A Tale of two London wineries

Posted by Victor Keegan on January 01, 2019
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The Renegade winery
If I had been told a few years ago that I would soon be drinking a lusty Bacchus wine from Herefordshire grapes fermented partly in a clay amphora in a new winery under a railway arch in a back alley in Bethnal Green I would have opted out.
But here I was over Christmas in Warwick Smith’s venture called Renegade London Wine, one of the two new London wineries I visited over Christmas and which I have been following since they were both at the planning stage.
The other is Blackbook in Battersea set up by Plumpton-trained ex sommelier Sergio Verrillo from America and his wife Lynsey. This doesn’t yet have an atmospheric wine bar like Renegade but it has achieved a lot in a short space of time. It has attracted an astonishing amount of publicity for such a small operation from Harpers through The Times and others to City AM for its wines which are already highly regarded. They have tripled production this year to nearly 18,000 bottles and the current rosé has already sold out.

Wine guru Matthew Jukes praised their chardonnay to the skies. Blackbook already does tasting tours and has been taking early steps to establish its own vineyard in England to run an integrated operation. These boys are not without ambition. Unsurprisingly Sergio admits that success so far has “massively exceeded my expectations”.
Renegade is on a similar ambitious growth path and is selling what is claimed to be the first sparkling wine for centuries made (though not grown) in London for a cheeky £100 a bottle (photo below) which has apparently been selling very well – though whether to collectors or consumers is a moot point.Tags: , , , ,

The Grapes of Rath (part 2)

Posted by Victor Keegan on December 23, 2018
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FOUR years ago I visited Rathfinny and saw the first grapes produced from this outrageously ambitious project that is on track to move from nothing to being the biggest single estate vineyard in the UK. A few days ago we went back to sample the first year’s output. It is already becoming a collector’s item because only 5,000 bottles of the sparkling blanc de blanc and rosé were produced in the first year and there has been such a run on them there are no longer any on sale unless you order with a meal in one of the two fine restaurants located in different parts of the vast estate. (We, we did). There are bottles of their still white (Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc) on sale though sparkling will always be the dominant product.
Rathfinny fascinates for several reasons. It is the most dramatic example of a businessman, Mark Driver, who has made a pile in the City and instead of spending it on flamboyant yachts in the Mediterranean has invested heavily in a long-term project which Is unlikely to be making any profit in the near future. At present Rathfinny has 180 acres of vines planted. This is well short of the 265 acres at Denbies in Surrey but it is on track for an eventual target of 400 acres producing a million bottles of bubbly a year.

Most farms employ only a few workers. Rathfinny is different. It has about 12 full time qualified core workers and 20 to 30 core casual with 140 extra employed at harvest time. Nearly all of the vineyards I have visited employ east Europeans and complain that when they do attract local workers they seldom last more than a few days before complaining of boredom and hard work. Rathfinny is not against foreigners – Cameron Boucher, the vineyard manager, is from New Zealand – but it has managed to succeed in employing local people while paying proper wages.

Winter in the vineyard

This is a significant boost to the local economy along with the fact that most customers buying English sparkling are displacing imports of Champagne thereby helping to reduce the UK’s massive trade deficit in a small way (after imports of machinery, bottles etc have been allowed for).

Rathfinny is a dramatic addition to the current trend of vineyards as destinations where you can taste, linger, walk around or stay the night. This is not new – Denbies has been doing it for decades as have vineyards across the country from Halfpenny Green in Shropshire to Llanerch in Wales but the latest crop – think Hush Heath and Bolney – is giving the whole process an uplift. I have been to dozens and dozens of vineyards in England and Wales and although the quality of wines has varied they have nearly all been fascinating places to visit in their own right. And it is getting better all the time.

Rathfinny is right up there at the top. First there is the sheer size of it. It was over a mile just driving through the vineyard passing the intimate tasting complex complete with restaurant and onto to the Flint Barns where we ate a fine meal in the charmingly restored barn, a thickly wooden structure complete with notes of flint. The only qualification was that the rooms were a little, er, compact and under- designed considering the rich materials employed.

We arrived on a sunny day in time for a peaceful walk along the designated vineyard trail and later in at night communion with an amazing star- spangled sky viewed from a field which might have been on another planet so quiet and isolated it was. There were no lights not even in the road through the vineyard thanks to regulations about light pollution. I can’t remember seeing any other houses. Rathfinny is all vineyard, vineyard, vineyard.

The next morning it poured with rain but we knew it was going to so we beat a retreat to the the tasting area.

Of course, Rathfinny will ultimately be judged by its sparkling wines. It will somehow have to sell a million bottles. They are wisely not entering competitions until they have more stock. Gold medals are important for marketing even though independent surveys show that experts get it wrong as often as they get it right. I have tasted dozens of different English sparkling wines but do not have a sophisticated enough nose to disaggregate their constituent aromas . I certainly could not taste the “acacia notes” claimed for Rathfinny’s Blanc de Blanc and I wonder how many other people, experts or otherwise, could. I don’t even know what acacia smells like. Do you? That said, I thought it was delicious and would not be surprised if it reached the uppermost ranks.

