Please remember to approach the world of wine responsibly
Chateau Mouton Rothschild
I think that the measure of fame is when you are known outside of those people with an interest in what you do. People know about The Beatles who might not be interested in music and I'm sure that The Twinky has been heard of outside of those Americans who guzzle them with relish. This is where I would place Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Not in the same breath as a Twinky of course, but as a wine so well known the world over.
The name is quoted by those who know little about wine as a wine that you mention when you want to appear sophisticated, but what is it like to visit this institution and would I recommend you going there.
While Haut-Brion made me feel special because of it's one to one nature, my visit to Mouton Rothschild feels more like visits I had done elsewhere. I had to make sure I had booked the correct tour (there are a few) and I was one of quite a large party. It's not that I mind this, but I often find that when there are quite a few people there are always one or two who feel that the questions they ask have to show off their knowledge, and this tour was no exception as two men seemed to be in a battle of wills to prove that they had the greater wine knowledge. I think that the loser was actually my sanity.
I would recommend that you make plenty of time if you wish to visit, or choose where you stay carefully. I was staying on the right bank of the river near Bourg and had to wait for the ferry at Blaye, so next time I might choose the Paullac vicinity.
The tour itself is very good, and from the beginning, as you're shown various books and end of wine cases marked with the Mouton Rothschild name you're aware of a vineyard that has true wine history in spades. I couldn't help wondering if this quest to demonstrate pedigree is because it was not one of the original First Growth vineyards, but to be honest, this is a minor quibble because it has heritage and class to spare, and when it lets the wines do the talking it has nothing to prove.
I'll be honest, I'm the sort of sad person who takes pictures of grapes. Well wouldn't you when the grapes are used to make wine that is amongst the most expensive and highly sought after in the world. At Chateau Mouton Rothschild I was in my element.
The fermentation tanks and storage facilities (large oak casks and steel containers that suprised me) are both pristine and impressive, and their storage facility has the natural light and air I'd seen absent from other working environments. Perhaps they keep that hidden from us in case we might think they are run of the mill.
Just when I thought that this facility was the sort of pristine tourist gathering place that had little to do with actual winemaking, a couple of overall wearing workers were racking the wine with a seriousness that only the French can elevate into a statement of style.
As if to untaint us from the everylife of a cellar worker we were then taken to a large, beautiful room which we were told was the location where hoards of eager experts gathered each year to comment on the prospects for that year's vintage. I feel slightly disappointed that Winefullness is still small fry and not on the invitation list, but I can dream big!
I did feel the opposite as we were shown a barrel storage facility which we were informed which was just for show, and just when my attention started to wander we were walked to the other end of this long room and were shown a table that was adorned with various pieces of winemaking equipment, a couple of wine thieves, impressive bottles and pictures of labels all under the watchful gaze of a statue of Baron Rothschild.
I think we were meant to be impressed by this memorabilia, and I'm not going to lie, I was. The thought of looking at a label that has been painted by a great artist adorning a bottle of stunning wine (one actually in highlighted in gold) is an experience that I find hard to beat. That was until the gallery!
Each year Mouton Rothschild bestows the honour of designing the label to an artist who they feel will do their best to meld the beauty of art and the magnificent taste of the their wine. Over the years the Chateau has amassed quite a collection of the original artwork and this is what the gallery is.
You walk around a large room that contains a collection of fine art that would rival any gallery in the world. The guide kindly tells me that even Prince Charles has been given the honour. I make sure the guide isn't looking when I give a little smile!
Finally, the tour is at an end, but we are not downhearted because this is when we get to taste wine that for most of us it would be an expensive dream.
Among those on offer was a 2016 that I thought was a little young and without the balance of age, but gosh it was like a talented sportman you knew was going to develop well. The better offer was the 2015, which while still a youthful number had a lot more going for it. I did feel a little bit insulted that they were content to let us have wine that even our guide admited was far from ready (even Haut-Brion trusted me with the 2011).
So, was it worth it? Of course it was. The experience of strolling through true wine history that a visit to Mouton Rothschild represents is very hard to beat. I also came away with one of those wine case ends with the name of the Chateau on and a copy print of the label that David Hockney designed. Now, if only I could afford to buy an actual bottle of the wine!
Doing the Mayfair Walk
There are two things I love to do whenever I visit London. One is to wander around the streets of Mayfair window shopping and dreaming about lifestyles that are beyond my means. The other is wine of course, and recently, on a visit I decided to put the two together and see what there was for me to get excited about. Believe you me when I tell you that in Mayfair your wine experiences can be exciting but expensive, but as I said, I like to window shop so let's see what there is to spot inside the shops!
Now firstly, forget all those pubs and bars that litter the pavements. They're enticing and inviting, but apart from being expensive (a common thread of any visit to Mayfair) what have most of them got to offer the wine lover?
Well so far, I'm not impressed. The range and variety is often littered with a few familiar faces, and there seems little of interest beyond the rows of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Bordeaux Blend. It's like a party with the same old drab bores in attendance!
I will add that this has been my experience so far. If you can recommend somewhere varied and different, let me know and I'll be there like a shot, but let's get started.
3 Davies Street
I'm going to start by laying my cards on the table. I love Hedonism and can happily spend hours tasting, looking at stock and tasting again.
I've been popping in for about four years (is was founded in 2012) and I've yet to grow bored looking at the sort of wines that I can usually only dream of being in the same room as.
There are grown adults who can easily enjoy walking among thousand of bottles of dark glass, touching labels with exciting names from around the world and dreaming what it would be like to take the slightest sip. I know, because I'm one of them. Hedonism lets me indulge myself as I pass by a 3L bottle of Petrus and a stand full of magnums of Californian boutique wines.
I believe they have around 3, 000 bottles, and I feel that if you cannot find something interesting, different and within your price range you've probably not visited yet!
