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The rapidity of plantings in Marlborough in the twenty-first century surprised many observers and prompted the renewed interest of the Marlborough District Council to record and map their growth. Even the relatively conservative figures of New Zealand Winegrowers show the area in vines increasing by almost one and a half times between 2000 and 2005 – from just over 4000 to almost 10,000 hectares. Marlborough District Council’s monitoring of vineyards for irrigation and other infrastructure suggests that growth has been even faster.
This rapid growth is associated with strong international demand for Sauvignon Blanc, reinvestment of profits by existing wine enterprises, more enterprises being established in Marlborough and, especially, the acquisition of some large and medium-sized New Zealand companies by international conglomerates. These infusions of capital have stimulated bolder acquisitions of land to plant more vines, especially Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Vineyard plantings since 2003 show two revealing spatial patterns. First, plantings peripheral to the core of the Wairau Valley have been substantial. Vines have jumped the Wairau to its north bank, filled in most of the available flatter land at the heads of the Southern Valleys, and added substantial areas to the east and north of Blenheim on soils that were formerly considered to be less suitable for vines. By the end of 2005 the density of vineyards eastwards towards the coast on the low-lying land between Blenheim and the Wairau was greater than it was in 1990 in the combined Southern Valleys and Rapaura. These more coastal vines are often on what were originally poorly drained soils as the alluvium here is generally finer than further upstream and contains more clay. They include some sandy areas from former dunes that drain more freely. Large parcels of vines have also been established on both banks of the Waihopai and in the Omaka Valley.
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Second, and perhaps even more significantly, wine companies and grape growers have planted on the ridges separating the Southern Valleys. These include Pernod Ricard NZ with its Terraces vineyard, Dog Point, and Clos Henri – the southern hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc outpost of the Bourgeois family of the village of Chavignol in Sancerre.
Shortage of easier land partly necessitates this move to the hills, but experienced growers like Ivan Sutherland argue convincingly that the hills may grow better, or at the least different, grapes and wine – especially, in his opinion, Pinot Noir. The clay and clay-loams have a much higher capacity for retaining moisture than the gravels of the plain. Some of these hillier parts have more exposure to solar radiation and some slopes have better natural protection from frost through cool-air drainage. Close monitoring of the soil moisture, using neutron probes or direct measurement of the vines uptake of water, makes it possible to reduce irrigation to a minimum or even eliminate it as the vine ages and its roots are established at deeper levels. Cost savings on irrigation water can be significant.