Sometimes we head off into the world searching for our heart’s desire only to return home to find that what we needed was right in our own back yard. Like all literary tropes, this one has more than a grain of truth.
When Sam Weaver and his wife Mandy decided to move to New Zealand from their native England, they found themselves a pretty house at the base of a hill with a gorgeous view and a lot of big trees. Ten years later, after searching throughout Marlborough for a hillside vineyard to buy, Weaver realized he had been taking a walk through the vineyard site of his dreams for years without knowing it.
Clinging to the crest of the hill behind his modest house and the stand of trees that shade it from the mid-day heat, the vineyards of Churton Wines are among the most spectacular in New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
“When I first came to Marlborough” recalls Weaver, “I thought it was bizarre that all the vineyards were on flats.” He still does. After a career in the wine trade that took him all over the world, Weaver knew that if he were going to make wine it was going to be from a hillside vineyard.
“Once I realized that the best vineyard site I could imagine was right behind my house, I started digging holes in the ground to make sure I wasn’t crazy” says Weaver. “I brought people out and took them up there to look at the holes and no one said I was daft. I actually think you can tell a lot about a piece of ground by walking across it. I had this innate feeling that this was a good piece of land.”
Of course there was only one problem. Weaver didn’t own the land. But when he approached the woman who did, she smiled and said, “I was wondering when you were going to ask about that.” The two set up a long term lease with the option to purchase the property if she ever decided to sell. A few years later, when she did, Weaver was ready to buy. It was time to get back in to the family business.
“My family have long been architectural farmers, most recently in England, but going back two generations, three out of four grandparents were farmers in New Zealand” relates Weaver. “I developed a (very) early interest in wine, and alcohol in general, so when it came time to decide what to study, I naturally chose microbiology.”
Weavers very first part-time job involved looking after the wine department of a supermarket, and after he graduated from university in 1978, he got a job with Berry Brothers and Rudd, but he wasn’t quite ready to take it seriously.
“I strayed,” he says with more than a little bemusement recalling his earliest days. “You know, you just do what you do at that age. I just bummed around the world, doing various vintages here and there, and came back to the serious wine world a couple of years later.”
Weaver got connected with merchant and writer Remington Norman, and in addition to becoming friends, ended up becoming the managing director of his company. “My background,” explains Weaver, “is really European fine wine. We were specialists in old and rare wines. I spent most of the Eighties traveling around visiting a lot of the top domaines, looking at vineyards, and buying from them.”
One New Year’s Eve, Weaver met a pretty young graduate student at a party, and fell in love with the woman who would soon become his wife.
“I was a bit of a bum until I met her,” laughs Weaver. “She was the reason I settled down and started thinking that I had to do something serious.”
Eventually Weaver’s job with Norman “sort of came to an end” and he and his wife Mandy decided to take the plunge and move to New Zealand. It helped that Weaver’s parents had already done the same thing.
“I had done a vintage at Hunter’s in Marlborough, and when I came over, they asked me to come back as Assistant Winemaker,” says Weaver. “That was my real introduction to winemaking. I’ve not done any formal studies, but having a microbiology background, and having done everything in the MW curriculum up until the theory, I was prepared to run with it.”
After a stint at Hunter’s, Weaver was well known enough in the area to begin consulting for various companies.
“I did a lot of winemaking for a lot of different people” says Weaver. “I still do. Though much less than I used to. But that is really what allowed me to start Churton.”
After about a decade of making wine for other people Weaver wanted something of his own, but he knew he wanted it to be something out of the ordinary.
“My main problem as a consulting winemaker was always sourcing decent Pinot Noir,” recalls Weaver. “When I was working for Corbins, we were making a fair amount of Pinot, from all sorts of different sites, and I wasn’t really happy with any of them.”
Nonetheless, in 1997 Weaver began buying fruit from the best sources he could find, while he looked far and wide for the vineyard site of his dreams. His first vintage of estate Pinot Noir was in 2003, and within a few years, all of his wines were estate grown. In 2007 Weaver planted a little Viognier, and more recently, some Petite Manseng, an aromatic grape largely unknown outside of its home in the Jurancon region of southwestern France.
When it came time to plant his hillside plot, Weaver planned for it to be farmed organically from the start. “My MW dissertation was called ‘An Organic Vineyard in Action'” says Weaver, and I started getting interested in biodynamics during my time in Europe, when there was a lot of talk about it. When I came to New Zealand I compared what I had seen in southern France to what James Milton was doing in his vineyard, and I got more interested.”
Weaver quickly transitioned to a fully biodynamic approach in his vineyards and hasn’t looked back since. He grazes cows on the margins of his fields and makes both traditional composts, as well as utilizing the cow pat pits that a number of Marlborough biodynamic vintners have made popular. These small covered pits in the ground are filled with lactating cow manure mixed with crushed egg shells and pulverized basalt. Over the course of months, the mixture breaks down into a silky, clay-like compost that he spreads in the vineyards. Weaver, along with his son Ben, who has become his right-hand man in the fields and in the cellar, uses cover crops to enrich the soil as well as to encourage helpful insects to stick around. Weaver and his son follow the biodynamic calendar, and utilize all of the standard biodynamic preparations, which he makes cooperatively with a group of local winemakers.
