Jeremy Ellis: Marlborough Pinot Noir Safari 2023

  • Celia Hay

Marlborough Pinot Noir Safari 2023

This past February I was privileged to be invited to the annual Marlborough Pinot Noir Safari, an event held in one of our most important wine regions focused on grape that in most markets is often relegated to other regions of New Zealand. I was hosted by the awesome Damien Yvon at Clos Henri- so got to try some amazing Sauvignon in the time around the tour. This Safari is specific about engaging people to understand the breadth and depth of Marlborough, and its very important micro-climatic diversity, specific to Pinot Noir. Something that is all too often ignored in the marketing of Marlborough wine around the world.

On a personal front I have always enjoyed Marlborough Pinot Noir and for me, it carries it own with regards to quality and complexity but often is over shadowed by Wairarapa in the north and Central Otago in the south. Its understandable when Marlborough’s identity is synonymous with large scale production of Sauvignon Blanc. However this simplification has really meant many people have missed out on some spectacular wines, especially Pinot Noir, but also varietals like Riesling, Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino and wine making influenced Sauvignon Blanc of extremely high interest and merit.

The focus of this trip was Pinot Noir, and we tried some amazing examples of this varietal, both from barrel and also from bottle. Further to this we were hosted via 4-wheeled drive vehicles across the 4 most important valleys that have really transitioned from focused white production into Pinot Noir havens. In some ways these valleys had a reminiscence of the Hautes Cotes de Nuit, although warmer and with a lot more sun light! 

The four valleys we explored, are defined by wind blown Loess. A light clay deposited over millions of years settling on the southern outcrops of the Wairau Valley. This soil has a lime influence and a crumbly character. The combination provides depth, definition and elegance in most wines. And in pinot noir provides a unique expression. Coupled with the large spread of the ripening period (almost 4 -6 weeks between the Ben Morven Valley to the Waihopai) the expression can be extremely unique from valley to valley. Add to this a diversity of clones utilised and it can be hard to identify specific terroir expression. 

However because we were trying barrel and bottle selections from each of these valleys, and had a viticulturist or winemaker on hand, this information allowed me to make some clearer definitions.

The most easterly valley we engaged was the Ben Morven. Protected from all directions barring north easterly, this area was a sun trap. A amphitheatre of clay laden hills with a small flat basin, with some small marsh areas, the heat here and its more easterly impact meant that ripening was far earlier than the most western Waihopai- some 5 to 10 weeks variant dependant on vintage. The biggest challenge was frost protection during fruit set as the cupola shape of the valley doesn’t allow for cold air to escape. Helicopters, furnaces and windmills are the common tools here in dealing with this issue.

We had the pleasure of enjoying Auntsfield’s Pinot Noirs and Villa Maria’s Attorney Vineyard Pinot Noir. Both dominated by the famous Abel clone these wines showed an expression of dark fruit, a slight chalky minerality and a tight acidic drift in the tannin expression. Dense with good mid palate lift these wines were certainly the heavy hitters of the Safari in weight. 

The next valley - the famed Brancott and Yarrum Valleys (Murray backwards named after the pioneer planter here,) showed a lower sloping and height across the valley. Greywacke was based in the Yarrum and Jules Taylor’s famed Wrekin Vineyard (bio dynamic and organic) in the western Brancott. 

For me both vineyards displayed a textural length, and more floral rather than traditional berry notes. The palate expression was intertwined with tannin and acid playing the length of the palate in the barrel samples, while the bottle expressions showed a more reticent expression until they had a bit of air.

Moving into the Omaka Valley, we had the opportunity to once again see a more amphitheater style valley, opened to the north west, with a lot more curves and rolls than any of the other vineyards. Both Nautilus and Seresin vineyards are here, but with some geological difference between the two.  The Nautilus had the wind blown loess dominance, while Seresin had some layer of alluvial soils. Seresin’s somewhat bigger vineyard dominated a flatter base and we had the pleasure of trying a natural wine, that showed some lovely fruit expression without some of the burden natural wines carry- VA, funky character..etc. As a light pinot noir it was a delicious drop. Nautilus’s wine was more classic, a mineral, cherry dominated wine with hints of spice showing good oak. The two geological influences were hard to identify separately because the wines we tasted were so contrasted. However both showed strong acidic domination at his barrel stage of development. I am not sure if this is a factor of the Omaka or simply winemaking influence, but both were very enjoyable and unique.


Lastly we hit the larger and more open Waihopai Valley. A more open and certainly larger area, these vineyards had differing approaches with the terraces expressed at Spy Valley, demonstrating a focus on control of variation across a large track, while Clos Henri’s approach around double density planting and awareness around soil variation meant unique wines but tied together by a similar character- red fruit expression. Of all the valleys to me the Waihopai expressed the most classic red berry and fruit expression. Spy Valley’s example showed a little more sweetness and acid volume rather than PH expression, while Clos Henri’s was more taut and dry but with a textural finish. Both were very enjoyable wines and good examples of what the Waihopai can do when handled carefully.

It was an amazing journey and adventure for the day, and it certainly gave me an understanding and experience that gave depth to the argument Marlborough makes very good Pinot Noir.

Jeremy Ellis

March 2023

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