An evening with Sam Weaver of Churton Wines

In conjunction with Altaya Wines of Hong Kong, I spend an enjoyable evening in the company of Churton winemaker Sam Weaver, sampling seven of his terrific bottles.

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Having studied microbiology at university, and initially spending a decade in the fine wine trade, British-born Sam Weaver found his way to New Zealand’s South Island and began a journey to make first class wines in the famous Marlborough region. Although his aim has always been to “bring a different perspective, a European perspective, to New Zealand wine”, Sam is committed to people identifying his wines as Churton, first and foremost. Their 2016 crop marks their 20th vintage.

Through biodynamic practices, low-intervention vinification and unique site selection (the majority of which carry cut-of-meat related names), Churton wines are individual and characterful. The evening involved Sam running our small group through his philosophy and practices, as we tasted four whites and three reds:

2013 Petit Manseng

Made in extremely low quantities, this 10% abv off-dry wine (or “Demi Sec”, as the French like to call it) was an appealing medium yellow colour and had an intensely aromatic nose. Floral cues, quince, ripe pineapple, tropical fruit and what appeared to be an unusual tomato juice-like character (Bloody Mary, anyone?) all attacked the senses. On the palate it was extremely refreshing – the high acid level doing the heavy lifting in the face of that lower alcohol level, providing a moorish, fruity, mouthfilling experience. So drinkable, and stylistically not a million miles away from a lower-alcohol Spätlese Riesling from the Mosel in Germany. Cracking as an aperitif.

2011 Viognier

Another aromatic varietal, this wine was very well balanced on nose and palate. Not particularly expressive out the glass, showing a marked austerity. Floral; very linear, it felt like this is still closed and in its early development. To taste this wine showed notable power, high acid, being delivered by a punchy 14% abv, with a very pleasant and refreshing finish of citrus, apple and a touch of white flowers.

2014 Sauvignon Blanc

An interesting exercise, compared side-by-side with the below wine. Typically – and beautifully – herbaceous on the nose, with those classic Kiwi SB cues of gooseberry, green pepper and cut grass. It goes further than most though, with an excellent texture and strength. Highly refreshing and enjoyable.

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2013 “Best End” Sauvignon Blanc

Sam’s ‘premium’ Sauvignon is a real step up from the above. 100% fermented in barrel for 12 months, and it adds another dimension. A wonderfully complex nose: all of the above, plus a marked flinty minerality, the faintest touch of vanilla (“I never want my wines to be ‘oaky’; I want them to have the flavour of oak in them”, says Sam), on top of a note of pure passion fruit and feijoa, a local “spoon fruit”. Apricot in there too. Later, on the fifth or sixth swirl, a pleasant vegetal note makes an appearance, akin to fresh asparagus. Layered and rich on the palate, with a flavour concentration that marks this out as special, its finish goes on and on. An outstanding wine.

2012 Pinot Noir

This Pinot was very approachable and enjoyable, showing cherry, soft oak, sweet spice and violets on the nose. Drink-young Pinot is terrific when it’s like this. There’s a real thread of cinnamon and dark cherry to taste, and its dry, high acid structure means nothing is out of place. Good stuff.

2013 “The Abyss” Pinot Noir

From a site on the edge of an 80m cliff drop, Churton’s benchmark Pinot is a cracker. Still opening up (Sam described it as “brooding”), its nose is somewhat tentative at this stage – but still showing signs of what is to come. Wonderfully floral; rose petals, violets and a savoury character is all there, although red fruit staying under the covers. Very young. On the palate there’s real flavour concentration but the tannic structure really jumps out – not grainy but fine, this wine has a real elegance about it. You can tell this wine is going to live a long life. Rich on the finish, it’s still a baby. Will likely reward you after 10-15 years.

