After spending some time away from New Zealand, Robin felt the need and desire to come home hit. With family ties in Christchurch, it was here he based himself but with a clear intention to find a place to settle on the hills above the city.
The amazing Canterbury plains and the majestic Southern Alps are lost in the flatness of Christchurch city.
To find a place on the hills became his mission.
Robin walked about the hillsides and finally, through a friend, found an empty and somewhat unwanted 10 acre/ 4.2 hectare block of bare grassland up on Huntsbury Hill.
It was a warm west facing slope running down the hillside into a valley where much of the tomatoes and fruit had been grown in the 1950’s. The view was magnificent and immediately Robin could see……”Grapes and Olives”.
Having spent much time in the Mediterranean and fallen in love with wine from the Rioja region in Spain, it reminded him of many of the hillside vineyards of Spain, Italy and Greece.
Protected from the cool easterly maritime sea breezes that cool Christchurch in the summer and being about 240 meters above sea level, the site was very warm and above the frost line during the critical early spring.
It was waiting for him. It was late 1994 and finally the owners were tracked down in Wellington. They were of the name Woodsfield and Robin was a Woodsford… so deal had to be done!!!!
In April 1995 the purchase was finalised.
The land was just grass and had only ever had sheep upon it so in one sense it was almost virgin land. A big row of Pine and Macrocarpa lined the top ridge. Other than this, there were a few native Cabbage trees here and there mixed in with three lone pines and a couple of gum trees…that was it.
In the midst of this new and unfolding adventure Robin met Julie.
She was a midwife with a successful Homebirth Practice in Christchurch. She had restored a lovely old house in the central city area and had a busy and successful life. They came together easily and naturally and Julie had a great eye for detail, possibility and adventure. So after a year, they decided to combine resources and take on the project as a team, as a couple.
And so began a wonderful relationship that is now almost 20 years down the road.
We pooled resources, settled on the vision got land use permission from the local Council and began the journey of developing the site beginning with tree planting.
Our goal was to develop and Organic vineyard.
- We wanted to work with the land and nature not overcome it and beat it into our shape.
- To leave it in better condition when we left than when we arrived was the goal.
- We wanted to create a vineyard based on Organic and Bio-dynamic methods, not because organic makes a better product but because it’s a smarter way to work WITH nature.
We put in over a thousand trees… mainly native plantings and some shelter belts.
We then built a small site office and implement shed and this became our base from which we worked.
We sold Julie’s house in the city combined our assets and decided to take 9 months out. We wanted to go look at the world, visit vineyards in California, Spain and France and take some time to get to know each other before the full-on work of developing the vineyard took over our lives. We knew it was going to be a big project and would take a lot of time and energy.
We came back in the summer of 1997 and got stuck in.
Julie continued to work as a midwife in a Home Birth practise and Robin worked three days a week in private practise as a Counsellor/Therapist. It was a busy first few years spending all the spare time we had up on the hillside.
We planted our first two blocks in the season of 1998/99.
Pinot Noir was our most loved wine personally and the site was perfect for this variety. Although a tricky grape to grow, we thought it was one with huge potential for New Zealand. And us.
We decided to plant more in the French style with smaller gaps between rows. We were going to have to carve terraces out of the hillside as it gradually ran down into the valley below, we did not exactly know how many plantings or areas we could develop. Narrower rows equalled more plants in a given areas.
The site is somewhat windy… New Zealand/Aotearoa is actually quite a windswept land mass. With narrower rows and being on a hillside we could rely on the wind to keep us cleaner from disease than being on the more wind protected flat land of the plains.
In 2000 we began to build ourselves a house, a homestead, a vineyard hacienda.
The site has magnificent views across the Canterbury Plains to the mountains. The sunsets are amazing and the winter storms roar up from the south. It deserved a great building. We walked over the land again and again and kept coming back to the one site. Tucked into the top high corner of the property, below the ridgeline…. it sat waiting.
Robin had discovered a passion for building. Like many young Kiwis with no or very little money his first house had been a ‘fixer upper’. Working with wood, constructing and building he discovered a taste that led him in his student days to working professionally with a builder mate and learning much of the trade. This had become a lifelong activity and creative passion.
Always wanting to build his own house, here was the perfect time and site.
Together as a team with Julie and professional help as needed they designed and built a Passive Solar house. Half buried into the hillside and with grass rooves in places and a wonderful structure emerged. A warm and people friendly Eco home now stands post earthquake strong and safe. Lots of minor cracks that have been easily repaired… credit to our engineer Endel Lust.
It took over three years to build part time and was a pleasure to construct. The goal was to live in a dwelling that had been enjoyable and fun to build, the energy within the structure reflected the process gone through to deliver it !! The same as making wine !!
Talk about going for it…
By 2000 we were full on planting and learning about all the trials and tribulations of starting up a vineyard, plants die, disease called fungus comes, storms rage, grass grows, weeds sprout, terraces need work.