The staff are really friendly but unobtrusive, as though they know that those who cross their doorway are indulging in the sort of guilty pleasure reserved for listening to a 70's disco album. Should you need their help they are close by and will give sound advice and point you in the right direction. It's one of the few places I've been inside where the staff seem to be actually interested in the experience you're having (there's another shop in Bordeaux but I'll review that after my next visit there).
There are two floors brimming with stock, and as you enter your eyes can suffer from wine overload. There's a stand holding Chateau d'Esclans near the door, a table holding so many brands of Champagne just to the right of that and behind these are rows of French wines from all regions that just beg for your attention. I've not even started on the world wines on the other side yet!
Towards the back there are rare vintages, sake, glassware and a selection of books that will suit all those who are questing to improve their wine knowledge and appreciation.
Last time I was there I bought 'NAPA VALLEY THEN & NOW' (which is reviewed later) and my back is still recoving from carrying this mammoth tome. There are so many books that will hurt your wallet as well as your back. Thank goodness that their bags seem to be reinforced!
One of the treats of Hedonism is when it's time to pay because they don't believe in the usual sort of merchantile set up. Instead they have a civilised desk with magazines and a secreted till. It's as though it wandered in from a historical film set and refused to leave. This all seems geared to making their customer base feel at ease, and I'm all for that.
It's when you walk downstairs that you see the reason a lot of us keep coming back. Yes, there's even more wine, but this is where you find bottles that are so large you suspect they could be used as torpedos in submarines. I can't remember all the names that I walked past, but the First Growths fought for attention with the Burgundies, Super Tuscan's and New World names.
I realise that my approach to touching and admiring bottles of wine is similar to gardeners who salivate over seed catalogues, but as I placed my hand on a bottle of Mouton Rothschild covered in gold, then a 6L bottle of Haut-Brion I thought that I was in viticultural nirvana.
That was until I got to the Enomatic Machines. These little marvels allow you to take a sip of various wines after a card is placed in a small slot (of course you've got to put some cash on the card first. This is a business and not a charity!). The variety of wines they have available is stunning and the range is quite large. Among the wines I've tried there have been Leeuwine Estate Riesling, Lynch Bages, Inglenook Blancaneaux and a Henschke Mount Edelstone and I've not been let down once. I'm still trying to justify the cost of tasting a 1968 Chateau d'Yquem, but do I really need to?
The tasting area has a long table with enough glasses to make sure your wines are not tainted by one another, and as you ponder what's in your glass a range of text books and vineyard catalogues help you ponder even more.
Hedonism may have an unfortunate name (when I tell friends where I'm going they assume I'm off on some sort of partner swapping party holiday off the coast of Greece) but it is how a wine seller should be, and I'm already looking forward to my next visit.
Just don't get me started on the wall of d'Yquem that lights up as you approach. Matron I need to lie down and rest!
BERRY BROS & RUDD
3 St James Street
While Hedonism is the modern incarnation of what a wine merchant should be, how does it compare to the old school? Indeed with wine, is there no school like the old school or is it really a broad church with room for everybody? I went to Berry Bros and Rudd to find out.
It is the oldest wine and spirit merchant in Britain (operating since 1698 so it probably supplied the props for Hogarth's famous `Gin Lane' pictures) and as London seems to still be the centre of the wine world that makes it beyond important in my book.
They do have offices around the world, particularly in the upcoming markets, but if one wants to get a flavour of the hushed reverence that wine is often held in then one surely needs to pop inside. After all, if it's good enough for H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales (who only lives a few doors away) then it is more than good enough for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
I don't know how I first became aware of the place's existence. Perhaps I was walking around the area and noticed the wonderful frontage that resembled something out of a Dickens novel. I do know that I felt a little intimidated at first, because its mixture of age and location scared me away for quite a while.
When I did cross through the doorway a few years later I was knocked out by how much history surrounds one, and how welcoming the staff are in sharing their passion.
These were the old days before the shop on Pall Mall and it always looked to me as though there was only one room actually selling wine. The others had their doors closed and made me feel as though I was in the offices of a firm of Edwardian accountants. I always remember the scales from my first visit.
If you've been to Berry Bros and Rudd you'll know about the scales! When the place first opened, they used to weigh coffee and all manner of exotic goods on them, but as the Georgian era came along, the rich and famous found them to be a useful device for actually weighing themselves.
It was quite a common sight for that flamboyant little show-off Beau Brummel and his indulgent cronies (The Prince Regent included) to pop themselves on to the scales so that they could see if their roister doistering from the night before had started to weigh them down (physically as well as morally).
That's the past and we can only visit there through books and pictures. What about the present? Has Berry Bros and Rudd moved with the times or is it in some sort of viticultural limbo? I'm please to say that it is alive, well and deserving of a visit.
The small room that used to be the main area for showing off the inventory has gone (the original building now seems to be small offices with their door thankfully open for perusal).
They also have a facility in Basingstoke, but that is not what this article is about. So, if one walks around the corner and on to Pall Mall, past H.R.H. The Prince of Wales' place (I must get a glimpse of his wine collection) and almost opposite 67 Pall Mall (more below) you come to the new shop.
It's not really new, having been open for a couple of years but it feels new (perhaps after spending time among the wooden panels in St. James Street it just feels that way).
The Enomatic machines once again stand their like silent butlers ready to dispense whatever your tastes dictate. I don't think they have the range of Hedonism, but the prices seemed startlingly cheap when compared.
There was an excellent choice of wines that one could buy and taste, and between two serving desks one could go inside a room that was reserved for the fine wines. It was here that I gently stroked a magnum of Screaming Eagle (this was before visiting their website) and a sturdy bottle of Sassicaia (among others).
I did tell you that I enjoyed doing this, and don't pretend that you're above it if you're by yourself in an enticing wine emporium!
The staff are, once again, helpful, and during my visit I was able to talk wine war stories with those on duty. They discussed the various wines that were popular and why certain wines weren't available, all very honest and open. Once again, they seemed ready to indulge my questions and I didn't feel as though I was being patronised.