Meet Britain’s largest boutique vineyard

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 23, 2018
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A multi-million investment

Hush Heath’s new winery in Kent, which I visited yesterday on open day, is a model of its kind and is telling us a lot about the direction of viticulture in this country. To make top sparkling wine in England you need vision, deep pockets and a top winemaker. Richard Balfour-Lynn, proprietor of Hush Heath, has all of these as witness his spanking new multi-million winery and visitor centre which has only been open a few days. Some years ago he said it would be a few years before he made a profit and it still looks like at least that. He is clearly in for the long term.

It is the most impressive “vineyard experience“ that I have come across complete with a large decked terrace surrounding it and a 200 seater tasting room inside with a plate of fine snacks at lunchtime at £20 for two – and self-guided vineyard tours to work it all off. The size of its facilities is second only to Denbies in Surrey which is still Britain’s largest single estate vineyard.

The outside decked terrace

Hush Heath intends to stay as a”boutique” with an eventual target of 500,000 bottles a year from its 130 acres and has no current ambition to join the million bottles a year vineyards such as Chapel Down, Rathfinny and Nyetimber (which may even hit that target this year).

Everyone I spoke to at the open day thoroughly enjoyed it despite a persistent drizzle.

Hush Heath has won a ton of top awards, and is unquestionably a premium producer (though you can buy its sparkling wines in selected supermarkets at around £20 a bottle). A tasting of Balfour Blanc de Blanc was absolutely delicious though at £45 a bottle I guess it ought to be. Leslie’s Reserve was very palatable at £28 and I was also impressed with their still Pinot Noir though at £22 a bottle it has drifted upwards from the last time I bought it (the 2014 vintage at £13.50 discounted from £18) on the recommendation of Fiona Beckett in the Guardian. But as they have no problem selling it, who am I to complain?

For reasons I don’t fully understand I am not a huge fan of sparkling rosé but lots of others are and Balfour’s brut rosé 2014 at £38 has been garlanded with some very impressive awards.

I couldn’t resist trying their Bacchus 2017. This is a cross of Riesling and Muller-Thurgau grapes and has become the default English still white wine. It was enjoyable but at £19 a pop it is a lot more expensive than the £10.50 a bottle charged by New Hall which actually pioneered this German variety in the UK. But New Hall is in Essex and Balfour in trendy Kent. What was that about branding?

None of this should deter anyone from visiting Hush Heath for a lovely vineyard experience and fine wines in an idyllic setting on a Tudor estate stretching back to 1503. This could become a major visitor attraction and help the estate towards its goal of selling 25% of its bottles from the cellar door thereby saving hugely in distribution costs plus wholesale and retail profit margins. I wish it well. It is living proof that Britain’s sparkling winemakers are ready to take on the world.

Simon Day on how to get over 30 bottles from a single vine

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 04, 2018
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Simon with a big cluster of Gewürztraminer

I HAVE strolled around many vineyards and usually find something of interest in them but my eyes nearly popped out of my head when Simon Day took me into an experimental polytunnel at the Redbank vineyard at Ledbury in Herefordshire which he runs with Haygrove, the international fruit company. At first sight it looks like something you might see in my back garden – vines grown from (grafted) cuttings in ordinary looking plant pots. A closer look reveals the most densely packed clusters of grapes than I have ever seen on a single vine. This particular one was Gewürztraminer (rarely grown in Britain) and Simon reckons it will be producing 30 to 40 kilos per pot – which is equivalent to nearly 30 to 40 bottles from each vine! This is ten times higher than the national average.

If, and it is a big if, the experiment is successful it will more than offset the considerable cost of erecting the tunnels. And this at a time when the UK economy is supposed to be running out of productivity increases . . .

Simon thinks he may be the only person in the world doing this and many in the wine industry would say they are not surprised. How can you make good wine, which traditionally needs deep roots and historic “terroir”, from pots which aren’t even filled with earth but with coconut strands (“Coir”) mixed with perlite and fed with water from a network of tiny pipes?

Potted cuttings growing fast in a tunnel

He admits it will all depend on the quality of the wine produced. Other vineyards have shown interest but they are eagerly waiting to see what the wine tastes like first. So am I.

Simon is a vastly experienced prize-winning winemaker who has worked at vineyards around the world as well as in the UK before settling down at Redbank, a beautifully situated vineyard looking out over an undulating vista that takes in the Malverns and May Hill with its distinctive clump of trees at the top. Here he makes his impressive range of Sixteen Ridges wines.

This is hallowed ground. Part of the 19 acre vineyard is on soil where Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, instructed the replanting of a vineyard in 1266 so he could – for whatever reason – send wine to the Pope.

Among the varietals grown here today are Pinot Noir Précoce – which fruits a few weeks earlier than traditional Pinot Noir – and Bacchus, his favorite white wine which the choosey Wine Society has recently started stocking. He says he can’t produce enough of either to meet demand which is one of the reasons he is planning to double the acreage under cultivation as well as experimenting with pot planting. There are 5,500 vines under tunnels at the moment.

