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Perched high in the south-western corner of Marlborough, boutique vineyard Ward Valley Estate elicits the best from its lofty altitude, dry air, clay-heavy soils and temperature extremes.

James Leary describes himself as Vigneron at Ward Valley Estate in southern Marlborough. A French word which means a person who is closely linked to the vine, there couldn’t be a more apt description of James, who is bucking the trend with high-quality pinot noir, in a region renowned for its sauvignon blanc.

James Leary and business partner Freddy Davison set up Ward Valley Estate in 2008 with an initial planting of six hectares of pinot noir. The pair are about to embark on another four hectares – three of sauvignon blanc and their first chardonnay – taking them to maximum capacity for the vineyard.

What are the unique characteristics of the southern Marlborough region?

Marlborough has sunny weather and cool nights with not too much rain. At Ward Valley, we are situated right at the bottom corner of Marlborough and have a more extreme climate compared to the rest of the region – hotter days and cooler nights.

This leads to a different, more savoury style of fruit, which we generally harvest a month later than other vineyards in Marlborough. What makes Ward Valley special? Marlborough as a region is about 80% planted in sauvignon blanc. But the Ward Valley location in the south west and the clay-heavy soil makes harder growing for the grapes and the vines truly struggle, which suits the pinot noir grape perfectly.

So, as well as making great sauvignon blanc wine from grapes from the Wairau and Awatere Valleys, it has been thrilling to try something different in the Marlborough region and produce such a wonderful result with our pinot noir.

What is your favourite Ward Valley wine?

It would have to be the Olivia Pinot Noir Rosé. We named this beautiful wine after my two and half year old daughter Olivia and Freddy’s wife is called Olivia too. It’s a very important name for Freddy and I! The Olivia is a delicious wine – light, red, berry-like with a taste of marmalade. I am really looking forward to enjoying this wine with a seafood dish and a garden salad over the coming months!

How did the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016 affect the vineyard?

We were extremely lucky at the vineyard as no-one was hurt in the earthquake and we had minimal damage to our buildings. But our local community was deeply affected by it and we still feel the repercussions even now. At the time, we were just about to launch a new wine and, after being so close to the epicentre in Culverden, near Kaikoura, it felt appropriate to change the name to the Ward Valley Epicentre Pinot Noir.

What is your favourite wine memory?

A turning point for us would have to be the release of our first vintage, the 2014 Mount Victoria Pinot Noir. It was our third producing vintage but the first year that we decided the fruit was a good enough quality to age and oak. We tasted the wine a year later and it was a truly magic moment when we realised the potential of what the block could do! Do you have any tips for Farro customers when choosing wine? First and foremost, always drink exactly what you like and, secondly, don’t think that a wine over $30 gets much better in terms of quality. Double the price doesn’t necessarily get you a wine that’s twice as good!