In Marlborough as in most wine growing regions, who owns which vines or what vineyard sites is not always clear. To people who live on the land, who are locals or with a history, it is obvious and it is these people who more often than not have a strong understanding and bond with the soils, climate and topography, knowing what can be grown and how successfully. The Wiffen family have been well-established farming Marlburnians owning their St. Clair property since 1907. Charles and Sandi Wiffen were among the earliest grape growers in the region, being partners in a share-planted vineyard in 1980, eventually setting up their own label, Charles Wiffen Wines, in 1997.
The source of the Charles Wiffen wines are the vineyards on New Renwick Road in the Lower Wairau and Southern Valleys region. The Wiffens are still major landowners there, with 92 ha, of which around 50 ha are planted to vines. The Wiffen vineyards straddle both sides of New Renwick Road, and the original St. Clair house sits opposite the modern Wither Hills winery, cellar door and restaurant facility. Charles and Sandi Wiffen’s daughter Rebecca, a winemaker at Lawson’s Dry Hills, lives at the historic house, and oversees the sheep and cattle that are raised there in addition to her winemaking duties. She is also responsible for the initial crushing of her family’s fruit conducted at Lawson’s Dry Hills before it is transported to the West Brook winery in Waimauku for full vinification and elevage. Rebecca works in closely with sister and brother viticulturists Melissa Sutherland and Jason Tripe, who are highly regarded for their precision in vine care. The pick of the fruit goes to the Charles Wiffen wines, and the rest is contracted to a number of other labels, the wines of which have all been very successful in wine shows and judgings, indicating the consistent and high quality of the fruit from the Wiffen vineyards.
I visited Rebecca Wiffen with my partner Sue Davies, who distributes the Charles Wiffen wines, for a tour of the vineyards. Rebecca’s infectious humour and ebullient enthusiasm, allied to her pragmatism made it a fun and very informative time. The land and vineyard on the northern side of New Renwick Road surrounding the house is the longest established with vines up to 20 years old. There has been continued replanting of newer clones and different varieties for varied proportional output over the years, but the vine age is no doubt a factor in the quality and the character of the wines.
The blocks of vines are named simply as farmers are want to do. The Pinot Gris vines are sited behind the house in the ‘Pinot Gris Block’, and are among the youngest vines, yielding their first crop in 2008. Only 1.25 ha of the variety are planted, making it a rare wine for the label. There is the 4.5 ha ‘Flipper’ Sauvignon Blanc block referring to the trialling for flippers for frost-fighting, and a ‘Short Brazilian’ Sauvignon block, named after the method of canopy management. Confusingly there is a ‘Long’ Chardonnay block, named for the length of the rows. This is clone 15. Another of the Chardonnay blocks is around 20 years old, this fruit contracted out for premium quality wine for a neighbouring winery. The Wiffens have Pinot Noir clones 667, 115 and the maligned 10/5 in a 6.9 ha block planted in 2002, and this provides excellent fruit for them. The ‘Middle Block’ is situated in the middle of the property (where else?) and the ‘North-South’ block indicates the orientation of the rows. Only 0.8 ha of Merlot is planted, and this variety performs surprisingly well. The Wiffens also only have 0.8 ha of Gewurztraminer, and this fruit is supplemented by grapes from Rebecca’s cousin Peter Rose who grows on his vineyards situated north of the Wiffen vineyards.
There are intriguingly marked differences between the character of the wines produced from blocks on the northern side of New Renwick Road and the southern Omaka side, even though soils are essentially identical. The Chardonnay from the ‘Short Brazilian’ block produces refined and driven wine whereas the Omaka fruit is considerably fatter. Riesling behaves in a similar fashion, the northern side giving lime and other citrus fruit notes, the southern side giving apricotty flavours. The Charles Wiffen vineyard on the southern side of New Renwick Road lie on the eastern side of the Wither Hills winery complex, and border onto the Omaka aerodrome. The 13 ha are planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling. While some of the fruit is sold by contract, the best fruit no doubt makes its way into the Charles Wiffen labels. The performance of the varieties across the different blocks and sites as well as the blending options have contributed to the consistent high quality of the Charles Wiffen wines.
To see the current range of Charles Wiffen wines available, click here.