Marlborough's wine story


The expansion of Marlborough's wine industry over the past three decades has changed the face of the province, but even the earliest European settlers saw the potential of the free draining soils and moderate climate for cultivating grapes. In fact wine has been made commercially in Marlborough, almost constantly, since 1875.

David HerdDavid Herd, photo courtesy of  Auntsfield Estate Ltd
Click image to enlarge
Marlborough's vines and wines

Marlborough's first vineyard was established in the Fairhall/Brancott area by David Herd, farm manager of the 20,000 acre Meadowbank Farm. In 1873, Herd planted a vineyard on adjoining land at Auntsfield which he bought from the Reverend Charles Saxton (John Saxton's brother).1  He grew muscatel grapes and made wine until his death in 1905. Annually, about 800 litres of excellent wine were produced from the Auntsfield vineyard, which continued wine production until 1931.2 

Freeth's Wine Cellar (c.1899)Freeth's Wine Cellar (c.1899) Marlborough Historical Society Collection - Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives , 2007.102 1
Click image to enlarge

In about 1880, at Mt Pleasant, near Picton, Freeth's winery made about 1000 gallons of wine a year, a quarter of which was grape wine and the rest berry fruit and apple wine.3  The winery closed in the 1960s.4 

The most significant commercial developments were yet to come. In 1973, a key report written by his company's viticulturalist (Wayne Thomas5, formerly of DSIR) persuaded Montana's Frank Yukich that Marlborough was a viable area for Montana to expand into. Unable to convince Montana's directors that Marlborough was a good proposition, Yukich initially paid the deposit for 4000 acres (1600 hectares) of flat land out of his own pocket. The purchase was later approved by the Montana Board when Wayne Thomas' report was corroborated by US experts. Thus an industry was born."I sold them nine farms in 10 days and virtually overnight Montana doubled land values in the province from $250 to $500 an acre," said John Marris, a Pyne Gould Guinness land agent at the time, who later developed Wither Hills Wines with his son Brent.7

During the 1980s, hundreds of hectares of Marlborough's fine alluvial silts and stony gravels were planted in grapes, and Marlborough became known for its cool-climate wines: the flagship sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and aromatics.8  However by the mid-1980s, New Zealand's wine industry was depressed and an oversupply of wine saw the Government paying $2500/acre9 for vines to be pulled out. The vine pull provided grape growers with an opportunity to replant with phyloxera-resistant vines and different varieties of grapes.10

Frank Yukich planting a vine, Marlborough Museum, 19951830001-3Frank Yukich planting a vine, Marlborough Historical Society Collection - Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives , 19951830001-3
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In 1986, Cloudy Bay's sauvignon blanc became an iconic market leader for New Zealand sauvignon blanc in the U.K. and other international markets.

Ebulliant Irishman, Ernie Hunter paid $3000 a hectare for a 26 hectare block of land in the heart of Rapaura in 197911 - double the price of rural land at the time.  Hunter Wines won gold awards at the Sunday Times Vintage Festival U.K. in 1986, 87 and 88.12

Statistics indicate the importance of wine to the region. A 1998 Marlborough Economic Impact Study report showed that Marlborough's wine industry generated $130 million, of which $70 million was spent back in the region.13 The New Zealand Winegrowers' Statistical Annual report of 2021 revealed that Marlborough remains New Zealand's largest wine region with just over 70% of the national wine producing area and nearly 28,360 hectares of vineyards (compared to 5731 hectares in 2002.)14  In 2021, Marlborough's wine industry accounted for 18 per cent of the region's economy, with a gross output of almost $571 million.15 

David Herd statue (erected 2008), photo courtesy of Graeme Cowley of Auntsfield David Herd statue (erected 2008), photo courtesy of Auntsfield
Click to enlarge

Such growth is not without problems. As vineyards increasingly criss-cross the Marlborough countryside issues have arisen, such as increasing land ownership by multi-national companies, the felling of shelterbelt trees which formerly provided protection from strong nor-wester winds on the Wairau Plain16, spray drift, and increased use of wind machines to keep vines frost-free.17

By 2008, the dramatic increase in the area under grapes had put a strain on the wine-making infrastructure, traditional grower-winery relationships were being re-negotiated, and the soaring grape prices of recent years seemed to have peaked.18  Whatever the problems, however, wine-making looks set to remain as a key industry in the region.


