This region on the north end of South Island deserves its own section because if you mention New Zealand to even casual wine drinkers this is the region they know. Its has become the standard bearer for New Zealand wines. Strangely, the first commercial vineyards on South Island were not planted until 1973 when Montana Wines established vines in Marlborough.
The soil is not uniform, and some dramatic differences can exist even within vineyards, but overall silty, alluvial soils dominate with plenty of gravel and even some stony areas. These stones radiate heat and help ripen grapes in a cool climate.
The exuberant and intense style of sauvignon blanc reaches out and grabs people. Like a cornucopia of sweet and tart fruit any glass with Marlborough sauvignon blanc in it commands attention. The spell they cast is riveting, with pineapple, lemon/lime, kiwi and especially grapefruit. I am resisting employing two descriptors others use often: passionfruit, since I've never had any, and gooseberry since I've never even seen one. Grapefruit leaps at me nearly every time and I enjoy the pungent wildness but find it a bit overwhelming after a glass.
For similar reasons, I find Marlborough sauvignon blancs challenging to match with food. Scallops in a grapefruit beurre blanc work wonders but how often do you see that on a menu? Delicate fish, oysters, crabmeat and even chicken and pork can get overpowered. Salads, especially those with grapefruit (notice a theme?) or citrus vinaigrette, handle the exotic nature of Marlborough sauvignon blanc wonderfully. My favorite way to enjoy these vivacious wines is as an aperitif. I need no food with them and the juicy nature coupled with brisk acidity makes my mouth water, creating anticipation for the meal to come.
Marlborough also makes some lovely riesling and chardonnay. Pinot gris has begun to arrive from many producers but I have yet to find one that would cause me to pass on a good example from Oregon. People continue to talk about the potential for sparkling wine but I've never had one. Reds exist, mostly pinot noir, but the few that have crossed my palate have not impressed me.
Sub-regions have begun to get attention and the one that most fascinates me is Awatere. Located in the southern part of Marlborough, this region was not commercially planted until the mid 1980s. Limestone and some clay appear here and change the character of the sauvignon blanc dramatically. The lively, juicy nature remains as does the boisterous nature of the fruit but the grapefruit that so dominates the rest of Marlborough sauvignon blancs makes only a cameo, if you notice it at all, meaning these wines are much more food friendly.
Look for the following wineries (all wines are sauvignon blanc unless otherwise noted):
From Awatere - The Crossings led the charge in the area and I find their wines solid if rarely exciting. Arona has been available in the U.S. for a few years and is still priced right, offering an excellent example of Awatere style.
No doubt there are others using some fruit from this region for blending purposes.
From the rest of Marlborough - Allan Scott produces perhaps the best examples of balanced yet typical Marlborough sauvignon blanc. The estate makes a delicious, clean, dry riesling and the best Marlborough pinot noir I have tried, with rich, voluptuous fruit and surprising weight compared to other examples. Brancott produces completely serviceable sauvignon blanc at a reasonable price. Cloudy Bay has simply become so expensive I no longer care. Even Dog Point, from the man who brought us the initial fever pitch for Cloudy Bay has crept up out of the range I'm willing to pay for sauvignon blanc. They're good though. Saint Clair produces some brilliant examples and some strange ones. Find a tasting where they're featuring the wines and you decide. I have always found the Vicar's Choice sauvignon blanc to be a good and consistent value. Seresin is worth a look, but is often too pricy for me. Their pinot noir is well made and more classic Marlborough than Allan Scott's - i.e. it has lighter cherry fruit and more elegance. Spy Valley receives many accolades but my experience has been underwhelming. Finally, Villa Maria is a big player. I like their riesling a lot and their upper end pinot noirs if someone else is buying but the signature grape leaves me mostly cold. For a while the wine was such a good value that it sold like crazy but eventually the price eclipsed the value. My experience with their upper end sauvignon blancs is not good and I would avoid them, despite some rave reviews in big publications, unless someone is willing to let you taste before you buy.
More on South Island is next: Nelson and Canterbury.