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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Edited version of an article in the current UKvine magazine (print only)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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MARKO BOJCUN is part of tiny workers’ co-operative vineyard called Hawkwood in Epping Forest, part of the OrganicLea community. This year he lost around 90% per cent of his own grapes to wandering deer and downy mildew. That’s the trouble with having a vineyard surrounded on three sides by trees. But his artisan winery also makes wine for 26 people in the neighbourhood who brought 375 kilos of grapes to him for processing. This is enough to make 250 bottles of wine which probably makes him the second largest of the new co-operatives in London after Chateau Tooting, the crowd-sourced experiment which I last wrote about here which hopes to make 750 bottles compared with 662 last year.
Forty Hall in Enfield from where you can see the Shard and Canary Wharf comes closest. However, space in gardens and allotments is a different matteer. Patrice Bersac, president of L’association des Vignerons Réunis (the association of united Parisian and Ile de France winemakers) told the Daily Telegraph that the French authorities should take inspiration from Chateau Tooting’s iniitiative in London where grapes come from numerous gardens in the capital.
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This year looks likely to be a record for vineyards in England and Wales – the second successive good year after a disastrous 2012. The question is what to do about it if, thanks to increased plantings and favourable weather, we are entering a period of surplus. So far premium sparkling wines, winning gold medals regularly have been very marketable but most vineyards exist by selling from the cellar door often at inflated – oops sorry – premium, prices because customers have been happy to pay extra for the novel experience. I have encountered a lot of good wines as well as overpriced ones on my travels including sub-optimal English reds being sold for £20, £30 and even £50 to punters about to be hugely disappointed (including me . .). I have grown to love UK wines but they won’t be loved by the general public until prices come down a bit.
As vineyards enter the new era they will encounter not only the still prevalent psychological barrier among consumers (and merchants) against English and Welsh wine but the real barrier of price. Having spent a year drinking mainly UK wines and regularly asking dumb-struck restaurant waiters and bartenders for English and Welsh wines (unsuccessfully) I know the problem only too well. Maybe it is best summed by one gastropub owner saying: “There is no way I can pay more than £5 a bottle and hope to make a decent profit”.
So it was with great interest that I attended yesterday’s workshop organised by the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA) to map out a strategy for the future.
It was held in the beautiful 650-year-old Vintners’ Hall in the City of London where as you go in you pass a painting of a 17th century wine merchant Van Dorn who was famous for drinking four bottles of wine a day and looking none the worse for it, well in his painting.
Dozens of ideas were put into the pot including the need for strong governance, profitability, collaboration between growers, recognition of excellence, educating the young, a centralised web site, a single body to represent the industry, product placement, promotion by tourist boards, brand ambassadors, enforceable quality standards and sustainability (for profits as well as the environment) and so on.
There was a general feeling that the sparkling sector should develop its own personality and not ape Champagne. Instead of trying to dream up a single word “brand” everyone seemed happy to use “English Sparkling” not least because the word England is a strong selling point abroad – though Sussex likes the alliterative “Sussex Sparkling”.
There are two big gaps. We are supposed to be living in the age of Big Data but neither the government nor the industry actually knows how may vineyards there are nor what current sales are. It is left to the redoubtable Stephen Skelton to estimate- in the UKVA house magazine The Grape Press – that wine produced from UK vineyards in 2014 could reach 6.4 million bottles compared with a ten year average of 2.95m bottles. This sounds huge but UK production, with a good product to sell, still accounts for barely more than one per cent of the domestic market. Other industries would kill to be in that position.
Where the industry has been painfully slow is producing an app for smart phones that could tell you how far you are from the nearest vineyard, opening times with “buy” buttons and also able to snap wine labels which are recognised and stored in a central database. The aim would be to produce a community of UK wine drinkers exchanging experiences. It turns out that vineyards in the south-west will soon have an app of their own and all credit to them. The problem is that it only works for the South-west when there should be one for the whole UK. And, they are planning to charge £2.50 for it which, believe, me is a mistake as there is a huge reluctance to pay for this kind of app. It should have been free, funded by the vineyards who would get their payback from increased custom
That is but one example why the industry needs a single integrated entity to talk to government and the EU besides acquiring a funding mechanism through a bottle levy (discussed for years but never implemented) so the necessary investment can be made. I am a big fan of UK wines sparkling and still. Vineyards have a great opportunity to make a serious contribution to the UK economy – but they need to get their act together quickly not least by using increased output to lower prices. If they don’t do it the market will do it for them in a merciless manner.
Victor Keegan @BritishWino, @vickeegan
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HEREFORDSHIRE – where I spend a fair amount of time – could have been forgiven for feeling it had been dealt a raw hand by Bacchus. If only the county boundary line had been drawn a couple of miles further out in the south-west, it could have taken in the multi-gold winning Ancre Hill Estate in Monmouthshire. And if a few miles had been added on its north-east frontier it would have bagged Three Choirs, one of England’s most successful operations.
