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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