Wine: Down to earth with grape expectations

You know you're in seriously biodynamic territory when, not only does the vineyard owner bury cow horns packed with manure in the ground, but his fondness for cattlebeasts is such that it extends to naming 11 of his 16 grape blocks after cuts of meat. It also helps that on paper the vineyard looks remarkably like a side of beef.

At Churton you'll find sauvignon blanc planted in the Rack, Saddle, Topside, Rump, Loin, Flank, Brisket and Neck blocks. It shares half the Blade block with Viognier and has a plot called Best End all to itself. Pinot noir dominates the Shoulder, Dog's Leg, Abyss, Bowl and Clod blocks, and you'll find a snazzy little 0.5ha plot of petit manseng up on the Shin.

Now you might think it's a glamorous business being a wine writer, but you'd be wrong. At Churton, on a freezing Blenheim winter day, I spent a lot of time up on a hill looking at "poo pits" and sniffing compost. The winter solstice is when owners Mandy and Sam Weaver release their wines. "In an agricultural sense, it's when one year ends and another begins," explains Sam. "The earth is breathing in and then it begins to exhale, so it works with the rhythms we're trying to follow."

For a producer of very sophisticated, stylish wines, the feel here is so cosy and down to earth. I love that we get to taste the wines with Sam and his sons Ben, 24, and Jack, 21, at a table in the living room of the family home, not some shiny, sterile bar or cellar door.

"We bought the house 20 years ago and originally had no intention of planting grapes here," Sam says. "It wasn't [until] I started walking around up here in the hills above our house that my eyes were opened. The land was part of a different farm but I finally plucked up the courage to approach the farmer, who was a very nice woman, and she said "I was wondering when you were going to ask me".

"We've got cattle as well as vineyards because they're an important part of the process, plus they're good to eat," says Sam. "We've got the house; we've got scrubby, bush country down by the Omaka River, the vineyards and, of course, the farm. So it's not a monoculture up here, we run every block on the vineyard as an individual which has its own personality," he says.

Sheep from an adjacent farm graze the vineyard. They love the clean, lush grass, clover, dandelion and tasty whatnots growing between the vines. Despite playing havoc with the irrigation pipes, they keep things looking tidy, but Sam is not a fan. "Cattle are good for me, sheep are a pain in the arse," he says. "We used to keep sheep, a flock of about 20 old ewes, and I used to walk through the flock daily to check they were okay.

"Problem is they're pretty easily spooked, and one day one of the sheep was standing there, grazing quite happily, then she spotted me out of the corner of her eye and got such a shock she had a heart attack on the spot and fell down stone dead. Ever since then my confidence for sheep-keeping has been undermined."

I recommended counselling. It wasn't his fault, that ewe had a dicky ticker. "She made good sausages," Sam shrugs.

Biodynamics is about looking after the microbiology of the soil and in addition to the special preparations, good compost is incredibly important. Churton's compost is made from grape marc, hay, gorse, seaweed, cow poo and broome and it smells surprisingly sweet. "We're actually trying to get more fungal-based compost rather than bacterial based compost," says Sam. I ask why.

"Well, grapevines are a forest-dwelling plant and forests are largely fungal environments. Pastoral land is mostly bacterial so you really want to get the vine back to the forest where fungi are much more important."

Sam knows a lot about fungi and we talked about my fascination for foraging and the general reluctance of Kiwis to risk eating wild fungi.

"In England, foraging is huge," he says, as a bowl of wild mushroom broth is placed in front of me at the lunch table. "Did you know in France you can take a mushroom into a pharmacist and they'll identify it? And in Switzerland you check your mushroom at the police station," says Sam. "Don't worry, these ones are from our driveway and they're fine."

Many people falsely believe biodynamics involves fruity behaviour like dancing around the vines naked under the full moon, but the Weavers don't look that wacky. "We don't do that," says Sam, "but under the right circumstances, if it's a full moon, we'll drink a bottle of wine between us, stand at the top of the lawn, close our eyes and run 'til we hit the fence."

"We tend to do it at New Year," offers Mandy with a grin.

Sam's career in wine spans 25 years, but if he wasn't making wine, he'd be sailing or making cheese. "I was very nearly going to be a cheesemaker years ago, but the wine bug got me instead," he laughs.

- Hamilton News

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