Herefordshire, however, still has some interesting vineyards and could be at the start of a roll. While I was researching this blog – an arduous task supping wine at every stop – it was announced by the South West Vineyards Association that Castle Brooks’s Chinn-Chinn 2009 had won gold and been voted the best sparkling wine in the South West, an area that includes a lot of very prestigious estates. It is probably the only wine that can get away with calling itself Chinn-Chinn because that is the family name. Chinn, who are also the biggest asparagus growers in the country, have lived here near Ross-on-Wye for centuries. Wine is still a minor crop for them but, as I saw for myself, they take great care of their lovingly manicured five acres set in beautiful countryside in a historic part of the county which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and used to be on the path of a Roman road.
Until Chinn-Chinn struck gold, Herefordshire’s main claim to fame was not quality but quantity. Sunnybank Vine Nursery in Rowlestone is the home of the National Collection of Vines with over 450 different types – more than the rest of Britain’s vineyards put together. I visited it yesterday on its annual Open Day where owner Sarah Bell explained that the collection was under the watchful eye of Plant Heritage and was mainly aimed at enthusiastic amateurs who can buy cuttings or young vines for their own use. For easy growing and disease resistance she recommends Seyval for white wines and Regent for red.
Broadfield Court (left) is one of the delights of the county, a charming country house with 14 acres of vines and a cafe/restaurant where you can linger in the open air in summer with a snack or meal over a pleasant glass of wine (£3.50 a throw for their special reserve when I last paid a visit). It is the best all-round wine experience in the county.
But there are rivals kicking at its heels. Simon Day, who comes from the family that set up Three Choirs, recently bought the wine making equipment from Coddington vineyard in Colwall and has set it up in Ledbury where he will process Coddington’s wine for the new owners while at the same time making wine from the 16Ridges vineyard in Worcestershire processing it in Herefordshire and selling it from the delightful Three Counties Cider Shop in the middle of Ledbury. Simon is also planning in the longer term to plant 20 to 25 acres (he has already done four acres) and to build a bigger winery. Watch this space.
Ledbury is not far from Frome Valley (below, right)), another delightfully situated vineyard for which Simon Day is also turning the grapes into wine. It has a very pleasant entrance and tasting area in an old country house and sells a range of wines starting with a very quaffable Panton Medium Dry at a reasonable £7.50. James Cumming, who manages the vineyard also has a small one of his own in the West country.
Other Hereford vineyards include Lulham Court near Madley which produces very pleasant wines(which can be purchased from the Coop in Newent) from their three acres but at much higher prices that shown on their out-of-date web site. Beeches at Upton Bishop is a small vineyard run by John Boyd. Among others it supplies the neighbouring restaurant, the Moody Cow with its fine wine while on the other side of Ross-on-Wye not far from Chinn Chinn Frank Myers and his wife Anthea Stratford McIntyre the European MP started a 3.5 acre vineyard three years ago in the gardens of their beautiful 17th century house and it will be another year or two before it is producing.
There are a number of other smaller vineyards which may grow bigger as Herefordshire stakes it claim in the amazing revival of the UK wine industry.
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Rathfinny’s first grapes
IF YOU want to speculate about the future of English sparkling wine look no further than the soft undulating hills of Rathfinny Estate in east Sussex, the biggest gamble in the history of this nascent industry. It has already had more publicity than most of the rest of the UK’s 400 plus vineyards put together even though it has yet to produce its first glass of wine. On a flying visit yesterday I had to content myself with a glimpse of the first grapes (see above) and I had to walk quite a long way down the vineyard even to see those. Cameron Boucher, the highly experienced vineyard manager from New Zealand (below) says they have already planted 150 acres of the 400 planned which would make it the biggest vineyard in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. He says the first of the smaller quantities of still wine will be produced next year, though it may not go out under the Rathfinny brand. It will be several years yet before its flagship sparkling has matured in bottle long enough to be released on to the market.
Mark Driver, who left a lucrative job in the City to plough £10 millions of his own money into Rathfinny, is in danger of giving hedge funds a good name. He is nothing if not ambitious, planning to go from scratch to selling a million bottles of English sparkling against the established giants of Champagne about 90 miles across the channel who share the same chalky geological strata as Rathfinny.
Some people think he is barmy, others that he will usher in the next stage of the English (and Welsh) wine revival as it ups its game from a niche product to a serious industry. Having in my previous career as a journalist chronicled the remorseless decline of the UK’s manufacturing base over 40 years, I find it refreshing to observe a fledgling industry with such juicy prospects.
Of what other industry in Britain could it be said that it has a world-class product yet barely one per cent of its domestic market? Most of the wine produced in Britain is sparkling and we regularly win top honours. In the recent prestigious Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships England scooped 11 gold medals and 14 Silver, more than any other country except France.
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Vineyard guru Stephen Skelton (@spskelton) in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain, points out that most of the growth in sparkling wine in the UK has come from Prosecco and Cava selling at well under £10 a bottle, a market that UK sparklers shy away from and that three quarters of Champange is sold at less than £20 a bottle which won’t leave much profit for low volume UK producers.