Winemaking at Churton follows a regimen that would be familiar to most other biodynamic winegrowers. All of the Pinot Noirs are fermented with ambient yeasts, and while Weaver is beginning to “get freer” with his Sauvignon Blanc, for the time being the whites are made with commercial yeasts. The Pinot Noirs get an occasional fining with a single egg white, and while an occasional wine will get filtered through a very coarse filter, Weaver is moving to eliminate even this very minor step. The Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in large, old oak barrels, and after fermenting in steel, the Pinot ages in older oak for several years before bottling.
Despite his training as a scientist, Weaver doesn’t have any issues with the biodynamic regimen. I asked him if he ever found the contrast between the two maddening.
“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “I had a difficulty for a long time with preparation 501 [pulverized quartz and cow horn that is buried in the ground], because you’re not dealing with biology per se, but theoretically with chemistry and physics. I was trying to rationalize my way through the homeopathic aspect of it, and found it very challenging to understand.”
“But ultimately,” he continues, “I’m happy to suspend my disbelief. Biodynamics offers a system to deal with areas of science where we have no hope in our lifetime of being able to explain how things work. Biodynamics accepts this where science doesn’t. The thing that gets people freaked out about biodynamics is that there are a lot of people who like to play in the land of make believe. They’re trying to describe things in terms of metaphors, but then presenting them in a literal fashion and that takes people into all sorts of weird places and gets them labeled as ‘fucking crazy.’ For me biodynamics is simple and it’s not dogma. It helps me look at things in a different way and it’s all about the raw materials.”
Weaver and his family now own all 120 acres acres of the hillside behind their home, and have planted about 48 of those acres to grapes. The produce about 10,000 cases of wine each year of which 3000 are a sauvignon blanc made for someone’s private label.
I visited Weaver on a blustery day in early February, as the sun was flashing in and out of holes in the passing storm clouds. We braved some light showers of rain to sit for a while on his lawn and taste through his current releases and some older wines.
I found all the wines to have a wonderful poise to them that was elegant but not overly refined. They all shared a zippy brightness thanks to high acidity and generally low pH levels. These traits, coupled with the generally supple tannins in the wines (the exception perhaps being the brawny Abyss bottling from a special section of the vineyard) suggest that the wines will age beautifully, though, admittedly, I’ve not tried the older vintages.
Eventually the storm chased us back indoors, but not before I was able to savor the distinct pleasure that Weaver and his family are lucky enough to be immersed in every day — namely the light, the smell of the earth after a rain, the wind in the trees, and the flavors of it all in my glass.
2011 Churton Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass with a greenish tinge, this wine smells of lemon and kiwi fruit with notes of wet stones. In the mouth, juicy lemon curd and wet stone flavors have a persistent length in the mouth with notes of stone fruit emerging through the finish. Lean and mineral, with a faint chalky tannic grip. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $23 click to buy.
2011 Churton Viognier, Marlborough, New Zealand
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots and white flowers. In the mouth, wonderfully light flavors of white flowers, white peaches, and stony minerality are fantastically crisp thanks to excellent acidity. The wine dances across the palate in a way that Viogniers only rarely do. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35 click to buy.
2010 Churton Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stony and floral raspberry and huckleberry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous raspberry, black raspberry, and huckleberry flavors are draped in a blanket of tannins that caress the edges of the mouth. Beautiful earthy tones seem to emerge from this soft suede blanket and linger with some bright forest berry notes in the finish. Excellent. 13.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45
2010 Churton “The Abyss” Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and black raspberry with a deep forest floor note. In the mouth deep earthy flavors tinged with crushed green herbs are shot through with veins of raspberry and black raspberry fruit. All of which lies on a thick hide of tannins that is quite muscular and forbidding. Excellent acidity This wine is a baby and needs some time to have the tannins settle into the wine and smooth out. The wine takes its name from a section of vineyard overlooking a steep drop. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45
2009 Churton Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of kiwi fruit, green apple, and wet stones with a slight acidophilus tang. In the mouth deep stony flavors of lime zest, green apple, and mint yogurt have a wonderful electric brightness thanks to excellent acidity. The wine as an incredibly long finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25
2012 Churton Barrel Sample Petite Manseng, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of grapey star fruit and kiwi. In the mouth juicy green apple, star fruit, and kiwi flavors have a slight sweetness to them and an electric bounce thanks to fantastic acidity. There’s actually quite a lot of sugar in the wine (70 g/l if you must know) but the acidity keeps the wine from tasting that sweet. Think of this as a Spatlese of Petite Manseng and you’ll get the idea. Very interesting and quite tasty. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $TBD
2008 Churton Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherries and hints of raisins. In the mouth, flavors of black cherry, raisins, and forest floor have a light dusting of tannins. Good acidity and a lovely texture, but the fruit leans toward the ripe side, perhaps understandably so in this hot vintage. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30 click to buy.
2009 Churton Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of beautiful floral raspberry and forest floor aromas. In the mouth the wine has gorgeous texture, with beautiful powdery, mouth coating tannins and lifted persistent raspberry and cherry fruit. Gorgeous forest floor and even a mushroomy quality lingers for a long time through the finish. Fantastic acidity, great balance, a stunning wine. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $41 click to buy.