When Neal Ibbitson of Marlborough's Saint Clair Wines came to Auckland late last year to present his new releases, there was a lot of excitement over a pinot noir that came from a vineyard named 'Sawcut' that Neal explained was in the Ure Valley.
"Where's the Ure Valley?" just about everyone in the room asked, including moi.
We had heard of many valleys in Marlborough, the most famous being the Wairau Valley and its many tributary valleys such as Brancott, Omaka and Waihopai. Then there's the Awatere Valley further south.
But the Ure Valley is further south still and completely hidden from State Highway One, as I found out when my Neil and I travelled there last April. But once we navigated from the highway along the narrow metal road that runs below a bluff adjacent to the Waima River, and crossed the bridge to the other side, the valley opens up and we found ourselves on the boundary of the vineyard.
Eight kilometres further up the valley by road is the start of the track to the Sawcut Chasm, from which the vineyard takes its name. It's a high limestone crevice, 200 feet high, and one of the '100 most popular walks' in New Zealand.
At the vineyard we met the owners, Geoff and Mary Buick, and found out why they had planted a vineyard in such a remote spot, 55 kilometres south of Blenheim.
Turned out Geoff and Mary had been crop farmers in Ashburton before they moved north to the Ure Valley in 1990, where they run sheep on the high country as well as beef and deer. But they wanted to do something different with the land that was not overly productive. They wanted a challenge. And grape growing held up its hand.
Besides, there was something special about the Ure Valley, something that was unique to this part of Marlborough, and that was limestone. Geoff had done his homework. He knew that limestone was special. He knew that in France there were some very good vineyards on limestone. He knew that it was part of the Holy Grail of Burgundy. So they contacted a consultant to see what he thought and after getting the thumbs up, a trial block of 300 vines were planted in 1999.
Once they realised they could grow the grapes they started ringing up wineries and although a lot of wineries were interested, Geoff and Mary wanted recognition for their efforts. And Neal Ibbitson, who started as a grower himself back in the late 1970's, obliged. He could see that the vineyard had potential as well as a point of difference both in climate - the vineyard's a suntrap - and soil.
So now all the single vineyard wines made from the Sawcut Vineyard are recognised on the label, and when the grapes excel, they go into Saint Clair's Pioneer Block range, which is the equivalent of Reserve level, but from a single vineyard. Sawcut Vineyard is Pioneer Block 4, and the Buicks are delighted to have all of their varieties - Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - already released at Pioneer Block level.
Saint Clair Pioneer Block 4 Chardonnay 2005 from the Sawcut Vineyard is this week's Wine of the Week, and it's a stunner.
It's bright, clear, lemon gold in colour with an alluringly fragrant chardonnay aroma of polished savoury oak, nuts and stonefruit. There's ample oak in the rich, sweetish, full-bodied, thick-textured palate with melon and stonefruit and mealy, wheaty characters as it lingers. A gorgeous wine - the fruit speaks, the oak supports the fruit beautifully and the winemaking is skilful. It carries 14% alcohol by volume and is sealed with a screwcap.
This is fantastically priced Chardonnay for the quality - at just $24.95 a bottle recommended retail. Find out more from the Saint Clair website www.saintclair.co.nz and navigate to the Pioneer Block range.
© Sue Courtney
13 August 2006