A day to see the workings at Saint Clair Family Estate in Marlborough was not enough time. It is an incredibly detailed and focussed operation that is very involved and layered with enormous experience behind it, all geared to the growing of first-class grapes, their recognition and turning them into high quality wines that show the provenance of the fruit. A large group of trade, hospitality and media were taken around a half dozen of Saint Clair’s signature supply vineyards, tasting wines that were made from those sites, visiting the Saint Clair winery at Riverlands and fitting in lunch at the home of Neal and Judy Ibbotson, the founders of the company. It meant keeping to a tight schedule, enforced by the prodding and pulling of daughters Sarina and Julie, to have the tourists continue moving, tasting, listening and experiencing, and importantly alighting and boarding the bus at the right time. Even with such efficiency, it was easy to see that we were glimpsing only a portion of the Saint Clair business, but one could see the principles by which Saint Clair stand by to propel their name to the top of the list of exciting, high quality and noteworthy winegrowers from Marlborough.
A Family Affair in a Sophisticated Business
Saint Clair is truly a family effort. Neal and Judy Ibbotson and their three children have key positions in running and growing the company. The employees, many of whom have been in service with the Ibbotsons for a long time, see themselves as being part of the family, and the feeling within Saint Clair is uncommonly positive with ownership and responsibility to achieve the result of personal and individual drive. This is very evident in the winemaking team headed by Matt Thomson and Hamish Clark, who are always seeking to improve what they do, and advance the standing of the business.
Saint Clair was founded on the Ibbotson’s role as one of Marlborough’s early grape growers in the late 1970s, and the experience gained over time led to the decision to make their own wine, starting with the 1994 vintage. Saint Clair source from around 120 ha of vineyards in the key sub-regions of Doctor’s Creek, the Awatere Valley, Rapaura, the Omaka Valley, Ben Morven and the Lower Waihopi. 70% of the production is geared to Sauvignon Blanc, with 12% to Pinot Noir, and the rest to Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and other varieties. Around 60% of the highest quality wine goes into the Saint Clair brands and the rest to other labels or sold to other wineries. The modern winery was commissioned in 2006, and features 260 small tanks to allow each vineyard parcel to be treated separately. Capable of crushing 350 tonnes of fruit daily, and with a barrel hall storing 650 barriques, the intricacy and tracking of fruit, juice and wine requires great systems.
The Pioneer Block and Reserve Wines
The Pioneer Block range of wines is seen as the essence of the best of Saint Clair. The wines are small parcel expressions of individual contract grower sites expressed in the highest possible terms in quality. There are nearly two dozen identified vineyards that have received Pioneer Block status, and the fruit and wines must not only be expressions of terroir, but achieve quality as made and assessed by the Saint Clair winemaking team. The assessment process occurs every year and a Pioneer Block wine from a nominated site is not necessarily made annually. The quantities are limited and the wines are truly hand-crafted. Growers of Pioneer Block wines are rewarded for their efforts by the separate bottling of their fruit in the form of super-premium wines, as well as financially, but I suspect the kudos is the greater incentive to grow the best fruit possible. The Ibbotson’s growing expertise and winemaking perspectives figure heavily in advice for the Pioneer Block (and other) contract growers. Among grape growers in Marlborough, it is seen as an achievement to be selected as a Pioneer Block supplier.
The flagship wines for Saint Clair are the ‘Wairau Reserve’ Sauvignon Blanc and ‘Omaka Reserve’ Pinot Noir, part of the ‘Reserve’ range including ‘Omaka’, ‘Godfrey’s Creek’ ‘Doctors Creek’ ‘Awatere’ and ‘Rapaura’ variants with other varietals. Interestingly, these are the best performing Pioneer Block wines of that vintage elevated to the ‘Reserve’ status. Therefore, these ‘Reserve’ wines can vary in expression every year. The approach of blending wines to achieve a more complete and better wine than individual and unique vineyard expressions has not been precluded however.
Visiting Vineyards and Tasting the Wines
Block 9 – Big John
Located in the lower Brancott, in the Godfrey’s Creek area, this vineyard is named after grower John Walsh, who is a towering 6’10”. John and his wife Lynne are major growers for Saint Clair. Their vineyard was established in 1989 and vine age is a valued attribute. The wines tasted from this site were the ‘Marlborough Premium’ Gruner Veltliner 2011, showing lantana and herb characters with good weight and texture, and the ‘Marlborough Premium’ Viognier 2011, a fine, steely style encompassing the exotic fruit with minerally notes. Also tasted were the ‘Godfrey’s Creek Reserve’ Pinot Gris 2011, showing attractive soft textures and distinctive MLF notes on nose and palate, and the ‘Pioneer Block 9 – Big John’ Riesling 2010, off-dry in the German spatlese style, a wine with subtle lime/lemon and sweet and sour flavours with excellent balance between alcohol (9.0%), sugar (49.4 g/L) and acidity (10.1 g/L), the pH being a very low 2.75.
