Brian Edwards and Sarah Bell
It is not often I have the chance of visiting a vineyard with no less than 430 different varieties of vine on display. But yesterday was the annual open day for Sunnybank Vine Nursery run by Sarah Bell and Richard Stow. It is home to the National Collection of Vines spread in neat formation across 0.4 remote hectares in rolling Herefordshire countryside facing Garway Hill, once owned by the Knights Templar.
I had the pleasure of being shown around by Sarah who bought the vineyard in 2008 knowing very little about vines. She has learned fast, helped by Brian Edwards, the former founder-owner (above with Sarah) , who joined us walking up and down between the rows commenting on the pros and cons of every vine within sight. I couldn’t help asking them what vine they would recommend for would-be amateur wine makers wanting to avoid complications (who could I have been thinking about?).
Interestingly, from all of the 430 varieties around them they both chose the same two: Seyval, which “ripens right up to Yorkshire” for white wines and Rondo (“early ripening on any site”) for red.
Some of the 430 varieties
Other tips – Don’t even think of trying to grow the claret grape Cabernet Sauvignon in the UK (though Cabernet Cortis is a fair English substitute for it). Shiraz is no good in the UK either. Seiggerrebe can make a good wine but is a small cropper Triomphe d Alsace is effectively disease resistance.
Sarah, whose day job is in the software industry, finances the vineyard by selling roots and cuttings during the dormant season (November to March) from her website www.sunnybankvines.co.uk
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First, because Chapel Down – for it is they – make good multiple prizewinning wines in a charming backwater of Kent. I am already a regular buyer. Second, it is rather nice, dare I say romantic?, to own a tiny bit – actually a very tiny bit – of one of our oldest vineyards in the midst of the Great British Wine Revival.
OK, there’s a third reason. The perks. If you buy a minimum of 2,000 shares – which cost me less than £400 a couple of weeks ago (excluding dealing costs) – you get a mouth-watering 33% reduction on the ex-vineyard price of their wines plus a 25% reduction on meals at the Swan restaurant attached to the vineyard.
Which is one of the main reasons we made our first visit yesterday. Four of us shared a £20 cab ride from Headcorn station ten miles away. We were not disappointed. Chapel Down, despite being one of the largest vineyards in the country has managed to retain an intimacy which others, such as the admirable Denbies in Dorking, are in danger of losing. Battalions of vines fill neighbouring softly undulating fields, laden with sumptious fruit from this year’s bountiful crop so neat they may have been manicured.
Lunch at the Swan above the shop – filled to capacity on a September Tuesday – was delcious for me though two of my companions couldn’t finish their Dover sole which they thought was too salty and dry (and were given a rebate by the manager). This was washed down with a Chardonnay from their nearby Kit’s Coty estate which was a joy to drink though expensive with quite a steep cash markup on the price of a bottle in the shop below (as if I should care as a shareholder with a 33% discount!)
Chapel Down is one of the best managed vineyards in the country but their shares as the FT and others have pointed out are risky as they are as much a bet on the weather as the company. But buying a small number of shares is a no-brainer – as long as you like their wines. My purchase of the minimum number to qualify for the perks (2,000 shares) cost me £395 plus £46.98 in commissions and charges. This is money that would otherwise be sitting in a current account at near-zero interest. After one visit to the restaurant and the purchase of one bottle of Pinot Noir I have already recouped the dealing charges and if I continue to buy their wines (and count the money I save through my 33% discount as a return on my investment) then Chapel Down shares will have one of the highest dividend yields on the stock market irrespective of what happens to the share price (though it has risen over ten per cent since my purchase a few weeks ago). If you don’t fancy shares the most cost-effective way of buying Chapel Down wines is through the Wine Society (recently voted Decanter wine merchant of the year for the third year running) where they are significantly cheaper than buying from the vineyard.
Bride Valley Vineyard, Dorset, grower of classic grapes for sparkling wine
From Victor Keegan’s new book Alchemy of Age published this week
What makes Champagne go full throttle
Is secondary fermentation in a bottle.
This is an invention without which
Sparkling wine would be mere kitsch.
And who made this spectacular advance?
In folk law, a monk, Dom Perignon of France.