The vineyard

Simon is also doing what might be called retro-experiments by reverting to home grown cuttings rather than grafted ones. He says that cuttings put more vigour into the vines and believes that fears about diseases such as Phylloxera are unfounded as cuttings and soil are adequately tested in sterile substrata.

He claims that the risks of Phylloxera are particularly small in the UK, with its low density of vineyards. He adds: “There is zero chance of Phylloxera in our nursery as we use sterile substrate and there’s no soil transfer from mother vines. We are giving growers a choice between grafted and own root vines to potentially lower the risk of GTD – grapevine trunk disease, which are thought to be associated with grafted vines”.

Redbank gains from its association with Haygrove by having access to the fruits of their experiments as well as using some of Haygrove’s seasonal workforce even though recruits – almost all from overseas – have fallen from 850 to a bit over 600 because of fears about Brexit. When they advertised for English helpers only a few applied and those that were taken on gave up after a few weeks finding the work too hard despite piece-work related wages reckoned at between £12 and £14 an hour.

No one seems to know how bad the eventual threat of Brexit will be. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see the results of a Judgement of Ledbury contest – a blind tasting of Sixteen Ridges’s pot cultivated wines against posh ones honed by hundreds of years of experience. A lot of reputations are at stake.

Nyetimber’s place in the sun . . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 12, 2018
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Thomas Cromwell’s house

I had long been looking forward to visiting Nyetimber, Britain’s most prestigious vineyard, not least because it is more difficult to get into than Fort Knox. It only opens to the public twice a year and tickets are snapped up at the speed of a snifter. Instead I booked on to a special day trip from London to Nyetimber – the first time they have done this sort of thing apparently  – organised by D and D the restaurant chain which owns the Bluebird café in Chelsea where we started off with a pleasant Continental breakfast.

Getting out of London is always a drag but a coach trip is a good way to visit a vineyard where it is not impossible that you will be drinking to much wine to drive back. Vineyards, unforgiveably, are rarely located near railway stations.

The vines

Nyetimber’s reception area, if that is not too mundane a word, is beautifully situated at the end of a long very narrow country lane where time has stood still. On one side is a lovingly restored pre-Domesday barn used for festive gatherings. Ahead in

a closely manicured garden by a picturesque lake is a monastic house which Henry V111 snatched at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He gave it first to Thomas Cromwell, who actually visited it and then as part of an extensive marital settlement to Anne of Cleves who never visited. A bit small for her, I suppose.

The winery is elswhere leaving much of their 220 hectares of south-facing Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – in undisturbed tranquility. You can detect their dedication to quality in the sculptural neatness of a single cane creeping along the vine in what us known as the single guyot system (allowing the grapes to receive maximum sunlight). Unlike so many others they neither buy nor sell grapes to other vineyards and in 2012 they famously destroyed the entire crop as it did not meet their meticulous standards.

Experts with better palates than mine have extolled the quality of their fizz that has won a slew of top international medals. For me the psychology of place and person is crucial. To savour their flagship Classic Cuvée in the vineyard with goodly company amid the vines from which it was made on breezeless sunny day was indeed bliss.

A glass in the sun

Later we had tastings of their excellent rosé and demi-sec both made with the new policy of taking grapes from multiple vintages so as not to be tied to the vagaries of a single year. Think 2012. After an excellent fizz-driven lunch and yet more in the terrace afterwards I soon realised that what at first I thought was an expensive day out turned out to be excellent value for money.

But my main interest in Nyetimber as a journalist is its place in the history of the amazing revival of English and Welsh sparkling wine. No less a person that Tom Stevenson, the global authority on all things fizz, has made this astonishing claim: “If not for Nyetimber, there would be no English sparkling wine industry today – only a few crude fizzy wines made from hybrid grapes and German crosses.” Even after multiple glasses of fizz this must be challenged. If Nyetimber hadn’t existed two of the necessary conditions for a revival – global warming and the vastly improved technical expertise in the UK  fanned by graduates of Plumpton wine college -would still be there. It was just a question of time.

The first vineyards to make sparkling on a commercial scale (as opposed to numerous non commercial attempts) were the Carr-Taylors in Hastings and New Hall in Essex both in 1983, five years before Nyetimber started planting.  The Carr Taylors wine might qualify as “hybrid grapes and German crosses” but New Hall made it with the two main Champagne grapes Chardononay and Pinot Noir. For years aferwards they were the only one that could supply southern vineyards with these varieties in bulk.

Nearer home Ridgeview – not far from Nyetimber and not much less prestigious – planted its first vines in 1995 only seven years after Nyetimber so they were already growing when Nyetimber hit the big time in 1997 when its 1992 Blanc de Blanc won a serious international gold medal.

Nyetimber was undoubtedly seminal in proving to the world that Britain could make top fizz and has been a huge inspiration to others. But if it hadn’t existed the UK revival would have happened only more slowly and later led by Ridgeview or one of the other emerging role models. No one has switched global warming off.


