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