Around the walls were the standard pieces of wine paraphanelia; books, glasses and Coravins.
Without doubt this is somewhere that I will continue to visit, enjoy and tell my friends about, but as I left, I did wonder about the traditions that those who come into the shop are missing. Surely, there is still a place for wooden panels, weighing scales and bottles of wine whose contents might have been drunk by dissipated Georgians!
I'm not saying that we should return the wine seller to the days of the past when men in thressuits weighed up your social status before allowing you across the threshold. I just want a mixture and I do wish that Berry Bros & Rudd had have incorporated the old and new together in some way. One might have felt as though one was taking a trip through the history of the wine merchants of Britain.
67 PALL MALL
My last stop on this viticultural trip around Mayfair was going to be at 67 Pall Mall, but Grant Ashton who owns this excellent place will be answering 15 QUESTIONS in the next edition. This means that a review of my recent visit can wait until then.
`Those who cross their doorway are indulging in the sort of guilty pleasure reserved for listening to a 70's disco album.'
`Hedonism may have an unfortunate name, but it is how a wine seller should be.'
'If it's good enough for H.M. The Queen and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, then it is more than good enough for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.'
`It was here that I gently stroked a magnum of Screaming Eagle!'
North, South, East & West
The future's so bright.
No infrastructure, no sewer system, no bank and no pizza but plenty of reasons to come and visit.
Ask most people about their favourite wine region and you'll find that most roads seem to lead to Burgundy with it's twin, beautiful, representations of life and land that are personified in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Has there ever been such a part of France that seems so effortlessly gifted when it comes to producing wines that rock the world?
One of the names I always love to see on the label is Olivier Leflaive, because tasting one of his beautiful whites from Bâtard-Montrachet or Corton is to feel luxury travelling from a glass to inside of you.
I was so pleased when Olivier Leflaive agreed to answer some questions because I just didn't think he would be able to spare the time. Making epic wines doesn't just happen by accident you know?
Some of you might have heard of a wine shattering event that took place a number of years ego entitled, 'The Judgement of Paris'. It was when Californian wines beat the French in a 'light-hearted' competition. This buried preconceived ideas that the french made all the best wines. I recently attended a similar event that I'm calling, 'The Judgement of Clacton', and once you've read this article you'll understand why.
If you've not already picked up on it, I'd not thought of a town like Clacton as a centre for wine competitions, but the minute I stepped through the door into a hallway where bottles stood to attention like an eager army I knew that any preconceived notions would have to be placed on one side.
Settling down to observe events, I looked at some of the entries the judges had already made on their tasting sheets and found that as well as the usual smell and taste profiles, they were also trying to ascertain a country of origin. It's a tough job, but six discerning palates were determined to do it!
I perched down, trying to be invisible, as the judges seemed in agreement that wine number twenty-six was a possible medal winner, but at the moment they were unsure of where to actually place it. Now before you write to me and say that I'm trying to give something that is obviously pleasurable an air of tension, don't forget that the decsions that were being made around that table could have a serious impact on the prominence of a bottle of sparkling Rose on the world market.
Inbetween the discussions and the scoring, Chris, as chairman and host, ran things with a large amount of generosity. At one point he asked one of the judges if they would like a meal cooked when they said that they felt a little hungry. This was as well as throwing information my way and making sure that the whole event was accompanied by the polite sounds of Chopin.
I might have arrived at about two o'clock but this event had started at ten in the morning and was running until somewhere near five-thirty. I watched with interest and worry as the judges palates were confronted by wines with differing potentials.
The range of countries represented was immense, and as wines were tasted I wondered if the mighty French would quash all comers with their distinctive flavour profiles. Like you, I would have to wait until the end when all would be revealed.
For each wine the scores were out of one hundred, and as I watched most seemed to be within a boundary of mid-eighties to low nineties. This was going to be close, very close!
Number forty-two reared its head as a contender as Chris informed me that this was the first time that 'Glass of Bubbly' had tried a sparkling Rose wine judgement. I felt honoured to have been asked along.
When all had been tried, the chairman went away to work out averages and winners, and the judges rested their weary palates, made small talk and wondered about the origins of some of the wines they had tasted. One unusual contender was proving to be quite a mystery until it was later revealed to be a mulled sparkling wine from Spain (I told you that there was quite a variety of wines on display).
All too soon our host returned and informed the judges that whilest the first and second had been decided, there would have to be a sip off to decide number three. Both were brought in, poured and a decision was required. The judges fluctuated, seeming reluctant to pin their flag of choice on one of the wines. It was like watching a top tennis match at Wimbledon, but without the soft drink. Finally they seemed satisfied and by a vote of three to two, number thirty won third place.
The covered bottle was now gently brought into the room like a reluctant prom date. The were smiles and nods as the wine was revealed to be a De Watere Premier Cru from Champagne. Was this the start of a French one, two, three?
No, because the second sparkling Rose came from the renowned South African vineayrds of Graham Beck. All those present agreed that it was an excellent offering and worthy of its second place.
New Hall Vineyards
Jane had told me that her wines were helped along at New Hall Vineyard and this seems an obvious place to stop on my tour around East Anglia.
It might not have the obvious charm of West Street Vineyards, but the amount of wine it produces makes it a very serious player on the local vineyard scene. The tasting room is based in, what seems to be, an outbuilding for a farmhouse (in fact all the buildings that surround the visitor parking seem to be outbuildings) and as I start to try the many wines (and there are a lot) that are on offer Lucy Winward (Manager of Tours and Sales) introduces herself and fills me in on the work being done at New Hall.
WINEFULLNESS: New Hall Vineyards seem to help a lot of other vineyards. How many are there, and to what extent does your assistance go?"
LUCY: 'We are a Contract Wine Producer for around 10 vineyards. Some are located locally in our Crouch Valley Wine Region and others are much further afield. We offer consultancy, guidance and support to growers, as well as offering them a complete winemaking service from pressing their fruit to labelling their finished wine.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is your bestseller?'