Film maker, Graeme Cowley, has developed a vineyard at Auntsfield more than 130 years after David Herd first planted grapes there. In 2008, Cowley commissioned a  statue of Herd which stands at the entrance of the Blenheim Airport.19

2009  (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Auntsfield history. Retrieved 9 June 2009 from Auntsfield:
  2. Brooks, C. & G. (1992) Marlborough Wines and Vines, vol 1.[Blenheim, N.Z. : Maidstone Books],  pp. 16,17. 
  3. Scott, D.  (2002). Pioneers of New Zealand Wine. Auckland, N.Z. : Reed, p. 77 
  4. Brooks, p 18
  5. Information supplied by Wayne Thomas [PDF]
  6. Brooks, p. 21
  7. Stephens, J. (2002 February) Grapes of Love. North & South, pp. 30-31
  8. Anderson, T.(2008). Jane Hunter. Growing a Legacy. Auckland, N.Z.: Harper Collins, p 96 
  9. Wine Institute of New Zealand, 11th Annual Report for year ending 30 June, 1986.
  10. Maggy Wassilieff, 'Viticulture - Grape varieties', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (accessed 26 January 2022)
  11. Anderson, T. (2008). Jane Hunter. Growing a Legacy. Auckland, N.Z.: Harper Collins, p 25
  12. Anderson, p 25, 308 
  13. Marlborough Economic Impact Study (1998, Summer) NZ Wine Grower, p. 6-7.
  14. New Zealand Wine growers annual report 2021. Retrieved Jan 2022:
  15. New Zealand Wine Directory (18 February 2021). Retrieved from:
  16. Welch, D. (2002, September 14). Time makes the wine. Listener. p. 28-30.
  17. Young, R. (2009, June 4) Frost fans lead to noise hell. The Marlborough Express p. 3
  18. Van Wel, A. (2008, June 7) Growing pains.  Press, p. E1-2
  19. Statue to honour wine pioneer (2008, May 7)  The Sun (Marlborough), p. 2

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  • The Montana Viticulturist does have a name-Wayne Thomas (MAgSc)Hons. I would like to know the name of his Californian colleague??. The Government only paid $2500 per acre. You have to wonder about the accuracy of the rest of this article.
    If Auntsfield made such excellent wine, why had the NZ Wine Industry not picked up on this?
    If I am correct, the Auntsfield wine was only sampled in recent years, and for so called wine to have survived that long, it would have been in the form of sherry or port-a fortified product of 18% to 20% alcohol by volume. Muscatel grapes would have struggled to ripen in that environment and thus would have required the addition of sugar and water, as well as spirit to make a palatable product that lasted. The 800 litres made represents less than one tonne of grapes.
    Ed. We are investigating, and have amended the payout figure

    Posted by Wayne Thomas, 24/10/2013 1:25am (10 years ago)

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Further sources - Marlborough's wine story



  • Basham, L. (2007, October 20) Marlborough giddy on wine success. Press , p.A19.
  • Basham, L. (2008, March 15) Wine growers fear shortage of workers. Press p.A17
  • Collett, G. (2000, May 23) Good vintage despite lack of sauvignon. Nelson Mail, p.15
  • Courtney, S. (2004) From film to first Marlborough wines. New Zealand Growing Today, 18 (9), p.72
  • Du Fresne, K. (1998, August 15) The planting of Marlborough. Evening Post, pp.7-8
  • Dunleavy, T. (2003) Two Australians who have led NZ rise; Richard Smart for Tasmania New Zealand Wine Grower. 7 (1), p.10-11
  • Hall, T. (1998) The birth of a vineyard. Chartered Accountants Journal of New Zealand, 77(9), p.48
  • Hayward, D. & Lewis, N. (2008, June) Regional dynamics in the globalising wine industry: the case of Marlborough, New Zealand. The Geographical Journal . Retrieved 15 June 2009 from:  
  • Hutchinson, D. (2005, July 6) Labour scarcity hits vineyards  Press, p.A4
  • Hutchinson, D. (2007, June 9) Wines' provenance monitored. Press, p.A15  
  • Marlborough Economic Impact Study (1998, Summer) NZ Wine Grower, pp. 6-7
  • Marlborough wineries told off (2006, June 24)  Press, p.A17
  • Nicholson, T. (2006) Saint Clair - a story of a successful wine family. New Zealand Wine Grower,10(1), pp.36-41  
  • Nicholson, T. (2007) Jane Hunter OBE - NZ's first lady of wine. New Zealand Wine Grower, 11(1), p.56-58
  • Our wine cheers NZ's economy (2009, April 30)  The Marlborough Express, p.5
  • Van, W.A. (2008, June 7) Growing pains awaken concerns in Marlborough's wine industry Press  p. E1-2  
  • Simpson, C. (2005, July 27) Finding on losses blow to Delegats Press. Press, pC1
  • Statue to honour wine pioneer (2008, May 7)  The Sun (Marlborough), p 2
  • Stephens, J. (2002 February) Grapes of Love. North & South, pp 30-31
  • Warren, M. (2006/7) How wine was established in Marlborough, Central Otago. New Zealand Wine Grower, 10(3), p.40-47
  • Welch, D. (2002, September 14). Time makes the wine. Listener. p 28-30
  • Young, R. (2009, June 4) Frost fans lead to noise hell. The Marlborough Express p.3


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