Happy 50th birthday: How Marlborough sauvignon blanc became a wine classic

John Wilson: From just 1,600 hectares of land on the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand, the region has grown to 30,000 hectares of vines

When does a new wine become a classic? When the consumer buys large quantities of it and the rest of the wine world tries to copy it. This year, one of the most familiar names in wine celebrates its 50th birthday.

In 1973 Frank Yukich, the son of Dalmatian immigrants, secretly bought 1,600 hectares of land in a sheep-farming area on the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. When he announced his purchase to his board of directors, they initially refused to back him. He persevered, convinced that the region had great potential, and in 1979 produced his first wine. Over the next five decades the wine became one of the most successful wines of all time.

The company was Montana, now called Brancott Estate, the region was Marlborough, and the grape was sauvignon blanc. Australian David Hohnen, part owner of the Cape Mentelle wine estate in Western Australia, tasted the Montana sauvignon and was fascinated. He flew to Marlborough, having persuaded his backers to invest in a new winery which he called Cloudy Bay. Cloudy Bay sauvignon soon became one of the most sought-after wines. In Ireland, retailers and restaurants fought to secure an allocation of just a few bottles. The first winemaker at Cloudy Bay was Kevin Judd. He made the first 25 vintages before departing to set up his own label which he called Greywacke.

From those first 1,600 hectares, the region has grown to 30,000 hectares of vines. Almost every retailer, supermarket and restaurant in this country will list at least one Marlborough sauvignon. I counted over a dozen in my local Tesco.

What Yukich discovered was Marlborough had free-draining soils, a cool maritime climate, and a very long growing season, with huge fluctuations between day and night-time temperatures. It allowed the grapes to ripen fully while retaining acidity. Classic examples are aromatic with intense ripe tropical fruits and a refreshing lime zest acidity.

Freeman’s Bay Specially Selected Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2022

12%, €11.49

Vibrant green fruits with mango, pears and citrus, finishing dry. Drink it by itself or with Thai green curries.

From: Aldi

Brancott Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2023

12.5%, €15.50 down to €10 on promotion

Crisp refreshing peach and grapefruit. A nice aperitif or with prawn dishes.

From: Widely available including SuperValu, O’Briens, Tesco, Dunnes Stores.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2023, Marlborough

13.5%, €37.60

Intense fleshy, rich gooseberry and stone fruits with lime zest and a lingering finish. Enjoy with Asian fish and chicken dishes.

From: Available nationwide from independent stockists including Higgins, D14; Jus De Vine, Portmarnock; Wineonlne.ie; Grapevine Dalkey; The Wine Centre Kilkenny; O’Briens; Donnybrook Fair; select SuperValu.

Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc 2021, Marlborough

€39.99, 14%

A wonderful complex wine with juicy textured peach fruits that open out beautifully in the glass.

From: Mitchell & Son; Wineonline.ie; Sweeney’s, D3; Avoca; Donnybrook Fair; Baggot Street Wines; Fallon & Byrne.

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