LUCY: 'Bacchus is definitely our bestseller. The Greenwood Family saw the potential of Bacchus on the continent and in true pioneering style they planted a couple of acres here. Now we are proud to boast the oldest plantation of Bacchus in the UK over various sites of the vineyard. It's remarkable to taste the varying flavour profile from each plantation of Bacchus. We have now released a Traditional Method Sparkling Bacchus; the lees aging brings out some remarkable characteristics of this variety.'
Crouch Valley Wine Region is blessed with a matrix of factors which enable a long temperate growing season for aromatic grape varieties.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is there a conflict of attitude when it comes to climate change? It could be a blessing for English wines, but as what cost?"
LUCY: 'Climate change is often considered to simply result in warmer weather; there is no doubt that our harvest dates are creeping earlier each year. But we must consider that the weather extremes that come with changing climates can be fatal on vines. Fortunately we manage to escape frost on the whole here, but we see other vineyards suffer from late spring frosts and a drastic change in weather towards the autumn.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What do you do to forget work?'
LUCY: 'My passion is food and drink, so I'm at my happiest when I'm in the kitchen cooking up a feast with a big glass of wine with friends. I'm a bit of a nerd so I really enjoy reading about wine tasting, chemistry and new production techniques. The wine industry is fascinating and there is an entire community of wine growers around the world that I love to learn about.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Will Brexit have an impact on you?'
LUCY: 'That's a tricky one. A lot of products that we need for wine production are manufactured in Europe, so Brexit will definitely have an impact on us. A lot of wine production annexes were created by the EU so as an industry we are all apprehensive to see what will actually change.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Why should visitors make New Hall Vineyards a place they have got to visit?'
LUCY: 'New Hall is a genuinely friendly family-run business. We always have a selection of wines ready for visitors to sample when they pop in, and all the people that work here have hands-on experience of wine production, so you'll always meet a well-informed member of staff when you pop in. Our Wine Festivals heavily involve the local community, and we support local businesses in every aspect of them.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is your favourite food and wine pairing?'
LUCY: 'Hhhmm... that's a tough question. It's not a very sophisticated pairing but my favourite time of day is sitting with my partner after work, chatting about our day with a glass of crisp, zesty dry wine and some salty snacks like olives, nuts and crisps. Heavenly.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What future ambitions does New Hall Vineyards have?'
LUCY: 'We have loads of ambitions and are always looking ahead! We have a long-term expansion plan for the winery to begin with. The popularity of the contract winemaking side of the business, plus the new plantation of vines coming into fruition mean that we need to facilitate the growth.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What was the last film you enjoyed watching?'
LUCY: 'Again, not very original, but LOVE ACTUALLY is a favourite of mine. It's festive, funny, warm-hearted and it's got all my favourite actors in it.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is the one varietal that you wish you grew and why?'
LUCY: 'If you'd asked me that question three years ago, I would have said Pinot Meunier. But my wish was granted since then and we were lucky enough to get the go-ahead to plant 3000 Meunier vines on Church Hill. I've been fascinated by this variety since working with it at Bluebell Vineyard in Sussex and since tasting 100% Pinot Meunier sparkling wines in Champagne.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Which question do you wish that you had been asked and why?'
LUCY: 'Hhhmm... I wish I'd been asked if I'd like to stop at 14 questions. Question 15 is tricky...'
And then our time was up and Lucy headed out of the tasting room and back to the many jobs that seem to await the wine growers I have come across in East Anglia. New Hall Vineyards may be one of the oldest, but I still imagine they need a whole crowd of eager workers donning many hats thinking about the future.
The East Anglia wine scene is growing pretty stronger and there is a lot to keep a wine visitor interested. While New Hall Vineyards is something of a viticultural institution in the area and it is possible to find their wines stocked by a variety of merchants and sellers, lots of new vineyards are springing up, hoping to make impressive wines that gather plaudits, fans and a little cash.
that will help us to deal with a successful replanting programme when our vines grow old.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What was your biggest problem setting up this business?'
ROBERT: 'There is my sister, my cousin and myself. We're starting out from scratch with no real financial backing, just savings and a helpful grant. The time it all took delayed us by about six months...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is that why you didn't open in the summer?'
ROBERT: 'Yes. Then once we started to build we couldn't envisage everything that we would come across. We wanted to do it right and so we took our time. The building time overran and we're still adding bits now. We wanted it to evolve as a business.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What has been the biggest surprise so far?'
ROBERT: 'I would say that it has been the positive response from the local community. As farmers, we're always sort of on the side of the community. We're outside the nearest village and a lot of the things we do isn't always noticed in a good light. We found that having done this the village seems quite proud to have a local vineyard on its doorstep.
'We did a soft opening and on the first day we had people coming in saying how pleased they could walk to us rather than travelling a distance in the car. Surely, that is better for the environment?'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Indeed. You mentioned farming. Were you farmers who just decided that you wanted to go in a different direction?'
ROBERT: 'There were a couple of factors really. My cousin was looking to start a vineyard management company and my father was interested in the idea. As a farming family we've always looked further afield for ideas, always looked for diversification rather than doing what others do when times are hard, like selling off huge chunks of their land.'
This Charming Man
The Smith's story of Smith Story.
WINEFULLNESS: 'What varietals have you got here?'
ROBERT: 'Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meurnier and Bacchus, which is the leading still white grape variety in Britain. Our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are predominantly for sparkling production, although we also use our Pinot Noir in a still red. We're looking to plant more here as a rolling programme.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What are you planning to plant next?'
ROBERT: 'We're probably going to work with more Bacchus so that we can increase our still production.
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you think that you'll ever move away from Bacchus because it is often equated with the bland wines that seemed to be a part of the early English wine industry?'
ROBERT: 'It might be a German grape, but it's like the Sauvignon of England. We do make some fantastic white wines with Bacchus. We will use other varietals, as well as continuing to work hard with Bacchus. It's all about broadening your range.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Has the harvest been satisfactory so far?'
