Britain’s new vineyard destination – The Wye Valley

Posted by Victor Keegan on February 07, 2016
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Three Choirs
Three Choirs vineyard
THE WYE VALLEY has long been celebrated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, lauded by poets such as Wordsworth, Pope and Gray. It also has a strong claim to be where the modern tourism industry began when the gentry, deprived of the Grand Tour by Napoleon’s army, had to discover their own country instead. What it is definitely not famous for is vineyards. This is not because it hasn’t got any but because Wyedean as it is now called (Wye Valley and Forest of Dean) straddles two countries – England and Wales -and three counties – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire – and so gets lost among the geographical boundaries into which vineyards are divided by officialdom.
In fact the Wye Valley has a good claim to be one of the strongest growing wine areas in the UK and deserves to become a vineyard destination in its own right. Until a few years ago the only vineyard in the area to have won gold medals was Three Choirs which remains one of Britain’s most successful estates.
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Parva Farm vineyard at Tintern
To experience the rising vinicultural clout of Wyedean take a road trip upstream starting at historic Tintern Abbey where on a hillside on your left you can see most of the 2.5 acre site of Parva Farm Vineyard which punches way above its weight having won a slew of silver medals and last year in the Welsh Vineyards Association (WVA) competition won a gold for its 2013 Bacchus. It actually attracted national headlines recently when Marks & Spencer gobbled up its stock of Bacchus. You have to negotiate a steep slope before arriving at the vineyard itself with a pleasant shop and chairs and tables outside with sheep meandering around the vineyard itself. I am told that its Mead is also very good.
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Ancre Hill, Monmouth
Further upstream a mile outside the delightfully unspoiled country town of Monmouth, birthplace of Henry V, lies Ancre Hill Estate, the pride of Welsh vineyards. It burst on to the scene from nowhere in 2012 when its sparkling Seyval was voted the best sparkling wine in the world in a blind tasting by international experts at the Bollicine del Mondo in Italy against stiff competition from champagnes. Such was the disbelief that it wasn’t even reported in the local paper, the Monmouthshire Beacon. English and Welsh wines still have a big psychological barrier to break through.
To prove this was no fluke it has won several more golds since – including one in a Chinese competition and two in this year’s WVA contest with a Chardonnay and a 2009 barrel fermented sparkling. Ancre Hill – the French sounding name may have a Huguenot origin – is situated like so many Welsh vineyards – on a gentle slope with misty hills in the background. Here the Morris family have built an impressive state-of-the art biodynamic winery to process all their grapes including those from a large new field they have recently purchased on the other side of Monmouth very close to the Wye itself. Their ambitions have clearly not been satisfied yet. Sadly, the Monnow Valley vineyard in Monmouth, also near the Wye, is closing for family reasons having been a regular supplier to Waitrose for some years.
However a new vineyard has sprung up in its place a few miles away in Herefordshire off the Goodrich to Ross-on-Wye country route. You can’t see it from the road but once you have negotiated a few narrow lanes you encounter Wythall, a spectacular, and spectacularly unspoiled, 500 year-old Tudor mansion behind which Frank Myers has single-handedly planted nearly 3,500 vines on a 3.5 acre site. This year’s harvest, he says, is three times as big as last year’s with the reds looking particularly encouraging. The outbuildings are planned to house a cellar door eventually and shop which will make it a unique vineyard experience.
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Wythall, the Tudor mansion
The house has been owned by the family of his wife – the Euro MP Anthea Mcintyre since the early 17th century and the original wine cellar of the house is now their HMRC-certified bonded cellar. The first wines under a “Tudor Manor” label (what else!) have been processed locally by Three Choirs and are due this year. If he can match the quality of the wine with the history of the house it wil be quite something.
Further along the Goodrich to Ross road along a right turn after Walford is the road past Coughton to Castle Brook, (photo at bottom of page) an exceptional vineyard run by the Chinn family, the largest asparagus growers in the country. They diversified a few years ago into making sparkling wine on a beautiful steep two hectare slope near what is thought to have been a Roman vineyard. In a light-hearted gesture to their family history their early wines were called Chinn-Chinn, a motif, which is still retained on the label.
They don’t need any gimmicks now. Their 2009 sparkling, made with classic champagne grapes and left on the lees for over four years has become one of the most decorated wines in the country including gold – and wine of the year- in the South- west Vineyards compeition and most recently a gold at what is arguably the most prestigious competiton of its kind in the world – the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship – which attracts some of the best Champagne labels. Views and sales by appointment or from their website.
On a much smaller scale is Beeches Vineyard at Upton Bishop where John Boyd and his late wife Ikka established a fine vineyard behind their handsome country house not far from the Moody Cow gastronomic pub which they supply along with other outlets. In the 2015 South West Vineyards Association competition Beeches won a silver for its 2014 red which was also voted the best red in the whole region.
A few miles to the north Wyedean springs an unusual surprise – three vineyards within a mile of each other as the crow flies (with a fourth on the way). Can anyone top that? Alan Oastler, whose day job was as a nuclear scientist until his recent retirement has a 5.5 acre vineyard at Compton Green on a lovely slope where he grows grapes for his very drinkable English wines. He had to stop calling it Gloucestershire Regional Wine because of EU rules. He sells thrrough local outlets including Waitrose and also supplies fruit to Three Choirs. It is a pure vineyard without a cellar door.
A short distance away is what is confidently claimed to be a unique vineyard. Strawberry Hill (photo below) says it is the only one growing grapes on a commercial scale under glass (over an acre) as well as outside. And if that claim is ever challenged then it is surely the only one anywhere in the world growing under glass with two rows of mature banana trees guarding them. Strawberry Hill makes very tasty wines on its own account – including Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from the greenhouses – though most of its current production goes to wineries for their own labels. I had a delicious rosé there the other day. A few hundred yards from the entrance to Strawberry Hill another vineyard is being planted which we may hear more about later.

But the undoubted star of Wyedean wineries and almost next door to Strawberry Hill is Three Choirs, (photo at top) which has been one of the trendsetters of modern English vineyards for over 40 years. It not only makes its own fine wines – one of the few English wines the choosey Wine Society has been selling – at competitive prices – for years but it also acts as an ecosystem processing grapes from miles around in England and Wales (including Ancre Hill’s world beating Seyval). With 30 hectares (74 acres) it has long been one of the biggest vineyards in the UK and last year it purchased Wickham vineyard in Hampshire to expand its activities.
You can find other venues with even better wines and better restaurants – though its own are of a very high standard – but Three Choirs is hard to beat for the total vineyard experience – a lovely approach road through the vines, a compact shop, easy parking, accomodation of a high standard and a lovely restaurant with spectacular views across the rolling acres with a terrace that in summer feels like being transported to Provence. And it is among the top value-for-money vineyards as well.
There are other smaller vineyards such as the Pengethley Manor Hotel on the Ross-on-Wye to Hereford road which has an acre of grapes which are processed by Three Choirs and sold in its restaurant, Coddington, near Ledbury and Kent’s Green, near Newent, a family owned one managed by Charlie Peak who has a lovely spot with grapes growing over his walls as well as in the small vineyard. But they are not yet in the same league as the bigger ones which increasingly look like a vineyard trail waiting to be exploited. All they need, maybe, is a latterday Wordsworth to do them justice.
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Strawberry Hill, complete with banana trees

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Castle Brook

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Christmas lunch – two wines from London

