A walled garden that creates a pleasant grape growing environment has been the basis for a 40-year adventure in grape growing in Derbyshire. Its new leaseholder is happy to take the vineyard forward for years to come.
Fans of English literature will know Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire as the family seat of the Sitwell family. Fans of English wine know the Hall, built mainly in the Georgian period around a 17th-century core, hides one of the jewels of the English wine industry: a vineyard planted in 1972, still in active production.
Just short of its 40th anniversary as a vineyard, the lease has been taken on by an ex-Army officer who has switched military manoeuvres in Afghanistan for viniculture in Derbyshire.
After a decade in the military, Kieron Atkinson (pictured) underwent a change of career when he joined the wine industry. In his latest role, he has become leaseholder of the vineyard at Renishaw Hall, Renishaw, north Derbyshire.
He says: “I loved my time in the Army but realised that it was not conducive to a stable and happy family life. Afghanistan was an incredibly stressful time for my family and although I found it to be the most rewarding period of my working life so far, I decided that it was not fair on those around me to carry on.
“I knew that whatever I did I had to love doing it, it had to grip me and it had to be something that I could devote my time to, which viticulture is.
“I also like the fact that every decision during the winemaking process has an effect on the wine, both positive and negative and sometimes both! I wanted to have an outdoors element and I ultimately wanted to create something. I basically realised that life is short and it certainly is no dress rehearsal – you should try and do what you want to do, and be prepared to work hard to make it happen.”
Atkinson declines to reveal how long a lease he has taken: “I took over the lease of the historic vineyard at Renishaw Hall this summer and, whilst I cannot discuss the legalities of the contract, I will be looking after the vines for a number of years which I am very much looking forward to,” he says.
The current owner of Renishaw is Alexandra Sitwell and family, daughter of the late Sir Reresby and Lady Sitwell. This extraordinary family have lived at Renishaw for over 400 years.
Atkinson says: “Alexandra has been incredibly supportive in regards to the vineyard and winemaking at Renishaw Hall. She is a very enthusiastic and wants to see the vineyard grow in strength to continue her father’s vision when he planted it all those years ago.”
One development that Atkinson has started is a rebranding of Renishaw Hall’s wine labels. He says: “I know an excellent designer Ian Bray who specialises in bottle label design. The idea is to produce a label that is more contemporary whilst retaining the heritage of Renishaw Hall. A lot of English wine labels are dated, and with the Renishaw still and sparkling wine I wanted to create a new look to the bottles to appeal to all purchasers. We hope to have the new-look bottles on sale next year.”
Are there any unique challenges in growing grapes as far north as Renisahw Hall? Atkinson thinks not,
He says: “Happily we have similar sugars and berry composition as our friends in the south, the major difference at the moment is in the range of grape varieties being produced. As there are fewer vineyards here in Derbyshire there is less data as to what works well. Renishaw Hall vineyard is in a walled garden that creates a pleasant grape growing environment which really helps. There are numerous vineyards in and around the midlands region who are all in communications with each other on a regular basis.”
Currently, the vineyard produces still white and white sparkling wines. Both wines have proved extremely popular and there are plans are afoot for expansion of the site, with Bacchus and Pinot Noir the favourites to be planted. In an average year yields are around two tonnes, but have been up at 3.5 tonnes and as low as one tonne.
He says: “All the Renishaw wine is 100% from Renishaw Hall grapes, but I am also planning on buying other regionally-grown grapes to start producing my own label wine in the very near future.”
Atkinson has studied winemaking at Plumpton College and worked at Halfpenny Green vineyard in the West Midlands.
Queen and country
Having ended his career defending Queen and country, Atkinson is convinced he has entered the commercial wine producing industry as it approaches a tipping point.
He says: “English wine is an underrated product, the sparkling especially has a great deal of focus and it is a quality product that rivals the best that is produced in Champagne. But the still is also good and improving all the time thanks to increased knowledge and professionalism throughout the country. Being able to produce world class still white, red and rose is achievable and something England and Wales should aim for.
“However, the battle for the English sparkling market will continue to be fascinating, and will create winners and losers. Whatever happens, it can only improve the product and will advance the industry in this country.”