If you want to get a sense of North Canterbury, an area located toward the top end of New Zealand’s South Island and neighbouring Christchurch city, just ask Black Estate’s Penelope Naish. “The early pioneers in the region have all been great characters,” she says.
Naish grew up in Christchurch and now, along with her partner Nicholas Brown, calls the three-vineyard estate in the Waipara Valley her home. “People who grow wine in North Canterbury are truly passionate — the marginal climate means most vineyards are on the smaller side, producing hand grown grapes of quality, with naturally smaller yields.” Instead, the region attracts small, passionate growers who are looking to do things their own way. “It’s easier to experiment and try new varieties, methods of farming or winemaking when you’re small and hands on.”
That sense of independence, of a tight knit small town community, is baked into the region. Partly it’s because winegrowers tend to be, as Naish puts it, great characters. Partly it’s because in the face of tragedy, you have no choice but to come together. Naish was in Christchurch the day the earthquake hit in 2011. She saw both the immediate devastation and the aftermath — the way that the community rallied to support each other, the great resilience and progress which emerged as a result of the disaster.
“Everyone just got on with it,” says Naish. “You just have to. To be honest, I felt so privileged to have been through it. I know that sounds really weird, but a lot of good did come out of it.”
She thinks the way in which the community came together in 2011 has a direct correlation with how they’ve responded to the recent tragedy of the Christchurch shooting. “It’s been devastating — but I think Christchurch will be okay,” she says. “The amazing thing is the love that has flowed out into the city. We have a patience and we’re able to respond with love rather than be reactionary.”
On a long, thin block of land on the south bank of the Waipara River, Vic Tutton and her partner Lindsay Hill have been growing vines for over 30 years. She too emphasises that North Canterbury is a place that attracts winemakers of an independent bent. “There’s no rules, no expectations,” she says. “Everyone’s working on very different pieces of land, with different soil structures, different aspects of hillside and terrain, different gravels or clays or limestones, and bringing different winemaking philosophies to what they’re doing — it’s exciting because there’s so much going on in what’s really quite a small region.”
Tutton has seen the area transform from fledgling viticulture region to a thriving community of passionate, small-scale producers. “The call of the valley is in the smaller, independent, often family-run organisations where you grow and you make, and it’s all done in-house,” she says. “This place is a bit of a sleeping giant. We’ve been here since ’89 and we’re really just starting to hit our stride now. I feel very humble about what we’ve been able to achieve and in awe of what a lot of other people are doing.”
These days, the area boasts more than 90 vineyards and an industry that revolves around the joys of slow travel. “It’s not going to be a place where you go bungy jumping or mad with all the bars,” says Naish. “It’s relaxed, it’s very genuine. It’s the South Island, so there’s not much razzmatazz — but it’s incredibly restorative.”
Pinot noir — as well as chardonnay and riesling — do well here. “Our pinots really do reflect and express New Zealand,” says Naish. “We grow our pinot noir in a cool climate at the bottom of the earth, where the soils are really different to the Northern Hemisphere, where a lot of other pinot noir grows. We make our wines in quite a natural, low-intervention way, with no inputs apart from a tiny amount of sulphur at bottling. We want to try to retain the flavour of that fruit on the day we picked it, so that wine will be true to the soil it grew in and the eco-systems around it. Pinot noir is so transparent, so for us, it’s incredibly rewarding to focus on that and be really true to the season and the place.”
For Tutton, it feels as though the journey is just beginning. “One lifetime will never finish what there is to be done here, or what can be found out about this place,” she says. “We’ve got nothing to prove; we’ve got no ego involvement. All we’ve got to do is see what this place can do. All we can do is not fuck it up, hopefully.”