UK wine comes of age

Posted by Victor Keegan on April 26, 2018
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The contingent from Wales

TODAY’S annual tasting of UK wines marked something of a watershed for one of our fastest-growing industries. It was the first under the umbrella of @Wine_GB which brings together two previous organisations, one representing vineyards and the other the largest producers. A record number of nearly 50 vineyards were represented in a bigger venue – the Lindley Hall in Westminster – including, for the first time, five vineyards from Wales.

It was a coming of age in another sense because UK sparkling wines have now “arrived“. It is generally accepted that they are world class and the winning of gold medals is no longer considered news in the way it was a few years ago.

The big question now is whether our still wines, particularly white, will be able to gain a similar traction in years to come. The main candidate for success is probably Bacchus which is winning lots of prizes (though Solaris does well especially towards the north of England).

Bacchus is a good example of the dilemma facing UK growers – do you price as high as you can to milk the scarcity value of domestic wines or do you price so that they can compare or beat comparable (Sauvignon-ish) wines from abroad?

The Bacchus made by New Hall in Essex (who were the first to plant Bacchus here in 1977) at £9.50 and that offered by Brightwell of Oxford at £9.30 (or £9.99 in Waitrose) are the trailblazers for value for money and a glaring contrast to the more usual £13/£14 price range rising to £25 for a Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Bacchus.

The fascinating feature was the presence of five Welsh vineyards for the first time. They were White Castle, Parva (at Tintern) Montgomery, Conwy (the most northerly in Wales which won a silver medal for its first sparkling) and Llaethliw in Dylan Thomas country. I have visited most of the vineyards in the north


and the south https://tinyurl.com/ycwmn2zm and have been bowled over by their vibrant personalities and their quality (often beating English wines in medals per vineyard). The star turn of Wales – Ancre Hill in Monmouth – was not represented here today as it is not a member of WineGB but that only underlines how at last Welsh wine is coming in from the cold.

All this, of course, is history. Vineyards are worrying what the weather will be like for the rest of the year and praying there won’t be a repeat of the recent late spring frosts. We can all drink to that.

Did the English wine revolution start in, er . . . Essex?

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 29, 2017
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Piers Greenwood painted in wine (Barons Red 2015) produced from his own vineyard

EVERYONE knows that the recent resurgence of English wine started in the chalky geology of Sussex and Kent. Or did it? There is another county that can make a strong claim. Essex. Yes, Essex. And it comes mainly down to one place, New Hall Vineyards which has been hiding its light under a bushell for far too long.
New Hall was built up by the legendary Piers Greenwood and his father Bill and family. Piers has sold his stake in the vineyard to his brother-in-law and now lives in Canada where, surprise, surprise, he is starting another vineyard. We caught up with him a few days ago when he was back in Essex to help out with the tasting and blending.
Talking to him in front of the original 850 Reichensteiner vines planted in 1962 (above) with the help of a battalion of cheap railway sleepers to keep the trellis up, was a treat. He reminded us – OK, he didn’t remind us, we didn’t know – that he introduced Bacchus, which has become the best-selling English still wine, to this country after spending several years in Alsace learning his craft with the famous Hugel wine family.
It was only about four years ago that I realised I had been drinking Essex wine for years without realising it as New Hall had been supplying fruit to the likes of Camel Valley, Chapel Down and Denbies, the largest vineyard in the country. Even today New Hall still supplies 25% of its Bacchus grapes to other vineyards in the UK.
But this isn’t its main claim to fame. Piers says that in 1983 New Hall was the first to produce traditional method sparkling wine (using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) in the UK.  The history of sparkling in England and Wales is a bit like a river fed over the years from various tributaries which had made sparkling on a small scale. In the past these tributaries included Piltdown Manor, Felstar, Hambledon and Oxted, not to mention Painshill in the mid 18th century.
But New Hall was the first to produce English sparkling from Champagne grapes on a commercial scale. Piers says that the idea was planted in his mind by Jack Ward who ran Merrydown, one of the earliest UK vineyards and who strongly believed that England was a great place for sparkling. The only other contender is the Carr Taylor vineyard in Kent which produced a sparkling about the same time in 1983 from their own home grown grapes Reichensteiner (50%) and Schonburger (50%) amounting to 20,000 bottles. The first bottles were sold in 1985 as were the New Hall wines.

Piers in the tasting room

So they were both pioneers at the same time but New Hall was the first to make commercial-scale English sparkling using traditional Champagne grapes.
New Hall is well known within the trade and has been festooned with top prizes and accolades but its major contribution to the resurgence of UK vineyards has yet to get the credit it deserves.
We will be hearing a lot more about Essex in future. New Hall has plans to more than double its current 100 acres.There are 12 vineyards within 8 miles of New Hall on what is regarded as ideal ground for growing Bacchus. They are actively planning to boost the undervalued brand of Essex wines rather than selling surplus fruit to other established vineyards thereby continuing a custom of growing grapes that goes back to Roman times.
We assuredly have not heard the last of Essex wines.
Wine painting by the author @BritishWino

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One man and his vineyard

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 26, 2017
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PAUL OLDING has a bit of an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to planting a vineyard. He has already written a much praised book on the subject, “The Urban Vineyard” based on a tiny one of his own on an allotment in Lewisham, south London. Now, in fulfilment of a long held dream, he is going rural with Wildwood, a lovely one-acre vineyard on a sunny south/south-eastern facing hillside off a bridle path in vine-friendly East Sussex.