ROBERT: 'It's been interesting. We are only a four year vineyard on this site so our vines are still maturing. We had our first harvest at the end of last summer and the quality was exactly where we wanted it to be. This year the quality has been exactly the same. We have suffered a little bit on yield, due to the second year of dry summers and the late rains that didn't help to swell the grapes to achieve the weight we would have liked, but the quality was there so we were pleased.
WINEFULLNESS: 'When did you harvest?'
ROBERT: 'Mid-October. We did our Pinot Noir first and then a week later we did our Chardonnay.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What do you do to relax?'
ROBERT: 'At the moment, because we are putting our life and soul into this (running this alongside our farming business) so time off is rare. We are proper country people who enjoy taking the dogs for walks. We welcome people to come and walk around the vineyard with their dogs.
'I did steal a few days and travelled up to Scotland where I stayed in a cabin in the woods that was really off the grid...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'How did that feel?'
ROBERT: 'It was bliss. To get away from everything in a nice quiet spot where I could watch the wildlife.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is there a wine region that you would like to emulate?'
ROBERT: 'My instant reaction is to say no. I would like our wines to be like our own region. Something that is recognisable to ourselves and of our area. Our sparkling wines are generally a similar style to Champagne. We have similar soil types and climates. We are using a German rootstock with the French varieties grafted on the top. I'd like to think that we can make our own mark.
'Let's not forget that sparkling wine was actually invented in England. I know that this is heavily debated, but it was a monk who did this about thirty years before Dom Perignon. It's actually recorded. So as we were the first ones to do it, it's kind of taking things back to their roots.'
Smith Story is very popular with the casual drop-in crowd and while I'm there trade is brisk, people chat easily and share the wine tasting experiences that lead them here. Perhaps there are a few who want to meet Lord Sandwich, their beautiful dog. He's so popular that he has his own entry on their website and followers on Facebook. I get into conversation with Eric who is one half of the team (or a third if you include Lord Sandwich). He is
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is the local reservoir a strong influence?'
ROBERT: 'The reservoir is our saviour. We had late frosts this year and due to the reservoir being next door it was like a radiator. It kept our ambient temperature just high enough that we only had one or two plants lost. I know that further south they had some real issues. It also keeps our water table up, and that grapes haven't got to root so deep to find water. It also adds something to the wine tourism side of things. People love to spend time by water and so the trails around our site include the reservoir.
'When we first planted, the number of people who thought I'd planted a woodland was quite large. Thankfully, social media has helped to guide visitors to what we are doing.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What did people say when you told them that you were planting a vineyard?'
ROBERT: 'It was more positive than I expected because having been involved in vineyards for twenty years I know the stigma that can be attached to English wine, but now, through the English Wine Industry having helped promote wine and educate people there's more interest in it.
'I remember doing London Farmers Markets twenty years ago and I couldn't get people to sample it. Now people are very keen.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Tell me about your winemaker?'
ROBERT: 'We're still a young vineyard and we ship out grapes to other sites that have winemaking equipment. They're two of the best producers in the country, and luckily we pick at different times so there's no clash when it comes to using their tanks.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you see a time when you'll make the wine here?'
ROBERT: 'Yes once we're big enough, but the cost of investing in equipment and also having access to good winemakers is important as well. I think our partnership will grow but we'll put a pressing facility here to help with the carbon footprint that comes with transporting liquid rather than fruit. We want to keep out carbon footprint as low as possible, which is why you'll not find a carrier bag on site.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you think Brexit will have a long or short term affect on the business?'
ROBERT: 'Definitely. The pound is going to be seriously affected and migration of workers into England from Europe is going to have a big impact. We rely heavily on seasonal staff.
'The pound dropping may help us in as much as imports will be more expensive, but at the moment the cost of production, plus the cost, duty and tax added on to English wine means it's hard for us to compete with imported selections.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What do you sell at?'
ROBERT: 'Our wine is £15 a bottle and £30 for a sparkling.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you find that when you're charging a price like that people will stick to what they know? For instance, if you're charging £30 for an English sparkler and it's £30 fo French Champagne, people head towards the Champagne without thinking?'
ROBERT: 'I think they're willing to pay for the price bracket we are in and people purchase heavily on a price bracket. I think if people try our wine they are pleasantly surprised and will convert to English. The quality of English wines is second to none.
'With our reds we do struggle a bit, but there are some really good varieties out there that can be used to make impressive reds.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is your favourite wine that you sell?'
ROBERT: 'I really enjoy our Rose'. I find that there's more flavour in it. English Rose' is generally drier than most Rose' on the market. There's so much depth to our Rose' in this country that you often need to treat it like a red and a white. It should be chilled like a white, but you should also let it breathe like a red. For me it's an all-year-round drink. Red I save for winter and white for the summer. Rose' is my year round tipple.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is it possible to plan a long-term strategy for a vineyard with a climate like Britain?'
ROBERT: 'I think the only way we can plan is to produce enough grapes so that we have a surplus to sell wholesale. If we have a poor harvest we can rain production back.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Why should people come and visit Prettyfields Vineyards?'
ROBERT: 'People should come and visit anywhere where they have a local vineyard, but Prettyfields especially because we've opened up a piece of the countryside that has been closed to the public for years. We've got the reservoir which makes for fantastic walks and we've also got lots of events for families.
'With people's busy lifestyles this is a place where you can just sit and be. Here the surroundings mean that you can relax and just be yourself.'
One cannot help but wish Robert and the people of Prettyfields Vineyards all the luck. They might have opened their business at a time when uncertainty seems to rear its head whenever possible, but the enthusiasm he has for his product is infectious in such a way that I will be returning here and helping them by buying the two wonderful variations of Bacchus on offer.
ERIC: 'Wine tasting rooms can be intimidating for a lot of people who haven't been drinking wine a lot of their life so we always tell people and we always ask them if they like it or not, because if you don't like it figure out why. It's like a tree where you're exploring the branches.'