This is a Saint Clair company vineyard, located in the Fairhall area of the Southern Valleys. The elevated position and the views have led Neal and Judy to ponder building either their new home, or a cellar door facility there. We tasted the ‘Vicar’s Choice’ Sauvignon Blanc Bubbles 2011, a dryish and restrained expression that is clearly and classically varietal without being over the top. It is quite delightful, and it is a wine to put to bed any thoughts of snobbery about this category of Sauvignon Blanc. This was followed by a tank sample of a ‘Sale Blend’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011 destined to go under a non-Saint Clair label off-shore. Pungent, passionfruity, soft and broad, a real mouthful of flavour, but lacking real edge and zing. The style of Sauvignon fruit this district gives, though of good quality, is not sought-after for the preferred Saint Clair style. As an example, the ‘Marlborough Premium’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011 which incorporated fruit from multiple sub-regions had passionfruity depth with finesse, crispness and slippery acidity. An excellent all-rounder.
Block 22 – Barn Block
This vineyard is part of John and Robyn Hedges’ ‘Dry Hills’ estate at the foot of the Wither Hills, which has the ‘Maison Grange’ luxury accommodation. The beautifully ‘manicured’ vineyard is dedicated to Pinot Noir, planted to approximately three-quarters clone 667 and one-quarter to 10/5. This is the most recent addition to the ‘Pioneer Block’ series. For tasting was the ‘Pioneer Block 22 – Barn Block’ Pinot Noir 2010, packed full of ripe black fruits, spices, cedar and smoke, this is a taste of luxury and decadence that is a statement in voluptuousness and richness.
Pinot Noir Tasting at the Saint Clair Winery
A quick tour of the winery, showing the separate facilities for handling whites and reds preceded a tasting of a range of Pinot Noirs led by red winemaker Kyle Thompson and Hamish Clark. At the most basic end, the ‘Vicar’s Choice’ Pinot Noir 2011, fresh fine and elegant, with bright, cooler spectrum fruit and a crisp, refreshing, but balanced palate. Something that a number of Pinot Noirs don’t achieve, though they may be twice the price! A step up was the ‘Marlborough Premium’ Pinot Noir 2010, with greater ripeness of fruit and corresponding succulence, with another level of extraction, but still a refreshing and lively fruit-focussed wine. Next was the ‘Pioneer Block 14 – Doctor’s Creek’ Pinot Noir 2010, beautifully refined and elegant, showing perfumed red fruits and florals, a silky smooth texture, and excellent finesse, exuding style. ‘Feminine’ is an apt description. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the ‘masculine’ ‘Pioneer Block 12 – Lone Gum’ Pinot Noir 2010, full and dense with black fruits, minerals and earth, supported by real structure, but with a rounded mouthfeel. I couldn’t help but make the analogy of Richebourg! The next was the ‘Pioneer Block 15 – Strip Block’ Pinot Noir 2010, regarded as “the most Pinot” of all the Saint Clair expressions by Kyle. Complex layers of red fruits and savoury elements, nearly funky, with wonderful suppleness and subtleties. My pick of the wines was the ‘Pioneer Block 16 – Awatere’ Pinot Noir 2010, showing great purity of bright dark berry fruits lifted with violet perfumes. Amazingly rich and lush, sweet, but finely balanced with tannin finesse and soft acidity. Silky and seamless, and Marlborough fruitiness at its most refined. The finale was the new-release flagship ‘Omaka Reserve’ Pinot Noir 2010, this being the ‘Block 4 – Sawcut’ Ure Valley wine selected as the top performing wine by the Saint Clair team. This was a combination of complex black fruits, herbs and earth with superb succulence, all underlined by great textures and structure. Look out for my review of this soon.