2010 “The Abyss” Pinot Noir

The last of the night takes the above wine 3 years into the future. Starting to show brownish/tawny tinges, its maturity is starting – only starting – to emerge. Fruit now present, in the form of dried cranberries and stewed apples, with some fresh dark cherry there too. Most strikingly though, a marked sweet liquorice character runs through nose, palate and finish. Almost reminds me of my childhood! Tannins nicely grippy, indicating continued longevity, this is structurally very elegant indeed. A touch short on the finish, and I suspect this is going through a bit of a closed period – but lovely nonetheless.

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An excellent and informative evening, centred around Sam Weaver’s terrific wines. The Best End Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Abyss Pinot were the stand-outs, worthy of any collection. A huge thank you to Sam for stopping over in Hong Kong on the way back to New Zealand from the UK!

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You can find out more Churton’s wines by going to their website. Altaya act as Hong Kong’s official distributor.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. Please also go to my Facebook page here and hit that Like button!

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Cloudburst: a moment of reflection, a moment of quality

On a visit to Margaret River I meet an American winemaker who is taking a different turn by producing low-output wines of unique garagiste appeal. Already widely acclaimed outside Australia, I investigate his philosophy and approach…and how acceptance locally may not be easy to come by.

“Top secret location”, I am instructed.

Having spent the past two days moving from polished winery to polished winery, all of sudden I find myself in unknown territory: no signposts, no sweeping driveways, no dark-wood tasting rooms, no robotic and repetitive hosts in branded polo shirts.

Below a clear and sunny Autumnal sky, I find myself in a silent vineyard, a small plot of land just two acres in size. It looks nascent, rough around the edges, experimental. I’m no more than 2,000 metres from the sea, and beyond the vines stretches paddock and Karri trees. An eagle, being antagonised by two smaller birds, circles overhead.

A figure then appears, clutching a swathe of foliage. “Radishes”, he states. “My latest compost pile is starting to get active so I need to feed it”. It is Will Berliner, New England native, horticulturalist, self-styled philosopher and Yale-educated architect of Cloudburst wine. We’re in Margaret River, on Australia’s south-western tip, a long way from home.

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Cloudburst — the name deriving from a meteorological-led “epiphany” Berliner experienced — has been stimulating discussion within the Caves Road firmament since its 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon won Best Red In Show at the region’s 2013 annual wine awards. It was his very first vintage.

With an annual production of just 450 cases, as we stroll through the vineyard it becomes clear his oenological mindset, as well as the price point of his wines [Chardonnay US$155; Cabernet $200-250], occupies a unique position among what is already a collection of well-established, high-quality winemakers. Of other premium Margaret River producers, only Cullen’s “Vanya” Cabernet – at $270 – is priced similarly, and no-one else’s output comes even close to being so low. His 2013 Cabernet had a crop of just 1,688 bottles.

“Minimal intervention is all I care about”, Will starts to explain. “This land and this environment can create something truly extraordinary. Believe me, this place wants to express itself. The soil beneath our feet is a billion years old; why should I mess with it? If all I can input into the winemaking process is a few essentials plus controlled use of oak, then I’m happy”.

Initially a filmmaker but latterly studying at both Yale and UC Davis, he sold his business in the US and moved to his wife’s native Australia, ultimately electing to start a winemaking operation. He doesn’t do it without help, although effective collaboration was (and is) hard. “I really struggled to learn from people. The essence of what I was trying to achieve – and am still trying to achieve – in winemaking was largely anathema to the existing fraternity here. I admit my approach is different”. He makes Cloudburst under the watchful eye of Stuart Watson of Woodlands Estate, a person he describes as a “friend, co-winemaker and mentor”.

“I plant 30 rows of 31 vines for each block [all have names, like the one below]. Every day I am here, among them, using my hands. No machinery touches this place. I’m trying to understand why things – like the radishes – grow in certain places but not others. I find myself on this journey where it is a daily process to understand what the land is telling me”.

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He seems to be a pragmatist, as well as someone not afraid of manual labour. “All the weeding gets done by hand. Why would I want to use chemicals, something that could interrupt the inherent character of the vines?”. Minimal input appears to be the mantra during vinification, too. He “barrel ferments to a consistent formula” [always: 1/3 new French oak, 2/3 old], and doesn’t “worry about how long my malolactic fermentation takes”.