Posted by Victor Keegan on December 24, 2015
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THIS YEAR we are going to have two wines from London (yes, London, England) and one from Wales for our Christmas lunch. If this doesn’t get us into the Guinness Book of Records nothing will. As an aperitif it will be Forty Hall sparkling, claimed to be London’s first sparkling wine for centuries. I managed to get a bottle because as a patron I was entitled to just one as output is being restricted in early years in order to boost future growth. I was going to keep it for a while as it is rather young for a sparkling but then I was offered the opportunity, again as a patron, to buy another two bottles – so that made it worth the risk of opening one for Christmas. Forty Hall is London’s largest vineyard for a very long time and maybe ever. It is an inspired community-run 10-acre project at Enfield whose grapes are turned into wine by Will Davenport, one of England’s most respected winemakers.Can’t wait.
For the turkey there is a choice. For some reason – and I am not sure where I went wrong – the rest of the family always prefers white to red. So there will be a bottle of LDN Cru, a Bacchus made at what is claimed to be London’s first urban winery in West Brompton using grapes from the family-owned Sandhurst vineyards in Kent. Purists may argue whether this is really a London wine as the grapes are grown outside the capital. But vineyards such as Chapel Down and Camel Valley always brand under their own labels even when the grapes come from Essex or wherever. For me it’s London and I look forward to a glass.
Finally, another first – a domestic red with the turkey. I am very interested in the way Pinot Noir – the grape behind Burgundy – is developing in the UK as a premium product and have already been very impressed with Gusbourne and Hush Heath Pinots this year. I also have bottles of Sharpham and Three Choirs gathering age. But this time I have decided on one from Ancre Hill in Monmouth. Their sparkling whites have been festooned with gold medals but they also have a long-term interest in producing top quality Pinot Noir in Wales. Well, that was the difficult bit. Choosing. Now it is all over bar the drinking. Happy Christmas to all.

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How far north can a vineyard go?

Posted by Victor Keegan on December 02, 2015
Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine / No Comments
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Vines on a gentle slope in Norway

 

JOAR SAETTEM produced “a nice floral wine” from the Solaris grape in 2014. Nothing particularly remarkable about that. Except that it was grown at Lerkekasa in Norway on latitude 59.4 in what is claimed to be the most northerly vineyard in the world. It sits on land rich in minerals with plenty of sun and reflected light from nearby Lake Norsjø.

This is the most extreme example of vineyards moving North, a trend that is taking hold in England as well as in Sweden and Denmark – though they are all considerably further south than Lerkekasa. Viticultural pioneers are taking a bet that global warming is on the way even though it involves a constant battle against the elements. This northern march has plenty of lessons for the whole of Britain as new vineyards move steadily up country to take advantage of improved techniques, hardier varieties and the challenge of the unknown.

The Solaris grape – hardly a household name in the south – seems to be becoming the grape of choice to make white wines in these pioneering cool and cold-climate vineyards in England, Scotland and North Wales.

The Solaris grape growing in Norway

 

Norway may be setting the pace but on my reckoning (corrections welcome) three of the next four most northerly vineyards after Lerkekåsa are in Scotland and not in Scandinavia.

The most bizarre – to southerners – is Polycroft on the remote Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – on 58 degrees latitude (the higher the latitude, of course, the further north). It grows mainly Black Hamburg grapes in polytunnels for sale at local markets in Stornaway but also makes a wine which is distributed to family and friends. The proprietors Donald Hope,a former missionary, and his wife Jean have no comment to make on the quality of their main wine, rosé. They are teetotal.

 

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Alan Smith’s experimental vineyard at Glenkindle, Scotland

Further south, but still pretty far north, on latitude 57, Alan Smith has a southern facing slope 800 feet at Glenkindle – it means “dale of roses” – on the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park where he has established a small private experimental vineyard (picture, right) to explore the hardiest grapes that can be grown in Britain. The fashionable Rondo (red) and Solaris (white) are not hardy enough for these parts so he uses Baltic and Russian hybrids such as Dalnivostock Ramming and Jublienka Novgoroda. He doesn’t think global warming is that important because, he says, a lot of the plant types that grow in the south of England also grow at 57 degrees north though the varieties are different.

He has about 200 vines spread among greenhouses (for table grapes), pots, a polytunnel (for wine) and two areas for outdoor vines.  He hopes to produce his first bottles of wine next year. His progress is likely to be watched carefully by grape aficionados for one very good reason. Glenkindle is on the same latitude as the Great Glen and Loch Ness which Professor Richard C Selley in his influential book The Winelands of Britain has predicted will be an ideal geological structure to plant vines in the future if global warming continues. Maybe, one day, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush for land in the Great Glen – but not yet.

All of this leaves unchallenged the claim of UKvine’s esteemed food columnist Christopher Trotter to have made Scotland’s first wine on a proper basis at his Momentum vineyard at Upper Largo in Fife on latitude 56. This year he produced the first bottles of Chateau Largo with the Solaris grape which accounts for 75% of the 200 vines he has planted so far. He is honest and wise enough to say that he is unhappy with his first vintage and won’t share it yet – not even with a fellow columnist. But he believes he has learned from his mistakes and hopes eventually to raise money to plant over two hectares.

Scotland is no stranger to viticultural success. In Victorian times William Thomson established Clovenfords Vineries in 1870 and planted five acres of vines under glass, with miles of hot pipes to maintain the right temperature. It created a thriving business in table grapes for 90 years under four generations of the family until a collapse in the world price of grapes put paid to the experiment. High point? While working for the Duke of Buccleuch, William entered grapes into a competition in Paris for the Grand Gold Medal of the Central Society of Horticulture of France. And guess what? He won and, to the consternation of the French who couldn’t believe that grapes grown in wild Scotland could challenge their Divine Right to viticulture, was handed the gold medal by the Emperor of France.

In England, Astley, a lovely secluded vineyard in Worcestershire, was for a long time deemed the most northerly UK vineyard before Renishaw Hall near Sheffied took over the mantle – but now there are over two dozen further north than Astley and they are winning prizes in international competitions. Ryedale at Westow near York in Yorkshire, on 53.9 latitude has ten acres and claims to be the most northerly commercial vineyard in Britain. No one in Scotland will argue with that – for the moment.

Rydedale makes most of its wine in its own winery and has won a string of bronze medals in international competitions plus a silver medal in United Kingdom Vineyards Association 2013 competition for its Shepherd’s Delight rosé. But pride of place for quality among Northern vineyards must go to Bill Hobson of Somerby Vineyard in Lincolnshire who won a gold medal at the 2014 English & Welsh Wine of the Year show for his – you’ve guessed it – Solaris still white.

Solaris slso featured in another stunning success for a Northern(ish) vineyard when Kerry Vale on the English/Welsh border at Pentreheyling in Shropshire, won one of only seven silver medals awarded to English vineyards for its Shropshire Lady dry white at the very prestigious International Wine Challenge 2015. It is a delicious wine and has become one of our favourites.

