Churton: The Next Generation
Thursday, 30th January 2020 by Rebecca Gibb MW
Growing up near a spy base might have inspired a career in the secret services but Churton's vine-covered slopes have proved to be magnetic, attracting the next generation of the Weaver family home to continue the legacy their parents created rather than engaging in covert operations.
The founders' two sons, Ben (32) and Jack Weaver (29), are now taking over the reins at Churton Wines. The property sits above the fairway of vines that carpet the Waihopai Valley, also home to two giant golf balls, which allow the New Zealand government to eavesdrop on people all over the Pacific.
Growing up in this remote part of Marlborough, the spy base seemed like an opportunity to get up to mischief. Ben, who now oversees the vineyard and winery operation, remembers: "You had to make your own fun. We used to go on adventure missions as a teenager and with the spy base acros the road, we'd sneak over the road late at night and try to dodge the spotlights."
The brothers would drive tractors and help out in the vineyard that their parents, Sam and Mandy Weaver, established in 2000. Their love of their place in the Marlborough's southern hills nurtured not force fed and the pair have returned to tend this special place.
It's a long way from the cut and thrust of London, the wine world's shop window, where Sam learned his way around the classical wine styles of Europe. Although he grew up in the Shropshire village of Church Pulverbatch - shortened to Churton by the locals – three of his four grandparents were Kiwis. "I have considerably more relations in New Zealand and feel much more comfortable in a rural environment in New Zealand than in the central London club scene," he admits. In 1988, Sam and wife Mandy left the big smoke with newborn Ben for a new life at the bottom of the earth in a fledgling Marlborough wine industry. This was a leap of faith: it was only seven years since the first-ever Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc had been made and just four years since Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc had first electrified the London wine trade's palate with its vibrant flavours and scintillating freshness.
As a trained microbiologist and with extensive knowledge of European wine, Sam's skills were in high demand in the 1990s. "I was making wine for a host of different people. The Marlborough wine scene was booming and there were lots of people who were starting wineries but knew nothing about wine." However, it was only a matter of time before he was asked to make wine for his UK wine trade contacts and Churton was born in 1997. The need to secure a long-term grape supply led to a search for the right site and after two years of searching, the answer was on the doorstep. On a hillside that rises above the family's home, they found their place. The Pinot Noir vineyard that borders the steep cliff is appropriately named The Abyss.
When the first vines were planted, only one other true hillside vineyard had been planted in Marlborough. Hillsides remain a minority in New Zealand even today For those who grew up on a diet of European wines, hillside vineyards were the home of some of the continent's finest wines whether it was the cascading slopes of the Côte d'Or, the vertiginous banks of the Mosel or the terraces of the Douro Valley. Sam says: "When I first came to New Zealand, I couldn't work out why all the vineyards were on the flats. Having a farming background you get a feel for what makes a good site and I remember answering a Master of Wine exam essay in 1986 or '87 on what were the benefits of a hillside so all those things came together and made absolute sense."
A love for the land and farming is clear on the 22 blocks that comprise the Churton vineyards, which are named after cuts of meat including The Flank, The Rump and Best End – the source of Churton's superlative Sauvignon Blanc. Organically certified since 2008, making it one of the first 20 vineyards in New Zealand to receive the stamp of approval, the close-planted vineyard is also run along biodynamic principles and the Weavers have the intention of setting the Demeter certification wheels in motion this year. It's not unexpected: since passing the baton to his sons, Sam has taken over the role as chair of the Biodynamic Association of New Zealand.
The tender loving care that has been ploughed into this remote corner of Marlborough over the past 20 years has seen Churton become one of the the region's finest producers, making elegant and understated wines that are a world apart from Marlborough as you might know it.