“Would you describe yourself as a solitary person?”, I ask. “Well, yes, I guess I would. My job allows me the luxury of being alone with my thoughts. I do have quite an ego, so I have to work hard to get out of my own way. It’s the only way the wine can develop a style of its own”.

Large-scale production of a supposedly premium product appears to not sit well. “Take Chateau Lafite for example. They produce 20,000 cases of their Grand Vin per year. 20,000! I do not buy in to the idea that you can produce something of such quality, in such high volumes, without a significant amount of human control and input. It is not where I am looking to take Cloudburst”.

With his raison d’être firmly established, “I want to show you what I mean by all this”, he says. At this point, my expectation blunted by the mechanical repetition of everyone else’s approach to tasting, I wonder how exactly he intends to demonstrate the output of his labour by allowing me to drink his wine. I needn’t have worried. We walk over to his Ford pick-up, and Will produces two boxes: one is full of wine, the whites chilled just right, and the other a selection of Riedel stemware. He sets up our tasting run right off the back of the truck.

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“To start, I want to do a little experiment. Try these two wines; I won’t say a word”. Not allowing me to see the bottles, he pours two glasses of what I assume is Chardonnay. I suddenly feel slightly under pressure. I find myself reverting to my WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting training but from the outset I feel I am being duped in some way. They’re both young wines, “no more than 3-4 years old” I say to him. While the first is a little more flat and less expressive than the second, they’re both beautifully balanced with demonstrable complexity. Delicate stone fruit, floral notes and integrated oak lead their flavour profiles.

So what was the trick? “They’re the same wine”, Will reveals, “both are my 2012 Chardonnay. The second one I opened just before you got here, but the first has been open cburst_chardya week. I wanted you to compare the two to illustrate how not adding anything, especially preservatives and chemicals, can keep a wine perfectly stable long after you’ve opened it”. He makes a compelling point.

The 2013 Chardonnay mimics the ’12, but in addition it has somewhat of a saline note, akin to an Albarino from Rias Biaxas in Galicia. You can tell Will relishes idiosyncratic touches such as these, and appears to enjoy seeing his bare-bones philosophy being vindicated.

The 2014 is a real step up. This is wine of the highest quality. With the austerity and steely certainty of a young Chablis, but the assured weight of Puligny-Montrachet, it dances between flinty minerality, yeasty autolytic and soft nougat cues, and bracing citrus, white flowers and soft peach. The finish, with lovely acidity, goes on and on as we continue to talk.

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (which includes 7% Malbec) has purity and cleanliness. At first its varietal character of blackcurrant, cedar and herbal leafiness shines through, but then I spent an age pondering its tannins, which seemed so light and feathery. Coupled with its lovely ripe fruit and perfectly balanced acidity, the wine lasted on the palate for well over a minute.

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Like the ’12, the 2013 (with 4% Malbec) is rich, concentrated and powerful, reminding me of a young St. Estephe in a hot year, like trying a 2003 Montrose a decade ago. Deep purple, it looks inky and syrupy in the glass. It has a beautiful linear finesse on the palate, the calling card of great Claret, while still maintaining that uniqueness, that sense of place, that Will is clearly aiming for in his wines. Both stunning, for me the ’13, with an even longer finish, was the better of the two. It should last for 30 years+.

We round things off by sampling his ultra-low volume 100% Malbec from 2013. It’s a “work-in-progress”, but a fine first effort. With dark fruit leading the way, it still carries the site’s trademark complexity with rustic and savoury notes, all with that structural accuracy and individualism.cburst_cab

It is probably being facile to directly compare Will’s wines to those of Burgundy and Bordeaux. It’s clear his approach differentiates his wines stylistically from the handful of other premium Chardonnays and Cabs I’ve tried at other local houses, not to mention the Cote d’Or and Left Bank. Like a perfectly executed plate of food, it’s only once you’ve finished, and reflected on the technical expression of the individual elements, you appreciate the aggregate picture. And what a picture it is.

