Wine is all about discovery, it’s the people involved and the place they are operating in, just as much as it is about sniffing, sipping and swallowing the end product.
What’s in the glass still has to stand up quality wise, for many reasons, but quite often consumers find most joy in learning about a wine’s journey, the story behind each mouthful and sharing this with friends and family.
The English and Welsh vineyard scene is growing intensely and while the big players keep getting bigger to meet demand, the industry is also home to hundreds of small, family-run operations who are just as passionate about creating something special for their customers.
Not only do these producers all come with their own unique tales of how their wine brand came to be; they can often offer something more interesting and more relevant, to consumers looking to discover an intriguing delight in the local wine market.
This month I found myself making my own wine discovery in the heart of the Cotswolds. Coming off the M4, I wound through the tight country lanes, driving through numerous chocolate-box villages, with rows of quaint honey-coloured, oolitic Jurassic limestone cottages.
Finally, I arrived in the parish of North Nibley, near Stroud, where I met Laura Brocklesby, her husband Guy Neale, twin babies Bobby and Ivy, and Treacle the Cockapoo, at their charming Georgian home, Road Green House, to learn more about the eponymous vineyard and find out first-hand how a small family-run operation goes about finding its feet in a competitive market.
Family orientated venture
Imagine relocating to the other side of the country, settling into a new house, giving birth to twins, and taking on 2,000 productive vines and a stock of unbranded still and sparkling wines all in the space of just a few months. Well, ‘hectically hands-on’ is certainly one way Laura will remember the last 12 months.
“The whole journey so far has been a very family orientated venture,” said Laura, who took over Road Green Vineyard at the beginning of 2018 after her husband’s godmother decided to sell up.
Having lived at Road Green House for over 30 years, as Claire Billingham entered her 70s, she suddenly decided to plant a vineyard, “as you do at that age.” Described by Laura as a “very impressive lady”, Claire teamed up with Three Choirs Vineyard and with invaluable guidance and support from Martin Fowke and Kevin Shayle, the first vines were planted in 2012.
Spread across a three-acre parcel of south-facing, clay land, the 2,000 vines of Orion, Phoenix, Siegerrebe and Solaris, which were selected specifically for the site, were well-established by Claire, with the estate’s first wines being produced, also by Three Choirs, in 2015.
“Claire was doing an amazing job of tending to the vines, but in 2017 she knew she physically couldn’t continue with the project,” said Laura. “At the time, Guy and I were living in London and were starting to think about our long-term future. Claire wanted to keep Road Green House, which she had redeveloped over the years, the gardens which she had loving created from a bare field, and the vineyard, in the family. Guy also had fond memories of the estate growing up and didn’t want to see it sold to just anyone either.”
The couple, who were working in the financial sector, decided to take a punt on the property – seeing it as a chance to ensure it fell into the right hands, and as an opportunity to develop a new and exciting English wine brand, as the wines were not yet being sold anywhere.
Plans were slightly “thrown up in the air” as at the same time Laura and Guy were completing on the sale, they found out they were expecting twins. A complete “wow moment” for both, 2018 paved the way to a busy year with the couple learning to juggle parenthood as well as how to manage a vineyard for the first time.
“The twins were born in July and have been in the vineyard since day one,” said Laura. “I remember having them strapped to us in papooses at just six weeks old while we were busy leaf stripping. It has been lovely but has also meant that we didn’t have quite as much time as we thought we might.”
Fortunately, Laura’s parents live next door, her sister, Hannah Brocklesby, who lives a few miles away in Bath, was also on maternity leave, and with support and advice from the estate’s long-standing head gardener, and now vineyard manager, Richard Cartwright, along with the ability to call on friends to help with harvest, a bumper crop was safely brought to fruition.
“We are very much learning as we go and working very closely with Three Choirs,” said Laura. “Everything is just a complete family effort. At picking time, it was all hands-on deck; we sent up the flare for help and brothers, sisters, mum and dad and a lot of friends turned up, it was just such a great experience. My parents are very much part of the vineyard and have been helping us to keep on top of the maintenance all year round.”