Don't forget to pop in, see Eric and try his wonderful selection of wines. You might even get to meet Lord Sandwich. It's a fight to decide which has the best pedigree; the wines or the dog?
Like the article, try these.
A lot were good, but the following were the stand out wines that I tried.
Smith Story - Sauvignon Blanc 2018
After years of those Antipodean tropical fruit bombs that contain more acid than a car battery comes California and Smith Story. The taste was so clear and pure that the fruity citrus and green apple notes grabbed the attention. All this was supported by a bed of minerality that gave the wine such strength and finish.
Roederer L'Ermitage 2011
When I first saw that this lacked Pinot Meunier I thought that it might be a little off-balance because I find that grape always gives sparkling wines a strength in the mix. What do I know?
The time it spends in the barrels makes up for this and I found that it was so clear and honest that I wanted to drink the whole glass while pondering how I could move to the Anderson Valley!
'I acquired my love of wine after spending part of my youth in the French area of Cahors.'
'The Leasing Scheme came about as a way of introducing English Wine to a larger audience.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Where did the idea to rent out vines actually come from?'
LUCY: 'The Leasing Scheme came about as a way of introducing English Wine to a larger audience. It's wonderful to have so many ambassadors of New Hall Wines all around the country. It's great to see all the Leaseholders come together at our various festivals.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is the footfall for the business like?.
LUCY: 'We have a growing footfall through the business. New Hall was one of the first vineyards to host tours and tastings to private groups, and they continue to be a popular aspect of our business. Our Annual Wine Festival welcomes thousands of visitors each year.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'How has the 2019 harvest been?'
LUCY: 'Due to the vast amount of Germanic, early-ripening varieties grown here we are lucky to begin our harvest at the start of September. We were extremely fortunate here in that we completed our grape harvest before the consistent October rain.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What makes Essex wines stand out against the competition?'
LUCY: 'East Anglia is the home of still wine, and specifically our
I travel back to the Colchester area and find that just off the A12, near the Ardleigh Reservoir, is Prettyfields Vineyards. When I visit, the business has only been going a few months in its present mode. I wonder how they view their future when everything in England seems to be tinged with such uncertainty.
Chatting with joint-owner Robert (in a mixture of coffee shop and tasting room they has christened 'The Crate') it is easy to spend a few relaxing moments trying wine and looking out over a vineyard that is so young it hasn't reached the stage of being called a baby yet.
As I start to question this interesting man, the strains of 80's rock music waft in and out of our conversation in a manner that is somewhere between comfortingly familiar and distracting because you want to sing along (in you head of course. I'm not sure how Robert might respond to me warbling my tonsils loudly in his establishment.
WINEFULLNESS: 'How many acres are there?'
ROBERT: 'We have ten acres of vines on this site and we're slowly looking to increase that so we can have a rolling, planting strategy
'As a farming family we've always looked further afield for ideas...'
WINEFULLNESS: What's been the most exciting thing about this new project for you?'
ROBERT: 'The fact that English Wine has been behind the scenes for the last twenty years or so, and then suddenly it has come into the limelight. People are starting to recognise the quality of British Wine, especially sparkling.
'We've started to worry the French! Taittinger have bought land over here. There are rumours that LVMH have bought land. If that's the case we've obviously worried them enough that they want to invest and investigate what we're doing. Having seen the struggle, and how to help promote the success through our product is very exciting.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you think the English sparkling wine scene has nearly reached its peak?'
ROBERT: 'There's still a large proportion of the population that don't know about the idea. I also think the price is prohibitive as well...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is that because of the cost of land in this country?'
ROBERT: 'Cost of land, cost of vineyards. It's small batch production compared with vineyards in other countries. The quality is here, and this is helping to attract winemakers from across the globe because we're an emerging market and they can come here and experiment rather than making wine in a prescribed company way. It can be artistic rather than just purely scientific. That's one of the keys to making a great wine. Yes, it's about the climate and the quality of grapes, but it's also about the people behind it.'
'Let's not forget that sparkling wine was actually invented in England... It was a monk who did this about thirty years before Dom Perignon. It's actually recorded.'
Giffords Hall Vineyard
Cross over the northern county line of Essex and you find yourself entering Suffolk (not quite as old American West as it might sound). If you've set your sat-nav for Giffords Hall Vineyard, you will drive through the sort of beautiful English countryside that makes you partly realise why the British are so self-confident about their country.
I headed there in late October and the autumn had started to grip at the edges of the countryside with russet coloured leaves falling to the ground as the misery of isolated damp roads that can barely hold two cars are your only companion until you reach Giffords Hall.
If the entrances to the vineyards of California seem ornate and sculptured, the entrances to a lot of the vineyards in Essex and Suffolk have the feel of farms that have switched their usage, and Giffords Hall fits this profile well, although it has been a vineyard for a long number of years.
Linda and Guy Howard, the owners, are rushed off their feet as I nonchalantly walk into their tasting room. They appear to have just lost a shipment due to an incompetent shipper and there is an edge of panic as the pair of them try to put together another batch of wines as a replacement for one of their many important clients (Giffords Hall Vineyards has quite a few establishments of note that hold their wines).
Panic over, Linda makes me a cup of coffee and we head to her cosy office accompanied by a wonderfully friendly old dog and a beautifully pristine cat that is looking for a home to perch. She finally decides that Linda's lap fits the bill.
Linda speaks with the confidence of a classic English Lady, and the welcoming warmth in her voice makes conversation easy and enjoyable. Before the tape starts rolling she tells me about the bees she keeps. These have been feeding on the sugars from the Gifford Hall grapes and Linda wonders if this might make for an interesting batch of honey. I'm more than willing to try!
LINDA HOWARD: 'I'm so pleased that you're doing something about English wines. I suppose that we're real old fogies now at Giffords Hall. We bought this place seventeen or eighteen years ago and it was an established vineyard then.