But, if warmer summers persist, a larger output could bring unit prices down in Britain and nowhere more than Rathfinny which stands to reap economies of scale as great as any in Champagne and on land that is considerably cheaper. But two things will be crucial to its success: it has to produce wine that wins top medals and – something manufacturing industry never had to contend with – it needs a succession of good summers.
Before visiting Rathfinny we had our first trip to the long-established English Wine Centre at nearby Berwick (left) which combines a shop selling a huge range of English (not yet Welsh) wines with lovely gardens, a hotel and a delightful restaurant serving a high standard of food which we enjoyed along with samplings of English wines of which the Nutbourne from West Sussex and Surrey Gold whites stood out for us.
We decided to walk there from Berwick station along the Vanguard Way, a picturesque path along the slope of the downs which brings you out a few hundred yards from the wine centre. We were late as it took us a while to figure out that the path went straight through the middle of a field of closely packed with seven feet high rows of sweet corn where GPS is of limited use.
Follow Victor Keegan on @BritishWino or @vickeegan
His London blog is LondonMyLondon.co.uk
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It is 400 years since the birth of Chistopher Merret (1614 – 1695), the Englishman who first set out the principles of how to make what is now called Champagne. Dom Perignon came along much later. This weekend, the place where he was born – Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – is holding a small Festival of Fizz to celebrate this little-known occasion. In Merret’s time Champagne was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired factories able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques. There was a shift to coal because wood was being prioritised for the navy because the Government was worried that a shortage of wood might affect the building of ships.
These days even the French admit that the English invented the “méthode champenoise”. Indeed the first mention of the word “Champaign'” anywhere was in English literature of the time.
While being delighted that Winchcombe is staging a festival this weekend I am surprised that the booming English and Welsh sparkling wine industry, which is awash with international gold medals, didn’t use the opportunity for a big marketing effort. I only heard about the festival two days ago when I read an eye-catching tweet from Oliver Chance of Strawberry Hill Vineyard (@englishbubbly) who said that Strawberry Hill was the nearest sparkling wine producer to the birthplace of the inventor: a great pitch but be careful, Oliver if you bump into @elgarwine – they could have a counter claim!
I am very grateful to Jean Bray, historian and journalist, – who is giving a talk on Merret at the White Hart Winchcombe at 6pm this Sunday (25th) – for guiding me to the house where he was born, a former pub called the Crown, on the corner of Mill Lane and Gloucester Street (see above). It is presumed, she said, that he was educated at the local grammar school – an Inigo Jones building now called Jacobean House – on the same side of the road opposite the church (just as it is presumed that Shakespeare went to his local grammar school though there is no actual evidence in either case). There are brass plates to his parents in the church on the right side wall as you enter (see, right).
Merret was a bit of a renaissance man excelling in other fields including compiling the first list of birds and the source of fossils. The son of a mercer, he went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden (which had a large vineyard in those days) and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn where Dickens was baptised. I am sure the fizz festival will be a deserved success and I wonder whether it will spawn a bigger idea. Could it do for Winchcombe and English sparkling wine what Hay-on-Wye did for second hand books?
Meanwhile, we should all raise a glass of English fizz this weekend to toast Christopher Merret, the man who chronicled the invention of méthode champenoise before the French turned it into one of the most successful brands ever. Now is the time to bring it all back home.
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Squerryes, with its grand mansion dating back to 1681, must be the nearest thing in England to a French chateau vineyard. Indeed it nearly became one as I discovered earlier toay at the launch of its first sparkling wine. About six years ago a well-known French champagne house, worried about the possible effects of global warming on its own territory, tried to buy part of the Squerryes’ estate to plant its own vineyard. Negotiations broke down after six months because the champagne house wanted to own the land and Squerryes was not willing to give up part of its heritage.
Then Henry Warde, whose family have lived in the house for so many generations, reckoned that if a French champagne house thought his land was ideal for methode champenoise wine maybe he should have a go himself. Compliments don’t come higher than that.
Which he did on 35 acres of land – and yesterday the first wine from 2010 was launched in a party atmosphere in the grounds of his beautiful house in which about 20 artisan producers were selling their products from ice cream or gazpacho soup to perfumed candles and local beer. It was a lovely occasion even though the vineyard itself, was not part of the experience as, sadly, it is about a mile away. The wine itself, made from classic champagne grapes – pinot noir, pinot meunier and Chardonnay – has already picked up several bronze medals. It has a nice nose and was very pleasant to drink on a sunny afternoon but at a price of £28 it is punching a bit above its weight against other English and Welsh premium priced sparklers.
This may not matter in the short term as Querryes is planning to sell all its wine – 8,000 bottles this year with an eventual objective of up to 80,000 bottles – from the estate where local demand can often sustain a premium price.
At the moment the prestigious winery Henners makes the wine for them but they have plans to build their own winery and eventually a restaurant as well.Some critics say that too many new vineyards are being opened producing sparkling wine in the UK and it is bound to end in tears. Maybe. The other way of looking at it is that UK fizz producers have a product that regularly wins prizes against the rest of the world yet have less than one per cent of their domestic market. There is all to play for.