Lunch at Neal and Judy Ibbotson’s, ‘Block 14 – Doctor’s Creek’
Neal and Judy have experimented with different varieties, matched to the different soils on their property. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir prevail now, but at one time, there was Muller-Thurgau! The vines straddle New Renwick Road. The official wines for tasting were Chardonnays, both essentially identical, but differing only in oak treatment. The ‘Pioneer Block 10 –Twin Hills’ Chardonnay 2010, from the Omaka vineyards of the company, fermented and aged totally in French oak. Featuring rich, succulent and openly expressed citrus fruit, with mealy flavours, the oaking powerful but with a sense of restraint. This was a wonderful comparison with the ‘Omaka Reserve’ Chardonnay 2010, from the Saint Clair ‘Omaka’ vineyard but fully fermented and aged in 100% American oak, of which half was new. Finer, tighter, more concentrated and powerfully focussed, the oaking powerful and a little sweeter, but the fruit character more stonefruit and nutty. To me this had tighter and more packed layers. As a group, the preference was evenly split, as is normally the case, according to winemaker Matt Thomson. A full range of wines was on offer for tasting, but I gave the ‘Godfrey’s Creek Reserve’ Noble Riesling 2009 my attention with the cheeses at the end of the meal. Opulent with masses of botrytis, but with plenty of lime and floral fruit to meet the honey and marmalade. Concentrated and with body at 13.0% alc., and a rich but non-cloying 116 g/L rs.
Block 18 – Snap Block
This site is the gateway to the Dillons Point district, east of Blenheim township towards the ocean, which has provided the heart of Saint Clair’s top Sauvignon Blancs. ‘Block 18 – Snap Block’ is on the site of a former apple orchard growing the ‘Snap’ variety. The owners John and Cayley Blackmore are among a strong group of growers based in this area. Here we tasted the wine from a number of these growers. First was the ‘Pioneer Block 11 – Cell Block’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011, extremely fine and tightly bound, yet with fruit richness and a ‘briny’ character distinctive to the wines of this area. The ‘Pioneer Block 18 – Snap Block’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011 combined rich and intense passionfruit aromas and flavours with cut. Though weighty , this had vitality and life. The ‘Pioneer Block 21 – Bell Block’ Sauvignon Blanc 2011 displayed more gooseberry and minerally characters, again not losing anything in weight and depth, but the raciness from the acidity a more prominent component. To show the district is no ‘one-trick pony’, we tasted a ‘Pioneer Block 11 – Cell Block’ Chardonnay 2010, another powerfully oaked wine, but with the fruit depth to match. Citrus, mealy, nutty flavours as with the Omaka examples tasted at lunch, but with more cutting acidity, and a subtle seaside character. Matt Thomson regarded this as the perfect wine for matching with smoked seafood.
Block 5 – Bull Block
Robert Goulter would be one of the most fastidious and conscientious growers for Saint Clair. He is the consummate professional farmer who manages risk to grow the best possible grapes in his Omaka Valleys site. The vineyard is named after the Jersey bulls that grazed the land before. First wine tasted was the ‘Pioneer Block 5 – Bull Block’ Gruner Veltliner 2011, beautifully defined herb and spiced fruits with restraint, yet wonderfully alive and detailed and building richness. It is slightly more classical in proportion than the ‘Premium Marlborough’ Gruner Veltliner 2011.. Then onto two vintages of the Pinot Noir from the site. The older first, the ‘Pioneer Block 5 – Bull Block’ Pinot Noir 2007, now well-integrated with gentle waves of savoury red fruits unfolding hints of secondary mushroom and meat, from a concentrated core. This is mature and drinking on its plateau. Then the ‘Pioneer Block 5 – Bull Block’ Pinot Noir 2009, fulsome and solid, rounded and weighty, with a mellow evenness to the structure. Somewhat shy and restrained, this is not a fruit bomb, but more a wine that builds in detail with its presence.
Block 12 – Lone Gum
This site in the Dog Point area in the lower Omaka Valley features a distinctive singular gum tree. Chris and Judi Simmonds manage one of Marlborough’s venerable sites which has provided fruit for many very successful Marlborough wines over the years. Here we were to taste four vintages each of Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, but if we did, some of us would miss out flights back home. We reluctantly left the remainder of the group enjoying the wines as we raced off to the airport. If only we had another 30 minutes. The day was indeed too short.
So much is happening at Saint Clair, and to see it all properly would require several days. It is a wonder that the Ibbotsons can keep on top of it all, but then the team they have working for them work together as a family, enabling it. Interestingly and as a sign of the confidence within the company, the impending 2012 vintage and its perceived challenges of late or lack of ripening, allied to disease pressures seemed not to be an issue. The team were fully aware of the status of their vineyards, and they appeared very happy with the progress of the fruit. They were ready and waiting.
It was an eye-opening visit to see how the Saint Clair operation is continuing to improve. Saint Clair is already a star performer for Marlborough and for New Zealand, and it is clear that many more great wines are destined to flow from these special vineyards under the guidance of a first-class family and team. www.saintclair.co.nz