Napa Valley Richard Grant

England’s mystery grape – myth or magic?

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 09, 2015
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Wrotham Pinot maturing

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Wrotham Pinot matured
IF SHERLOCK HOLMES had been interested in English wines, he would surely have tried to solve the mystery of Wrotham Pinot, an intriguing English mutation of the classic Burgundy grape Pinot Noir. It was supposedly grown in England by the Romans and later by medieval monks but has disappeared without trace from its native land though cuttings – it is claimed – taken from the UK have been grown very successfully on a two-acre site at a Yountville vineyard in California’s Napa Valley.

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If true this would be of great interest to the burgeoning UK vineyards growing Pinot Noir because this variety is claimed to ripen two weeks earlier with higher sugar content and is apparently immune from powdery mildew which afflicts the standard varieties.

Edward Hyams, one of the pioneering British viticulturists says he discovered it on a wall in Wrotham (pronounced ‘Root-um’) in Kent in the late 1940s. It was almost certainly a variety known as ‘Miller’s Burgundy’ because the flour-like texture of its leaves reminded locals of mill workers after a long day’s milling. It had been grown on walls for many years having been originally discovered by the great horticulturalist Sir Joseph Banks in an ancient vineyard at Tortworth, Gloucestershire. However, I have been reminded by Stephen Skelton that Pinot Meunier leaves all have that flour-like appearance.
Hyams apparently took the vine to Ray Barrington Brock at what was to become the Oxted Viticultural Research Station, and he trialled it alongside the many other varieties he grew.
It was during a visit to Britain around 1980 that the distinguished US viticulturist Dr Richard Grant Peterson came across a wine made from Wrotham Pinot and although it wasn’t very good there was something in it that attracted him enough to take cuttings back to California, where, after meeting lengthy quarantine rules, he planted what eventually became two acres of Wrotham Pinot which still exists today and the wine from which has won prestigious gold medals. It has been described as the “most unique vineyard in the whole of the Napa Valley”. But it has yet to be established that he took the cutting from Wrotham and he has been mute on the subject when approached.
So what happened to this wonder vine in Britain? Does it join the embarrassing list of things discovered in the UK but exploited abroad? Is it still growing somewhere? Or should it be in the Loch Ness family of rural myths? It was after reading Stephen Skelton’s excellent Wine Growing in Great Britain – and an earlier book of his – which first alerted me to Wrotham Pinot that I decided to do a little sleuthing myself (though Stephen himself is now highly sceptical that Wrotham Pinot – which is an officially designated vine in the UK – is anything other than a Pinot Meunier).
In his book A Vineyard in England, Norman Sneesby chronicles his progress in establishing a vineyard on the Isle of Ely in 1973 where among other varieties he planted 100 cuttings of Wrotham Pinot. These produced 48 rooted plants which were looking healthy until they were “taken by the birds”.
A few years later Dudley Quirk grew Wrotham Pinot on his – now defunct – 65 acre vineyard at Chiddingstone near Wrotham in Kent. Some locals believe it was served at a banquet given by Margaret Thatcher for President Mitterrand but it was probably another variety from the same vineyard.
It occurred to me that it was possible that there might still be enthusiasts in Wrotham who had taken cuttings from the original vine – long since gone – on the garden wall which was supposedly somewhere along the main street. I wrote to the Parish Council and others looking for a lead. My email was forwarded to Brian Saunders of the Wrotham Allotment Society. He was very knowledgeable about the grape and not only had one growing in his garden (see pictures above, courtesy of Brian) but knew of around eight other locals who had taken cuttings from him and were now growing it themselves including one who has 12 vines growing on his allotment. Brian says he had got his from Dudley Quirk at Chiddingstone: “He gave me half a dozen cuttings around 1987… I potted them up and after a year planted one out”.
He added that the historical society established contact with the vineyard in Napa Valley and two of his neighbours visited it bringing back some bottles back for a wedding. One of them made wine from Wrotham grapes which was “passable but a bit acidy”. Brian has two bottles of the Napa Valley Wrotham Pinot which he hasn’t opened – one sparkling pink and the other an off dry white.
Whether all this is nothing more than an interesting sidebar to a curious story remains too be seen. The question is whether Wrotham Pinot – with its claimed near immunity to powdery mildew and the benefit of early fruiting – is worth re-planting in Britain given the increased interest in Pinot Noir among UK vineyards and all the improvements in technical ability and climate that have happened since it was last planted. You don’t have to swallow whole the seductive claim that it was the original variety introduced by the Romans – for which there is as yet no archaeological evidence – to accept that Wrotham Pinot, if it exists at all as a distinctive mutation, would be something special.
@BritishWino

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