Chris Moss, The Guardian, August 11, 2014
It wasn’t wine weather. Leaden clouds were hanging low over the Vale of Glamorgan, their frayed edges occasionally touching the fields as drizzle. There was no indication that I was in grape country; perhaps the sign would say gwin, Welsh for wine. I asked in Cowbridge, a small, affluent town (Waitrose, cafes, delis) and again at a pub, and eventually I found what I was after up a back lane, with no sign or even an arrow. I’d expected low-profile, but this felt more like a quest.
Jo Norris, the 30-year-old manager of Glyndwr, greeted me in front of his tidy rows of reichensteiner and madeleine angevine vines. I’ve met quite a few winemakers over the years, and he was not typical – he wasn’t wearing a cravat, his face wasn’t florid from too many “tastings” and he wasn’t posh.
“I’m actually younger than the vineyard,” he said. “My dad opened Glyndwr in 1982, which makes us the oldest wine producers in Wales. We’re quite proud of that, as lots of estates have changed hands and this is still a family business.”
Before opening their winery, Jo’s parents travelled to France. “They were basically told it would be impossible to grow vines in Wales because the summer is too inconsistent. But they bought the land, which was just brambles then, and through trial and error we’ve learned how to do it.”
Glyndwr – which takes its name from Owain Glyndwr, the legendary rebel and symbol of Welsh nationalism – covers just six acres, and Jo says the alkaline soil, on a base of carboniferous limestone, works well with high-acidity grape varieties. The land slopes gently, making for good drainage, and faces south-east, where the sun shines – usually, at least. Jo pointed out the bursting buds on his vines – the first signs of promise for a winemaker.
“Soon these will be flowers, and then we’ll get the first small, hard grapes . We do mainly white varieties, from France and Germany,” he said. “Red wine is not easy to make here. The vines need different conditions.”
Thunderclaps provided a full stop to his explanation, so we went inside to taste a Glyndwr 2013 medium-dry white, which was a bit young and yeasty, but had good citrus notes and a smooth finish. I wondered aloud whether making wine in Wales wasn’t rather like making pale ale in the Rhône valley?
“There have been vineyards in Wales since Roman times,” said Jo. “We’re not just doing it to buck a trend. This is a quality product, not a novelty one. We can’t produce enough to meet demand from our local customers.”
Twenty minutes’ drive away, buried down (another) back lane close to the M4 – another publican helped me out with directions – was Llanerch Vineyard. The impressive 22-acre site – seven of which are planted with vines – has its own bistro and bar, a 10-bedroom hotel, a shop and a smart-looking cookery school run by television chef Angela Gray. It’s about as close as Wales comes to California’s Napa valley.
Ryan Davies, 28, introduced himself as the director, but again he confounded any ideas of what a director looks like – or does. He wears wellies, helps with the pruning and when I dined in the bar that evening, he was helping out as a waiter. His dad bought Llanerch in 2007, after the previous owners went bankrupt.
“Wine is not a huge moneymaker,” he told me, as we walked among the seyval blanc and kernling vines. “It costs us about £9.50 just to make a bottle, so it’s very hard to break even. We are expanding, though, and as the vineyard gets bigger the costs will come down.
“For now, we see the vineyard as more of an attraction for people staying or dining here: it makes a change from looking out on to sheep. Because it is so different from the ordinary Welsh landscape, it has a wow factor.”
Llanerch, 20 minutes’ drive from Cardiff, gets its fair share of foreign guests. “At first, visitors from South Africa and Australia are sceptical,” said Ryan. “But when they try the wines, they are pleasantly surprised.”
Llanerch was planted just a year after Glyndwr, and its vines already have a lovely, gnarled appearance. A wall of poplars shelters them from the prevailing westerlies, though when I was there an easterly wind was blowing in the rumble of the motorway. It was hardly the trill of nightingales, but then again many French vineyards are in less-than-bucolic settings.
With dinner that evening I enjoyed drinks from a wine list that featured Llanerch’s own Cariad wines as well as some good New World options.
Afterwards, I went for a stroll around the nearby woodlands. With the Vale of Glamorgan and the Wales Coast Path on its doorstep, Llanerch is popular with walkers as well as wine buffs. As dusk fell, the ducklings on its pond were settling down for the night and the traffic noise had dwindled; the vines looked dreamy in the fading light.
I couldn’t hear the M4 when I woke up the following morning at Llanerch. But I could hear the pitter-patter of rain. It was actually rather lovely and soothing, but Welsh winegrowers must be made of stoic stuff.
Before leaving the area, I set out on an easy circular walk from Cowbridge. The 6.5-mile Iolo trail is named after a local hero, Iolo Morganwg, who was a Welsh radical, laudanum addict, forger, flautist, anti-slavery campaigner and stonemason. A humanitarian who shunned using beasts of burden, Morganwg walked everywhere. He was a great drinker till he realised that was bad, too, and then criticised local topers for being “pitifully little in every thing but moral turpitude”.
Until now, Welsh wine has been about grape-growing; the crushing, blending, barrelling and bottling has been done mainly at the Three Choirs winery several miles away at Newent in Gloucestershire. This is down to economies of scale: small producers can’t afford the luxury of an on-site winery, the expertise of a winemaker, and the cellarage and other requisite infrastructure.
