Marlborough, New Zealand - Where wine, water and wilderness meet

Last Modified: 19-9-2023 13:09

Cloudy Bay
Cloudy Bay
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Location and Formation of Marlborough

Marlborough District occupies the north eastern region of the South Island, of New Zealand, occupying a total land area of 10,491.28 km2. The region extends from the Marlborough Sounds, in the north to the rugged Pacific coastline in the south east, with the relatively arid south western interior that takes in New Zealand's largest farm, Molesworth. The region can be roughly divided into several sub-regions, the Marlborough Sounds, the Wairau, The Awatere,  and Flaxbourne. Prior to European settlement, the region was occupied by various iwi groups who gave names to different parts of what is now known as Marlborough. The Marlborough Province, formed in 1859 after separation from Nelson, extended south to the Conway River incorporating Kaikōura. The province was named after the Duke of Marlborough following a similar pattern to other provinces such as Nelson and Wellington, named after prominent British war heroes. Although provinces were abolished in 1876, the former province continued to be known as Marlborough. 

In 1989, changes to local government resulted in Kaikōura District becoming separate from Marlborough District, and falling under the jurisdiction of the Canterbury Regional Council, however the Marlborough Land District with boundaries similar to the old provincial boundaries continues to be used in regard to property titles. Given that administrative boundaries may change over time, for the purposes of this website, 'Marlborough' may refer to either the Marlborough Land District, and the current Marlborough District, as administered by the Marlborough District Council

Geology and Geography of Marlborough

Marlborough is geologically active, with a number of major faults branching off the Alpine Fault which marks the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. Parts of the landscape bear the scars of glaciation from past ice ages. The Marlborough Sounds are a series of drowned valleys resulting from the north east of the South Island gradually moving north over time, and the valleys gradually sinking. These drowned valleys are fairly unique globally as they combine temperate rainforest and a fjiord like landscape. Fault movement is responsible for the formation of mountain ranges and river valleys in the region. Ongoing uplift continues to raise the mountain ranges, and Tapuae-o-uenuku in the Inland Kaikōura Range is the highest mountain outside of the Southern Alps. Major rivers include the Awatere, Wairau, Pelorus (Te Hoiere) and Clarence (Waiau Toa).

Over 60% of Marlborough's area is non-arable land that is of limited economic use*.

A few small lakes are found in the region, mostly formed by earthquake triggered landslides that have dammed small rivers.

Natural History

Marlborough's diverse climatic and geographic variations provide a range of different habitats including coastal dunes, temperate forest, tussock grasslands, and alpine herbfields, for indigenous flora and fauna. In the northern Sounds area, rainfall tends to be higher, and in their natural state, much of the Sounds are forested in temperate rainforest including beech forest or mixed beech and podocarp forest.

South of the Wairau River, the climate is drier, and forest gives way to mānuka scrub and kānuka forest, and tussock grasslands. Much of this original vegetation has been converted to pasture, however there are remnants around the region.

Above the bushline on Marlborough's high mountain ranges, there are extensive areas of alpine habitat with some unique species of plants and animals adapted to the harsh environment, some found only in Marlborough.

Along the eastern coastline there are coastal habitats with a number of threatened species including the venomous, but endangered katipo spider.

List of Marlborough ecological regions and districts 2

  • Sounds-Wellington
    • Cook Strait
    • Sounds
    • D'Urville
  • Richmond
  • Wairau
  • Inland Marlborough
    • Waihopai
    • Medway
    • Bounds
    • George
  • Molesworth
    • Sedgemere
    • Balaclava
    • Miromiro
  • Clarence
    • Tapua-o-uenuku
    • Dillon
    • Manakau
  • Kaikōura
    • Kekerengu
    • Aniseed
    • Kowhai

Marlborough's Climate

Climate varies widely from relatively high rainfall in parts of the Marlborough Sounds through to highly arid areas such as the Awatere, back to more a more humid climate further south. Blenheim, the largest population centre frequently holds the national record for the highest annual sunshine hours in New Zealand. Over time, the region is showing a trend of becoming warmer and dryer as a result of climate change. 

Mean Temperature in Blenheim 1981-2010 - Source - NIWA
Mean Rainfall (mm) in Blenheim 1981-2010 - Source - NIWA

Human Activity

Marlborough boasts some of the oldest archeological sites in New Zealand with sites on the boulder bank and Wairau Bar dated to around 1300 AD. Many other historic Māori pa sites occur in different parts of the region, and there  are various iwi represented in the region including Rangitāne o Wairau, Te Ātiawa, Ngati Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngati Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Koata, and Ngāi Tahu.