One could go on but the point is made. The success of British wines is moving slowly northwards thanks to improved techniques, climate changes and the unflappable enthusiasm of the British to produce wine from their own soil. Loch Ness, here we come.
Edited version of article in the current issue of UKvine (printed editions only)

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Future rosy for English red wines

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 08, 2015
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PinotNoirPinot Noir ready for the picking at Forty Hall vineyard at Enfield, London
(Edited version of an article in the current UKvine)

ENGLISH AND WELSH sparkling wines are now acknowledged to be world class. Still whites are starting to make an impact but our reds seem destined to linger in a viticultural Limbo, the gates to Paradise steadfastly denied. In 1691 Richard Ames wrote an epic poem about his fruitless search for a decent glass of claret in the inns of London, castigating nearly all the innkeepers for the rubbish he tasted. If Ames were alive today he might have done a similar walk looking for a decent glass of English red except, of course, that hardly any pubs serve it. Maybe he would be harranging them for not.
Yet the fact is a lot of English reds taste better than the mediocrity so often served in pubs but they are either not marketed properly or, more likely, too expensive for publicans who often won’t buy for more than £5 a bottle wholesale – before they treble or quadruple the price when they sell it. Richard Ames would have had something to say about that
There is hope. The grape that gave Bergundy its charisma, Pinot Noir, notoriously moody to grow over here, is beginning to make its mark in the UK. Jilly Goolden in a recent blind tasting said of Gusbourne Estate’s 2011 Pinot Noir that it was “divine” and could not possibly be English because we struggle to make red. Wine expert Stephen Skelton said the same wine was the best English red he had tasted. Maybe we are all a bit blind to our own achievements. I purchased Sharpham’s much praised Pinot Noir and Précoce 2011 recently and they told me to lay it down for a few years. I did what I was told, totally fazed by this being the first time anyone had recommended laying down an English wine for so long. Bolney also makes a good Pinot (its Foxhole 2013 won a silver medal in this year’s International Wine Challenge) and Ancre Hill in Wales has high hopes as does brand new vineyard Jabajak deep into west Wales despite being located rather high up.
But Pinot Noir is not the only fruit. Some vineyards are having success with Regent which is relatively easy to grow and fairly disease resistant. Professor Richard C Selley in his seminal book, The Winelands of Britain said that good red wine has been difficult to produce but things were changing with the introduction of Rondo, an immigrant from Manchuria which, he observed, produces “excellent red wine in marginal climatic conditions”.

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Can Britain make sparkling wine as well as posh fizz?

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 12, 2015
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RathfinnyUKvine
Rathfinny (above) has gone into high quality fizz in a big way -but no-one competes at the cheaper end.

BRITAIN’S motor industry is brilliant at manufacturing custom-built premium cars but no good with volume cars (at least until overseas buyers showed us how). Is it the same with sparkling wine? English and Welsh sparkling wines have done amazingly well, regularly winning gold medals against the rest of the world including Champagne. At the recent International Wine Challenge (IWC) England won a record 14 gold medals compared with 30 by France which has hugely more vineyards.
But at the cheaper end of the market it is a different story. Prosecco, that lovely sounding – if ancestorally challenged – Italian sparkling wine has swept all before it at the £5 to £10 a bottle end of the market. It has seen off Cava, the Spanish equivalent – though made slightly differently – which once dominated the lower end of the UK market. It hasn’t seen off cheap English sparkling for one very good reason. There isn’t any.
I can’t think of a single English vineyard producing sparkling wine at under £10 a bottle. As a result, although UK sparkling is a great success story it can’t hold a candle to Prosecco in terms of quantity. According to Mintel, sales of Prosecco rose an astonishing 75% in Britain in 2014 to approaching £1 billion and overtook Champagne for the first time. Since Champagne sales also rose strongly Britain’s balance of payments on sparkling account is getting much worse despite the success of British fizz.
Why can’t we produce affordable sparkling? After all, our farmers produce lots of high volume food from peas to asparagus. Why not a British Prosecco? During the IWC tasting day I asked a number of our leading vineyards whether they had thought about moving into the sub £10 market. Only one said it was contemplating such a move. The others quoted the same reasons for steering clear: heavy investment, lack of economies of scale, lower yields per acre in the UK, changing fashions etc. Stephen Skelton, the wine expert, says in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain that the sub £10 a bottle matrket is not a price sector that uk producers “want to, or can afford to be in”.
He may well be right but this sort of reasoning does not stop us from investing in other farm products. If Britain’s farmers were faced with £1 billion imports of a cheaper form of carrot they would respond immediately. Is it just because noone has tried?
Prosecco is much cheaper to produce than Champagne-style wines which have to be matured in bottles over a number of years. It is fermented in tanks rather than bottles and can be ready to sell in a matter of months so it’s good for cash flow.
Of course, there is the major question of branding. What could we call it? Prosecco has a posh(ish) image even though it could soon lose it by becoming too cheap (I bought a bottle in Aldi recently for £5.29p of which £2.63 was duty and when you add in Vat, transport and production costs it doesn’t leave much, if anything, for profit). Other Proseccos sell for up to £10 or more so there is still a lot to play for.
Prosecco used to be the name of the grape as well as the region – so British vineyards could have marketed similar wines under that name. But Italy wised up. It is still the same grape – Glera – but since 2009 Prosecco can only legally come from the region. That’s what I mean by ancestorially challenged.
Britain’s challenge is to find someone bold enough to produce it on a big scale and then sell it under a catchy name to satisfy the exploding consumer demand for cheap Prosecco-style sparkling wines. In other words to do what Rathfinny – which is planting over 400 acres – is doing at the premium end of the market: Think big and reap economies of scale. Is there anyone out there ready to to take the risk?
(Edited version of an article in UKvine, the new magazine dedicated to English and Welsh wines)

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England’s mystery grape – myth or magic?

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 09, 2015
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Wrotham Pinot maturing

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Wrotham Pinot matured
IF SHERLOCK HOLMES had been interested in English wines, he would surely have tried to solve the mystery of Wrotham Pinot, an intriguing English mutation of the classic Burgundy grape Pinot Noir. It was supposedly grown in England by the Romans and later by medieval monks but has disappeared without trace from its native land though cuttings – it is claimed – taken from the UK have been grown very successfully on a two-acre site at a Yountville vineyard in California’s Napa Valley.

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If true this would be of great interest to the burgeoning UK vineyards growing Pinot Noir because this variety is claimed to ripen two weeks earlier with higher sugar content and is apparently immune from powdery mildew which afflicts the standard varieties.

Edward Hyams, one of the pioneering British viticulturists says he discovered it on a wall in Wrotham (pronounced ‘Root-um’) in Kent in the late 1940s. It was almost certainly a variety known as ‘Miller’s Burgundy’ because the flour-like texture of its leaves reminded locals of mill workers after a long day’s milling. It had been grown on walls for many years having been originally discovered by the great horticulturalist Sir Joseph Banks in an ancient vineyard at Tortworth, Gloucestershire. However, I have been reminded by Stephen Skelton that Pinot Meunier leaves all have that flour-like appearance.
Hyams apparently took the vine to Ray Barrington Brock at what was to become the Oxted Viticultural Research Station, and he trialled it alongside the many other varieties he grew.
It was during a visit to Britain around 1980 that the distinguished US viticulturist Dr Richard Grant Peterson came across a wine made from Wrotham Pinot and although it wasn’t very good there was something in it that attracted him enough to take cuttings back to California, where, after meeting lengthy quarantine rules, he planted what eventually became two acres of Wrotham Pinot which still exists today and the wine from which has won prestigious gold medals. It has been described as the “most unique vineyard in the whole of the Napa Valley”. But it has yet to be established that he took the cutting from Wrotham and he has been mute on the subject when approached.
So what happened to this wonder vine in Britain? Does it join the embarrassing list of things discovered in the UK but exploited abroad? Is it still growing somewhere? Or should it be in the Loch Ness family of rural myths? It was after reading Stephen Skelton’s excellent Wine Growing in Great Britain – and an earlier book of his – which first alerted me to Wrotham Pinot that I decided to do a little sleuthing myself (though Stephen himself is now highly sceptical that Wrotham Pinot – which is an officially designated vine in the UK – is anything other than a Pinot Meunier).
In his book A Vineyard in England, Norman Sneesby chronicles his progress in establishing a vineyard on the Isle of Ely in 1973 where among other varieties he planted 100 cuttings of Wrotham Pinot. These produced 48 rooted plants which were looking healthy until they were “taken by the birds”.
A few years later Dudley Quirk grew Wrotham Pinot on his – now defunct – 65 acre vineyard at Chiddingstone near Wrotham in Kent. Some locals believe it was served at a banquet given by Margaret Thatcher for President Mitterrand but it was probably another variety from the same vineyard.
It occurred to me that it was possible that there might still be enthusiasts in Wrotham who had taken cuttings from the original vine – long since gone – on the garden wall which was supposedly somewhere along the main street. I wrote to the Parish Council and others looking for a lead. My email was forwarded to Brian Saunders of the Wrotham Allotment Society. He was very knowledgeable about the grape and not only had one growing in his garden (see pictures above, courtesy of Brian) but knew of around eight other locals who had taken cuttings from him and were now growing it themselves including one who has 12 vines growing on his allotment. Brian says he had got his from Dudley Quirk at Chiddingstone: “He gave me half a dozen cuttings around 1987… I potted them up and after a year planted one out”.
He added that the historical society established contact with the vineyard in Napa Valley and two of his neighbours visited it bringing back some bottles back for a wedding. One of them made wine from Wrotham grapes which was “passable but a bit acidy”. Brian has two bottles of the Napa Valley Wrotham Pinot which he hasn’t opened – one sparkling pink and the other an off dry white.
Whether all this is nothing more than an interesting sidebar to a curious story remains too be seen. The question is whether Wrotham Pinot – with its claimed near immunity to powdery mildew and the benefit of early fruiting – is worth re-planting in Britain given the increased interest in Pinot Noir among UK vineyards and all the improvements in technical ability and climate that have happened since it was last planted. You don’t have to swallow whole the seductive claim that it was the original variety introduced by the Romans – for which there is as yet no archaeological evidence – to accept that Wrotham Pinot, if it exists at all as a distinctive mutation, would be something special.
@BritishWino

