Today’s Exclusive: Sam Weaver – Churton Wines
Marlborough, New Zealand
by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
What do kiwis, cow horns, and Pinot noir have in common? Meet biodynamic wine maker Sam Weaver of Churton Wines in Marlborough, New Zealand.
British microbiologist by training, London wine seller by trade, Sam found his true calling as a biodynamic wine maker in his parent’s place of birth, New Zealand.
I first met Sam at IPNC 2014 during a terroir field study seminar, and as I listened to him talk passionately about his struggles with the art and science of wine making, realized his hero’s journey merited telling.
r/T™ : You started out in rural Britain farming, then as a wine buyer in London. Who or what brought you to wine making, to Marlborough, NZ, and to Churton?
SW: Though I was born in the UK, my parents are New Zealanders.
I studied microbiology at London University, and through a rather circuitous route, ended up in the London wine trade. It was great fun and I learned a tremendous amount about wine. I tasted and drank many classic wines from great vintages and bought wines on a commercial basis from small growers in Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhone.
All this experience was very influential in my future wine making. At heart I’m a country boy, and after ten years in the wine trade and central London, realized I wanted something different. I travelled to New Zealand to visit my parents and other relatives, and while there, was offered a vintage (harvest). In the end (1989) that morphed into an assistant winemaking job in Marlborough.
Very early on I knew I wanted to make my own wine, but I needed to accumulate enough wine making experience before embarking on that. We eventually established Churton Wines in 1997.
r/T™: Tell readers a bit about the history of Churton Wines – what makes it unique?
SW: When we started Churton Wines, we did so based on market demand.
A UK wine merchant, Tanners Wines in Shropshire, approached me to supply Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We created Churton that first vintage for them in 1997.
Very quickly we decided that in order to be serious, we needed to do something different than the norm, and all the “me to” brands that were appearing. That first wine was made from bought-in (purchased) fruit.
We also quickly decided we wanted control of our own fruit supply. We eventually found a fantastic site outside what was then considered a good growing area and started planting in 1999.
We now have 22.5ha (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) planted on the most wonderful elevated site 200 meters (~656 feet) above sea level. We planted the vineyard to principally Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, with a small amount of Viognier, as well as New Zealand’s first planting of Petit Manseng. As I had all that European fine wine experience I took a much more European approach to the vineyard. The vines are close planted at nearly 5,000 vines/ha. on rolling northeast-facing hillside slopes.
What makes us unique is that now all of our fruit comes from this exceptional site. At a high elevation with clay based soils and close vineyard planting, it produces fantastic fruit. There are also some other hillside vineyards ( 1-2% of the total are in Marlborough) but none, in my view, with the important easterly aspect.
We set up the vineyard on the basis of minimal inputs with great care to integrate with the environment and have been running it biodynamically for the past seven years. Biodynamics really is away of helping underline and express this unique place we call Churton.
Our basic premise is to capture the intensity of fruit aroma that are the hallmarks of Marlborough, but to take these to another level where subtlety, depth, texture, and length are paramount.
SW: I guess both feed off each other and are the result of my collective experience, and so have many similarities. The primary difference, of course, is the fruit source and to some extent scale.
Mount Beautiful is a great vineyard in its own right. It is a long way further south, so it a somewhat cooler harvest, and usually is about two weeks later than Churton. The vineyard is larger – currently 70 ha. This scale necessitates a different approach.
At Churton, we are biodynamic, so we hand-pick all of our fruit. Within 22.5 ha, we have 19 different vineyard blocks. We are very detailed and meticulous.
The size of Mount Beautiful means that it’s more difficult to run at that level of detail. Sauvignon Blanc is machine picked and treated a little more conventionally than Churton.
The aim with Mount Beautiful is to make wines that are a little different to Marlborough wines but still produce strongly commercial New Zealand wines. At Churton, I simply let the vineyard speak!
What’s the most important thing folks need to know about biodynamic farming, and why it’s worth the investment?
SW: As I’ve mentioned, I come from a rural background. My feet are firmly entrenched in the soil and in agriculture. I also grew up in a very anti-establishment environment. This led me to question conventional approaches to almost everything! In the 80’s and early 90’s
I studied wine very seriously in the UK. I even wrote a paper on organic and biodynamic wine production. When I came to establish our vineyard I did it conventionally but with very minimal in put. We did no soil manipulations and simply planted in the old, established pasture land. As the vines matured we changed to a completely organic based system. We’d always used elements of biodynamics: planting by the lunar calendar, making compost, etc. Taking the step to use the biodynamic preparations seemed logical. As we became more confident we were able to suspend our disbelief of some of the more unusual techniques and see whether they worked for us.
Biodynamics is a journey, not a result. The more we practice, the more we understand and want to carry out different ideas.
What is also important to know about biodynamics is that it is not a dogma. Rudolf Steiner (the founder of biodynamic agriculture) made suggestions, and we are free to use elements of those suggestions and to evolve them in any way that will suit our farm.
Biodynamics is not a religion. What makes it exciting is that it allows a strongly grounded approach which accepts and makes use of science, but at the same time allows for a spiritual involvement with your land and farm.
As a microbiologist, biodynamics really helps focus us on enhancing the farms micro biome, the use of compost, the use of preparation 500 (cow horn manure), the plant and animal diversity; all this leads to a healthier microbial population. This healthy microbial population means vines have better access to water and nutrients. They have greater disease resistance. The grapes that come to the winery have a healthy microbial bloom which means natural ferments are easier.
