Marlborough Pinot Noir used to get a bum rap, in some quarters. As a retailer, I have been under-exposed to the more commercial examples, but particularly taken with the serious ones. To the extent we can speak of typical examples, I have tended to find in them a poised and complex reddish fruit that feels so right, so classically Pinot – even if a little bit ‘pretty’ in the charm it conveys – while a bitter-earth mineral background provides just enough harmony and depth to build, on this deliciously fresh and medium-bodied frame, a very complete wine. On the other hand, offerings from this ideally dry and moderate region can also vary a lot according to place and style – from light raspberry to brooding dark fruits, from structured and complex to lush and mouth-filling. Yet despite regional virtues which thus extend beyond the indefinable X factor of Marlborough Pinot, some customers at large have seemed to harbour the misperception that complexity equals Martinborough Pinot, and that rich fruit requires Central Otago. Between these two giant regional reputations, the misunderstanding of Marlborough has been rather frustrating at times.
There have always been exceptions to this unfair rule, even in the public’s eye. Labels like Fromm or Dog Point have long identified Marlborough with quality Pinot Noir. But lately there have been a whole range of local producers winning top honours in wine shows and conferences – results supported, of course, by the implicit quality being consumed in each bottle sold. So the decisions of some to maintain original plantings and develop clonal improvements is finally paying off, as the long-vaunted promise of Marlborough becomes a reality in everyone’s Pinot glass.
But there is still work to be done. And I was recently able to assist these labours in the most effective ways you could imagine. For example, I submitted to being fed and watered for an entire afternoon aboard a pleasure boat in the Marlborough Sounds. I also helped in a collective effort to relieve of their contents numerous magnums of rare and remarkable wine, during which task I was also expected to clean my plate of a delicately lavish dinner. Between these two sacrifices made for the local industry, I also allowed myself to be trailed around Marlborough’s Southern Valleys in a caravan of bumpy four-wheel-drives.
On this committed cross-country epic, an excess of sunlight and fresh air was the inevitable result of frequent vineyard stops, in which we were required to taste the great terroir reds of Marlborough in a situation that might be described – to borrow a phrase from the likewise hard-working construction industry – as ‘on-site’. No hard hats were needed for our type of work, but we were encouraged to don a different kind of hard-brimmed hat, one that perfectly captures the gritty, dusty, and path-cutting endeavors of these early pioneers of premium Pinot. The supply of these literal safari hats was low, however, so only an adventurous few were lucky enough to sport them.
The Marlborough Pinot Noir Safari is hosted by a group of local producers who are as ambitious as they are justly confident about what they do. Rather than messing around with existing misperceptions of the market, they decided to go straight for the wine-culture jugular. Each year they’ve invited a group of thirty or so industry types – this year is was mainly New Zealand restaurateurs and retailers, while last year it was wine writers, I believe. These lucky people are then driven around to get first hand experience of the many sub-regions of Marlborough’s Southern Valleys, and especially the ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards – the special sites where the wines are made that are also making Marlborough’s premium reputation. By side-stepping the identity issues that come with the general label ‘Marlborough’ (perceived or not), the Safari aims to focus our attention down into the points of detail where it should be for Pinot Noir – at the level of sub-region or valley, elevation, aspect, soil and even position on certain hillsides.
What comes to mind when we think of Marlborough is often fresh and fruity Sauvignon or aromatics, usually grown on the dry riverbed floor of the region’s main valley, the Wairau. Quite the contrary of this terroir, however, most well-bred Pinot Noir comes from the region’s Southern Valleys. Here ancient, dusty loess that was blown southward by the norwester had come to gather against the hillsides and contours on the southern flank of the Wairau, down the ‘fingers’ of the Waihopai, Omaka and Brancott Valleys, as well as further over the Wither Hills and into to the massive Awatere Valley. It is in these Southern Valleys that we find the soil patchwork of heavier sediment and clay, amongst loam and greywacke rock, that allows viticulturalists and winemakers to get specific about certain sites – and even certain rows.
