Marlborough has become synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, but this vast area of New Zealand produces many other varietal wines. Pinot Gris from Marlborough just keeps getting better and it is definitely worth looking out for at wine shops and on restaurant wine lists.
The Marlborough region is at the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island and is the largest agricultural vineyard area in the country. Although the small town of Blenheim is the center of the wine wine industry, vineyards are spread over three huge valleys that benefit from intense sunlight (remember news stories a few years ago that the ozone was disappearing over New Zealand?), warm days and very cool evenings. The result are wines with dynamic, ripe powerful fruit combined with crisp refreshing acidity.
I spent a week last summer touring Marlborough and was impressed with how many producers were looking beyond Sauvignon Blanc. Most wineries had either a Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio in their portfolio, but not all wines were successful. Most wineries call their wine "Grigio," after the Italian style with its crisp apple and lemon flavors. I generally found these wines to be less than successful. They were either very austere or overly sweet.
Producers making the riper richer Alsatian style "Gris," however, were all together different. These wines stood out to me as products I would want to follow and buy. In New Zealand's climate producers are able to allow the Pinot Gris (same grape as Pinot Grigio) to fully ripen. The result is a rich, heady wine full of flavor, but also with enough classic New Zealand acidity to make this a wine that is easy to drink on a hot summer day.
Three of my favorite New Zealand Pinot Gris came from Lawson's Dry Hills, Cape Campbell, and Villa Maria. Lawson's version is loaded with spiced pear and baked apple pie that comes from using some botrytis fruit in the blend. It also has a hint of creamy vanilla, the result of fermenting some of the wine in oak barrels. This is a wine with great depth that goes well with grilled fish or chicken. Winemakers Marcus Wright and Rebecca Wiffen are two of the funniest, nicest people I have met, but they take their wines seriously and it really shows.
Cape Campbell's winemakers, Matt Thomson and Alana McGettigan are among the most creative in Marlborough and their Pinot Gris is also distinct with crusty brioche, pear and almond flavors. A hint of sweetness brings everything together to make this a wine you want to keep sipping - each time discovering something new.
Villa Maria produces several Pinot Gris, all of which are good, but for me the standout is the Seddon Vineyard label from the Awatere Valley. This wine is dense with pear and cinnamon flavors, and hints of meyer lemon. Add a balance of lively acidity and just a touch of off dry sweetness and the Seddon Valley Pinot Gris is both easy to drink, but also quite complex. The wine is perfect for a picnic or an evening cocktail wine, but also will work well for a range of foods from sushi to grilled chicken or fish.
People who know me understand that I have strong feelings that too many retailers only carry wines from Marlborough in their New Zealand offering. I find too many wine shops ignore regions that produce equal or better wines from varieties other than Sauvignon Blanc - Hawkes Bay for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and Central Otago for Pinot Noir and Riesling. I haven't changed my mind and as a consumer you should explore beyond Marlborough. That said, don't leave the region entirely and if you want to expand beyond Sauvignon Blanc try the Pinot Gris.