Can a leopard change its spots? After setting out on a "pinot noir safari" on which our intrepid party of pinot hunters crossed the Awatere River and scaled the sides of the Southern Valleys, it became evident there was a new breed of pinot noir to be tracked down in Marlborough and that some examples were exceptional beasts indeed.
This was no ordinary wine tour, as our group - made up of prominent wine trade and media people from across the world - discovered.
But then the pack of passionate pinot noir producers hosting it were keen to show us that what they're making here in Marlborough now are no ordinary wines.
Kitted out with pocket books and pith helmets, we jumped into a fleet of four-wheel-drives and took off on our trek.
The lesser spotted Marlborough
When one thinks of New Zealand pinot noir, Marlborough is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind. Perhaps Martinborough, which pioneered the variety in the 80s and possesses some of the oldest pinot noir vines. Or Central Otago, whose examples have been creating the most noise in recent times. However, in terms of size, Marlborough is actually our most important pinot noir producer. It makes almost 75 per cent more than Central Otago and has more than four times the area planted in diminutive Martinborough.
Historically, Marlborough's not had much of a reputation for its pinot noirs, which have been overshadowed by the sauvignon blanc that dominates the region. Its early examples also lacked the wow factor, largely because pinot noir was initially planted alongside sauvignon blanc and treated similarly, ignoring the fact that it's a veritable black rhino of the grape world: extremely temperamental and thrives only in suitable habitats.
Though the river gravels on the flats of Marlborough's main Wairau Valley made its sauvignons so expressive, they rendered pinot noir quite dumb.
Then some of the region's winemakers started seeking out specific pinot noir sites and planted the variety on the more suitable soils of Marlborough's Southern and Awatere Valleys.
These vineyards may still represent less than 1 per cent of the region's total area under vine, but they've transformed its pinot landscape from producing primarily unremarkable game to some distinctly prime specimens.
"We thought there was a side to Marlborough that people don't get to see," explained Clive Jones of Nautilus, which makes its pinot noirs from grapes on sites across the valleys. And with that we left the plains and followed the call of Marlborough's trailblazing pinots to higher ground.
Adventures in Awatere
First, it was up over the Wither Hills to Marlborough's most southern major valley, the Awatere, conveyed in a fine retro Range Rover by my first driver-guide of the day, Auntsfield Estate's Luc Cowley.
Although beaten-up utes decorated in vineyard detritus are more often the winemaker's mode of transport, cocooned in vintage walnut veneer this was a more elegant start to the day's adventures than I'd envisaged.
However, this seemed especially fitting for a ride into Awatere country, given the more restrained species of pinot found here, characterised by its often alluring fragrance, racy acidity and stylish minerality.
Though sauvignon drove many of the initial plantings in this stony, windy valley - which is considerably cooler and drier than the Wairau - pinots have become increasingly important here as the sub-region has expanded to become the country's second largest wine district in its own right.
Harvest in the Awatere can be as much as three weeks later, allowing grapes more time to develop the intense flavours that have begun to get its pinots noticed.
In order to get to know more about our different winemaker drivers and fellow safarists, car swapping was the strategy for the day. After a quick stop at Calrossie Vineyard, I leapt into a likely looking Land Rover with Greywacke's winemaker-cum-photographer, Kevin Judd, who snapped away as we were taken across increasingly rough terrain by Fromm's William Hoare.
In a region that runs from coast to high country, we followed part of the Molesworth route, a trail dating from the days when the area was all massive country stations. It was then off-road into the heart of dramatic Awatere country, passing by its papa rock cliffs topped by numerous now vineyard-laden river terraces and overlooked by the mighty Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku, Marlborough's highest peak.
As our line of vehicles approached Awatere River, one look reminded me that in Maori Awatere means fast-flowing stream. We stopped at a place that seemed decidedly swift and deep and soon Luc's classic SUV and its new load of safarists spluttered to a halt halfway across.
Kevin seized this great photo opportunity, which if it wasn't for the look on Luc's face, I could possibly have taken for a set-up to add drama to our trip. It took a chain of cars to drag it out, but eventually the sorry Range Rover rose from the river to cheers and a sigh of relief from me for opting for another car for this part of the trip.
