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Churton Wines: Making Wine the Lockdown Way

06.07.20

Rebecca Gibb MW

 Making Wine the Lockdown Way

The grape harvest is the most stressful part of a winery’s year without a national lockdown. Organic Marlborough producer Churton shares its experience of winemaking in a pandemic.

The grape harvest is the once-a-year opportunity on which every winery depends, but in 2020, New Zealand wine producers wondered if that opportunity would be snatched from them at the eleventh hour.

That’s because, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Zealand government enforced a nationwide lockdown at 11.59 pm on 25th March and, in the days leading up to the country’s shuttering, vineyard owners were faced with the possibility that their ripe, healthy grapes would be enjoyed only by the local birds.

“There was a lot of angst in the air – winemakers were starting to get very nervous and stressed,” says Churton’s winemaker Ben Weaver. “While we had most of our Pinot Noir in the cuves, the Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and the Petit Manseng were all still on the vine when the lockdown started.”

In last-chance saloon talks, the New Zealand wine association convinced the government to classify wine operations as essential businesses, allowing the harvest to continue, but with strict rules imposed.

Harvest interns had travelled from France, Germany, the Czech Republic and the U.S. to join the winery’s team but the 2020 vintage didn’t quite turn out as they had anticipated. “We had to make a bubble for the staff, so they all ended up living in a house out the back of the winery,” says Ben. “An American intern had come from the U.S. to Marlborough with her boyfriend, who was working at another winery, so they could not see each other for four weeks.”

The whole of Marlborough became a ghost town. “It was quite spooky travelling around the district: the roads were empty other than harvesters. The only people you saw were in hi-vis vests in the vineyards and there were rows of caravans parked in front of wineries for their staff to live on site,” explains Ben.

In the winery, two-metre social-distancing rules made routine tasks much more difficult whether it was walking down the narrow catwalk above the tanks or demonstrating tasks. “I’m so used to walking into the winery and picking up a hose and doing whatever needs to be done but you couldn’t this year. I’d normally show people exactly how I want things to be done but I had to stand two metres back, be very articulate and very patient, which was bloody hard!”

While Churton allows most of its wines to ferment naturally, 2020 celebrates the first vintage that all ferments were indigenous. “We are normally hands off but this year, we were definitely in the back seat of the bus. It forced us to be less interventionist; and it’s accentuated the path that we were following anyway,” he explains.

2019/20 Vintage Notes

While it was cooler than the past two vintages, the 2019/20 season was warmer than the long-term average, which meant harvest fell at exactly the time that the government escalated its response to the pandemic.

From January to March, Marlborough registered the lowest rainfall since records began in 1930 and the Ministry for Agriculture declared a drought across large parts of the country: just 20mm fell in this period compared with an ex-cyclone-drenched 315mm in 2018. Churton has its own dam, which can keep the vines going through dry patches, particularly the more vulnerable young vines but, says Ben, “once the grapes have started the veraison process [in early February] you don’t want water anyway because that would swell the berry.”

Cool nights turned up in the final weeks of the season – temperatures plummeted as low as 3˚C on March 18 and, as the region headed into April, Ben reports that some producers even turned on the frost fans. As a result, Marlborough’s signature cool climate style will be on display in the 2020 wines with Sauvignon Blanc offering “beautiful balance, citrus flavours and drive on the back palate.”

When it comes to the Pinot Noir, Ben says there is potential for 2020 to be an Abyss vintage, meaning the quality is there to bottle their flagship Pinot Noir, which is only bottled in exceptional years. “It’s going to be a deeply coloured, concentrated Pinot year with nice acid retention,” he says.

The vintage look set to be memorable for all the right reasons; for its makers, it created unprecedented challenges but they were grateful to be able to harvest – the weather was beautiful, the fruit was amazing and Churton can’t wait to share the fruits of their lockdown labour.

A message from the winemaker, Ben:

The Churton Wines...

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