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JOAR SAETTEM produced “a nice floral wine” from the Solaris grape in 2014. Nothing particularly remarkable about that. Except that it was grown at Lerkekasa in Norway on latitude 59.4 in what is claimed to be the most northerly vineyard in the world. It sits on land rich in minerals with plenty of sun and reflected light from nearby Lake Norsjø.
This is the most extreme example of vineyards moving North, a trend that is taking hold in England as well as in Sweden and Denmark – though they are all considerably further south than Lerkekasa. Viticultural pioneers are taking a bet that global warming is on the way even though it involves a constant battle against the elements. This northern march has plenty of lessons for the whole of Britain as new vineyards move steadily up country to take advantage of improved techniques, hardier varieties and the challenge of the unknown.
The Solaris grape – hardly a household name in the south – seems to be becoming the grape of choice to make white wines in these pioneering cool and cold-climate vineyards in England, Scotland and North Wales.
Norway may be setting the pace but on my reckoning (corrections welcome) three of the next four most northerly vineyards after Lerkekåsa are in Scotland and not in Scandinavia.
The most bizarre – to southerners – is Polycroft on the remote Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – on 58 degrees latitude (the higher the latitude, of course, the further north). It grows mainly Black Hamburg grapes in polytunnels for sale at local markets in Stornaway but also makes a wine which is distributed to family and friends. The proprietors Donald Hope,a former missionary, and his wife Jean have no comment to make on the quality of their main wine, rosé. They are teetotal.
Further south, but still pretty far north, on latitude 57, Alan Smith has a southern facing slope 800 feet at Glenkindle – it means “dale of roses” – on the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park where he has established a small private experimental vineyard (picture, right) to explore the hardiest grapes that can be grown in Britain. The fashionable Rondo (red) and Solaris (white) are not hardy enough for these parts so he uses Baltic and Russian hybrids such as Dalnivostock Ramming and Jublienka Novgoroda. He doesn’t think global warming is that important because, he says, a lot of the plant types that grow in the south of England also grow at 57 degrees north though the varieties are different.
He has about 200 vines spread among greenhouses (for table grapes), pots, a polytunnel (for wine) and two areas for outdoor vines. He hopes to produce his first bottles of wine next year. His progress is likely to be watched carefully by grape aficionados for one very good reason. Glenkindle is on the same latitude as the Great Glen and Loch Ness which Professor Richard C Selley in his influential book The Winelands of Britain has predicted will be an ideal geological structure to plant vines in the future if global warming continues. Maybe, one day, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush for land in the Great Glen – but not yet.
All of this leaves unchallenged the claim of UKvine’s esteemed food columnist Christopher Trotter to have made Scotland’s first wine on a proper basis at his Momentum vineyard at Upper Largo in Fife on latitude 56. This year he produced the first bottles of Chateau Largo with the Solaris grape which accounts for 75% of the 200 vines he has planted so far. He is honest and wise enough to say that he is unhappy with his first vintage and won’t share it yet – not even with a fellow columnist. But he believes he has learned from his mistakes and hopes eventually to raise money to plant over two hectares.
Scotland is no stranger to viticultural success. In Victorian times William Thomson established Clovenfords Vineries in 1870 and planted five acres of vines under glass, with miles of hot pipes to maintain the right temperature. It created a thriving business in table grapes for 90 years under four generations of the family until a collapse in the world price of grapes put paid to the experiment. High point? While working for the Duke of Buccleuch, William entered grapes into a competition in Paris for the Grand Gold Medal of the Central Society of Horticulture of France. And guess what? He won and, to the consternation of the French who couldn’t believe that grapes grown in wild Scotland could challenge their Divine Right to viticulture, was handed the gold medal by the Emperor of France.
In England, Astley, a lovely secluded vineyard in Worcestershire, was for a long time deemed the most northerly UK vineyard before Renishaw Hall near Sheffied took over the mantle – but now there are over two dozen further north than Astley and they are winning prizes in international competitions. Ryedale at Westow near York in Yorkshire, on 53.9 latitude has ten acres and claims to be the most northerly commercial vineyard in Britain. No one in Scotland will argue with that – for the moment.
Rydedale makes most of its wine in its own winery and has won a string of bronze medals in international competitions plus a silver medal in United Kingdom Vineyards Association 2013 competition for its Shepherd’s Delight rosé. But pride of place for quality among Northern vineyards must go to Bill Hobson of Somerby Vineyard in Lincolnshire who won a gold medal at the 2014 English & Welsh Wine of the Year show for his – you’ve guessed it – Solaris still white.
Solaris slso featured in another stunning success for a Northern(ish) vineyard when Kerry Vale on the English/Welsh border at Pentreheyling in Shropshire, won one of only seven silver medals awarded to English vineyards for its Shropshire Lady dry white at the very prestigious International Wine Challenge 2015. It is a delicious wine and has become one of our favourites.
One could go on but the point is made. The success of British wines is moving slowly northwards thanks to improved techniques, climate changes and the unflappable enthusiasm of the British to produce wine from their own soil. Loch Ness, here we come.
Edited version of article in the current issue of UKvine (printed editions only)