'Some of our vines are thirty, thirty-two years old. If anybody had have told me that we'd be getting the quantities with vines that age I just wouldn't have believed them.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Giffords Hall was established at a time when English wines seemed to be suffering an identity crisis between the Germanic varietals that were already planted and the traditional sparkling varieties that were coming along...'
'Linda speaks with the confidence of a classic English Lady, and the welcoming warmth in her voice makes conversation easy and enjoyable.'
LINDA: 'That happened in Sussex, and that happened probably in the eighties with Ridgeview. They were the original movers and shakers.
'I think that as the industry grows I think that provenance and actually where a wine comes from is going to split into regions. I do think that East Anglia will be a very interesting region to watch for two reasons.
'There was a report that came out which said that East Anglia is one of the best regions to grow grapes in England. This did cause a bit of a stir because the focus had always been on Sussex, Sussex, Sussex! I know that LVMH have bought in Essex now, near Danbury.
'What is going to intrigue me is where they're going to pitch it. Let's face it, Champagne is Champagne and if you're a boy trying to impress a girl you'll go out and buy a bottle of Bollinger or something similar, but there's a huge amount of interest in English wines because it's something new and something different.
'There's a lot of debate about if we should be making Champagne 'style' wines or if we should be making an English 'style' wine..."
WINEFULLNESS: What do you think?'
LINDA: 'I think we should be making something that is as good as Champagne, made in the traditional method. There's room and people love a sparkler!'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What trends have you noticed in English wines.'
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'There's a lot of debate about if we should be making Champagne 'style' wines.'
At this stage we have a quick break because it's all hands to the pump as Linda has to help Guy load up his car with the replacement order. She leads me where the wine is stored and both of them urgently place a variety of bottles into boxes that can then be placed in Guy's car.
There is only the pair of them. The harvest has just been collected and their workers have kindly been given time to rest by this wonderful pair. I keep offering to help, but there is something stoically British about their determination to get the work done by themselves.
Car has been loaded, Guy hurries away to keep the customer satisfied and Linda and I return to the office where the chat continues.
WINEFULLNESS: 'Apart from that accident with the smashed bottles, how has your harvest been?'
LINDA: 'It has been unexpectedly large. I'm very lucky because I have a pruning and picking team who really know what they're doing. It was quite extraordinary this year, but I do feel that we got it right.
'We have a new vineyard, which is a Pinot Noir/Burgundy clone that nobody else in East Anglia has, and we also have Pinot Blanc. Guy loves working with Pinot Blanc, and the barrels we use are minimal intervention. The whole vineyard is about minimal intervention, trying to make beautiful wine with more of a 'hands off' approach.
'The wine industry is now big enough in this country to have a governing body that can lobby in parliament. So they're talking, with Brexit, about making our little cellar doors duty free. That will be a game changer with a lot of the smaller vineyards around here. You'd have an allowance, and one of the reasons that this might take off is because winemaking is so labour intensive and we're talking about jobs...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'So with all that labour I'm assuming that you hand pick?'
LINDA: 'Oh yes.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Do you think that if the British wine industry started using more machinery it would lose something unique?'
LINDA: 'If you're making good sparkling wine you need to handpick. The care with which we gather the harvest in is incredible. I'm not saying that I wouldn't use machinery, but then you have to have your row widths and we're a tiny island with not much land to spare. It's precious in England.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What made you decide to get into the wine game?'
LINDA: (ponders the questions for a few moments) 'I've got quite a few answers for that one. Firstly, I fell in love with the place. This part of Suffolk is just beautiful. My husband was in the city and he had quite a high-powered job, and I had this romantic view that I could see him with an old hat poking and prodding vines. This is a life job where you're never going to make millions and he's worked harder than he ever worked before!
'Secondly, I also think that as you get older it's good to live 'over the shop' so to speak!
'While social media has helped us immeasurably, a beautifully designed bottle and label is going to get you a long way if you're brand is on the shelves of supermarkets. We're both business people and I think we brought that side of our lives into the vineyard when we were creating a brand, because
'A beautifully designed bottle and label is going to get you a long way.'
we were one of the first to develop a wine brand in East Anglia.
'English consumers are learning a lot more about wine. We've always drunk rather more than a lot of countries. If you think about it, we've always had a history that is intertwined with wine. Our wine merchants go back, and the merchant princes were bringing wine over from Burgundy and Aquitaine. We've fought wars over it!
'If you go back even further, then you have Tacitus writing that the Roman Legions liked to be based in East Anglia because of the quality of the wine.
'Bury St Edmunds Cathedral had vines all around it and their tithe to Rome was in hogsheads of wine. We have a lovely old sea captain who comes into the shop and he loves the taste of our St. Edmundsbury wine. He tells us that it is the taste of Roman Britain.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'And your business has grown recently?'
LINDA: 'It quadrupled last year. We can't quite work out why. Is it social media or is it good comments on Tripadvisor? Between May and September we did a hundred tours. Some of them were two people and some of them were fifty people.
'That's just the tours. The regular traffic is probably the same as last year. We have a shop and we sell tea and cake, but it's still doing well
'We're quite out of the way here. We also deal with quite a few local hotels and they promote us as a nice day out. It helps that they also serve our wines. People at these hotels have a nice dinner, enjoy the wine and then find out that the producer is not too far away. Suddenly they tip up and buy a case.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'How supportative are the English when it comes to buying English wine?'
LINDA HOWARD: 'I think that with Brexit people are thinking more about buying local. A couple of the big supermarket chains have aisles that promote local produce. That never used to happen.
WINEFULLNESS: 'You've mentioned Brexit. How do you think it will affect you business?'
LINDA: 'I can tell you what the chairman said the other day that it wasn't going to affect us. There's lots of information on the government website, and all those thoughts that there won't be any workers is rubbish. We also have our governing body and everything has been sorted out so we don't have to worry.
'They've brought in an apprentice scheme for people who want to train in wine, which is a fantastic thing to do. It's great to be a winemaker now for a young person. The last consultant we had was Josh and he'd worked at Villa Maria.'