European settlement began with sealers and whalers, and later with squatters who took up large pastoral runs. Relations between local Māori and Europeans were at times strained, with the "Wairau Incident" being the climax of various dubious land deals. It was in Marlborough, on Horahora Kakahu Island in Te Whanganui/Port Underwood, that South Island iwi signed the Treaty of Waitangi (Tiriti O Waitangi) promising a formalised and cooperative partnership between the British Crown and the indigenous people of Aotearoa. 


Human exploitation of the regional resources began with Māori who hunted moa, and harvested flax, and eels from the area that is now Blenheim. Further south, kumara gardens were planted along the coast. European activities began with sealing and whaling, but later logging, gold mining, and pastoral farming became important local industries as the region developed. In the early 20th Century, Marlborough had the largest area of land in NZ devoted to lucerne production. Pastoral farming remained a mainstay of the economy up until the 21st Century when viticulture has begun to dominate land use on the flatter terrain of the Wairau and Awatere valleys. Marine farming of greenshell mussels and salmon in the Marlborough Sounds also contribute significantly to the economy. On steeper slopes, plantation forestry, predominantly radiata pine, but also eucalypts, douglas fir also present, occupy almost three times as much land area as vineyards. Pastoral farming still remains the dominant commercial land use, although it has retreated to dry hill country and high country stations where climate and terrain is unsuitable for vineyards.

Today Marlborough is one of the southern hemisphere's most important wine growing regions, however traditional pastoral farming still continues in parts of the region, albeit on a much reduced scale. Along with the wine industry, an increasing focus on tourism has also developed, with the natural beauty of the Marlborough Sounds providing an ideal environment for eco-tourism, along with areas such as Mount Richmond Forest Park, a huge area of conservation estate larger than all but three of New Zealand's national parks.


Marlborough has a major airport at Woodbourne a few kilometres west of Blenheim, with shared use with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and commercial operators including Air New Zealand and Sounds Air. A smaller private airport is located at Koromiko, used by Sounds Air. A grass airfield owned by Marlborough Aeroclub at Omaka is not used for regular schedule services, however has some commercial operators involved in agricultural, charter services and maintenance based there.

Marlborough has two deep water ports at Picton and neighbouring Shakespeare Bay.

Major roads include State Highway One which runs north to south through the region, State Highway Six which connects Marlborough to Nelson and south to the West Coast, and State Highway 63, which runs the length of the Wairau Valley and part of the upper Buller, connecting to State Highway Six at Kawatiri Junction, bypassing Nelson.

Other roads of significance in the region are the Rainbow Road and Awatere Valley Road which connect Marlborough to Hanmer Springs in the south via Molesworth, however these roads are unsealed and subject to limited seasonal access, with the Rainbow Road only suitable for four wheel drive vehicles, passing through private land requiring payment of a road toll (in cash, as no payment facilities are available). Historically, both the Rainbow Road and road through Molesworth were important routes for both stock and people travelling between Nelson or Marlborough to Canterbury and back. Various other small private air strips are scattered around the region. 


The regional population density is low at about 4.5 people per square kilometre, vs 18.2 for New Zealand as a whole as of 2018, and population is concentrated in a few towns. At the 2018 census the usually resident population of Marlborough District  was 47,340, in 2013 43,416, in  2006, 42,549 and 39,555 in 2001. By far the largest proportion of the population live in Blenheim, with a population of 24,083 (2013).  Other Marlborough towns are Picton, Havelock, Seddon, Ward, Rai Valley, Renwick, Wairau Valley and Kaikoura (not officially part of the Marlborough District under current boundaries, but historically part of  Marlborough.) The permanent population is expanded considerably by seasonal workers employed in the region's vineyards.

Unemployment is considerably lower than the national average 2.8% vs 4.5%) , however incomes also tend to be lower, ($27,900 in 2013, rising to $31,500 in 2018 vs $28,500 rising to $31,800 in 2018 median personal income).1
Work tends to be focused around primary production with viticulture and forestry providing a great deal of employment.

The Marlborough population is considerably older than the national median age, at 45.5 years vs 37.4 years.


  1.  Source: Department of Statistics 2013 Census data.
  2. McEwen, W. (1987). ECOLOGICAL REGIONS AND DISTRICTS OF NEW ZEALAND. 3rd ed. [ebook] Wellington: Department of Conservation, p.v. Available at: [Accessed 31 Jan. 2019].
  3. Rutledge D. Briggs C. Lynn I. Price R. (2010) Land-Use Trends in Marlborough District: Consequences for Soil Resources. [Accessed 20 May. 2021].

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Marlborough, New Zealand - Where wine, water and wilderness meet. (2023) Retrieved May, 31, 2024, from