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Voyage through the vineyards of Wales (2)

Posted by Victor Keegan on August 06, 2015
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Ancre

IMPRESSIVE THOUGH the wines of North Wales are it is in the south where the sparks are really flying. The role model is ANCRE HILL ESTATES, (above, right) barely a mile from the town of Monmouth in the Wye Valley, which is run by the Morris family (Richard, Joy and David). They first hit the radar when their 2008 sparkling white – made from the Seyval grape – was voted the best sparkling wine in the world at the prestigious 2012 Bolliicine Del Mondo international blind tasting in Italy against competition from champagnes including Bollinger. They have since added two more gold medals to their tally which – if you want to fiddle around with statistics – almost certainly means that during that period Wales with barely 15 vineyards had more gold medals per vineyard than England which has well over 500 vineyards.

Ancre Hill is not standing still. It has just completed a state-of-the art biodynamic wiinery – the first major winery in Wales – and over the next few years will be adding 20 acres to its existing 10 acres on land that will first be deep ploughed. Unusually they have also planted Albarino which will be ready for sale next year. Richard doesn’t feel that soil is as important as some people claim but admits that when they started planting they hadn’t realised that their land was on a small seam of jurassic limestone. He has particularly high hopes for the new Chardonnay which he feels will compare favourably with the competition from Burgundy. Ancre Hill hopes to produce 14,000 bottles this year. It is open during the summer and serves a great lunch platter of Welsh cheeses with a glass of one of their excellent wines. 

 Further down the Wye is the upwardly mobile PARVA FARM at the end of a steep hill at Tintern where you are likely to see sheep wandering around. If Wordsworth was doing the Wye walk today he might well have called his famous poem “Wines above Tintern Abbey” in honour of this tiny 2.5 acre vineyard which has won nearly a dozen silver medals including one at the International Wine Challenge of 2011 for its 2009 Bacchus. Marks and Spencer has just purchased 400 bottles of the 2013 Bacchus and would have bought more if it had been available. This is still one to be watched. 

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And so are most of the other impressive vineyards in South Wales. The doyen of them all is the six acre GLYNDWR VINEYARD, (left) blissfully situated at Llanblethian in the Vale of Glamorgan, a regular supplier to Waitrose, which has become something  of a bellwether of the state of Welsh wine by steadily improving its quality year by year. Viewing is by appointment.

Nearby is MEADOW VIEW, a family run two acre vineyard at Cowbridge which sells through supermarkets and shops .

 The most complete vineyard experience – taking into account wine, food,environment and even a cooking school – is LLANERCH (above, top left) at Hensol in the Vale of Glamorgan, 20 minutes from Cardiff. You can eat in the restaurant or in summer outside in front of the vines or go for a walk in the neighbouring woods. There is nothing quite like having a glass of wine in front of the vines from which it was grown.I had a Caesar Salad with King Prawns  washed down with a very palatable medium dry wine.

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Jabajak (left)
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White Castle vineyard (below)


The most intriguing vineyard is JABAJAK in Carmarthenshire. Until this year it was a vineyard without wine. It scrapped the previous year’s harvest from its 3.5 acres as not being up to scratch. Its restaurant is easily the best among Welsh vineyards and compares well with prestigious restaurants in London. If their taste in food extends to wine Jabajak (the word is an anagram of the founders’ initials) then it is definitely one to watch. It is in a lovely situation, though quite high up for vines, and as an added attraction it claims that its main building, a house the lease of which states that it must be painted white, was the inspiration for the White House in Washington. This is to say the least debatable but the vineyard claims that the farm was once owned by David Adams who emigrated to America and whose grandson (John Adams) and great grandson (John Quincy Adams) both became presidents of the United States. Not many vineyards can claim that – even if there are rival claimants around about the pedigree of the Adams family. 

About seventeen miles west of Jabajak is yet another unusual vineyard. CWM DERI (“Valley Oak”) in the Pembrokeshire National Park. It has four shops of its own and in addition to mainstream wines it makes blends of grape wine with other fruits (like wild damson with rosé) and also a wine made from fermented vine leaves which was, er, a bit different.

Another one to watch is LLAETHLIW (‘the colour of milk”) deep in Dylan Thomas country near Aberaeron where Plumpton-trained Jac Evans, aged 24, splits his time between working on oil rigs and tending his parents’ 7 acres of vines – to be extended by another 15 acres over the next two years. In 2014 1,600 bottles were sold out by Christmas. This year there are expected to be 6,000 for sale. They are building a winery – the second serious one to be built in Wales recently – together with a log cabin for tasting.
 Last but not least are several vineyards each with a character of their own.
First, the lovely SUGARLOAF VINEYARDS slumbering within sight of the Sugar Loaf Mountains in the Brecon Beacons National Park and as good a place as any to sit on the terrace and sip a glass of their very palatable prize-winning wines and be lulled by the seductive power of the Welsh mountains. Second, BRYN CEILIOG (“Cock Hill”), which, though only two miles from Cardiff as the crow flies, is so out of the way down country tracks that it is strictly by appointment only. The amiable Ian Symonds who runs it is an intrepid wine producer soldiering on after no vintages at all in 2011 and 2012. Over 90% of his output is sold to local hotels and restaurants from his charming estate where you can see the coast of Devon on a clear day. The tranquility of the day I visited was interrupted only by the sound of a large tractor making its way down the narrow trackway . . driven by Ian’s 90 year-old father.

Finally, WHITE CASTLE (above, right) is a brand new 5 acre venture by a husband and wife team which not only produced red (as well as white wine) in its debut year, 2012, but sold all of it at a premium price of £20 a bottle

It would be easy to dismiss all this as Wales jumping on to the English wine revival – except that the direction of causality may be the other way round. Wales has a strong case to have started the whole English revival when a Scot – the Earl of Bute – established two vineyards in Glamorgan, one at the fairy tale Gothic revival castle at Castell Coch and the other at Swanbridge. For over 40 years he and his son ran the only successful commercial vineyard in the UK with 63,000 vines until supplies of sugar (needed for fermentation) dried up because of the requirements of the 1914/18 war.

