Wines from north of London offer a welcome escape this month during lockdown.
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I have never visited a vineyard north of London. Having said this, I have never visited Argentina or Chile which people think very odd because I am a wine writer and I ought to have been everywhere. Not so – I taste wine and write about taste. I don’t write about travel. In coronatimes I am not tasting anywhere other than at home, which is something I am very used to indeed. It is not uncommon for me to taste two or three hundred bottles at home in any one week as parcels and packages come in from all corners of the planet. So as a wine writer, while it is a proper pain to unpack and recycle hundreds and hundreds of bottles and boxes it does mean I can still keep my finger on the world’s wine pulse without leaving my home.
This is good news because I am looking North this month and, as I have no prior experience, I have turned to maps and the internet to call in samples. My long list, gleaned from a quick scan of the most northerly vineyards I could find, included names such as Adderstone, High Cup, Bolton Castle, Mount Pleasant (not the one in the Hunter Valley, Australia), Sutton Grange, Helmsley Walled Garden, Yorkshire Heart, Ryedale, 54 North, Leventhrope, Summerhouse, Holmfirth, Somerby, Plot 19, Three Sisters, Lincoln, Ovens Farm, Renishaw Hall, Mill Lane, South Beck, Windy Ridge, River Walk, Eglantine and Hinstock. I tapped these names into Google, hoping to find contact details with varying degrees of success. Some of these ‘vineyards’ have no website at all. Others are clearly not commercial vineyards making wine, while seven from this list looked serious enough and these were Yorkshire Heart, Ryedale, Leventhorpe, Holmfirth, Somerby, Ovens Farm and Eglantine. Sadly, only three replied to my email, but three is all I need overleaf and, as luck would have it, they sent some rather tasty wines, too.
So what does this say about the North apart from the fact that there are a surprising number of places with the word vineyard in their names and that they are a little reluctant to engage with a keen (Southern) wine writer who would like to taste their creations and spread the word in good faith? Perhaps my email is languishing in spam or maybe they can’t think of anything worse than sending a wine writer their wares or, most likely, these wineries are, like many businesses, in lockdown during this awful Covid-19 pandemic. Either way, my wine writing must go on and so I am very grateful to those vineyards who responded and I hope that my notes help them to sell more of their lovely wines.
While I only got about as far as South of Stoke-on-Trent / Nottingham, I am holding out hope that the Midlands, East Anglia, the Cotswolds and the Heart of England will engage more positively with me when it is their turn to respond because, as we all know, communication is everything in our business and there is clearly a lot more to the UK wine scene than just the South of England.
Simon and Bridget White planted their vineyard at Ovens Farm in 2015.
It is rather appropriate that the name for this farm points to the reason why they considered this property suitable for growing grapes. In spite of its northerly postcode this estate has always been recognised as having a warmer feel than the surrounding area. With a south-facing slope and a ridge of woodland protecting the vineyard from cold northerly winds, I can assure you that the Whites made the right decision! This is the second vintage release and I am already massively impressed because no less than three wines stood out in this portfolio. A cheeky 2018 Bacchus (£14) set the scene with herb-spiked-citrus notes leading the way while a NV Rosé Sparkling Brut Pinot Noir (£25) was piercingly fresh with gentle cherry red fruit throughout. But the star was the 2018 Solaris which is superbly well balanced, pure and smooth with hints of green melon and lemongrass in the sleek palate.
Somerby sent me two wines and both were fascinating. There is not a lot of information on these wines on their website, but the back label copy was useful and what intrigued me was their use of oak.
2015 Magna Carta white (£9.99, www.waitrosecellar) was partially fermented in French oak and while the latent flavour of the barrels was faintly evident it was the textural amplitude which impressed me. There is some exoticism here and the acidity is still holding firm and this suggests that, as a young wine, it might have needed some time to settle and now, at five years old, it is finally ready to go. That’s a long run up for a light white, but it has worked. My featured red is easily the most northerly red wine I have ever tasted and it is silky, harmonious and balanced. The back label notes both French and American barrels used here and with a feather-light 11% alcohol on board, this blackberry and apple crumble themed wine is rather enchanting. I assume that the oak adds the ‘crumble’!
With 35 years of grape growing experience under their belts, Leventhorpe Vineyard is not only a pioneering estate but it is also one of the very few whose wines I have tasted before.
In fact, I wrote them up back in 2007 in my Daily Mail Weekend Magazine column as one of the most important vineyards to visit in the country. Back then this was the most northerly commercial vineyard in England. I have a soft spot for well-made Madeleine Angevine and this is a beauty. Another wine which has clearly benefited from five year’s maturation, the violet notes on the nose, coupled with the hints of peach and mango make this a mildly exotic treat. But there is a welcome sour edge to this billowing fruit which tethers it to your palate and I love the haunting feel throughout the whole experience. Hat’s off to you George and Janet Bowden, you have genuinely blazed a trail which is increasingly interesting to follow!