But wait. hear Christopher Merrett’s scientific view,
Which he wrote in a paper in sixteen hundred and sixty two
Without any mock Gallic piety,
He told the newly formed Royal Society
He’d invented this huge oenological advance
That let wine ferment in bottles first,
That were strong enough not to burst.
Britain’s gift to an ungrateful France –
It created that country’s strongest brand.
So, let’s raise a glass in our hand,
To a great man’s invention from afar
And drink to the Methode – not Champenois
But Merrettois. Let all by their merrets be
Judged that the whole world can see
That however we may be thought insane,
We gave the French – for free – Champagne
You can buy Alchemy of Age here
Posted by Victor Keegan
on May 31, 2013
David Morris, winemaker at Ancre with a bottle of the vineyard’s global winner – a 2008 sparkling white
(Reprinted from Village News, Goodrich, Herefordshire as typical of what is happening in the UK)
There is a palpable buzz in the air even on a misty day when you visit the Ancre Hill vineyard just outside Monmouth, less than 9 miles from Goodrich. This is not surprising because Ancre recently won a prize for the best sparkling wine. Not for the best in Monmouthshire, not for the best in Wales nor indeed Great Britain. Its 2008 vintage was voted the best sparkling wine in the world in a prestigious competition in Verona, Italy in a blind tasting – which included some Champagnes – by a couple of dozen international experts. This is the biggest boost the Welsh wine industry has ever had but such was the shock it wasn’t even reported in the Monmouthshire Beacon.
David Morris , the winemaker whose parents own Ancre, takes it all in his stride. This is not surprising because he was a manager at Nyetimber when the West Sussex vineyard won the same prize in 2009 which helped established British sparkling whites as among the best in the world. He is clearly confident about the future. He thinks that Ancre’s still whites have as least as good prospects as the sparkling ones and that the 2009 sparkling is better than the prize-winning 2008 which has now sold out. He puts part of the success of the 10-acre vineyard down to its biodynamic principles and the meso-climate of this part of the Wye Valley which gets lots of sunshine even when you can see rain over the Brecon Beacons.Chinn-Chinn, a lovely sparkling white grown in the field above by the UK’s major asparagus farmer
Ancre is but the most recent star of a cluster of vineyards that have blossomed in this area in recent years. There are approaching 20 vineyards within 20 miles of Goodrich led by Three Choirs near Newent now one of the UK’s most successful vineyards several of whose wines are sold by the very picky Wine Society. Three Choirs offers accommodation and a fine restaurant overlooking its slopes and is well worth a visit. It also processes the grapes from other vineyards too small to do it themselves like the nearby Strawberry Hill which produces lovely sparkling and still wines and is the only vineyard in the country to grow grapes under vast greenhouses. Nearby also is St Anne’s in Newent whose wines can be bought from the vineyard or at farmers’ markets.
Among those closest to Goodrich are two off the Walford road to Ross-on-Wye. Frank Myers started planting 3.5 acres in the land around the wonderful Tudor mansion Wythall two years ago and hopes to be harvesting in another two years. Further on, along the turning through Coughton, Ccbrey Farm, famous for its asparagus, has set aside a few acres to grow grapes for sparkling white wine. Since the Chinn family has lived there for hundreds of years there was only one thing they could call it – Chinn-Chinn. The first vintage 2006 won a silver medal from Decanter magazine and the 2007, now available for sale, is at least as good. It can be bought from their web site www.cobrey.co.uk or tasted at the Mill Race restaurant in Walford.
Other nearby vineyards include Treago at St Weonards, the excellent Monow Valley in Monmouth, Wernddu at Pen-y-clawdd (1.5 acres) and Parva Farm at Tintern. John Boyd grows grapes on his half-an-acre vineyard st Upton Bishop which is sold to local shops and pubs like the Moody Cow. The one in the gardens of the Pengethley Hotel appears to be resting and two tiny ones at Llangrove (featured in the Village News a decade ago) have fallen by the wayside. Otherwise the area’s contribution to Britain’s viticultural revival, appears to be in rude health despite the calamitous weather of 2012 which has severely affected harvests everywhere.
Meanwhile, vineyards are creeping ever closer to Goodrich itself. One wonders how long it will be before the village itself, once famous for its cider, has a vineyard of its own.
Victor Keegan has a Twitter feed @vickeegan and also @BritishWino aimed (independently) at promoting English and Welsh wines