Victor Keegan, writer and journalist, who has been interested in the emergence of English and Welsh wines since planting a micro vineyard over 35 years ago, recently made a visit to Wales to catch up with wine in the valleys
The vineyards of Wales – like the national rugby team – are on a roll. It wasn’t always so. Ten years ago Welsh wine was not something you would drink in public. The trouble is that the poor public image created in those dog days persists today as most Welsh people I meet don’t really believe how much their wines have improved. If you had predicted a decade ago that a Welsh sparkling wine would be voted the best in the world by an international jury in a blind tasting that included some champagnes you would have been laughed out of court. Yet that is what happened at the end of last year to Ancre Hill Estates in Monmouth at the Bollicine del Mondo in Verona, Italy.
Ancre is the star turn among the 16 vineyards listed on Wine Trail Wales, with its impressive whites and rose as well as its globally garlanded sparkling white -but there are plenty of other good vineyards. During the past six months I have visited most of the 16 estates on the Wine Trail and have been very impressed by the rising quality.
They were all, at the very least, pleasantly drinkable, a cut above most wines served in pubs and many of them quite delicious. Hardly anyone, however, can make a decent living just out of producing wine – certainly not when you get disastrous harvests as in 2012. The emerging business model is to create a vineyard experience where visitors can eat, taste, meander, adopt a vine or stay in a B & B. Interestingly, most places sell well over 90% of their produce from the vineyard itself, enabling them to keep the profit margin that would otherwise go to retailers while obviating the need for expensive marketing campaigns. It also enables them to get away with charging higher prices because visitors seem happy to pay a bit more for taking away a bottled souvenir of their visit. Nearly all of the wines are processed by Three Choirs over the border in Gloucestershire.
Llanerch Vineyard, 20 minutes from Cardiff, (pictured) has woodland walks as well a cookery school to attract visitors. I had a very pleasant Ceasar Salad with King Prawns washed down with a very palatable medium dry wine. It is a sign of their success that they were so busy they couldn’t spare anyone in authority in authority to speak with me. Even more beautifully situated is Sugar Loaf Vineyards, nestling at the end of a series of narrow lanes in the Welsh hills just outside Abergavenny serving and selling fine crisp white wines, a red, and a delicious summery Rose.
The barometer of Welsh wines is surely Glyndwr set in a blissful haven of six acres at Llanblethian (only visitable by appointment). Started by Richard Norris and his wife Susan in 1982 it is the oldest established vineyard in Wales. When I first tasted it many years ago I was not impressed but that has all changed. I love their white wines which we have offered successfully at dinner parties and are now sold by the (very discerning) Waitrose in their supermarkets in Wales as well as being served at State occasions.
What has changed is partly that the wines themselves have gradually improved thanks to more mature vines, steadily improving expertise and maybe warming climates. But it is also a psychological change in me from an almost institutionalised disbelief that England and Wales could produce good wines to facing the facts. This is still a deeply embedded prejudice in the national psyche which can be tested in most pubs. Just ask for a Welsh (or English) wine and watch the expression on the bartender’s face.
Bucking the trend
Two places that buck the trend of selling from the site are Monnow Valley in Monmouth, (which seems to market to supermarkets and is so low key that it is not even mentioned on Wine Trail Wales) and Bryn Ceiliog, which, though only two miles from Cardiff as the crow flies, is so out of the way down country tracks that it is strictly by appointment only. The amiable Ian Symonds who runs Bryn Ceiliog (deftly translated to Cock Hill for the label) is an intrepid wine producer soldiering on after no vintages at all in 2011 annd 2012. Over 90% of his output is sold to local hotels and restaurants from his charming estate where you can see the coast of Devon on a clear day. The tranquillity of the day I visited was interrupted only by the sound of a large tractor making its way down the narrow trackway, driven by Ian’s 90 year-old father.
Last but not least is a trio of boutique vineyards. White Castle is a brand new 5 acre venture by a husband and wife team both with other jobs, which not only produced red (as well as white wine) in its debut year, 2012, but sold all of it at a premium price of £20 a bottle. Parva Farm produces prize winning wines from its eyrie above the River Wye at Tintern Abbey while Wernddu produces organic wines starting st £7.50 a bottle from a remote farm at Pen y Clawdd in Monmouthshire watched over by alpacas. Virtually all of its output is sold from the site but, unusually, they do their own processing rather than entrusting it to Three Choirs in Gloucester.’
The only one of my visits I have left out is Meadow View, near Glyndwr, which has 2 acres under vines and which sells mainly through supermarkets, shops and restaurants.
I failed to reach the vineyard because the charming people at the next door business -only yards away- assured me there was no vineyard next door and, having consulted Google, sent me off in another direction. That in a nutshell is the unsolved riddle of English and Welsh wine. We don’t appreciate what is on our own doorstep.
Victor Keegan is a writer and journalist who has been interested in the emergence of English and Welsh wines since planting a micro vineyard (6 vines) over 35 years ago) which produced the worst wine he has ever tasted
Victor Keegan’s Gems of London (an app for the iPhone. iPad or iPod) uses geo-location to take you to unusual places in the Capital telling you how many yards you are away from them. City Poems links classic poems to the London streets, statues etc that inspired them. Shakespeare’s London does the same for all the buried memories of the Bard’s life in London. Geo Poems geo-tags most of Victor Keegan poetry.