'People want to come and work here because the money's good. Even with the exchange rate going up and down. I recently had a meeting at the Department of Trade and Industry where I met with a big American facilitator, and we're going to try and make a trip to the States in January as we search for as many different markets as we can. We get so many Americans visiting. I do three tours regularly for the American military bases and a lot of the people who come tend to know their wines.
'I'm Brexit ready and I've got reams of helpful information to read through...'
WINEFULLNESS: 'And we've discussed other markets?'
LINDA: 'I just think the English market might get a little bit crowded. At the moment 2% of wine drunk is English so there's plenty of markets to expand into, as long as the quality is there. If you want to buy a good quality bottle of English wine you can, and it's mid-priced.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Can Giffords Hall support itself on wine alone or do you need other revenue streams?'
LINDA: 'I think what you have to look at quite carefully is your retail versus wholesale mix. I would like that to be 50%, but it's not at the moment. We are quite out of the way as I mentioned earlier, so how do we with deal with it? We put on tours. I also think, as a marketing person, that it's quite circular. If you go into a supermarket and you try a bottle of Giffords Rose' and you think that it's quite nice, you might want to visit the vineyard and then you might take a bottle to dinner at your friends. We also get people who visit, try the wine and then think it's a very good choice for their wedding.
'I know a couple of vineyards where they only do wholesale and I think they're nuts! If you're going to build a brand, you need to get it out there. Wine is something you buy because it's really nice drinking wine where it's been grown. As I said earlier, provenance is becoming really important, and if you can put 'Wine of England' on the front and 'Wine of East Anglia' on the back you're giving it a story that people want to buy into, want to be interestd in.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What do you do to relax?'
LINDA: 'My headspace is my horses. It keeps you fit as well.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Why should people visit Giffords Hall?'
LINDA: 'I think it's an experience. A lot of people have not visited an English vineyard before and here we do a really nice tour. Guy is extremely knowledgeable and lots of other winemakers will come and talk to Guy.
'It's got to the point where we have two tour ladies, but I always like to make sure that I meet and greet. They then have a little chat with Guy in the winery so you get a real insight into what goes on.
'It's stunning countryside here and what's not to like. You get a lovely day out in a lovely part of the country that you might otherwise not visit. Then you learn something as you drink something really delicious.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'What is the most surprising thing from visitors?'
LINDA: 'We do get people who go, 'Oh, this is really good!'
WINEFULLNESS: 'They still do that?'
LINDA: 'Yes. I think people are surprised by the quality when they have a tasting here.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Which question do you wish that I'd have asked you, and how would you answer it?'
LINDA: (laughs) You could have asked me where I was going on holiday?
WINEFULLNESS: 'Where are you going on holiday?'
LINDA: 'I'm going to America to work. I'm putting something together and I have to work out where I can sell, and also my routes to market. Guy and I have also got to visit Amsterdam in about six weeks time.'
WINEFULLNESS: 'Is there a time you've thought about giving up?'
LINDA: 'There was a time when we almost put it on the market, but we hadn't been doing it for very long. It was about four years after we started and we thought that it was going to really cost us. Then we won the Waitrose Trophy for the most outstanding Rose' and we suddenly thought that we'd come so far so...'
The rest is left unsaid and we head towards the tasting room where Linda lets me taste the 2018 Rose'. I've got to say that it has those light summer red fruits at the front and is definitely a step up from a lot of Pinot Rose' I've tried recently.
What adds to the whole experience is how much of a joy Linda has been as a chatting companion. When I listened to the interview later I was aware of how much laughter there was.
Giffords Hall is so worth a visit, and the honesty of approach and lovely personalities you will meet will stick in your mind for a good long while. Did I mention that they make an excellent Rose'?
So, that is it from East Anglia, and as one tours an area that is at the start of a journey that has been two thousand years in the making you realise that the wines are as friendly and welcoming as those wonderful people I met.
I'm not saying that every wine I tasted was great, but there is enough here to keep the visitor really happy. If you can find them in your supermarket then buy one and see what you think. If you live abroad then why not find an importer who can supply you with something where you'll be at the dawn of an exciting viticultural time for East Anglia, or perhaps this might be the time to plan that trip to England that takes you beyond London and Edinburgh!
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West Street Sparkling Brut
New Hall Vineyards - Pinot Gris 2018
Giffords Hall - Rose
Glass of Bubbly
'The future's so bright I've got to wear shades'
Perhaps she'll be able to give you a Tango lesson!
It was held by an organisation called, 'Glass of Bubbly' who are a name to respect when it comes to discussing the merits of sparkling wine. Chris and Eve run the operation from a location that is near the centre of Clacton, a British seaside town that is a few years past its best. They have high ambitions for a wine centre they hope to grow, and from the credentials of the assembled judges I'm not betting against their lofty ambitions.
I'd received an invite from Eve to attend an event they were calling, '50 Shades of Rose', but I'm not holding that against them because any tasting where fifty exciting sparkling wines were being put through their paces can overcome even the naffest of titles!
A little luxury does you good
But what would come first? Would it be one of the expensive offerings from the French big boys (perhaps write in French); a Bollinger RD, a Cristal or a Taittinger? Could there be a surprise from one of the lesser known, but worthy, small growers of Champagne?
When it was revealed that the winner was Fox & Fox from England there was a blend of shock and excitement. The wine that had been deemed the best on the day had made it a home win. Having tasted it I can recommend that if you can lay your hands on a case or two then you are certainly going to impress your guests and be ahead of the curve, especially if you bring out a bottle at Christmas.
I stayed for a chat with chris afterwards and he informed me that as their wine venture grows there will be more tasting, interesting wine adventures and experiences for all palates. I asked him to let me know so that I could pass them on to you and you can arrange to make you way to this charming oasis of viticultural interest.'
Pictures of bottles, a bit more about Glass of Bubbly.
50 Shades of Rose