UK tables at the Real Wine Fair
I HAD some liquor today that was distilled in a house in Highgate using wormwood as an additive. It turned out it was all legit. Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney, who started in 2009, had to get four different licences before being authorised to set the operation up which distils its spirits under a vacuum in glassware. I stumbled across it at today’s Real Wine Fair at Tobacco Dock in London’s Docklands. I liked the the look of the bottles but said I was only really interested in English and Welsh wines. But when it was pointed out that three of the bottles were two thirds filled with wine from Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire I was hooked and immediately sampled some Three Choirs based vermouths plus a cardamon gin and a Negroni, all marketed under the Sacred label.
The three English vineyards there – Ancre Hill, Davenport and Forty Hall – are all firm favourites with me as their new wines confirmed including a liimted edition 2015 Davenport Pet Nat with an 8.5% alcohol content and very pleasant Pinot Noirs from Ancre and Davenport. Forty Hall, the 10-acre community-run vineyard in Enfield, London had their impressive 2015 Ortega and Bacchus but none of their first sparkling wine which went mainly to sponsors and helpers. Future years will be different.
England and Wales represented barely two per cent of the vineyards on show – which gives some idea of the size of the fair which attracted wines from all over the world. Hundreds of people were there creating a real buzz along the lines of tables of all kinds of wines and artisan foods. Among those that grabbed me on a whet-my- whistle-stop tour was one from Priorat in Spain made from a vine over 100 years old, a 2015 Mtsvane Pet Nat from Georgia which was left in the bottle from primary fermentation and a Loxarel from Penedès in Spain that had been laid sur latte for 10 years without even being disgorged.
There is clearly a big market for “natural” wines. Some of the people I spoke to said that after drinking natural ones they couldn’t face the additives present in the usual varieties which they noticed in a way they hadn’t before. You don’t have to go all the way with the niceties of making organic and biodynamic wines to accept that they are making some very fine wines. The proof of the theory is in the drinking.
Three Choirs vineyard
THE WYE VALLEY has long been celebrated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, lauded by poets such as Wordsworth, Pope and Gray. It also has a strong claim to be where the modern tourism industry began when the gentry, deprived of the Grand Tour by Napoleon’s army, had to discover their own country instead. What it is definitely not famous for is vineyards. This is not because it hasn’t got any but because Wyedean as it is now called (Wye Valley and Forest of Dean) straddles two countries – England and Wales -and three counties – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire – and so gets lost among the geographical boundaries into which vineyards are divided by officialdom.
In fact the Wye Valley has a good claim to be one of the strongest growing wine areas in the UK and deserves to become a vineyard destination in its own right. Until a few years ago the only vineyard in the area to have won gold medals was Three Choirs which remains one of Britain’s most successful estates.
Parva Farm vineyard at Tintern
To experience the rising vinicultural clout of Wyedean take a road trip upstream starting at historic Tintern Abbey where on a hillside on your left you can see most of the 2.5 acre site of Parva Farm Vineyard which punches way above its weight having won a slew of silver medals and last year in the Welsh Vineyards Association (WVA) competition won a gold for its 2013 Bacchus. It actually attracted national headlines recently when Marks & Spencer gobbled up its stock of Bacchus. You have to negotiate a steep slope before arriving at the vineyard itself with a pleasant shop and chairs and tables outside with sheep meandering around the vineyard itself. I am told that its Mead is also very good.
Ancre Hill, Monmouth
Further upstream a mile outside the delightfully unspoiled country town of Monmouth, birthplace of Henry V, lies Ancre Hill Estate, the pride of Welsh vineyards. It burst on to the scene from nowhere in 2012 when its sparkling Seyval was voted the best sparkling wine in the world in a blind tasting by international experts at the Bollicine del Mondo in Italy against stiff competition from champagnes. Such was the disbelief that it wasn’t even reported in the local paper, the Monmouthshire Beacon. English and Welsh wines still have a big psychological barrier to break through.
To prove this was no fluke it has won several more golds since – including one in a Chinese competition and two in this year’s WVA contest with a Chardonnay and a 2009 barrel fermented sparkling. Ancre Hill – the French sounding name may have a Huguenot origin – is situated like so many Welsh vineyards – on a gentle slope with misty hills in the background. Here the Morris family have built an impressive state-of-the art biodynamic winery to process all their grapes including those from a large new field they have recently purchased on the other side of Monmouth very close to the Wye itself. Their ambitions have clearly not been satisfied yet. Sadly, the Monnow Valley vineyard in Monmouth, also near the Wye, is closing for family reasons having been a regular supplier to Waitrose for some years.
However a new vineyard has sprung up in its place a few miles away in Herefordshire off the Goodrich to Ross-on-Wye country route. You can’t see it from the road but once you have negotiated a few narrow lanes you encounter Wythall, a spectacular, and spectacularly unspoiled, 500 year-old Tudor mansion behind which Frank Myers has single-handedly planted nearly 3,500 vines on a 3.5 acre site. This year’s harvest, he says, is three times as big as last year’s with the reds looking particularly encouraging. The outbuildings are planned to house a cellar door eventually and shop which will make it a unique vineyard experience.
Wythall, the Tudor mansion
The house has been owned by the family of his wife – the Euro MP Anthea Mcintyre since the early 17th century and the original wine cellar of the house is now their HMRC-certified bonded cellar. The first wines under a “Tudor Manor” label (what else!) have been processed locally by Three Choirs and are due this year. If he can match the quality of the wine with the history of the house it wil be quite something.