The most southern of the Southern Valleys is of course the Awatere, and it was here that we started our trek. The gathering point was Terravin’s Te Ahu vineyard (formerly called Calrossie), and we did not set forth from this beautiful location without the first of many useful introductions to the vineyard we were in, while receiving the essential and very English provisions of the aforementioned colonial hat, a sandwich, and a glass of Champagne. (Actually it was the Seresin Moana, but it may as well have been Bolly).
After a circuitous trail and a roughly forded stream or two, we hadn’t left yet the considerable expanse of the Awatere Valley. Yet it was time we stopped for a photo opportunity in Villa Maria’s Seddon vineyard. Here we looked over the spectacular valley floor and the distinctive, off-white cliffs that stand above the river. As it turned out, the next vineyard we were to visit was at this distant riverbank and under these very cliffs. By this time we had already withstood a full 45 minutes with nothing to drink but lots of free bottles of water – one of many resources lavished by excellent host responsibility – so by now we were eager to taste what we were seeing around us. And it was here, in the riverside idyll of the Nautilus Awatere Valley, that we finally embarked on the true journey of the day and sampled Pinot Noir wines from the three vineyards through which we had just walked.
After the tasting we were given another round of snacks and coffees, before strolling out onto the riverbed to inspect the Awatere geology – which was on show in the cliffs before us, as it had been, we were told, in the wines from this remarkable place. A fairly thin layer of looser silt and gravelly soil sat on top of a deep layer of hard papa mudstone, impeding the deeper vine growth and water retention and ensuring the vines enter a delicious struggle with the landscape.
Thus we have sampled the Safari, and know what kind of delights await us. I have included below some notes from the Awatere tasting. In the next part of this blog we will cover the rest of the day, which presented too many wonderful wines and places to cover here. But I would like to conclude this first part with a few words about my own kind hosts during the visit – Fromm Wines.
A bastion of fine wine in New Zealand since before these words meant anything, Fromm seemed to have got it right from the start. The varieties they planted 26 years ago are still pretty much the ones they focus on, so there must have been some astute regional awareness from the legendary Fromm winemaker, and icon of European style, Hatsch Kalberer. A big factor in his success was not only what he decided to plant, but where. And to illustrate this, I was taken on a stroll through the vineyard by my assigned personal host Adam Balasoglou (to my left in the above photo), a man so essential to the Fromm operation that he can’t really tell me what he does – or rather, what he doesn’t. As Adam explains while pointing down rows of well-kept vines, Fromm’s original on-site plantings of Pinot Noir were made just on the southern side of the valley floor, where the river gravels give way to the wind-blown and loess and clay. So the mixed and slightly heavier soils that begin under their oldest vines are, thus, of a kind that still attract our serious Pinot makers to this southern flank of the Wairau, or to the valleys further south.
I didn’t ask Adam any more annoying questions, however, as I was trying to pace myself. I would need to pester ten or so winemakers and viticulturalists on the Safari itself, the following day. So with a long afternoon of boating ahead of us, Adam ensured that we began as we meant to continue and we completed our cellar tour with a sampling of Fromm’s superb labels. The single-vineyard Pinots are included below, after the notes of the Safari’s first tasting in the Awatere Valley.
Terravin Te Ahu Pinot Noir 2013 was picked just after ripeness (i.e. not overripe), to allow some greener flavours. As no whole bunch was included it must have been be the judicious harvesting that explains the delicate leafiness or green spice, which serves as complement and completion to the poised and succulent, gently aromatic red/dark berry fruits that finish with a suggestion of gently brooding darker fruits and fine, dusty earth.
Terravin Te Ahu Pinot Noir 2015 offered slightly brighter and juicier fruit, which feels like vintage as well as being younger, with a balanced sweetness in the fruit impression giving a measured generosity and appeal through the mid-palate. The youthful finish tapered quite taughtly, though stylishly, to a similar finish of slightly brooding dark earth. In both Terravin wines there is real presence of mineral and earthy layering, within a cooler climate style in which the fruit retains an impressive, Pinot-lover’s precision and poise.
