By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 8 August 2020
What do we think about when we think of Wales? Rain, sheep, lush pastures, mining villages and beautiful mountain scenery probably spring to mind - rather than sunshine, endless sandy beaches, palm trees and vineyards.
Yet Wales today has over thirty vineyards across 61 hectares with 20 active producers embracing the warming climate and taking advantage of their natural terroir across the country. They have even just celebrated their own Welsh Wine Week. Much of Wales’ 100,000 bottles of sparkling, white, red and rose is sold locally to tourists and restaurants, but they are spreading their wings to UK’s supermarkets and retailers.
Even more fascinating is the geographical spread of vineyards across Wales and the quality of the wine being made. Instead of clustering in the warmer sheltered south, vineyards range from northern coastal vineyards up to higher altitude inland sites at 900ft.
On the north coast is Red Wharf Bay in Isle of Angelsey and new recruits Gwinllan Conway Vineyards at Llandudno in Denbighshire. In the heart of Mid Wales is Montgomery Vineyards in Powys and on the eastern border Ancre Hill in Monmouthshire (pictured above) amongst others. Further south is Glyndwr Vineyard and Llanerch Vineyard in the lush Vale of Glamorgan near Cardiff.
The Romans first brought vines to Wales, but it was a Scot who pioneered C19 Welsh wine. Industrialist Marquess of Bute at Castell Coch sent his plantsman to France, importing 63,000 vines in 1875 planted on south facing slopes around the castle near Cardiff; he made 3,000 bottles of Gamay Noir and Mille Blanche in 1887. Clearly sugar was an important element in Bute’s wine as production halted with sugar rationing and vines were uprooted in 1920.
Modern Welsh vineyards revived again in the 1970s at Llandegfedd, Pontyclun and in Cowbridge. Glyndwr Vineyards near Cardiff is the oldest surviving, and the largest in the country, run by Richard Norris, who makes impressive quantities of brandy, sparkling and still wines – with a herd of llamas roaming his vineyards to keep the grass down and supply manure.
Of all the newcomers, my pick of the bunch would be: Ancre Hill. Richard and Joy Morris with son David planted their first vineyard in 2006 on south facing slopes around their house near Monmouth – today they grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Albarino.
Even more impressive is the Morris’ commitment to organic viticulture on their 12 hectare vineyard and in 2011 they converted to biodynamic, so risky in wet Wales. Now with a new winery, a large traditional straw bale construction, lined inside with Austrian oak barrels, Burgundian concrete tanks and eggs - their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based sparkling wines from vines grown on ancient mudstone red loam and sandstone soils (so different from than Champagne’s chalky soils) are impressive.
I admire the Morris’ ethos of terroir-driven wines with minimum intervention – with recently launched Orange Wine based on native Spanish Albarino grape and ‘Pet Nat’ lighter fizz based on Triomphe – Ancre Hill are at the cutting edge of modern Welsh wine.
My other pick of a dynamic entrant into the Welsh wine industry, is higher altitude Montgomery Vineyards in the heart of Mid-Wales.
“Our family originally bought the property as a country retreat in 1970 and the land had never been used for agricultural use, it was just natural meadows”, explains Woody Lennard (pictured above), who has a geology degree, but worked in the construction business.
“In 2011, I consulted agronomist John Buchan about the potential for vines and in 2014 we hand-planted 3,800 vines with a mix of hardy hybrids like Solaris, Rondo and Seyval Blanc, the well-known Bacchus cross and an early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir, Precoce which is our most challenging grape to grow”, says Lennard.
Montgomery Vineyards are in a naturally sheltered amphitheatre at 900ft with south facing slopes of flinty gracial deposits – possibly the highest site in the UK.
“We grow cool climate vines at such high altitude on virgin ground, the result is smaller intensely flavoured grapes”, says Lennard. There is no winery here, but Lennard partners with Martin Vickers at English winery Halfpenny Green winery, 50 miles away on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border.
The brightness of fruit and depth of flavours at very moderate alcohol levels is impressive for such a young vineyard site, particularly good in the hot 2018 vintage; although 2019 was trickier with constant heavy rain and alternate cold and humid weather.
As in England, site selection for budding Cymru vintners is crucial, with a climate not unlike France’s Loire valley, south-facing sheltered frost-free sites are important. Now they can also take advantage of better early-ripening clones, improved fungicides and warmer temperatures with earlier bud bursts giving a longer growing season to build up flavour in the grapes.
Blanc de Noirs NV Ancre Hill Estates (10%) ***STAR BUY***
£39-£44 Element Wines; Tanners Wines; Loki Wine; Field & Fawcett; Fortnum & Mason
Impressive toasty brioche nose, savoury palate with lemon zest flavours, vibrant acid line – the most successful Welsh traditional-method Pinot Noir based sparkling wine to date.
Chardonnay 2018 Ancre Hill Estates (10%)
£21.99 Viader Wines; Grape Britannia; Tanners Wines
Citric, ripe appley bouquet, hints of honeysuckle and rich vanilla notes – a light balanced precise Chardonnay with an impressively moderate alcohol.
Solaris 2018 Montgomery Vineyards (11%) ***STAR BUY***
£18.75 St Andrews Wine www.standrewswine.co.uk; Fountainhall Wines www.fountainhallwines.co.uk; Harris & Co www.harrisandco.uk
Vibrant tropical fruit notes, grapefruit flavours, sweet tutti-frutti melony palate, herby notes from hot 2018 vintage; this could be confused with Sauvignon Blanc.
Rondo 2018 Montgomery Vineyards (11%)
£18 St Andrews Wine; Fountainhall Wine; Harris & Co
A trophy winner which reminded me of a light Loire Gamay with its bright cherry and raspberry fruit, juicy zesty flavours and succulent palate. Impressive still red from such a cool climate - well done Wales!
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