CastellCoch
The Bute project effectively ended the Dark Ages of British wine which had lasted several hundred years due to a combination of factors including the dissolution of the monasteries, the acquisition of some of the best vineyards in France through a royal marriage plus a bit of climate change. We don’t know how the wine would have measured up to today’s standards though the noble earl was reported too have said “You wouldn’t want to trade hock for Coch” but what he had proved was that it was possible to produce saleable white and red wines in South Wales on a big scale. And if it was possible in Wales, then why not England?

Today there is nothing left of the Bute vineyard which has been turned into a nine-hole golf course at Tongwynlais (photo, above) just off the M4 motorway near Cardiff. It is worth a nostalgic visit to see the picturesque setting with the castle in the background. It is easy to imagine the vineyard that was once there even though, sadly, there isn’t a plaque there to remind people of an historic landmark in the march of English and Welsh wine. The Earl of Bute would purr with delight if he could see what his experiment had led to. And the revolution hasn’t stopped yet. 

Michelin starred chef Roger Jones expects that Welsh vineyards will soon be able to rival those in New Zealand and the Champagne region of France. He adds: “Sparkling wine is amazing from Wales and that’s not just Ancre Hill. I was the head judge for the inaugural Welsh wine awards and I was gobsmacked by the quality.”Wales may have fewer vineyards than it had a few years ago but those that remain are vibrant and still raring to go. 

Edited version of an article in UKvine (printed) magazine

Voyage through the vineyards of Wales – Part 1 The North

Posted by Victor Keegan on July 27, 2015
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Edited version of an article in the current UKvine magazine (print only)
PantDu640 Pant Du vineyard among the North Wales Hills

IN FEBRUARY 2013 a visitor on a train coming into Llandudno (Junction) station in North Wales noticed a hill out of the window where it looked as though vines were growing (picture below). When he arrived at his destination he commented on what a great position the vineyard was in and that he would love to come back when the wine was ready. That man was Kevin Judd, one of the world’s most respected winemakers whose Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc catapulted New Zealand onto the global winemaking map. He was in town to promote his new wine Greywacke at the Vinomondo shop in Llandudno. Well, the wine from that hillside is now almost ready for drinking. It is the CONWY vineyard – barely an acre – owned by Colin and Charlotte Bennett. It is the most northerly vineyard in Wales, as well as the smallest – almost the last place you might think of to plant a vineyard.
I have no idea what the wine, due this year, will taste like but it is typical of the enthusiasm and entrepreneurial endeavour behind the revival of Welsh wines which are now punching way above their weight. They range from multi-gold winning Ancre Hill in Monmouth to tiny (silver-medal winning) Parva Farm within sight of Tintern Abbey which recently sold 480 bottles to Marks & Spencer. As I found out on an extended tour of the country, almost every vineyard has a fascinating story to tell.

Conway640
Conway vineyard looking towards the railway into LLandudno

NOT LEAST PANT DU at Penygroes, about 33 miles away, along the coast, the jewel of North Wales vineyards which the Gods have positioned on the slopes of the Welsh-speaking Nantlle Valley with Snowdon and its sibling mountains  to the north-east and sweeping views of the sea to the west. If you know of a  more dramatically situated vineyard in the UK, keep it to yourself: no one will believe you. It is approached by a winding lane between the vines leading to an excellent cafe/shop where they sell their products including cider and apple juice. Plaques on the wall celebrate local celebrities, Bryn Terfel and a Jan Morris poem. But, sadly, on the occasion of a visit by my brother and I, we could not buy any wine – all 3,000 bottles from last year’s vintage have long since been sold out so we will have to wait until the bumper 2014 harvest is available from the 8.5 acres of vines. However, Richard and Iola Hughes, the very welcoming proprietors, kindly rustled up a glass of their very pleasant fruity 2013 Rondo. Richard claims you can smell the raspberry bouquet from a distance.

Richard is restlessly experimental even growing cabernet sauvignon (40 bottles last year) in addition to Rondo, Seyval which is doing well and Bacchus (“good but shy with fruit”). To combat wind and birds he has planted alder trees because birds don’t nest in them and in between the alders are elder flowers because their berries ripen at the same time as the grapes and are preferred by the birds. Pant Du also take the grapes from Ty Croes vineyard no longer open to the public. Until recently there was a fourth vineyard in North Wales at LLANBADRIG where Tom Barlow had his own winery making 10,000 bottles a year until ill health forced him to give up. He grew Cabinet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin and Pinot Grigio under poly tunnels as well as other varieties.

KerryVale640

 The vineyard at Kerry Vale
North Wales was a good introduction to two contrasting vineyards in mid Wales. KERRY VALE at Pentrheyling, it has to be said, is technically in England but as it is only 200 yards from the border at one point and claims to be the only place in England where you have to travel through Wales – which surrounds it – to get there it has a Welsh buzz about it. You get the feeling that a strong wind might blow it across the border. Which is maybe why it is included in the official Welsh vineyards trail. 
 From the moment you walk into the elegant reception area, complete with sofas and a shop you know this place is different. On your right under a glass cover is a 45 ft deep Roman well with 6 ft of water, a reminder that the vineyard is built on the remains of a Roman fort and settlement artefacts from which are kept upstairs in a micro-museum. They include a shard from a bit of Samian pottery from the first century AD which has the motif of a hare on it. Since the vineyard hosts two real hares on the estate they have incorporated the image of a hare onto the cushions in reception and on the labels of one of their wines (Rare Hare Rosé).

Oops, I nearly forgot: the wines. Despite the fact that the very engaging Ferguson family have only been making wine for a couple of years they entered the prestigious International Wine Challenge in May and came out with a silver medal for their Shropshire Lady 2014 , a still white wine made from the Solaris grape (available from June). It was one of only six medals awarded for still wines in the UK, an amazing achievement. Kerry Vale was also commended for its very tasty Summer Days 2014. 

 A short drive from Kerry Vale is PENARTH ESTATE, another unusual vineyard if only because most of its produce is sold through several London restaurants that it owns including The Covent Garden Kitchen near the Royal Opera House and Tiles Wine bar near Victoria Station where I have savoured some of their very pleasant sparkling wines made by the Champagne method. They also experiment with other varieties including Merlot and Cabinet Franc while in bad years they make brandy instead. Lots of other vineyards sell mainly to visitors but but Penarth’s vertical integration in supplying its own restaurants is unusual and another example of what makes viticulture in Wales so vibrant. The vineyard covers ten acres in idyllic countryside close by the Severn River adjacent to the family’s beautiful 15th century black and white timber framed house. Visits by appointment.
Penarth640Penarth vineyard
 

Britain at its most picturesque – the Wye Valley wine trail

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 08, 2015
Engilsh vineyards, Uncategorized / No Comments
Parva1

Sheep at Parva Farm vineyard in Tintern

 

THE WYE VALLEY has a strong claim to be the cradle of the tourism industry in Britain. When Continental wars deprived monied people of the Grand Tour in Europe they perforce turned homewards and the Wye Tour from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow – passing Goodrich Castle and Tintern Abbey – became the trip to make for them and for poets like Wordsworth and Thomas Gray not to mention painters such as Turner.
It is almost the last place you would think of today as a vineyard destination. That is because we define our vineyards by county or pre- defined regions and can’t easily cope with a river haven like the Wye Valley which transcends countries – Wales and England – as well as counties (Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Herefordshire). But today it has a strong claim to be a vineyard destination as well.
Travelling up the Wye from Chepstow the first vineyard you come to is Parva Farm on the left of the river (open all year) stunningly situated up a steep slope in Tintern overlooking the river and, if you reach high enough, the Abbey.  Its wines have won a stack of silver and bronze medals. Marks and Spencer recently asked for as much of its Bacchus as they could spare.
A few miles up river at Monmouth you can visit Ancre Hill Estate (April to end September) a biodynamic vineyard which burst on to the scene two years ago when its 2008 (Seyval) white was voted the best sparkling wine in the world at the Bollicine del Mondo in Verona beating off competition from established champagnes. This was an astonishing achievement for a new Welsh vineyard which even my Welsh friends have difficulty in believing.  On a sunny day eating a lunch of their local cheeses, vines stretching out before you, with one of their lovely sparkling or still wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay etc) is a great joy.
Further upstream at Coughton, near Ross-on-Wye, on the site of a Roman vineyard, is newcomer Castle Brook whose delicious Chinn-Chinn 2009, made with classic champagne grapes, recently won a gold medal and was voted the best sparkling white in the whole of the South-West Vineyard Association’s area beating off the likes of Camel Valley in Cornwall and Furleigh in Dorset. Castle Brook is owned by the Chinn family, probably the biggest asparagus growers in the country. It is open by appointment but wine can be purchased online.