Biodynamics helps express terroir in all the ways above, but if you need any more evidence, look at Dr. Matt Goddard’s research work at Auckland university. He is a microbial ecologist and has studied yeast populations and species across conventional, organic and biodynamic vineyards in New Zealand.
Dr. Goddard has found that although all the vineyards studied have a wide range of species of yeasts, those that are biodynamic have greater populations and more diversity than any other type of viticulture.
What’s more, at Churton we have unique yeasts that are only found here. They are not only found in the vineyard, but also in indigenous yeast ferments in our wine. Now that is really cool. Terroir and wine quality are clearly linked by their microbiology, and biodynamics emphasizes this!
r/T™: How does your affinity for Burgundy influence your wines?
SW: Burgundy has always been my go-to wine. As a winemaker, I think that it’s essential to have icons. As you may have realized, I’m an idealist. At Churton we are not trying to create Burgundy, we are trying to make Churton. The two will never be the same.
The importance of drinking widely and deeply is to help establish the vision for what you want to create in your own wine. For example, one problem I see with many New Zealand pinots is that they struggle with tannin structure. In Burgundy, the tannins are very different – much more savory and integrated, much more mature. This is a fascinating area and probably, for me, the real key to making great Pinot Noir.
Churton’s tannins are very different than the New Zealand norm, and this is very much as a result of site, soil, water management and, of course, biodynamics.
Recently, one of our wines was analyzed for a panel of different tannin markers along some other very well-known New Zealand pinots. Our wine stood out as have a very different structure to all the others, which was great. As a winemaker, I want my tannins to run through the mouth, I don’t want them separate spatially. I’m particularly critical of tannins that appear as a separate component, and in one particular part of the mouth (e.g., front of mouth.)
I think you will see from the detail in our vineyard layout that Churton is very much about site, and how we can maximize each different aspect within the vineyard. This approach leads us to produce fruit with evenness in ripening and mature tannins.
As I’ve mentioned we work with our different climat and that attention to detail is what helps give us vins de terroir and that is a very European approach. Celebrating the differences in site rather than trying to make a homogenous whole is really what the Burgundians do well.
r/T™: Churton Wines is a family affair. Your son Ben recently worked a vintage at Bonny Doon Vineyard in California – what was that like for him? Your other son, Jack, has worked in Europe. How have these experiences informed their contributions at Churton?
SW: Ben is currently in France working at another bio-dynamic producer, Chapoutier. He loves exploring different wine producers from the angle of biodynamics. Both Mandy and I actively encourage the boys to get a broad view of the world of wine.
Ben came back from Bonny Doon Vineyard saying: “Dad our wines are too fruity – we need to be more reductive in our winemaking.” That’s great that they can gain the confidence and ideas from elsewhere. It all contributes to the unique expression of Churton.
r/T™: Your wife Mandy sits on the executive of OWNZ (Organic Winegrowers of New Zealand). Does OWNZ foresee a greater investment in organic farming in New Zealand in the future? More stringent requirements? Anything about New Zealand organic farming that may differ from other wine regions in the world?
SW: New Zealand is a fantastic place for organics. In Marlborough we are fortunate to have very little disease pressure, so it’s a relatively easy conversion. OWNZ aims for 20% of New Zealand wine producers to be organic by 2020. Currently its slipped a little down from 9% a few years ago to I think 7% (we’ve had a few tough years that have taken some people out).
There has been a lot of investment in the organic sector. We’ve just come to the end of a period of research across three viticultural areas looking at organic focus vineyards and comparing management and costs. In New Zealand, we have a scheme of Sustainable wine growing. OWNZ’s objective is to get Sustainable wine growing to accept organic accreditation and to allow people to move from the lowest entry-level through to organic certification status within the one scheme.
r/T™: Tell readers – what are the unique qualities of Marlborough’s terroir in general, and Churton’s in particular, that impact the flavor profiles of the wines produced there?
SW: I’ve described the vineyard above: a high terrace mostly facing east and north. That east facing aspect is so important. Think of the Grand Crus in Burgundy. They almost all face east. The reason is that east facing slopes get the early morning sun.
Morning sun is more beneficial than afternoon sun. Morning sun is cool but allows the vines to photosynthesis and if wet, to dry out quickly. Afternoon sun is hot and will dehydrate the vine and especially grapes as they are close to harvest. Hot afternoon sun will produce higher sugar through this dehydration but will not produce riper tannin. Cooler morning sun helps the vine have slower more even ripening, retains acidity and aroma.
Our terroir delivers that, as well as its unique character and interaction between the soil and environment, and its unique microbiology.
SW: Churton has to be both Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc – both unique in style to Marlborough and have exceptional texture. Mount Beautiful Riesling is consistently good; the Pinot Noir will follow with more vine age.
SW: Churton is under-capitalized, and as a consequence, under-resourced in all sorts of ways, while Mount Beautiful doesn’t have those problems!
However, Mount Beautiful is an isolated vineyard a long way from other vineyards, so it’s difficult to get support. The Mount Beautiful vineyard is also a little frost prone, while Churton isn’t.
r/T™: Finally, if wine making has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
SW: Treat the vineyard well with love, and you can trust the fruit in your winemaking.
For more information about Organic Winegrowers of New Zealand (OWNZ):
For more information about Churton Wines:
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Sam Weaver & Family – Churton Wines
Mt. Beautiful Winery
All Images of Churton Wines courtesy Churton Wines.
Image of Mt. Beautiful Winery courtesy Mt. Beautiful Winery.
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