So what’s next? Is there a plan to grow production and really get the product out there? “Well, I definitely need to build myself a proper winery”, “but really, apart from that, I just want to keep understanding what the land, the climate, is telling me, and if I can innovate around that, then great. There’s no grand marketing plan!” [A limited amount of Cloudburst sells in Australia, but most of his wine can found on the restaurant tables of Manhattan, Conneticut and California]

Whatever the Margaret River winemaking community think of his project, Will Berliner – and his first class wines – will continue to garner attention. Without doubt, his product will sell to its target market. More importantly though, in the context of my trip to Margaret River, laced with undoubtedly excellent wine from those highly-polished operations, trying Cloudburst off the back of the weathered Ford somehow reaffirmed my faith that maybe, occasionally, brilliant wine can be made for the right reasons.

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Footnote: this article was written after a trip in March this year; in May we managed to persuade Will to come up to Hong Kong and host a tasting. Hugely well received by all, Asia’s first Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee was also in attendance (below). Thanks to Ginsberg+Chan for helping host a brilliant night, as well as to all who came along!

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You can find out more about Cloudburst wine, and the praise it has received, by going to Will’s website. This article was also published in Palate Press magazine.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below. If you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. Please also go to my Facebook page here and hit that Like button!

A week in English wine

Seeing as though the UK probably needs to start producing more of its own product in the face of their impending exit from the European Union, I profile English wine – yes, English wine – by taking a tour through a number of bottles while on a recent holiday back to the homeland. There were some real surprises…

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England: the old Empire, Elgar’s Nimrod, rolling countryside, fish, chips, cup of tea, bad food, worse weather. History, The Queen, pomp and ceremony…as well as newly-found political turmoil. What a place.

One thing that has escaped the lazy cultural stereotypes over the years though has been wine, largely because it was so dreadful that even seasoned vinous commentators couldn’t be bothered to talk about it. In mitigation, my native turf’s green and pleasant land has always suffered from being climatically challenged. Overcast conditions, a lack of sunshine, too much rain and generally not being warm enough have meant those berries have often struggled to establish ripeness and hence a proper flavour profile. In short, England was too far north to produce the good stuff.

Encouraging news though: English wine is now worthy of conversation. Furthermore, in a few cases it has the quality to be compared to its more illustrious counterparts from around the world. Thanks to humanity’s ability to alter their surroundings, the facts point to a warming-up of the planet so all of a sudden, the English have got some skin in the winemaking game. Heck, even those cynical French have invested in our vineyards, with Tattinger – that famous Champagne house – most notably buying up land on the south coast. Something must be afoot.

So in the interests of science, during a recent family holiday to Blighty we decided to open a series of interesting and varied bottles, to allow us to judge the scene for ourselves. Before getting into the tasting notes, here’s how the geography plays out, the below map showing the various “shires” from which the bottles came:

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According to English Wine Producers, there are currently 133 winemakers in the country, growing in 502 vineyards with a total production of 5 million bottles per year. Around half of all fruit is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, driving the dominance of sparkling wine (2/3 of total output). Third most-planted is Bacchus, the white grape, with just under 10%. From those 5 million bottles, here’s what we thought of 10 of them:

NV Stanlake Park Wine Estate Heritage Brut (Berkshire)

Made with the Methode Traditionnelle, but far from traditional grapes, instead using Seyval Blanc, Muller Thurgau, Richenstein and Pinot Meunier. Extremely pale, soft mousse. Very clean on the nose, apple and some citrus, although not particularly exciting (couldn’t detect oak in any of the blend wines for example). Structurally good with clean/fresh acidity, nothing out of place although flavour fell away markedly on the finish. Thin but reasonably refreshing, Prosecco-like.