CastleBrook

Christopher Chinn of the Chinn family who have diversified from asparagus into sparkling wines

Further north, less than ten miles from the Wye with a good restaurant and accommodation is the highly regarded Three Choirs whose 80 acres produce fine prize-winning wines, including gold. The vineyard also makes wine for dozens of other vineyards. If you take into account the whole vineyard experience – including the quality of wine, the setting, the food and the atmosphere, this one is up with the very best.

ThreeChoirs

Three Choirs, one of Britain’s oldest and most successful vineyards

Strawberry Hill

Banana trees at Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill vineyard, so close to Three Choirs that you could almost use it as a spittoon, is one of the most unusual vineyards anywhere and one of my favourites.  It makes good wines (some stocked by Waitrose) partly from over an acre under glass enabling it to grow Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon  not normally possible in England.
It claims to be the only vineyard in the world growing commercially under glass, which no one has yet contested. As if that isn’t enough, it  has rows of flourishing banana trees – growing outside! – as well.

There are plenty of other vineyards in The Wye Valley (depending on where you draw the boundaries) including a new 3.5 acre one at Wythall in the grounds of a stunning Tudor mansion, Lullham, the wonderful Broadfield Court, also Coddington,  now under happy new ownership, Sparchall and a micro vineyard The Beeches at  Upton Bishop. This is by no means a complete list. If all these can’t generate a vineyard trail I don’t know what will. If Wordsworth were alive today, I wonder if he would have  written about Wines  a few miles above Tintern Abbey rather than  his celebrated “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” .Either way Galileo’s description of wine as sunlight held together by water has a unique resonance in the Wye Valley.

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Was the White House in Washington named after this vineyard in Wales?

Posted by Victor Keegan on March 04, 2015
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Jabajak2

The white house of Jabajak vineyard

IT IS a curious fact that the great English wine revival was really started in Wales by a Scot. The Earl of Bute established two vineyards in Glamorgan at Castell Coch and Swanbridge. From the mid 1870s until the 1914/18 war – when supplies of sugar needed for fermentation dried up – he and his son ran the only commercial vineyard in the UK. This ended the Dark Ages of UK wine production and proved to subsequent UK pioneers that if white and red wines could be successfully made in South Wales then the prospects must be good for other  parts of the UK.The Bute vineyard at Castell Coch is now a miniature golf course (below) but the revival of Welsh wine is now in full swing and gaining international attention.

The flagship is the newcomer Ancre Hill Estate of Monmouth, run by the engaging Morris family, which broke the English monopoly of gold medals when its 2008 white was voted the best sparkling wine in the world – against competition from Champagnes – at the prestigious Bollicine del Mondo blind tasting in Italy. Since then it has won a further clutch of gold and silver medals and is in the middle of an expansion which involves new acreage at a nearby farm and a state-of-the art biodynamic winery.
But Ancre Hill is merely one of a flourishing network of vineyards in Wales which are starting to make their mark in the wider world. The most interesting newbie, is Jabajak. (picture above)  (Don’t reach for your Welsh dictionary – it is an anagram of the initials of its founders). At the moment it is an anomaly; a vineyard without wine. This is because they dumped last year’s crop as not up to the standard they are seeking so their first wines won’t be ready until May. But the rest of the infrastructure is in place including rooms, 3.5 acres of vines, a carp pond and a restaurant already producing first class food including scallops which were among the best I have tasted and delicious Welsh lamb.
As if this isn’t enough they have a potentially killer selling point. It is in their lease that they must keep the main house painted white, a condition laid down when it was a farm owned by David Adams who subsequently emigrated to America and whose grandson (John Adams) and great grandson (John Quincy Adams) both became Presidents of the United States. It was during John Adams’ presidency that the President’s abode was first referred to as the White House even though this was long before it was actually coloured white. Locals in this part of Wales believe it was called the White House because of stories handed down by the Adams family that the white house in Wales was where the decisions were made. Whether you think this is a load of jabajak or not doesn’t matter: if people start believing it over the water, they may have to build a new airport here to meet demand.

CwmDeri

 

Seventeen miles west of Jabajak surrounded by the Pembrokeshire National Park is the most curious vineyard in Wales, Cwm Deri (“Valley  Oak”) Estate (picture, left).  Not only does it have four of its own shops (one at the vineyard and others in Cardiff, Bridgend and Tenby) which is  unusual for a vineyard but it also sells grape wines mixed with other fruit wines as well as conventional ones. I sampled a wild damson with  medium dry rosé  in the conservatory  restaurant overlooking the vines which tasted like I imagine a damson Kir would.
There are a number of other interesting Welsh vineyards which I have covered in previous blogs including the lovely Sugarloaf Vineyards near Abergavenny, the recently created White Castle vineyard at Llanvetherine, the surprisingly good Parva nestling above the tourist haven of Tintern and the doyen of them all  Glyndwr which has been making steadily improving wines at a blissfully secluded six acres at Llanblethian since 1982 much of which goes to Waitrose.
Among other well established vineyards Llanerch stands out as providing the best overall package with very nice food and drink with a restaurant, outside tables, shop and a local walk.
Another one to look out for is Llaethliw (“colour of milk”) in Dylan Thomas country near Aberaeron where Plumpton-trained Jac Evans, aged 24 bides his time between working on an oil rig near Aberdeen and tending  his parents’ 7 acres of vines with another 15 acres to be planted over the next two years. Last year 1,600 bottles were sold out before Christmas. This year he hopes for 6,000. Wales is on the move.

@Britishwino @Jabajak @ancrehillestate @cwmderi

CastellCoch

The golf course at Castell Coch which was once a pioneering vineyard

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The road to app-iness for Britain’s vineyards

Posted by Victor Keegan on December 31, 2014
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Britain’s rarest vineyard at Strawberry Hill, Glocs, has an acre under glass and banana trees

 

OK, it’s a new year and English and Welsh vineyards are on a roll. The challenging question is can this upsurge in popular interest be turned into a community of producers and consumers that would be mutually beneficial. One obvious route is to create a smartphone app that tells imbibers and tourists where the nearest vineyards are complete with directions how to get there and access to social networks to see what others think about the vines and wines.
There is no shortage of wine apps. I have a couple of dozen on my iPhone, about half a dozen of which I use regularly. Some, like the excellent ones from Berry Brothers and the Wine Society, enable you to search their corporate archives and buy directly from the phone if you want to. Berry Brothers even have educational videos. But they are mainly about imported wines.
If you want to employ some of the more exciting functions of a mobile phone – like identifying a wine from its label and telling you how much it costs – you will have to use an overseas app (mainly American) such as WineSearcher, Vivino or Delectable. These are very handy if you want to know in a restaurant whether you are being charged three, four or even five times the retail value of the bottle – simply point and click at the label and the price pops up on your screen often with comments from other users.
If you want to know where British vineyards are you can use the excellent UK vineyards map at http://ukvineyards.co.uk/vineyards-map/southeast/ which works best from a desktop computer.

