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Uncorked: High tensions in Greywacke

James Nokes
James Nokes

Few places in the winegrowing world are fit for growing pinot noir.

New Zealand has carved out an impressive niche as it begins to dial in the prime locations where the fickle grape can thrive. At Greywacke, pinot gets to ripen under sunny days and stay fresh with cool temperatures and big shifts between daytime and nighttime temperatures. 

It’s a familiar refrain from pinot noir producers when it comes to conditions where vineyards will thrive, yet it’s up to wineries to make the right decisions in the vineyards and cellars. Which is what Greywacke winemaker Richard Ellis has done. 

Winemaker spotlight 

The Greywacke Marlborough Pinot Noir 2013 ($40) was all about subtlety and balance. Black cherry, cardamom and vanilla on the nose revealed a juicy wine with strawberry, ripe plum and cherries on a long finish. Initially, there was a hint of eucalyptus, which quickly blew off after being opened. 

Its fruit flavors and acidity quietly battled for more attention and created a striking tension. Ellis nailed it perfectly as the area’s long, cool growing season created a wine that has “both fruit intensity and a level of freshness that is hard to replicate.”

“In our experience, it is a fine act between achieving just the right amount of ripeness, not too green and weedy and not too jammy and porty,” Ellis said. “Paying close attention to yield and picking dates means that we can capture the dark red cherry and plum fruit characters, which we underpin with clove, cinnamon and cedar spice via whole bunch inclusion and extended maturation in a modest amount of new French oak.”

Even though Marlborough is one of the sunniest locations in New Zealand, cool daytime temperatures, a maritime influence and a big diurnal shift in temperatures provides winemakers with a benign, extended growing season that favors pinot. 

Like their American counterparts, it was a hit-and-miss trial at first when it came to vineyard sites in New Zealand. Veteran winemakers throughout the New World detail the trials and tribulations associated with varietal and clonal selection.

“Marlborough has a unique combination of soils, sunshine and climate that makes it perfect for ripening pinot,” Ellis said. “Almost all of the best quality pinot is now grown in the Southern Valleys subregion of Marlborough, which has a much higher amount of wind-blown loess clay compared to the very stony soils of the Wairau Plains where we initially planted pinot and where white varieties thrive.”

It was 20 years ago when wineries started to import what Ellis said are “better pinot clones from Burgundy.” Just like their French counterparts, New Zealand turned to the cooler and drier hillsides and found the Southern Valley was a fine home for pinot. 

While sauvignon blanc still has a strong hold on the domestic New Zealand shelf space domestically, Ellis noticed an uptick in interest from American wine drinkers.

“We are certainly keen to show that – although sauvignon blanc is what we made a name for ourselves with and is still of critical importance to our region – pinot noir is the variety to watch,” Ellis said. “Now with vine age and winemaker experience, we are seeing this darker, richer, somewhat spicier style emerging.”

“Feedback from consumers is that they love the rich, ripe red fruit and the plush tannin profile of modern, Marlborough pinots. [The wines] have enough body weight that they are neither too thin nor too heavy. In the Greywacke pinot noir, there is an intensity of fruit, spice and structure that has won the hearts of many pinot drinkers around the world and particularly in the North American market.” 

Coronavirus and wine

Plans to go to the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival in May have been scuttled. The event has been postponed until 2021. Although coronavirus has forced California tasting rooms to suspend operations, wineries remain open for shipping.

There are some great deals out there, too, with sales and reduced shipping rates. The first email in my inbox snagged a purchase, as Foxen, a venerable producer known for pinot noir in Santa Maria, California, offered a $5 shipping rate on all orders. With a $20.20 price tag on its Sta. Rita Hills Pinot, I ordered six bottles.  

Soon after, the emails poured in. Andrew Murray Vineyards, Tablas Creek, PlumpJack and Tor, just to name a few, had special shipping offers. Frog’s Leap winemakers Rory and John Williams have an interactive tasting series where they open and discuss the 2012 and 2017 cabernet sauvignons. The Rutherford winery also has a $5 flat rate and a special offer; the first 15 orders received a roll of toilet paper.  

It’s a chance to get great wine affordably shipped right to your door. Support an American business and stay home in doing so, these days, both are an honorable civic duty. 

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at​

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