Vineyard a labour of love

CharRees owner Charlie Hill with a selection of bottled wine made from grapes grown in Ashburton's only vineyard. File Photo
CharRees owner Charlie Hill with a selection of bottled wine made from grapes grown in Ashburton's only vineyard. File Photo
Owning Ashburton's only vineyard has been a labour of love for Esma and Charlie Hill.

They bought an established vineyard, just south of Ashburton, in 2007 and since then have fine-tuned the operation and taken their product to the next level.

They recently won two bronze medals in the Canterbury Wine Competition for their 2018 pinot gris but their pinot noir, riesling and sparkling pearl have enjoyed good consumer popularity.

Charlie says the award recognition means ''a lot to us. We enter these competitions to see how we're going, to prove that - because we are the only vineyard in Ashburton - Ashburton is an area where you can grow award-winning wine.''

''And you can, we are quite proud of it, if you do it right. And that sort of recognises it for us.''

It has been an interesting journey.

The CharRees Vineyard regularly hosts events such as Twilight in the Vines (pictured), with food, wine and music to entertain. Photo: Supplied
The CharRees Vineyard regularly hosts events such as Twilight in the Vines (pictured), with food, wine and music to entertain. Photo: Supplied
There are just under 10,000 grape vines planted, spanning 4.6 hectares; 4000 pinot gris and 3500 pinot noir, and in 2008 the Hill's planted 1800 to 1900 riesling plants.

The vineyard sits parallel to State Highway 1, just south of Ashburton township.

Charlie says of the three vines, the riesling grow very well and is probably the highest yielding vine. But the pinot noir is culled right back during pruning to limit fruit, so there is quality rather than quantity grown.

''We are doing a certain degree of that now with the pinot gris as well, when we have got the grapes there to do it.''

Volume off any of the vines ''depends on Mother Nature and what the years are like. The most we've ever picked is just over 10 tonnes, and the least we've ever picked was probably just under three tonnes. And that's on all varieties.''

At the mercy of the weather to help produce a good crop of grapes with flavour, Charlie says there have been more ups than downs in the past few years.

One year to another it is the weather which dictates the flavour of the grapes and every year is different.

''It's very weather dependent. When you taste the wines from one year to another can be quite different and it comes down to weather dependent.''

The vineyard does not produce enough volume to try to manipulate the crop to have a similar flavour each year. It could be drier, or sweeter, depending on the weather.

Charlie says the call as to whether or not to make wine for the year's harvest is mostly left up to winemaker Kirk Bray, of Georges Road Wines at Waipara, who knows when the right flavours are there.

''But it's all in what you do,'' Charlie says.

He still lives by the advice given to him in the early days by CropWatch adviser Jim Grieson, who said: ''Charlie, the wine in the bottle is a reflection of what you do in the vineyard and what the weather does to you.''

Charlie and Esma have a hands-on approach in the vineyard, and probably spend more time among the vines than those with bigger properties.

They use a mix of part-time casual help at various stages of the year, including one now doing a viticulture correspondence course as a result of working in the vineyard.

Charlie says many people are surprised Ashburton's climate can grow grapes, but the soil under the vineyard is free-draining which makes it ideal as ''the water drains away very quickly''.

''You look after it and it will grow grapes,'' he says.

However, they have their bad years.

Last year ''it was wet and poor flowering so the yields were way down. And one other year it was cold weather. We didn't think they would ripen and we just cut a lot of fruit off to get it to ripen. We got just under a tonne of pinot noir and a tonne of pinot gris,'' he said.

Their first vintage, harvested in April/May 2008, saw their label ''CharRees'' created.

It stems from the blended names of Charlie and Esma, as well as of daughters Charlotte and Sheree.

Charlie says the earliest the grapes have been picked is late April; the latest Queen's Birthday weekend in June.

''Just waiting for the right [moment], we keep them hanging out there until the last ounce of ripeness and sugar levels, getting them right.''

But it is more a technical process. Not only does making the call to harvest require knowing what the grapes should look like but also their taste.

''We get the refractometer out and check what the sugar levels are like to see if they're ripe enough. Quite often we'll send a sample up to our winemaker so he can check the PH level, acid level and sugar levels.''

Pruning is done in July/August, which they have started doing themselves.

''We prune it right back to cane pruning and some vines have got a spur prune. So we are tying down new fresh canes every year.''

Charlie says frost and hail caused the most damage and saw the couple lose a whole season of grapes.

''We lost the whole 2009 vintage because of frost. We got a late frost on 6 November 2008 and that just wiped out our whole 2009 vintage.

''One of the frosts this year has just tickled up some of the wee buds when it was budding out but we've escaped it pretty good this year, so far.''

In 2016, it was decimated by hail.

''We had four inches of hail mid-December 2015, and it wiped out the 2016 pinot gris and we only got a wee crop of riesling. We hadn't done the summer pruning-out by that stage.

''If a hailstorm like that struck now we would probably lose our crop because we have done our summer thinning right through, we are right up to speed. We don't talk about thunderstorms,'' he says.

The couple opened their cellar door in December 2009 and since then have sold online, at shows and events around the district and further afield.

They also hosted popular Twilight in the Vines events with music, food and wine.

The next one is this Saturday, from 4pm to 8.30pm, and they are due to release their new sparkling rose, which is riesling based with a touch of pinot noir and carbonated.

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