Villa Maria Taylor’s Pass Pinot Noir 2015 is a more generous and gently mouth-filling wine. Red and darker fruits offer ripeness and depth on the nose before giving way to slightly redder fruits on the palate. Ripe flavours of cherry and raspberry with an element of compote provide a lush wrapping for background nuances of stones and crushed herbs. An open and fragrant style of both richness and softness, it finishes with a gentle dusting of fine, ripe tannins. Very appealing.
Nautilus Awatere River Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 brought more restrained and red-fruited expression with layers of earthy spice and subtle florals. With 30% whole bunch pressed fruit, this had some of the herbal and earthy themes of the Terravins (though a touch more organic/savoury) with a dash of the lusher and riper fruit that was so appealing the Villa Maria. From a riverside site fairly high up the valley, with high diurnal range in what is already a “region of extremes”, this wine offers long-ripened richness and definition (harvest was 10-14 days late) while retaining a signature presence of somewhat taught, granular tannins.
Fromm Single Vineyards:
Fromm have lately restructured their upper-tier single vineyard wines, with four offerings that now include a label grown at the vineyard of another Pinot Safari host, Churton. While each of these four premium Fromm reds is distinctive and superb in their own right, as we tasted through there seemed to be a sense of building from an extremely expressive fruit depth and complexity in the Churton and Quarters up to an even more unique density, volume, complexity and completeness in the two Fromm icon vineyards of Clayvin and Fromm itself. See below for notes.
Fromm Churton Pinot Noir 2016 was the opening wine of this selection, and it offered a nicely restrained and layered style, with aromatics of ripe red berry fruit, earthy spice, and a savoury and tonality that is typical of this vineyard. (This was sourced in a small site called “Shoulder”, where a cooler dawn-facing aspect and shelter from the afternoon sun provided a marginally more linear, refined and perhaps introverted expression than Churton’s own labels). There was a lot of beautiful fruit definition and delicacy, even though early in its development, but the wine remains elegant and restrained enough to register the mineral complexities and a finely palpable tannin structure.
Fromm Quarters Vineyard 2016 was sourced in the vineyard that formerly supplied Fromm’s Brancott Valley label, where hillside clay is mixed with alluvial soils. The latter perhaps gave it a greater sense of perfume and immediacy of fruit, offering a finely lush and juicy nose and palate only slightly threaded by a leafy theme. While displaying a subtle meaty or umami undertone as well, the Quarters had a less open complexity and layering on this occasion, and was instead more focused on delicate lushness and sensuality of fruit.
Fromm Clayvin Pinot Noir 2016 stepped into a slightly new territory of breadth and layering. This clay slope over the Brancott Valley faces north, and relatively all-day sun seems to bring and fruit expression that is both aromatic and slightly more brooding, moving beyond the red fruit into slightly darker territory it offers a gentle lushness that is encompassing and sensuous while remaining classically Pinot. The complexities too seem compressed and powerful, with earthy mineral and savoury dimensions packed together with almost exotic, dark licorice themes. With real presence and measured power, this is a serious wine even at this early stage.
Fromm Fromm vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 brought the most fined and complete expression of all. While the nose and palate register a big presence of concentrated fruit, this is the first wine of the series in which the mineral elements seem almost in front, or to encompass the fruit flavour, rather than the other way around. Stones themselves can be tasted suddenly, along with fine earth, and among these beautifully delivered and harmonious mineral-focused flavours there is perhaps a sense of wild herb somewhere, all attended by an almost ethereal atmosphere of pure darkish berry fruit. From some of the oldest vines on the home vineyard, on the south side of the Wairau Valley floor, these alluvial gravel and wind-blown silt sediments regularly deliver a perfect recipe of a wonderful purity of fruit expression, a fine tannin structure and a distinctive mineral focus. All up, this delicious wine has both serious X factor and Burgundy-like classicism about it. Very impressive!