But this is all about to change. Ancre Hill, a nine-acre vineyard just north-west of Monmouth, is only eight years old but its owner, Richard Morris, has big ambitions.
“We’re fully organic, biodynamic, and very commercial,” said Richard. “We have already won awards for our sparking and still wines. Later this year we’ll be harvesting the first albariño grapes to be grown outside Galicia, and in autumn we’ll open our own winery.”
The weather was again inclement, but the setting was stunning. On a wide meadow sloping down to the south – with the gentle Red Hill opposite, as seen on the company’s labels – were row upon row of triomphe, pinot noir, seyval blanc and chardonnay vines. Between these was a dense undergrowth of native herbs. Stately horse chestnut trees in full blossom stood in the midst of the vines.
From beneath his umbrella, Richard explained the biodynamic aspect. “We spray the vines with tisanes [herbal infusions] made from camomile, fenugreek, yarrow, wild garlic and stinging nettle. We let nature do most of the work. We follow the moon. Our philosophy is to bring on the vines slowly, not taking fruit till the fourth year.”
This faith in ancient patterns is allied to ultra-modern technology and the winery, when it opens, is going to be spectacular. Built using straw bales, it will be a cutting-edge, carbon-neutral installation. Richard directed me up a ladder to take a look at the roof, which is covered in growing sedum plants. A small field of red and green vegetation means that even the ultralight aircraft bobbing around the nearby mountains will struggle to spy any industrial blot on this lush landscape.
But Richard’s secret weapon is his son David, who is just 30 and a fully qualified viticulturist. I asked him whether he thought Wales could take on established wine-growing regions in Kent and Sussex, where much is made of the chalky soil on the downs.
“People talk too much about chalk,” he said. “Champagne growers developed their method to overcome the difficulties of chalky soils, and it is quite good for chardonnays and sparking wine. This area already rivals Kent and Sussex in the south-east of England for soft fruit, so the weather conditions are ideal. And we have the added advantage that the fields here have not been so intensively farmed. We have excellent soil structure.”
Nonetheless, growers have to fight humidity in summer, which can cause diseases and mildew, and early frosts, especially when the harvest is late, as it was last year. Richard assured me that Bordeaux gets more rain than Wales, though as a waggish friend pointed out, “I bet it has longer periods of sunshine in between.”
Still, from a drinker’s point of view, Wales has a lot to offer. Some of the white wine (gwin gwyn) I sampled was as good as I’ve tasted almost anywhere.
“We’re showing the French and the rest of the world that we have nutritious, unspoiled soils,” said Richard. “It could well be that our cool-climate varietals become talismanic for Wales in the way that, say, malbec is for Argentina.”
Malbec has created a whole tourist industry for Mendoza. Can Wales follow suit? Factor in the nearby Brecon Beacons, the glorious pastoral landscape and the proximity of foodie capital Abergavenny, and you have a desirable destination. Provided the wine tourists don’t get lost, or drowned, en route, it could just happen.
• Ancre Hill (01600 714152, ancrehillestates.co.uk) has wine tasting, vineyard tours, Welsh cheese platter lunches and accommodation in a three-bed cottage, from £474 a week. At Glyndwr (01446 774564, glyndwrvineyard.co.uk, doubles from £70 B&B, minimum two-night stay) the vineyard is open to group tours, with advance booking (dates on the website) and there is a cottage with two en suite doubles. Llanerch (01443 222716, llanerch-vineyard.co.uk, doubles from £110 B&B) has a small shop and 10 cosy rooms with access to the vineyard and a short woodland trail. Its Cariad wines are only sold on site. See winetrailwales.co.uk for more on vineyards and visitwales.com for further information on the region
Vin nouveau: more emerging wine regions
Vale do São Francisco, Brazil
There has been wine production in southern Brazil for decades, but recently planted vineyards on the banks of the São Francisco river – nine degrees south of the equator – are producing good cabernet and syrah. In the tropics, several crops of grapes can be produced each year – great for business but a headache for those producing labels for the vintage.
Vancouver Island, Canada
Earlier this year, Canadian wine made headlines when James Cameron bought Beaufort winery, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, where production had started in 2006. His seven-plus acres in Comox valley have been garnering attention with a sparkling red, a cabernet sauvignon and a pinot noir rosé.
Founded in 1999, Dansk VinCenter in the Copenhagen suburb of Avedøre produces reds primarily from rondo grapes, plus castel, regent and léon millot varieties, and is experimenting with sparkling whites. There are now more than 50 producers in Denmark, which is about as far north as vines can grow without a greenhouse.
There are already fruit wines produced in Scotland but this year chef Christopher Trotter hopes to bottle the first proper grape wines at his vineyard in Upper Largo on the southern coast of Fife, using early-budding German variety solaris, along with early-ripening white siegerrebe and red rondo.
Altai, a fabled region close to Russia’s border with Mongolia and Kazakhstan, is better known for its mare’s milk , buttery tea and vodka (and its hunting eagles). Despite the sometimes harsh winter frosts, chardonnay, muscat, pinot noir and müller-thurgau cuttings were introduced from France’s Franche-Comté region in 2009-2010, and this year winemaker AltaiSpirtProm hopes to produce around 10,000 bottles.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Chris Moss from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.