 

 

But if you are on the move and want to know where the nearest vineyards are complete with directions how to get there you will have to use an American app like Winerypedia which in theory works around the globe. I noticed when it started that Chapel Down was on to it pretty quickly. I put up a few vineyards myself and others also started appearing. It accepts user-generated content so could be used as a UK community. It is no where near comprehensive yet but it is worth looking at because it shows what can be done with simple GPS technology. And it’s free.
The only English app I know of promoting a range of vineyards is one that was due in December from the South East Vineyard Association which represents many of the most successful vineyards in the country. I paid £2.49 for it at the online Apple Store a few days ago though it seems to have been withdrawn since. Hopefully, this will be to change it because it looks like being a sadly lost opportunity.

Entries from the Delectable app

Although there are some elegant pictures with text you can get a better (free) map from the UK vineyards offering mentioned earlier. There doesn’t seem to be a facility to see how far you are from a vineyard let alone getting directions. One of the aims is to raise money for the Association by charging £2.49  – but this simply won’t happen. Apps like this are nearly always free because of an entrenched reluctance by consumers to pay. I deeply regret this fact but it is true. Punters expect all but the most specialised apps (Hugh Johnson may be able to get away with it) to be free leaving the publisher to make money by in-app purchases, adverts or upgrades later. A vineyard app is not an end in itself but a means to promoting vineyards and selling wine. That is where the returns – and the community – will come from. It has to be free upfront.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a community-based app that gave you live directions to the nearest vineyard and enabled you to add your own comments and ratings and see what others were saying about UK wines – complete of course with a buy-button.
Ideally, such an app would be independent of any vested interests as it would obviously contain criticism as well as praise (Think Trip Advisor). Failing that the UK Vineyards Association and English Wine Producers should get together and do it in their collective interest.
It is surely better that we do this ourselves rather than yet again hanging on the coat tails of the US?

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Did the English invent sparkling wine from their own vineyards?

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 16, 2014
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IT IS NOW well accepted, that the English invented what came to be known as the Méthode Champenoise thanks to Tom Stevenson’s amazing discovery of a paper presented to the Royal Society in 1662 by Christopher Merret of Gloucestershire. Stevenson’s assumption was that the English were using their sparkling wine technology to make imported still French wines fizzy.This couldn’t have happened in France because their bottles were so fragile they would explode during a secondary fermentation (and, anyway, they didn’t have corks). The English had a lead of at least 20 years in sparkling technology.

But could it be that the Brits were also producing fizz from still wine made from grapes grown in England? If so, this would mean that the current boom in home produced sparkling wine is merely a revival of something we pioneered from our own vineyards.
I have just been reading – thanks to Google scanning it – William Hughes 1665 classic, The Compleat Vineyard which strongly suggests that the Brits had been making sparkling wine out of home-grown grapes for quite a while.
Hughes admits that most of our wines were imported but he also points to
vineyards in Essex, in the west of England, and Kent, which “produce great store of excellent good wine”. Indeed the entire book is about growing grapes in England.

Among various suggestions, he says: “If the wine be not brisk, how shall we make it without the addition of Sugar, Vinegar,Vi?riol & to sparkle or rather bubble in the Glass”.

He has another suggestion for English wine: “Suppose you have a piece of Wine which naturally is too sharp for your drinking, you may draw it out into bottles, and in each bottle put a spoonful or two of refined sugar, and so set them in sand in a Cellar, and let them stand a considerable time before you drink it, and you will find it a pleasant and good Wine”
All this was contained in The Compleat Vineyard” which is a do-it-yourself manual about growing grapes in Britain. My edition was published in 1665. It must have been several years in the writing and printing and he must have been describing what were quite common practices. Isn’t it high time we celebrated this achievement more vocally to assist the success of our sparkling revival? There was an interesting conversation on Twitter recently suggesting that April 23 (St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday) should be designated English Sparkling Wine Day. It would be a shame if it bit the dust.

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Vineyards of tomorrow

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 14, 2014
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Colour changes at Bride Valley

WE HEAR a lot about well established estates winning prizes – but what about the vineyards of tomorrow? I have been looking at a few ventures still at the incubation stage and they couldn’t be more different. Bride Valley is at Litton Cheney set in beautiful Dorset countryside (above). Its sparkling wine is eagerly awaited within the trade because Steven Spurrier, who owns it with his wife Bella, is globally admired as a wine expert and is taking something of a risk in suddenly deciding to practise what he preaches by establishing his own vineyard in his seventies. It is a bit like a theatre critic deciding to write their own play.
 Among numerous distinctions Steven set up the Judgement of Paris in 1976 when wines from California, unexpectedly, beat top wines from France in a blind tasting dominated by French tasters but including himself. Now the taster is to be tasted – though judging by a rather delicious sample of  their Classic Cuvee 2011 (almost entirely Chardonnay) I had from of the few early bottles I don’t think he has anything to worry about.
Bride Valley covers 25 acres spreading across several lovely Jurassic shale hillsides. It looks equally good in summer or in Autumnal mists when the red and yellow tints can warn vineyard manager Graham Fisher of differing soil conditions underneath or nutrient deficiencies. For instance, although the land has a chalk base similar to the terrain of Champagne country too much chalk can yellow the leaves while sudden reddish tints can indicate fractured canes.  The grapes are made into wine at nearby Furleigh Estate which has won gold medals for its own wines. It is in safe hands.
   JAGAJAG in Carmarthenshire, South Wales, by contrast, is a vineyard without wine. At least, not yet. It has a fully fledged infrastructure – including fine rooms and a highly regarded restaurant – but no bottles to sell. In 2013, a good year for UK grape growers, Jagajag had to abandoned its crop as the fruit wasn’t good enough. But they persevered and with a much healthier looking crop in 2014 they are hoping to have bottles ready to sell for next year. The quality of wines in Wales, led by multi-gold winning Ancre Hill Estate in Monmouth, has risen dramatically in recent years and it will be interesting to see whether Jagajag’s patience is rewarded.

Frank Myers at Wythall

WYTHALL, over the border in Herefordshire, is another contrast. It has grapes but no infrastructure from which to sell at the moment. However, if you are planning to attract visitors to a new vineyard then having a 500 year old mansion house is unlikely to prove much of a handicap. Frank Myers (above) has singlehandedly planted nearly 3,500 vines  on 3.5 acres at Wythall, near Ross-on-Wye which has been owned by the family of his wife (the Euro-MP Anthea McIntyre) since the early 17th century. And they have documents to prove it.
Frank –  a successful businessman in his own right – has had a dream about being involved with a vineyard ever since his childhood in the centre of Manchester where, he says, he rarely saw a tree.  The main field (above) curving off to the right looks a bit like a dog leg on a golf course. He admits he may have to cut a few trees down to admit a bit more light but is pleased with this first crop which is to be turned into wine by the highly regarded Three Choirs vineyard at nearby Newent which provides an ecosystem for dozens of growers in the area. If his plans pan out and the wine is good enough this will be a lovely vineyard to visit.
EVEN smaller is the vineyard on the Sussex/Kent borders planned by Paul Olding who has served his apprenticeship on an allotment in Lewisham, London where he has been making his own wine- up to 100 bottles of Olding Manor – for some years as a preparation to realising his and his wife’s dream of having their own vineyard. Now they have purchased land  in east Sussex at Eridge Green including 1.5 acres on which they will start planting vines in 2016 after tilling the soil for a year. It will be interesting to see how this develops and one wonders how many other enthusiasts have been starting their own small vineyards up and down the country to become part of the revival of UK winemaking. Let me know . .
LAST, but certainly not least is Rathfinny which I visited recently. Its first wine (all sparkling)  is not due for a couple of years but its plan to produce a million bottles of fizz from a planned 400 acres has already sent shock waves throughout the industry. Pessimists say there is no way they will be able to sell a million bottles without disrupting the nascent UK sparkling wine industry. Optimists point out that a million bottles is barely one percent of the UK domestic fizz market and the growing quality of English wine will see off the competition and boost exports.
THESE four examples are typical of what is happening in the UK where big growers are starting to think on a global scale while boutique vineyards are happy to service very localised – but premium – markets  from their cellar doors enabling them to retain the wholesale and retail profit margins.

