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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.