Making Wine in the Vineyard

A New Zealand farm bucks the trend and is identifying wine by where it’s grown

Robin Lynam

Making Wine in the Vineyard

ll agricultural land has “terroir” – the French word for the interaction in a particular location of climatic, geographical and geological elements which make that area suitable for a particular purpose.

Recent years have seen the idea of terroir used extensively in the marketing of agricultural products, extending from those traditionally linked to a particular location such as cheeses and olive oils to ones in which provenance has only relatively recently become a point of interest – tomatoes for example, and cacao – the latter leading to the novel idea of “Grand Cru” chocolate, made from beans sourced from plantations identified on the packaging.

The use of that term though acknowledges that terroir is, first and foremost, the territory of wine. With the possible exception of particular stretches of grazing pasture which find their expression in cheese or butter made from sheep, cow or goat’s milk, nothing expresses the identity, or what the French would call the “soul” of a particular parcel of land, better than wine made from the grapes grown there. This fact is the foundation for all the great winemaking traditions of the “Old World”, meaning essentially the wine producing countries of Europe.

In France, Germany, Spain, Italy and further afield, until recently wines were identified not by the grape variety from which they are made but by the place in which those grapes are grown – sometimes specified as a single vineyard. Krug champagnes Clos d’Ambonnay and Clos du Mesnil are good examples of fine single vineyard champagnes.

The world’s most expensive wines come from the limited production of particular peerless estates – the Chateau Petrus vineyard in the Pomerol appellation will yield only around 2,500 cases per year of its magical red Bordeaux wine, and connoisseurs will pay fortunes for its provenance. Last year [2013] a case of Chateau Petrus 1998 was sold for £27,000 pounds per bottle, setting a new record for that vintage.

Among lovers of dessert wines, who – if money were no object – would select any other wine over that made from the grapes of the 126 hectare vineyard of Chateau d’Yquem, which makes on average just 65,000 bottles per year?

Very good wines are made at nearby estates, but none reach the same heights. Their grapes simply don’t have that terroir to communicate.

The wine producing countries of the New World have been relatively slower to catch up with the idea that wines are “made in the vineyard”, preferring in their earlier stages to rely on the science of wine making, rather than the fine art of matching grape to land.

Over time, however, the balance of power has shifted away from winemakers who impose themselves on the grapes, back to those who see themselves as the messengers of the land. Now wines are being made in the New World which eloquently express particular areas of terroir. This is particularly true of New Zealand.

New Zealand wines began to gain international recognition during the 1980s when it became clear that the Cloudy Bay area of the Marlborough region was particularly suited to the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Although the greatest French Sauvignon Blancs come from the Loire Valley, New Zealand’s South Island with its relatively cool-climate viticultural conditions has certain parallels with Burgundy, and that region’s signature Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes also flourish there.

It is telling also that the principles of organic and biodynamic agriculture, which have found fertile ground in Burgundy, have also been taken up enthusiastically in New Zealand by growers and winemakers keen that the country’s wines should express the unique characteristics of its many superb vineyards. One example of this is the “home block” of the Churton winery in Marborough’s Waihopai Valley, a group of parcels of land currently under conversion to fully organic viticulture.

The entire vineyard occupies 25 acres and is situated 200m above sea level on a northeast-facing ridge between the Waihopai and Omaka valleys, in the Southern Valleys area of the Wairau plain. According to founder and winemaker Sam Weaver, who established Churton and has been making wine in the Marlborough region since 1989, the site allows for minimum water usage, being largely composed of a clay like material called loess which retains moisture.

“The wine from each block is kept separate and to date The Abyss block is our best performing block,” says Weaver. “It was first planted in 2000 and according to Claude Bourguignone, the French soil science is not dissimilar in characteristics to Romanée Conti.” Churton’s prices, fortunately, are quite dissimilar to Romanée Conti’s. In January this year, just three bottles of Romanée Conti 1978 were successfully auctioned in Hong Kong by Sotheby’s for HK$367,500.

Most New Zealand wineries are certified as employing “sustainable” practices in their production, but only a few have implemented biodynamic methods – Marlborough Churton and Seresin Estate are two examples, and in this they are following Burgundy’s lead. Weaver argues that biodynamic vineyard and winery practices produce good results wherever they are tried.

“We aim to produce sophisticated wines that have elegance and texture, complexity and layers of flavour, subtlety and length. We want our wines to be a true expression of their organic origin. We produce ‘vins de terroir’ not ‘vins de technique’,” he says succinctly. Weaver established Churton in 1997, initially making Sauvignon Blanc, before moving on to Pinot Noir and Viognier.

Last year [2013] Churton released the first New Zealand Petit Manseng – a grape which, it has been speculated, may be “the next Viognier” in terms of fashionable popularity. “We apply the principles of the biodynamic calendar to key viticultural and winemaking practices and operations such as vine planting, fruit picking, filtering and bottling of our wines. We are also guided.


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