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NV Stanlake Park Wine Estate Stanlake Brut (Berkshire)

Deeper in colour than the above. Pinot Noir (“mostly”, according to their website) and Chardonnay used here, so reverting to French type, something you can detect on the nose immediately. Seems more serious, although struggling to be truly vibrant (ripeness of fruit still a challenge here). Autolytic character of biscuit and yeast a common thread, and again that refreshing acidity comes though. Short finish again but overall, reasonably good.

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2009 Nyetimber Rosé (Kent)

These guys are the English fizz heavyweights, and the original pioneers. From humble beginnings in the late 80s, their estate now occupies nearly 10% of the country’s total land under vine (we’ve seen their standard NV bubbles on a couple of lists in Hong Kong). Overall, this was very strong. Definitely led by the palate: fresh strawberries front and centre, with lovely balance to go with a fine mousse. The taste of Custard Creams, those ubiquitous British biscuits, really features. This is a proper Champagne mimic (although no Pinot Meunier present in this blend), confirmed with good acidity, a touch of residual sweetness and a long rich finish. Seems more than capable to last a few more years yet; given this, and seeing as though it shares my daughter’s birth year, I put my money where my mouth is and bought a case.

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2013 Brightwell Vineyard Bacchus (Oxfordshire)

Kicking the whites off, this grape has been among the most widely-planted in England for some time now, popular for its hardiness and ability to produce fruit-driven wine in the face of tough ripening conditions. Coming in at only 11.5% abv, this was a fine example: a nose with something about it, pure Granny Smith jumps out the glass and later, when the wine was a touch warmer, a definite mineral thread – very unusual for what we’ve tasted so far. Clean, crisp with refreshing acidity on the palate, this is a “proper” wine, and definitely comparable to something dry and fruity from, say, northern Italy. A good offering with bags of appeal.

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2015 Chapel Down Flint Dry (Kent)

A mash-up of a handful of varietals: Bacchus, Chardonnay, Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner and Schonburger. Not a blend of everyday grapes by any means. Pale lemon and attractive. Not quite as nuanced as the Brightwell but interesting nonetheless: apple, pear and citrus there, and later, something I convinced myself as spearmint (strange, I admit; normally you’d only get minty cues in Cabernet-led red wine). Gets some malolactic fermentation during production so to taste, there is a slight creaminess there. High acid and refreshing, this was a really nice pour with excellent balance.

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2013 English Wine Project Bacchus-Sauvignon Blanc (Warwickshire)

Featuring the Greek God of Wine and New Zealand’s favourite grape – from a site in England’s Midlands – and a super result. Seriously aromatic nose; elderflower, nettles, grass (an English meadow, perhaps?), but then those trademark Sav Blanc cues of gooseberry, citrus and green pepper. Flint makes an appearance too. Really surprising but well delivered. On the palate, the acidity is seriously bracing and mouthwatering, so despite the sub-12% alcohol it has a terrific mouthfeel. A notable limey-mineral finish occurred, of good length. The best of the whites, and love the label. A classy package.

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2014 Bridewell Organic Gardens Phoenix (Oxfordshire)

The Phoenix grape has German origins, and is the result of crossing Bacchus and Villard Blanc. Some grassiness and apple cues on the nose – not particularly appealing though. To taste, acidity fine but balance was all off via a demonstrable thinness. Not enjoyable. Definitely something missing here, a shame as the other Bacchus showings had all been very characterful in their own way.

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2013 English Wine Project Pinot Noir Précoce-Pinot Noir (Warwickshire)

Our first red of the trip contains the notoriously tough-to-grow Pinot Noir, as well as its mutant cousin Pinot Précoce, or Frühburgunder as the Germans call it. Nope, I’d never heard of it either. Almost like a dark rosé in appearance, it looks just like Beaujolais – and tastes a bit like it too. Raspberry and dried strawberries, with a notable green peppercorn smell, this was straightforward and simple. Medium bodied and pleasant to drink, although acidity a touch on the flabby side, this struck us as the sort of Summer red wine you’d stick in the fridge for half an hour before opening. Needs work, or perhaps less than 3 years in the bottle before drinking, but an okay effort.

