Friday, 9 November 2012

The hills have wines...

“Someone really ought to plant some vines there”, I’ve often opined to myself as I drove along the A25 between Newlands Corner and Dorking, looking up at the south facing chalky swathe of the Surrey Hills.  Well thankfully “someone” has done more than idle daydreaming and actually gone and created a vineyard there.

The man in question is Nick Wenman, and his 13-acre patch of vines, Albury Organic Vineyard, is part of the Duke of Northumberland’s Albury Estate.  I first stumbled across the vines on a walk to Silent Pool last winter and was intrigued to find out more about the place.

I finally caught up with Nick on the last day of harvesting of the 2012 vintage.  This year, as anyone who hasn’t spent the last six months abroad will know, has been grim on the weather front.  Unseasonably cold, damp conditions have dogged us since the balmy, warm days we enjoyed in March.  This kind of weather is unkind to any form of fruit growing, from adversely affecting fruit set at the beginning of the season to threatening the final crop with rot at the end of it.

Luckily for Nick, however, he does have a crop – albeit a small one – this year.  Nyetimber, one of England’s foremost producers of sparkling wine, announced recently that it will not make any wine from this year’s harvest.  That made waves in the national press and 2012 will doubtless not go down in history as one of the best for English winemakers.

There will be more positive memories of the year for Nick, though, as his still wine, Silent Pool Rosé 2011 was one of only three English wines chosen to be served on the royal barge during the Thames River pageant in June, as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  How long ago it all seems now.

The ultimate goal is to produce an Albury Estate sparkling wine, hopefully in time for Christmas 2014, though the real volume of wine will not be on stream until 2015 or even 2016.  Bearing in mind that the first vines were planted here in 2009, you can see that becoming a producer of sparkling wine in this country requires dedication, patience - and deep pockets.

Why does it take so long?  Vines take 2-3 years from planting to produce a viable amount of grapes to constitute a crop.  After that hurdle has been crossed the grapes harvested will initially go through a first fermentation, which produces a regular still wine.  A second fermentation in the bottle is required to produce the fizz, followed by a period of maturation before the wine can be released.  This process can’t be hurried and unfolds over a period of 2-3 years if you are looking to make a quality product.

Hence the attraction of releasing the Silent Pool still rosé, which can be released a few months, rather than years, after harvest.  The wine acts as an aid to cashflow and helps put Albury vineyard on the marketing map.

You could not accuse Nick Wenman and his team of taking the easy option.  As well as embarking on a wine journey that will take the best part of a decade to come to fruition, the vineyard is also certified organic - 2012 will be the first organic wine to be released. 

Not content with the tricky task of using organic methods in a challenging climate, they have also converted to biodynamics.  If you’d like the one sentence summary of biodynamics it’s:  an holistic approach using organic methods plus specific “preps” on the soils, with vineyard operations timed to harmonise with the movements of the moon and planets.  Sound bizarre?  For more detail on what this means, and who else is doing it, you can take a look at a post from my blog on the subject:

What with a small 2011 production and the great Jubilee-related publicity for their rosé, Nick has had no trouble selling every bottle he has of the wine this year – sadly this means that, unusually, I can’t tell you where you can taste these wines for yourselves.  There will be a small amount of Silent Pool Rosé 2012, made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, available locally next year – but the crop is only around 25% of what Nick would have hoped for, so you’ll have to look sharp to grab a bottle when it does appear.

In the meantime, here are a couple of English wine recommendations that you will actually find in the shops now.

Stopham Estate Pinot Gris 2011 - £15.50 from Hennings, various branches in West Sussex and other local independent merchants
The 2010 vintage was selected by Jancis Robinson MW as one of her wines of the week and sold out pretty quickly.  Luckily the new vintage is as good, with true varietal style, fruit and elegance.  Their Pinot Blanc was also chosen to be served on board the Royal Barge for the Jubilee celebrations.

Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2009 - £22.99 from Waitrose and various independents
Ridgeview Estate, at Ditchling in East Sussex, have been making a range of top notch English sparkling wine for years now.  Their wines are consistently good across the board, so if you see the name Ridgeview, trust me, it’ll be a good ‘un.  This elegant Chardonnay-dominant blend has Pinots Noir and Meunier in support and is their most popular and signature cuvée. It would not disappoint any Champagne afficionado.

Here’s hoping that, in three years’ time we will be fêting the success of Surrey’s very own Albury Estate sparkling wine.  Cheers!

All photos courtesy of John Powell, Albury Visual Services

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