Having endured tortuous procedures to get planning permission both for the vines and a shed he then suffered the freak late frost after bud burst that hit vineyards throughout the UK inflicting wholesale damage on the crop. But those and numerous other problems are in the past. Now he and his family can now look with satisfaction at a thoroughly professional vineyard with no noticeable side effects from the frost.

It was a very un-Brexity multinational effort: vines and wires from Germany, end posts from Belgium, the larger cabin from Latvia, the smaller one from Slovenia, a tractor insured in Wales and a toilet from Ireland installed by Romanians. Skilled Romanians also put in all the posts (and planted the vines) as is common in English and Welsh vineyards. But the wine will be unashamedly English.

When? Paul, who is 44, believes in letting the roots settle and is planning only a small harvest in 2018 using two bunches from the stronger vines with a full harvest planned for 2019. The plot was purchased in 2014 but it took 18 months of preparation doing such tasks as reducing the acidity of the soil by spreading lime.

He is growing (highly popular) Bacchus, Regent and two varietals of Pinot Noir. This is clearly a fun thing for him and he is not expecting to make much of a profit and especially not if the huge cost of land is factored in. There are no plans to give up the day job as a TV producer/director (including some of Brian Cox’s films). With an acre of vines and several more acres of ancient woodland attached slithering down to a happy stream he has already created his own dream world. But he will still have to pray for good weather.

I am hoping to keep an occasional eye on Paul’s progress. You can buy his book at http://theurbanvineyard.co.uk/.

His website is wildwoodvineyard.co.uk

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An American in Battersea – London’s new winery

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 09, 2017
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Sergio Verrillo, an American from Connecticut, prepares to taste the first draft of freshly barrelled Chardonnay from his new winery under a railway arch in Battersea. His Blackbook is the third winery to open in central London recently as the capital experiences a mini renaissance of one of the worlds oldest professions. A fourth one, Vagabond, is opening imminently opposite the west wall of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Battersea Power Station barely a mile as the crow flies from Blackbook.


Two others – London Cru in West Brompton and Renegade in Bethnal Green are in full swing.

They are all winemakers – and they need grapes. All of them use at least some sourced from the UK – in Sergio’s case they all come from Essex – but none thus far from London itself which has two sizeable (though still small) sources of grapes. The more important is Forty Hall, a ten acre community vineyard in Enfield which was on a roll until two unexpected events happened this year – a late Spring frost and marauding parakeets – which have made a big dent in output though it won’t affect latest releases including a large batch of their 2015 London Sparkling available later this month.

The other source of London grapes, Chateau Tooting, has had a record year with enough fruit to make well over 1000 bottles. Chateau Tooting gathers grapes from gardens and allotments in London which were collected from a central point at the end of September and dispatched to a professional wine maker outside London to produce a surprisingly good rosé.

Sergio Verrillo is in a different league. He expects to produce nearly 4,000 bottles this year with hopes to triple that next year en route to around the 40,000 bottles needed to be viable in the long term. Sergio, who has a background as a sommelier, trained at Britain’s wine college, Plumpton and has worked in vineyards From California to New Zealand to gain experience. He is clearly deadly serious about what he does and has active plans to plant his own vineyard probably in Kent to become the first vertically integrated outfit in London producing wine from his own grapes.

Originally, he had hoped to make sparkling wine as well but the lack of suitable fruit means he will just be producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this year.

At first he will be selling to the trade and to individual customers including his growing contacts on social media. He also has hopes to make the winery into a destination for tasting as Renegade has done. Inner city wineries are still a novelty but Sergio points out that there are well over 200 urban wineries in the world. No swinging city should be without one.



