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