machine harvesters to crop thin, which sounds pretty drastic but actually works well: you just set the machine up right to take some of the grapes, apparently.
The restraint in yields requires a collective sense of responsibility. If there’s excess production, the growers will suffer badly next year through a softening of prices and demand. On an individual basis, though, if all your neighbours exercise restraint and you don’t, then you win (in a very selfish sense). 2014 looks like being a big, early, good quality vintage. Just how big, and whether demand can keep up with it, is the big question.
This is the big-picture story of the region. The picture behind the scenes is committed winegrowers working out their terroirs, and beginning to work with them. Here, we don’t need to be biased against some of the larger producers, because they can do this too. On my recent trip, I visited a range of producers, representing different ends of the spectrum. Te Whare Ra and Staete Landt represent the smaller family owned properties in the region. Seresin and Dog Point are medium sized but absolutely focused on quality, choosing not to play at the bottom end at all. Then we have Yealands and Villa Maria, larger companies, but with ranges that achieve good quality at the more commercial end and also some more serious wines which attempt to express site at the higher end.
Marlborough is New Zealand’s most important region, and it’s important that this 2014 harvest, which will soon begin, is a good one.