Harvest at Churton
Monday, 14 May 2012 by Ben Browett
Having worked at Kumeu River and seen New Zealand's best Chardonnay, I headed down to the South Island to see where the country's most famous Sauvignon Blancs are produced. Churton sits in the stunning Waihopai Valley with rolling hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Sam Weaver came over to Marlborough, with his wife Mandy, from London over 15 years ago. He quickly established himself as a serious wine-maker and consultant at nearby wineries while planting his own vineyards on the North facing slopes behind his house. For many years he was a two-harvest-a-year man working in Europe at wineries in France (such as Comte Lafon) and further afield.
Michael Brajkovich and Bob Campbell both said how they were greatly helped in their revision for the Master of Wine course by Sam and he clearly has a great passion for wine and viticulture. Much more time is spent in the vineyards at Churton than at the winery as Sam thinks this is where the wine's true indenity and individuality reveals itself.
Due to the poor summer, the harvest would not be for another 10-14 days so I would be mainly preparing the vineyards to make sure that the grapes can achieve optimum ripeness . On my first day, I was up early with a small team including Ben & Jack Weaver - Sam's sons. We spent the day fruit-thinning - the process where bunches of grapes are cut off vines if they are too close to other bunches (making it hard for those grapes to grow). Also, any bunches that are on small, thin shoots must be removed as grapes will not ripen enough but the nutrients from the soil can instead be used to strengthen and grow the shoot for next year.
I seemed to have brought some good weather as several sunny afternoons were nice to work in, but even better for the grapes. The vines usually have medium sized bunches of small grapes which have thicker skins than the Sauvignon Blanc grapes across most of Marlborough. Fairly thin rows and no watering means that the Churton vineyards are not nearly as green as their neighbours but have a higher skin to juice ratio resulting in a more concentrated flavour. Brown stalks as opposed to green also mean that the wine is clean and mineral rather than grassy or too herbacious.
Sam also explained some of the science behind the grape's acidity which made me wish he'd been my Chemistry teacher at school. Churton grapes generally have a lower pH level (more acidic) than most other grapes in Marlborough although they have less acid overall. This is because pH measures the stength of the acid and not how much acid there is. Therefore, a smaller amount of more concentrated acid creates a wine that has crisp acidity while still being balanced with grapefruit and lime aromas.
I also spent an afternoon wandering through the vineyards with Sam who is now regularly checking the grapes to guage their ripeness and when they will be ready to harvest. Most of the production is hand harvested at Churton (very rare in Marlborough were machine harvesting and far higher yields than here are the norm). A team of 20-30 pickers will pick the Sauvignon Blanc and all the Pinot Noir, including 'The Abyss'. This is occasionally produced as a single vineyard wine in better vintages due to it being situated on a slope that gets the early morning sunlight.
I was also taken to the winery down the road where Sam showed me all the barrels getting ready for Pinot Noir and some of the Sauvignon Blanc. Two new oak barrels holding 500 litres each are used for Sauvignon Blanc in order to increase the complexity of the wine while reminaning fresh and relatively unoaked. I also got to try some 2011 Pinot which was currently in tanks having had 10 months in barrel and just been blended.
Barrels are being cleaned and presses prepared for the grapes which will be arriving at the winery in the next week. I am leaving at a similar stage to when I arrived at Kumeu showing the difference between the two regions I have worked in. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is not exactly rare nowadays (any spare piece of land has vines on it), but having spent some time in the region, it is clear that Churton is a fairly unique example of a family winery that is focused on creating serious, expressive wine that is a clear representation of the region and people who make it.