On the Trail

New Zealand's Great Clayvin Vineyard

David Driscoll

The first time our wine buyer Ryan Woodhouse visited Clayvin vineyard was in 2011 on a reconnaissance trip to New Zealand with Fromm Winery in Marlborough. He had been enamored with the southern hemisphere pinot noirs since his days working the wine trade in London—not only with their pure and balanced flavors, but also their incredible longevity. "I was opening these wines that had 10+ years of age and they were phenomenal," he told me recently. One of the most long-lived wines in the Fromm arsenal was from a hillside vineyard called "Clayvin," a site planted in 1991 that over time had garnered a reputation for one of New Zealand's finest pinot locations. On Ryan's most recent trip to New Zealand he stumbled upon another producer who had been able to source fruit from the famed Clayvin vines—a label called Tongue in Groove that had been put together by some old industry friends Nick Gill and Lynette Hudson. "I went big on this order," Ryan said. "This is the last time they'll have access to Clayvin pinot noir."

I recently bought a case of the 2013 Tongue in Groove pinot noir because I think it's absolutely amazing. The crunchy dark cherry fruits are vibrant and there are elements of spice and game beneath that solid surface. To me, it tasted like top quality Burgundy at more of a Bourgogne Rouge price point, which is why I wanted case quantities in my possession. What I didn't know until this past week, however, was that at the end of 2013 most of Clayvin vineyard (including the chardonnay and syrah plots) had been leased to another winery called Giesen. "Are we going to carry their Clayvin pinot noir, too?" I asked.

"Sure," he answered, "but it's going to cost you seventy bucks a bottle."

Apparently the recent tide of 94-97 point reviews from famed critics around the world had increased the standing of Clayvin quite a bit, but not without reason. Located at the top of Brancott Valley on a north-facing slope (better for sun exposure) , the vineyard is farmed organically and has rich clay soils (hence: clay-vin) full of high-density plantings that produce concentrated clusters of berries. The low yields mean that each single grape has a increased amount of potency, bursting with flavor and nuance. Each berry becomes that much more significant, which only drives up the price of the fruit. 

"Fromm has signed a lease as well for the pinot noir, so we'll still be able to get their Clayvin wines directly," Ryan continued, "but I don't know if the price will be as good as the Tongue in Groove. Last time we had the Fromm it was $40+ a bottle." 

"Thank God you went to New Zealand when you did!" I said. 

"It's not just that it's the last vintage for them, " Ryan said, "it's also the fact that 2013 was just a great vintage for the region in general. That wine can probably last another decade easily. Clayvin is one of New Zealand's grand crus."

-David Driscoll