It was a sigh too soon. When William decided to make the crossing from a different spot, our Land Rover too became embedded midstream. Some deft manoeuvres and we were, thankfully, on the opposite bank, but my allegiance to British vehicles was waning fast, while I scoped out my best option for the next leg.
We were now deep into upper Awatere, further than even many of us local wine explorers had ever ventured. We pulled up at Ballochdale, where grower Garry Neill had made the daring decision to plant pinot 320m above sea level, establishing Marlborough's highest altitude commercial vineyard.
"No one was planting pinot noir here when I planted back in 2002," he said. "I did lots of research and decided to plant, although I didn't know how it was to perform."
What we tasted indicated the gamble had paid off, with a beguiling perfume reminiscent of violet and herb running through pinots from Gary's recently launched Ballochdale Estate label to those of wineries such as Villa Maria and Jules Taylor, which Gary supplies.
They were refined creatures indeed, unlike the wild pigs that can run riot among Gary's vines. Luckily, Villa Maria winemaker Jeremy "Macca" Mackenzie has been on hand. Macca not only takes grapes from Gary's vineyard, but also helps out with porcine pest control, the trophies of which lay at his feet as he talked about the prized pinots he was making from this isolated location.
Excitement in the Southern Valleys
In pursuit of more of the region's finest pinot, we left the Awatere and climbed north over the hills by a back country route to explore the Southern Valleys, aka the Ben Morven, Brancott, Omaka, Fairhall and Waihopai. This time I opted for a Japanese 4X4 piloted by Paul Bourgeois of Spy Valley, a Waihopai winery whose name alludes to the spy base that shares this secluded valley with a growing number of vineyards.
Given the intelligence about the importance soil plays in producing top pinot noir, a higher clay content than found in other sub-regions has seen the Southern Valleys infiltrated by the variety. Clays tend to make for weightier, more structured examples, with the cooler air that cascades down the hills extending the growing season, bestowing a finesse and concentration on pinots made from here.
Harnessing this combination of soil and the added warmth provided on the slopes, it was here that the huge potential of hillside plantings was highlighted in the early 2000s.
"When I came back to Marlborough from France in 1998, I just went by feel after encountering Grand Cru hillside sites in Burgundy," explained TerraVin's Mike Eaton, who established Marlborough's first hillside vineyard, Clayvin.
A self-confessed "hillside pinot nut", he went on to sell Clayvin to Fromm then set up TerraVin vineyard on another hillside site in Omaka Valley.
On the trail of more impressive pinot prey we moved on to Auntsfield, the site of the region's first vineyard, planted in the 1870s. However, likely for ease and the proximity to the tiny rammed earth cellar that still exists on the property, its founder planted his first vines on flat land. Its new heirs have headed for the hills.
Our final hunting ground was Churton's home vineyard, perched 200m above sea level on a spectacular northeast-facing ridge between the Waihopai and Omaka valleys.
Here, Sam Weaver has been farming his pinots biodynamically on soils described by an eminent French soil scientist as similar to those of the revered Burgundian pinot vineyard, Romanee-Conti.
At the end of the day, our diverse safarists had glimpsed truly thrilling pinot noirs, with the added knowledge that these are going to get only better as the vines mature. Marlborough has become a sanctuary for some of the country's most impressive pinots and it's well worth leaving the beaten track to find them.
Sensational pinot sightings
A snapshot of some thrilling encounters from the pinot safari producers:
Auntsfield Estate Road Ridge Pinot Noir 2010 - $59.90
Silky textured with high notes of spice and florals over dark fruits and savoury undertones. (auntsfield.co.nz)
Churton Pinot Noir 2010 - $44
A svelte biodynamic beauty with beguiling notes of rose, cherry and earth.
Dog Point Pinot Noir 2010 - $42
Brilliant balance of intensity and finesse in this silken specimen. (dogpoint.co.nz)
Fromm Clayvin Vineyard 2010 - $70
Plum fruit infused with notes of clove in a tight, minerally pinot with immense structure. (frommwinery.co.nz)
TerraVin Eaton Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 - $82
Red fruits, exotic spice and florals combine in this silky hedonistic wine. (terravin.co.nz)