Interesting Marlborough: the Pioneer Block wines from Saint Clair

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Back in 1978, in the early days of Marlborough, Neal and Judy Ibbotson planted grapes, and began supplying Montana. Fast forward 16 years and they decided to launch their own winery, Saint Clair, which they began in 1994. The enlisted Matt Thomson to help with winemaking, and he remained consultant winemaker until last year.

Saint Clair became famous for their highly aromatic style of Sauvignon Blanc. The aromatics come largely from a group of volatile sulfur compounds called polyfunctional thiols, and the Saint Clair wines have very high levels. This is partly due to the location of their vineyards, which are largely from the lower Wairau around Dillons Point. This area, closer to the coast, has richer soils, producing dense canopies and Sauvignon Blanc grapes with typically high levels of polyfunctional thiol precursors. Aside from the aromatic Sauvignons, the real draw is the single-site series of wines under the Pioneer Block label. These are made in relatively small quantities and display distinct site-derived characters.

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These days Saint Clair put a significant volume of wine through their impressive winery in the Riverlands estate, which is where much of the Marlborough region’s wine is made. They have a fleet of presses which are filled automatically by a system of pipes once the machine harvested fruit comes in: there’s a control gantry from where operations can be supervised, and it saves an awful lot of work manually filling and emptying the presses. There’s also a separate press area for the hand picked fruit.

Production is 90% white (of which most is Sauvignon Blanc) and 10% red (mostly Pinot Noir, although there’s also a vineyard that they’ve bought in Hawke’s Bay which supplies Merlot and Malbec).

Everything is kept separate in the winery, which means a lot of work at blending time, but this is necessary so that the growers (they rely on them for half their fruit needs) can get adequately rewarded for the quality of what they supply. For example, after harvest there will be some 130 different batches of Sauvignon, which are all tasted blind. Decisions about which might end up as the high-end Pioneer Block wines are then made, and interestingly it’s pretty common for all the top wines to come from around Dillons Point, where the soils seem to be suited to making these big aromatic styles. I tried through some of the Pioneer and Reserve wines. 2017 was a tricky vintage and you can taste this in some of the Sauvignons. But the Pinots, from 2016, were quite lovely and all very different. 

Saint Clair Dawn 2013 Marlborough, New Zealand
A small-production traditional-method sparkling. 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Finished at No. 1. 200 cases. 6 g/l dosage. Tight and lively with nice focus to the citrus and pear fruit. Very clean and linear with good acidity. Lovely freshness to this wine with a subtle toastiness. 89/100

Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Pioneer Block 18 Snap Block 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
This wine comes from the Blackmores at Dillons Point. Really aromatic on the nose with lovely passionfruit and blackcurrant intensity: this is what Saint Clair is known for. The palate is a bit lighter than the nose would suggest: it’s citrussy and linear with a bit of pithy bitterness on the finish. The 2017 vintage makes its mark, but the aromas and fruit quality are lovely. 90/100

Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Pioneer Block 20 Cash Block 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is from the Registers in Dillon Point. It is always a bit green, and 2017 is no exception. Delicate tomato leaf greenness meshes well with green apple and citrus on the palate. Quite refined, but with a brisk acidic finish. The greenness works really well here. Stylish and pure. 91/100

Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is the flagship blend for Saint Clair. This year it’s from two blocks in Dillons Point. This is quite vivid and intense with some green notes on the palate supporting lively citrus and pear fruit. Tight and with high acid, this is a little reserved at the moment, but the quality is there. 91/100

Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc Barrique 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
Fermented in barrels: this project started in 2012 when they ran out of space and had to use Chardonnay barrels for some Sauvignon. This is from hand harvested fruit, mostly wild ferment, with some barrels with high solids and some low. This blend consists of 20 barrels. Refined and expressive with some toasty, slightly buttery oak in the background and nicely textured pear and apple fruit. Fresh lemony finish. This could age well. 90/100

Saint Clair Chardonnay Pioneer Block 10 Twin Hills 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
From clay-based soils in Omaka. 30% new oak. Refined and spicy with nice rounded pear and white peach fruit, complemented by some toast and vanilla oak notes. Rounded and textured with nice softness on the mid-palate, and a spicy finish. Quite a crowd-pleasing style. 89/100

Saint Clair Chardonnay Omaka Reserve 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is all American oak, 30% new. It’s full, spicy and a bit smoky with some cedar and vanilla notes, and a hint of bonfire and bacon in the background. There’s lovely fruit here and the American oak adds a lot of character. A marmite wine. It’s very popular, apparently, and the blend is now quite big. 87/100

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Saint Clair Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 4 Sawcut 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
This is from the Ure Valley, where the Buicks have a vineyard on limestone. 115 and 667 clones. 30% new oak. Fine herbs and spices on the nose as well as some sweet red cherry fruit. There’s a nice freshness and elegance to the palate. There’s some spicy oak, but the driving force is silky, fresh, slightly chalky red fruit. Has nice poise and weight. 93/100

Saint Clair Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 14 Doctor’s Creek 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
On New Renwick Road opposite Wither Hills winery. 10% whole bunch, 30% new oak. On the border of where the clay meets the gravels. Beautifully aromatic with floral cherry fruit, showing roses and violets as well as sweet fruit. The palate is really fresh and vivid with raspberry and cherry fruit, and a nice juiciness. Lovely weight here: a striking, direct wine with nice intensity. 94/100

Saint Clair Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 15 Strip Block 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
From the mouth of the Waihopai, opposite Delegats winery. Has clay soils. All clone 115, tiny bit of whole bunch, 40% new oak. Tight, backward and quite structured, with juicy, lively black cherry and raspberry fruit with a slightly smoky, spicy edge. Vivid, bold and quite weighty with good acid and structure. Needs time to open out, but could be very good. There are subtle green hints, too. 93/100

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Saint Clair Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 23 Master Block 2016 Marlborough, New Zealand
From the Southern Valleys, at Ben Morven. This vineyard had Sauvignon Blanc but it didn’t do well, so it was top grafted to Pinot Noir. First vintage was 2012. Clones are Abel and 114. High proportion of whole bunch. Very aromatic cherry fruit nose with a stony edge. Has some meat and herbs, too. The palate has an open, elegant fruit and it’s sappy and stony. Real elegance here: a grown up Pinot with a lovely texture and some sappy, mineral notes in the mix. Very fine and expressive. 95/100

Saint Clair Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 17 Cabernet Merlot ‘Plateau’ 2015 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Made from grapes trucked down from Hawke’s Bay. Fresh and focused with nice sweet fruit: cherries and blackberries, together with some blackcurrants. Supple and direct with lovely freshness to the fruit and a bit of crunch on the finish. Very stylish and supple. 92/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

2 comments to Interesting Marlborough: the Pioneer Block wines from Saint Clair

  • Damien

    It looks as if most of those wines were made when Matt Thompson was winemaker there. It’ll be interesting to see how new vintages look now he’s moved on.

  • Matt was consulting from the start, but there’s a full winemaking team in place here, and they haven’t changed, and iirc they have all been in place for 10 years. So don’t expect the wines to change much if at all.

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