Finn had arrived a wonderful baby budda boy
… round and cuddly and soft. The house was growing after a wild and slightly crazy process with the local council to even get permission to build on the land at all.
Only 4 million people in Aotearoa and we all have to squash into tight areas leaving the rest of the country empty… funny species!!
Babies being delivered and clients being tended to. Vineyards growing, homesteads emerging, gardens developing.
By 2004 we had the house finished and 5 blocks planted in Pinot Noir. We were using some of the newer clones and finding which ones suited our site best….. learning by trial and error, the oldest system ever.
We found that it took almost twice as long for our plants to get established up on the hillside as it did in the vineyards down on the plains. We were not under time or economic pressure to produce and we wanted nature to run its course and the plants take their time to find their feet as develop as it best suited them.
Our focus has been on quality rather than quantity.
It seemed to us that there is a plentiful supply of good table wine around the world.
As a tiny little vineyard its our goal to try and reach for the stars…
to make a handcrafted wine in small quantities, with attention to detail and all done by hand gently and carefully as best we can. We were aiming for the export market and the top end at that. Like the little shoemaker in Italy who hand makes only 20 pairs of beautiful shoes each year.
So, each season we have grown, developed and learned what the site and vines need. The hillside is part of an old volcanic island that was originally on its own in the sea off the coast. After blowing itself apart in a massive volcanic explosion the island became gradually connected to the plains as the stones and shingle washed down from the mountains over time.
The soils are clay and gathered matter over volcanic mass and basalt rock. Consequently we have a variety of minerals and trace elements present and these give our wine distinctive characteristics not found out on the plains.
Being sheltered from the easterly wind and above the frost line has really been great for us. No fighting frosts in the early hours…all credit to those down on the plains who have to manage that !!
We have also been pest free…as an isolated site we are not surrounded by other agricultural activity and the flow on affects which that can have.
The only disease we have to contend with is powdery mildew and we manage that with a bi-monthly spray programme using an Organically Certified wettable sulphur
Powder and canopy management. As the air moves up the valley the site stays clean from Botrytis and excessive Powdery Mildew…good airflow is critical in narrower rows and it has worked well along with good canopy management.
Of course we never feel like we have the perfect season, we just do the best we can and there is always more to do, to perfect and to learn… it never ends, you just get better at what you do!
Our first harvest
that we focused on making some serious wine from was in 2008. We found a fabulous winemaker and person…Kirsten Creasey and she produced a brew that was a delight for us to call ours. As a single variety vineyard we engaged a winemaker to make the wine under our own label …. Tussock Hill Vineyard. Thus we work closely with the winemaker trying to refine and develop our vintages. We are trying to produce a wine that reflects the site, the land and the processes we use here… a unique and natural reflection of our whole project.
2008 turned out to produce 500 bottles of a good full- bodied wine that did surprise us with its richness and depth, for a very young vineyard.
2009 by contrast was a much lighter but flavoursome vintage. As Kirsten had moved into new areas of work and was thus no longer available to us we found Matt King for our 2009 vintage and Matt has continued with us. Matt and Marion had taken over the old Geisen Vineyard out at Burnham and begun Lone Goat Vineyard shaping the site to their new vision. Matt became our winemaker and we have enjoyed his wisdom, patience and great skills as a winemaker. He continues to say each season…
Ah, I am getting to know your wine, your site and what it does more and more, the plants are getting their feet down now.
Each year is unique
and being just inside the temperate zone for Pinot Noir and on an island with very fluid and changeable weather gives us an exciting challenge to produce a great and interesting wine.
By 2014 we have 7 blocks planted
and they each are unique in their growth and production patterns. We are doing about 1000 bottles per season depending on the way the season unfolds. It’s a labour of love and attention to detail. It can drive you crazy, it can also bring you joy.
It’s a beautiful thing!!
As sustainability is important to us we make our own compost…always never enough. We use Bio-Marinus a locally made organic fish fertilizer. Inter-row planting of complementary and beneficial plants support the eco-system of the vineyard and overall property.
One of the projects we undertook recently was to provide the space for an Earthship sample structure to be built . This was part of the ‘think outside the square’ to rebuild Christchurch after the 2011 massive quake. Through discussion with friends we decided to ask Mike Reynolds, the Earthship guru from the USA to come and run a workshop on how to construct one of these unique eco structures.
In 2013 he came down and 40 people attended Mike’s workshop and over 4 days built a fabulous demo sample structure.
It is here and open to the public to come visit, sit and generally admire and take inspiration from and is our contribution to creativity and sustainability.
We have also had a variety of animals as part of the journey, dogs, cats, Highland cattle and most recently…4yrs…two Alpacas…Charlie and Possum. They provide fantastic compost when pea straw is mixed with their droppings and allowed to ferment/compost.
Read more about The Earthship.
Read more about The Earthship.