This article also appears on my LondonMyLondon.co.uk blog

Hambledon – the cradle of two revolutions

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 30, 2017
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IF YOU gaze from the steps of this country house in Hampshire towards the horizon it just looks like another vineyard. True, a very attractive vista with the Chardonnay grapes in the foreground subtly changing hue as they merge into lines of Pinot Noir and then at the far end Pinot Meunier – the classic Champagne varieties.
But this is no ordinary vineyard. It is the actual sanctified ground  at Hambledon where Sir Guy Salisbury Jones planted England’s first commercial vineyard back in 1951. The original plantings were of hardy Germanic vines such as Seyval though he later planted all three Champagne vines as well and experimented with sparkling though not on a commercial scale. The original label had cricket stumps on it – a homage to Hambledon as the place where the game of cricket started. A nearby(ish) pub, the Bat and Ball, is a shrine to its birthplace.
He little realised that thanks to his pioneering efforts Hambledon was to become the cradle of a second revolution – proving that wine could be made in England on a commercial scale. To be fair, Wales – so often underrated in viticultural terms – had planted Britain’s first commercial vineyard under the Scottish Earl of Bute more than 50 years previously at Castle Coch near Cardiff.  Unlike Hambledon, it had not provided the inspiration for dozens of other vineyards to follow suit.
What was the wine like? It is easy to dismiss these early English efforts as being a bit amateurish but the 1971 listing of the very choosey Wine Society said that considering the vagaries of the English weather Hambledon’s wine was “astoundingly good”. That is a phrase that I have rarely if ever seen used to describe any wine. I wonder if this was the Hambledon wine served in May of the following year at a banquet in Paris. It was hosted by Queen Elizabeth for President Pompidou – as part of the thaw in Anglo-French relations that led to Britain’s entry into the European Common Market a year later. What President Pompidou thought of it is not on record.

Since those pioneering days the estate of Hambledon has been on a Cooks’ Tour of different owners. But now it is in the very capable and even visionary hands of Ian Kellet, an investment banker from the north of England, who has raised the quality of the crop – now all sparkling wine – to levels undreamed of by Sir Guy – as the photos on the wall of three consecutive gold medals at the International Wine Challenge testify.
Nor is he sitting still. He already has what is claimed to be the country’s first gravity-fed grape pressing system where the grapes are taken to the top of the winery to find their own way down without intervention through the presses before being sorted into four qualities only two of which are used for wine the rest being turned into brandy. His long-term plans include producing a million bottles of fizz and an underground cave which he is about to excavate through the chalk terrain that could have a capacity for 2 million bottles.
I have visited dozens of vineyards in England and Wales since I started writing about English and Welshwines some years ago and Hambledon has always been one that I was really looking forward to. I was not disappointed. Hambledon is now among England’s super vineyards which are giving  the champagne houses such a run for their money. And the wines which we sampled? Totally delicious.

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The Bat and Ball

Glowing review from the Wine Society 1971


Original Salisbury Jones layout (photo Hambledon vineyard)

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At last – a plaque for the man who proved that the English made “Champagne” first

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 26, 2017
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IT COULDN’T have been better timed. This week a long-awaited plaque was unveiled in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire at the birthplace of Christopher Merrett. It was Merrett who in a paper to the Royal Society in 1662 recorded that what came to be known as the méthode champenoise – ie secondary fermentation in the bottle – was actually invented by wine coopers in England decades before it was attempted by Dom Perignon. Most French people still, erroneously, believe that it was all due to the Dom, not the Pom.

Mike Reid unveils a plaque to Christopher Merrett at his birthplace

Mike Reid unveils a plaque to Christopher Merrett at his birthplace

It was a memorable occasion – with lovely wines supplied by Paulton Hill, which introduced us to its first sparkling, and Lovell’s vineyard which markets the fine Elgar range and is the nearest vineyard to the birthplace of Christopher Merrett.  It was well timed because the English and Welsh wine revival seems to have entered a new period of growth. It is not just that a million new vines are expected to be planted this year – most of them for sparkling  – but our still wines are starting to win serious prizes. 

Colin Bennett toiling at Conwy vineyard

Colin Bennett toiling at Conwy vineyard

A fascinating example is the northernmost vineyard in North Wales, Conwy, (@conwyvineyard) which I visited two years ago and was told that New Zealand legend Kevin Judd, the man behind Cloudy Bay,  on a visit to promote his new venture had noticed some grapes growing on a hillside as the train came into Llandudno station. He commented that it was a great position for a vineyard and he would love to come back for a tasting. Well, if he does he will find that Conwy, owned by a delightful couple Colin and Charlotte Bennett has just won one of only two silver medals awarded for UK still wines at this month’s International Wine Challenge. The other silver was awarded to LondonCru, which operates London’s first winery for centuries. Oh, and Conwy also won a bronze for its Solaris. Not bad for a vineyard of barely an acre in an area of Wales where most people would be amazed to find grapes growing at all.

The plaque at Winchcombe was unveiled by Mike Read, best known as a DJ but who has written 36 books, many on historical subjects, and is a founder of the British Plaque Trust. Mike boldly entered the controversy about what to call the  indigenous  sparkling wine discovered by Merret. He suggested English Royal which has a lovely prestigious ring about it – with hidden notes about Charles II who espoused the Royal Society – but I am not sure how it would go down in North Wales! But it is a lot better than the headline a bright sub editor wrote on an editorial I wrote about Christopher Merret’s discovery 20 years ago in the Guardian. It was “Champagne Pom” I was much moved by the warm reception a packed church gave to me for my talk on Merrett – including this poem . .

In praise of Christopher Merrett

(from my fifth poetry book LondonMyLondon published on Kindle this morning!)

 What makes Champagne go full throttle, 

Is secondary fermentation in a bottle. 

This is an invention without which, 

Sparkling wine would be mere kitsch. 

And who made this spectacular advance? 

Why, in folk law, a monk, Dom Perignon of France. 

