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Wairau Valley

The Wairau Valley is one of two river valleys that make up the heartland of New Zealand's Marlborough wine region. An extensive patchwork of vineyards surrounds the town of Blenheim in the north-eastern corner of the South Island, near where the Wairau River meets the Pacific Ocean. Sauvignon Blanc is by far the most important grape variety planted here, producing distinctively aromatic white wines with flavours of gooseberry, passion fruit and fresh herbs.

The Wairau Valley is a wide river valley that follows the Wairau River from the Spenser Mountains in the west to the Pacific at Cloudy Bay. The Richmond Mountains in the north separate it from the sunny region of Nelson, and the Wither Hills in the south protect the valley from harsh weather systems from the south-east. The region can be divided neatly in two: the low-lying area along the Wairau River near Rapaura and Renwick, and the hillier land in the south around the sub-regions of Brancott, Omaka and the Waihopai Valley.

New Zealand's modern wine industry began in Marlborough in the 1970s, and it was in the Brancott vineyard in the southern Wairau Valley that the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in 1973. Nowadays, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is world famous, and the Wairau Valley is home to some of New Zealand's most famous producers.

The valley's varied soil profiles are responsible for the significant variations in wine styles, and are considered to be the most distinctive feature defining the character of wines produced here. Shallow, stony and fast-draining soil patterns along the river terraces aid infertility, a condition which perfectly suits Sauvignon Blanc, the region's main grape variety. Further from the river, in the hills, the soils have a higher proportion of clay and silt. These soils retain slightly more moisture for the vines, which leads to a more herbaceous character in the resultant wines.

Wairau Valley has a warm, dry climate that is moderated during the growing season by sea breezes from Cloudy Bay. Hot sunshine during the day and cold ocean winds at night extend the ripening period in the grapes, leading to a balance of fruit complexity and acidity. This diurnal temperature variation is essential to the terroir in the Wairau Valley – without it, much of the classic punchiness of the wines made here would be lost.

Wairau Valley has a slightly warmer, more sheltered climate than its neighbour, the Awatere Valley. As a result, the Sauvignon Blanc made here tends to be on the tropical end of the spectrum, with flavours of passion fruit and grapefruit rounding out the gooseberry and green pepper that typify Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Sauvignon Blanc is undoubtedly king in this part of the world, but Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are other important grape varieties grown here. Marlborough sparkling wines made in the méthode traditionnelle are also highly regarded.