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Visiting New Zealand's wine regions 
Part 3: Montana

Rapaura vineyard, Marlborough

Scale matters with wine. Usually, big companies aren’t great. Wine tends to work better with smaller outfits. But big companies are very important, because the shape of the modern industry means that small-scale operations find it difficult to reach the market.

For any national industry, it’s really good news if the big companies are performing well. Look at Chile: their biggest company is Concha y Toro, who are making some very smart wines. Montana is New Zealand’s giant, part of the Pernod Ricard group that includes other brands such as Stoneleigh. And it is tremendously good news for New Zealand that Montana and associated outfits are doing really well.

With just a day and a half in Marlborough, I made a decision about how to spend my time. I could have crammed it full with appointments, but instead I decided to spend half a day with Winegrowers of Ara (reported on in the previous part of this write-up) and then the second day with Montana, who were real pioneers in the Marlborough region. I figured that this concentration of time would give me a better overview of the region than multiple small visits. And in retrospect, I think this was the correct decision.

So, in the morning I toured around the different sub-regions with Katie Speakman of Montana, and then lunched and tasted with winemaker Patrick Materman. There's a short film taken around the various bits of Marlborough below.

Let’s begin with some geography. There’s a really good map of the region online at http://gis.marlborough.govt.nz/accept.cfm, and you also get a nice view of the Marlborough region via the satellite pictures on google maps.

Montana's Brancott Estate  

Basically, the main bit of Marlborough is the Wairau Valley, a long, broad plain heading west (inland) from the town of Blenheim. This is pretty much back to back vineyards. To the north are the Richmond Ranges; to the South the Wither Hills – these frame the valley quite nicely. The north-western section of the Wairau Valley is a subregion known as the Rapaura road. To the west (inland), there’s a river called the Waihopai that joins the Wairau. It’s here that the Winegrowers of Ara (first part of this series) are located.

Awatere Valley  

The Awatere Valley is a second river valley south of the Wairau, over the Wither Hills. This also has a subregion, called Seaview, which is to the east, nearer the coast. Awatere has a  maritime influence and the grapes have a longer ripening season. The main part of Awatere produces Sauvignon with a more herbaceous character; Seaview is known for tomato leaf and mineral characters.  

Frost is a big problem in Marlborough in general, and in particular in the Awatere Valley. We saw some evidence of frost damage in Montana’s Seaview vineyard (above). The Friday before I visited Marlborough had 100 helicopters out flying over the vineyards in the dead of night, at NZ$1500–2000 per hour, plus transit time. Ouch. The idea is that the helicopters get warmer air from what is known as the inversion layer and send it downwards. On a clear night – of the sort where frost is most likely – the temperatures are lowest close to the ground and there is some warmer air higher up, which is then used as a source of heat for frost protection. Aside from helicopters, a popular alternative for mixing the inversion layer is the use of giant wind machines, which dot the landscape here. A further option is to use sprinklers: if the buds are covered in water, this becomes ice and this acts as an insulation protecting against more damaging temperatures. In addition, some heat is released when the ice forms (fusion). 

The Montana winery  

A major new project in the Seaview area is Yealands, which will be a 1000 hectare property when it is finished. It’s owned by Peter Yealands, and the ambitious plan is to process 10 000 tons of its own grapes in its sparkling new winery by 2013. Yealands is described on his own website as a ‘local legend’ (www.yealands.co.nz). There are also 50 hectares of vineyards near Blenheim.

After visiting the Awatere, we headed for the Rapaura road, where the Stoneleigh winery is located. The surface soil of the vineyards here look quite different, with big river pebbles evident – known as ‘sunstones’.

Then we looked at the Brancott Estate. Much photographed, this is in the south-east of the Wairau Valley, and it’s quite beautiful – spread over a huge area, with gentle contours. 

Brancott Estate

Then it was time for lunch and a tasting, which are reported here
(Visited 11/07)

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