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2013 Sixteen Ridges Vineyard Pinot Noir “Early Red” (Herefordshire)

This producer, like the English Wine Project, operates over 200km north of most of these other wines being tasted. You can tell from the ripeness of the fruit, not to mention overall balance: from a vineyard close to the Welsh border, this is a very earthy and rustic wine. Some floral stuff and cherry trying to get through, but mustiness and a raisiny character dominates. Seems slightly oxidised. Medium in body with a narrow finish, this wasn’t to our liking unfortunately. Surprised to see this with a Decanter medal – must be missing something. Or perhaps our bottle wasn’t at its best. Or perhaps the judges had an off day.

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2011 Chapel Down Wickham Estate Red (Kent)

Now we’re talking; was worried all the reds would be average. Using fruit from much further south, as well as a bit of bottle age, this blend of 79% Rondo (popular in cool climate conditions) and 21% Pinot Noir immediately announces itself as a serious wine. Looks inky and syrupy in the glass – appealing. Bags going on with the nose: a real farmyard character (evocative of our time in the country..), violet, leather, blackberry, plum and eucalyptus are all there. Engaging and encouraging. On the palate, not quite as a good given a slight lack of balance (it could do with more alcohol to balance its fuller body and fruit), and does have a slightly overbearing jamminess. But this is concentrated and rich, with a cracking black fruit profile and excellent acidity, so without doubt it’ll last for anything up to five more years, so long as that 11.5% abv holds out. A good wine, and a really solid finish to our little experiment.

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So there you have it. Of the fizz, the Nyetimber was hugely enjoyable (and a genuine Champagne competitor), the English Wine Project Bacchus-SB technically excellent and appealing, and the Chapel Down red a good example of the use of a climate-appropriate varietal in combination with a more internationally-recognised one. But there were a number of decidedly average bottles unfortunately.

Interesting that in the majority of large retailers I visited, English product was, to put it politely, thin on the ground, especially still wine. As a staffer at Majestic — one of the UK’s largest outlets — summed it up, “the problem we have with English wine is that it just doesn’t have the scalability. We have over 200 branches in the UK, meaning we need sufficient volume of high-quality wine to sell in every store from London to Edinburgh. Excluding the large sparkling makers, 99% of producers can’t give that to us”. This problem seemed to be confirmed even when searching through renowned English produce champions like Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

Price appears to be an issue, too. Both English Wine Project wines came in at £16.95/bottle [US$24], a level most consumers would find hard to stomach when compared to the floods of currently-fashionable Pinot Grigio and Prosecco from northern Italy, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and recognisable reds from Rioja and southern France.

There appears to be comfort with a £20-30 price point for sparkling wine, in large part due to the huge popularity of Champagne, but with still wines, as a friend who works for a major online retailer explained, “they’re just too expensive for us to fit into our business model. Most consumers are still in that sub-£10 bracket so there’s next-to-no margin”. Using this approach, the Brightwell Bacchus, at only £9.95, could be considered a “better” wine than the EWP equivalent.

While sparkling wine gains traction via a handful of heavyweights, in the still wine market it appears clear that for the time being at least, the battleground for connecting these wines to the drinking population is via smaller, independent merchants whose businesses are built on niche and esoteric wines. 7 of the 10 bottles tasted were bought this way.

Outside the economics and scale barriers to growth, encouragingly the quality is definitely there. You just need to go out and find it. A number of producers are being critically acclaimed now (see recent Independent and Decanter articles), so in the future we might be talking about how wine should be added to the list of England’s contributions to the world…as opposed to how bad its weather is.


This article has also been published on Grape CollectiveIf you like it, please share by using the links below. Also, be sure to follow me by going to The 23rd Parallel’s Facebook page (here) and hitting that Like button. I can also be found on Twitter here.