But wait: hear Christopher Merret’s scientific view, 

Which he wrote in sixteen hundred and sixty two 

Without any mock Gallic piety, 

He told the newly formed Royal Society, 

He’d discovered this oenological advance 

That let wine ferment in bottles first, 

That were strong enough not to burst. 

T’was Britain’s gift to an ungrateful France

Decades before they gave sparkling a glance

It created that country’s strongest brand. 

So, let’s raise a glass in our hand,  

To a great man’s invention from afar 

And drink to the Methode not Champenoise 

But What should have been called Merrettoise. 

So, let all by their merrets be 

Judged – that  the whole world can see 

That however we may be thought insane, 

We gave the French for free – Champagne.

Me preparing to meet the audience

Me preparing to meet the audience

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Forget craft beer – meet London’s new wineries

Posted by Victor Keegan on April 05, 2017
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Warwick Smith (left) and winemaker, Josh at their new Bethnal Green winery

Warwick Smith (left) and winemaker, Josh at their new Bethnal Green winery

IF YOU care to walk along a down-at-heel alleyway cluttered with second hand furniture barely 30 seconds from Bethnal Green Tube station in East London you will stumble across a spanking new space under a Network Rail arch. Welcome, Renegade London Wine, the latest in what is beginning to look like a mini boom of wine makers in London. Forget craft beer, artisan wine is the new red. London Cru started it in 2013 in a winery close to West Brompton underground station and is still going strong. Now three others are joining the fray. Vagabond Wines which serves wine by the glass (with a choice of 140 varieties in its newly opened Victoria branch) will soon launch a new winery in the Nine Elms complex by Battersea Power Station complete with visitor centre. Meanwhile Sergio Verrillo, an American from Connecticut is opening yet another one in the Queenstown, Battersea area later this year in time for the harvest. All of them will be processing at least some UK wines.
Making wine in capital cities where rents are often sky high is not quite so barmy as it sounds. There are reckoned to be over 300 urban wineries around the world including successful ones in New York with sampling and eating facilities attached.
Warwick Smith, who runs Renegade with winemaker, Josh Hammond is hoping to attract cult customers by offering wine by the glass and hopefully snacks in the winery itself as well as seeking online sales and getting into restaurants. An ex City asset manager he gave me a sample of several of this year’s newly labelled wines yesterday including Bacchus (fast becoming the flagship English still wine) Sauvignon Blanc  frm France and Pinot Noir from Italy. I was impressed. They have made 7,500 bottles this year from English grapes from Suffolk and Herefordshire plus fruit from France and Italy. Bizarrely – like London Cru – they are not allowed to call their Chardonnay “Chardonnay” even though it is from a well respected Italian vineyard because of arcane EU rules about certification. They know they will have to sell a lot more that 7,500 to turn a profit but they seem very focussed to do that. They are also believed to be making a batch of sparkling wine but they are a bit coy on the subject. As I was leaving Josh showed me a few Chardonnay cuttings which he is about to plant in a wooden container to catch the afternoon sun outside. Maybe one day they will make a little wine from their own grapes. You can follow them with (hash)renegadelondonwine or on instagram

Gavin Monery, winemaker at London Cru

Gavin Monery, winemaker at London Cru

Gavin Monery, winemaker at London Cru London Cru, which pioneered the idea of an urban vineyard in London in 2013, produced an impressive 24,000 bottles of English and Continental wines last year of which about 60 per cent goes to the trade (mainly restaurants) and the rest directly to consumers especially at tasting events in the winery. It has built up a good reputation for quality and counts French sommeliers amongst its customers. Winemaker Gavin Monery reckons that London could support lots more urban wineries – probably with a restaurant or café attached as Vagabond is doing at Nine Elms – but he admits high rents are a problem. Both London Cru and Renegade admit they will have to sell a lot more to achieve long term viability. Gavin says the “magic number” is 50,000.
These are the first commercial wineries in London for a very long time though exactly how long is hard to nail down. The antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726 to 1798) observed that “The genial banks of the Thames opposite to our capital (ie in Lambeth) yield almost every species of white wine; and by a wondrous magic, Messrs. Beaufoy here pour forth the materials for the rich Frontiniac, destined to the more elegant tables, the Madeira, the Caleavella, and the Lisbon, into every part of the kingdom. . . . The foreign wines are most admirably mimicked.” It was reported that five sixths of the white wines consumed in the capital were the produce of home wine presses.
If Renegade does produce a sparkling wine then it will open a fascinating discussion about which sparkling wine is more truly “London” – that of Forty Hall (grapes grown within the London postal area but processed in Sussex) or that of Renegade (grown in the country but processed in London). Let the debate roll on.

<em>(This blog is replicated on my LondonMyLondon blog victorkeegan.com)</em>

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We need a catchy name for our sparkling wine – British Fizz or Brit Fizz?