Further along the Goodrich to Ross road along a right turn after Walford is the road past Coughton to Castle Brook, (photo at bottom of page) an exceptional vineyard run by the Chinn family, the largest asparagus growers in the country. They diversified a few years ago into making sparkling wine on a beautiful steep two hectare slope near what is thought to have been a Roman vineyard. In a light-hearted gesture to their family history their early wines were called Chinn-Chinn, a motif, which is still retained on the label.
They don’t need any gimmicks now. Their 2009 sparkling, made with classic champagne grapes and left on the lees for over four years has become one of the most decorated wines in the country including gold – and wine of the year- in the South- west Vineyards compeition and most recently a gold at what is arguably the most prestigious competiton of its kind in the world – the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship – which attracts some of the best Champagne labels. Views and sales by appointment or from their website.
On a much smaller scale is Beeches Vineyard at Upton Bishop where John Boyd and his late wife Ikka established a fine vineyard behind their handsome country house not far from the Moody Cow gastronomic pub which they supply along with other outlets. In the 2015 South West Vineyards Association competition Beeches won a silver for its 2014 red which was also voted the best red in the whole region.
A few miles to the north Wyedean springs an unusual surprise – three vineyards within a mile of each other as the crow flies (with a fourth on the way). Can anyone top that? Alan Oastler, whose day job was as a nuclear scientist until his recent retirement has a 5.5 acre vineyard at Compton Green on a lovely slope where he grows grapes for his very drinkable English wines. He had to stop calling it Gloucestershire Regional Wine because of EU rules. He sells thrrough local outlets including Waitrose and also supplies fruit to Three Choirs. It is a pure vineyard without a cellar door.
A short distance away is what is confidently claimed to be a unique vineyard. Strawberry Hill (photo below) says it is the only one growing grapes on a commercial scale under glass (over an acre) as well as outside. And if that claim is ever challenged then it is surely the only one anywhere in the world growing under glass with two rows of mature banana trees guarding them. Strawberry Hill makes very tasty wines on its own account – including Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from the greenhouses – though most of its current production goes to wineries for their own labels. I had a delicious rosé there the other day. A few hundred yards from the entrance to Strawberry Hill another vineyard is being planted which we may hear more about later.
But the undoubted star of Wyedean wineries and almost next door to Strawberry Hill is Three Choirs, (photo at top) which has been one of the trendsetters of modern English vineyards for over 40 years. It not only makes its own fine wines – one of the few English wines the choosey Wine Society has been selling – at competitive prices – for years but it also acts as an ecosystem processing grapes from miles around in England and Wales (including Ancre Hill’s world beating Seyval). With 30 hectares (74 acres) it has long been one of the biggest vineyards in the UK and last year it purchased Wickham vineyard in Hampshire to expand its activities.
You can find other venues with even better wines and better restaurants – though its own are of a very high standard – but Three Choirs is hard to beat for the total vineyard experience – a lovely approach road through the vines, a compact shop, easy parking, accomodation of a high standard and a lovely restaurant with spectacular views across the rolling acres with a terrace that in summer feels like being transported to Provence. And it is among the top value-for-money vineyards as well.
There are other smaller vineyards such as the Pengethley Manor Hotel on the Ross-on-Wye to Hereford road which has an acre of grapes which are processed by Three Choirs and sold in its restaurant, Coddington, near Ledbury and Kent’s Green, near Newent, a family owned one managed by Charlie Peak who has a lovely spot with grapes growing over his walls as well as in the small vineyard. But they are not yet in the same league as the bigger ones which increasingly look like a vineyard trail waiting to be exploited. All they need, maybe, is a latterday Wordsworth to do them justice.
Strawberry Hill, complete with banana trees
THIS YEAR we are going to have two wines from London (yes, London, England) and one from Wales for our Christmas lunch. If this doesn’t get us into the Guinness Book of Records nothing will. As an aperitif it will be Forty Hall sparkling, claimed to be London’s first sparkling wine for centuries. I managed to get a bottle because as a patron I was entitled to just one as output is being restricted in early years in order to boost future growth. I was going to keep it for a while as it is rather young for a sparkling but then I was offered the opportunity, again as a patron, to buy another two bottles – so that made it worth the risk of opening one for Christmas. Forty Hall is London’s largest vineyard for a very long time and maybe ever. It is an inspired community-run 10-acre project at Enfield whose grapes are turned into wine by Will Davenport, one of England’s most respected winemakers.Can’t wait.
For the turkey there is a choice. For some reason – and I am not sure where I went wrong – the rest of the family always prefers white to red. So there will be a bottle of LDN Cru, a Bacchus made at what is claimed to be London’s first urban winery in West Brompton using grapes from the family-owned Sandhurst vineyards in Kent. Purists may argue whether this is really a London wine as the grapes are grown outside the capital. But vineyards such as Chapel Down and Camel Valley always brand under their own labels even when the grapes come from Essex or wherever. For me it’s London and I look forward to a glass.
Finally, another first – a domestic red with the turkey. I am very interested in the way Pinot Noir – the grape behind Burgundy – is developing in the UK as a premium product and have already been very impressed with Gusbourne and Hush Heath Pinots this year. I also have bottles of Sharpham and Three Choirs gathering age. But this time I have decided on one from Ancre Hill in Monmouth. Their sparkling whites have been festooned with gold medals but they also have a long-term interest in producing top quality Pinot Noir in Wales. Well, that was the difficult bit. Choosing. Now it is all over bar the drinking. Happy Christmas to all.
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