Wythall, 500 years on

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager at Rathfinny

 The interesting fact is that well over 90% of all new plantings are of grape varieties that go to make sparkling – particularly the classic combo of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which is used for Champagne. I see no reason why UK wines should not go on from strength to strength. If they don’t then at least we will all be left with stocks of prize winning fizz with which to drown our sorrows.

 

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The Jurassic wines of Dorset

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 02, 2014
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Furleigh Vineyard

THE GEOLOGY of Dorset which has made the Jurassic coast an international heritage site is now helping to build a thriving new industry: vineyards. The soft rise and fall of the terrain – with a structure similar to  the Champagne area of Northern France – almost cries out for grapes to be grown. And so they have been. During the past couple of years the wines of Dorset have graduated from being merely interesting to winning top prizes. And I don’t doubt there’s more to come. Furleigh Estate, an attractive vineyard/winery hidden at the end of a long track off a remote country lane near Bridport, started the ball rolling by becoming the first English vineyard to win a gold medal at the very prestigious French wine tasting competition Effervescents du Monde almost two years ago with its Classic Cuvee 2009. Its winemaker Ian Edwards was voted UK Winemaker of the Year.

Liam Idzikowski of Langham

LANGHAM Wine Estate near Dorchester is  hidden like so many English vineyards along a maze of narrow country lanes. Earlier this year it not only won the Judgement of Parsons Green against 100 other top sparkling English wines with its 2010 Classic Cuvée – you can put down that telephone, it’s out of stock – but was also awarded 8th place with its  Reserve Blanc de Noirs. Not bad for a first year’s production and an impressive feat for its admirable Irish winemaker Liam Idzikowski (pictured, right) who kindly showed me the winery and vineyard which manages to employ modern techniques without losing the atmosphere of the farm that gave rise to it. Langham expects to produce 35,000 bottles this year, double last year not including 5,000 bottles produced for a nearby vineyard. Like so many other vineyards in Britain nearly 90% of the wine is sold locally, a good business model which enables them to retain the retail and wholesale profit margins and avoid heavy marketing and transports costs.

ALSO IN THE gold medal league, though your won’t find it on any label, is Wodetone Vineyard (bottom, left) overlooking the Dorset coast where Nigel Riddle farms 30 acres of the classic Champagne varieties that all go to nearby Furleigh for making into wine under their label. Nigel seems quite content with being a gold winner at one remove as it removes all the hassle of making, selling and marketing.
ANOTHER Dorset vineyard which we will definitely be hearing more about is Bride Valley owned by the wine guru Steven Spurrier and his wife Bella and managed by seasoned vineyard manager Graham Fisher. I intend to write more about this fascinating vineyard in my my next blog but we were treated to a glass of Bride Valley, 2011 (Classic Cuvee) from their first sparkling harvest, only available in small quantities which was delicious. It is another important factor in Dorset’s rising reputation for sparkling wine.

Andrew and Sarah Pharoah of English Oak

NOT FAR away along south Dorset’s golden strip is English Oak named after the handsome tree that stands on part of the carefully manicured 16 acre vineyard run by Andrew and Sarah Pharoah (left) who, amazingly,  prunes every vine herself. That’s love for you. I came here because my wife and I were dining in a restaurant in Dorchester last year and were surprised to find on the menu an English wine we had never heard of (in addition to our surprise at seeing an English wine at all in a restaurant). We both thought it was very good and so I was not surprised to learn during my visit that they had already won silver medals and are hoping for gold. Since they are lucky enough to have the the triple- gold winner Dermot Sugrue of Wiston – another Irishman – as their wine maker they have as good a chance of any to make this dream come true. They don’t have a cellar door but they sell almost all they produce (only sparkling) locally in Dorset. This year they have produced 20 tons of grapes which works out at about 15,000 bottles, twice last years crop following nothing at all in the nationally disastrous 2012.

Melbury Vale’s cellar door and van

AT THE OTHER end of the scale is Melbury Vale, south of Shaftestbury, (left) run by Joseph and Clare Pestell which has only two acres of its own – though more are on the way – but makes wine for eight other small vineyards locally covering 20 acres. Like so many others all its wines are sold locally either from its cellar door it to local establishments. Joseph says they will produce about 1,000 bottles this year similar to last year. It would have been twice as much except that they lost all their Pinot Noir to disease which, Joseph thinks, would have been good enough to turn into  red wine. What is happening in Dorset is not untypical of a number of other counties where almost romantic enthusiasm, combined with increasing professionalism, is regularly raising the quality of the country’s wines. Everything is going for English (and Welsh) wines at the moment except the weather. And even that has been kind for two years running.

Lovely Autumn tints at English Oak

Wodetone


 

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For English sparkling . . and St George

Posted by Victor Keegan on October 27, 2014
champagne, Chinn-Chinn, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine / 1 Comment

It started off a few days ago as a bit of banter on Twitter but it would be a great shame if it ended up in the bottomless pit of unrequited tweets. The idea was – is? – that there should be an English Sparkling Wine Day. Like most ideas, it has multiple sources. I (@BritishWino) happened to be glancing at some tweets and was totally surprised to find  that it was #worldchampagneday. Without thinking I wrote: “Apparently it is #worldchampagneday today. Remind me when it is #EnglishSparklingDay. Did I miss it . .?”
Instead of becoming instant history as most tweets do, it was picked up by others including @abecketts,  @didier_pierson and EnglishWineJobs who urged that we should pick a date suggesting November to catch the Christmas rush. Others followed including  the redoubtable Stephen Skelton (@SpSkelton) who suggested April 23 which is not only St Georges Day but Shakespeare’s Birthday as well, a double celebration of England’s best. And we can make that a triple if we include our sparkling wine which has been winning gold medals all over the world yet is under-appreciated in its own country. That date seemed to find general favour.

England, of course, is not the only place in the UK producing excellent sparkling wine. There has been a strong revival in Wales where Ancre Hill of Monmouth has won top prizes in Italy and China as well as at home. But vineyards in England seem to want to market their wine as English Sparkling just as Wales is trying to create its own distinctive brand. Maybe Wales could do something similar on the same day or at a more appropriate time.  Or else the two countries could decide on another date such as the birthday of Christopher Merrett, the Gloucestershire inventor of what the French call the methode champenoise.

Paul Langham, chair of United Kingdom Vineyards Association at his aBecketts vineyard in Wiltshire

So what next? There is clearly a lot of mileage  in a day dedicated to English fizz. If properly marketed by individual vineyards and their trade bodies like The UK Vineyards Association and English Wine Producers it would give restaurants, pubs and off licences an opportunity to test the water, sorry, the wine without undue expense – especially if they were to promote it by the glass. As it is the first time it has been done it might attract media attention, not least, social media and there could perhaps be a prestigious lecture on the history and prospects for Albion’s fizz.
What do all you vineyards out there think? Do give your views through Twitter or  email me at victor.keegan@gmail.com and I will pass on your views – or post a comment below as I have now re-opened the comment slot in the hope it won’t be spammed out of existence again.

@BritishWino

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