Posted by Victor Keegan on January 19, 2017
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There is a fascinating conversation among vineyards about whether the UK’s booming sparkling wine should be called British Fizz. Apparently it is already being called that in at least one restaurant in the US which is expected to be one one our biggest export markets (the country, not the restaurant!).
If everyone called it British Fizz it would solve a long running debate about finding a label that everyone in the industry can agree on. It has the advantage of being more inclusive than “English sparkling” or “Sussex sparkling” as it includes Wales, which has some fine vineyards but has not always been treated well by the English industry.
But there are two disadvantages. The first is that under EU legislation – which will govern us for the next few years British wine” means wine made in this country from imported grapes or juices.
The second is that three syllables do not trip off the tongue as well as two. A lot of memorable brands, though of course not all, have two syllables including Rolls-Royce, Google, Yahoo, Apple and, er, Champagne.
So why not just call it Brit Fizz or BritFizz? If you are ordering from a bar it sounds much better, and certainly more melodic, to ask for Brit Fizz rather than British Fizz (which sounds as though you are making a nationalistic statement (I want British fizz). It avoids the EU ambiguities of “British” and it capitalises on the fact that we are known as Brits the world over.
Someone claimed Brit Fizz sounds like something you take for a hangover but I don’t see the connection. It is something you drink in moderation to avoid a hangover.

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Brexit good for vineyards? Don’t bank on it

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 04, 2016
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There is a wave of euphoria going the rounds of some vineyards about how Britain’s wine industry will benefit from Brexit. I hope this is right but it won’t happen if we only look at the benefits and not at the other side of the balance sheet. Sure it will make our exports cheaper as long as it lasts. But remember, the reason the pound has gone down is that the financial markets think Brexit will be bad for economic growth partly because foreign-own industries such as motor manufacturing and financial services – which came here to be inside the tariff barriers – will switch new investment and people to Europe. This will lead to higher unemployment in the UK and a big blow to confidence and spending power which may lead to fewer purchases of the more expensive domestic wines.
Devaluation makes exports cheaper but also imports more expensive. Virtually all of the machinery to pick and process grapes – like the massive press that arrived at Rathfinny this week – comes from abroad as do the vines themselves and many of the gangs that pick them.
It is all very well to presume that Brexit will lead to the Government reducing tax on English and Welsh wines but this is unlikely at a time when there will almost certainly be a rising deficit that the Government is pledged to eliminate albeit over a longer perion than previously thought.
In these circumstances the Chancellor would have to be barmy to reduce the duty on wine when 98% of the proceeds would go to importers who dominate the market. And if he decided to reduce the duty on UK made wines alone in a discriminatory way then that would be sure to trigger a retaliatory trade war abroad.
There could be unexpected benefits. If agricultural subsidies are eventually reduced sharply then that might persuade more farmers to invest in a growing indigenous industry rather than farming subsidies.
I remain bullish about the revival of the UK wine industry and it will be improved by a lower pound. But the irony is that if Brexit succeeds (very unlikely in my view) then the pound will once again strengthen thereby removing a competitive advantage that arose from expectations that it would fail.

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Chateau Tooting starts thinking big (well, bigger)

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 24, 2016
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The Ilford contingent arrives

The Ilford contingent arrives

Chateau Tooting is one of my favourite London oddities. They collect grapes from gardens and allotments in London and elsewhere at a fixed time and a designated place (today it was in a sidestreet  in Clapham) and then dispatch them to an established vineyard, Halfpenny Green in Shropshire to be made into surprisingly good wine. This year I arrived with naked humility. No grapes. My half a dozen mature vines which I have been fondly tended after reading numerous books decided to have a miserable harvest and what they did produce was wiped out by powdery mildew. Then I meet Marcella Grazette, a mental health manager from Ilford who brought along 39 kilos of healthy looking grapes, enough to make 20 bottles. And – wait for it – all produced from a single vine which she hardly ever tends. Ouch!

But that’s Chateau Tooting. It breaks all the rules but somehow works. No one I spoke to today, apart from one,  even knew what variety their grapes were. Alan Frankham from Purley bought a vine six years ago from a garden centre having been inspired by a talk at Denbies vineyard in Dorking which produced 23 kilos this year, just over 11 bottles. Jilly Hanson from nearby Tooting Common produced 11.2 kilos from a single vine and Diana Kerr from Fulham 9 kilos from a single vine.

chateau2Richard Sharp – who started the project with his friend Paul (photo, right) – managed 8 kilos this year but added that Furzedown Primary School produced some from a Rondo vine and he also got some from the greenhouse at Brockwell Lido. The success of the scheme has prompted the two pioneers to start expanding. They are marketing some of their surplus bottles – those that are not acquired by the growers who have first choice – to local shops, restaurants and markets together with bottles produced by other cooperatives associated with Halfpenny Green. They have their own tee shirts and banners and this Christmas they are hoping to produce hampers with all these in plus a specially selected vine that can be planted in your garden or given to a friend. Yes, Chateau Tooting which started life as a guerilla grape grower is becoming a brand. If this works out and enough people buy the selected vine (maybe a Rondo for red or Seyval for white) then Urban Wine could in a few years produce a single varietal wine in addition to their present Chateau Tooting cocktail.

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