Ξ August 4th, 2009 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time |
Three Choirs is one of the largest commercial wineries in England and a visit here was a perfect opportunity to get an understanding of some of the factors influencing English winemaking. What I also found was that a walk through an English vineyard is an introduction to some of the more obscure cool climate grapes you are ever likely to encounter.
I suspect the mention of English wine to most people will result in a blank stare or possibly a raising of the eyebrows; even as a resident Brit I had previously only tried a couple of bottles, although I knew a little of the U.K. wine scene from background reading. 2 million bottles a year can come out of the 1100 hectares (ha) of vineyards mostly scattered along the Southern English (and Welsh) counties – for more information on the industry as a whole, including a potted history dating back to Roman times, check out the English Wine Producer’s website.
Three Choirs Vineyards itself is near the Gloucestershire town of Newent and traces its history to 1973 when local wine retailer Alan McKechnie started with a ½ acre (1/5th of a hectare) of vines on a fruit farm. The scorching summer of 1976 gave a bumper harvest and encouraged him to expand to 8 hectares (ha) by 1984, when the farm was sold. Tom Day, the farm manager-cum-winemaker at the time inspired local investment and the Three Choirs name was chosen, based on the famous local Choral festival held between the Cathedral cities of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester. Eventually local businessman John Oldacre took control and the vineyards went through a period of expansion to the current 30ha – less than Denbies (106ha) and Nyetimber (105 ha) but with grapes also coming in from local growers the winery is certainly one of the busiest, producing up to 300,000 bottles in a good year. Managing Director Thomas Shaw discusses a little of the vineyard history and the 2008 harvest in a video piece on local news site “This is Gloucester”.
I was visiting the winery for a 3 day stay in their guest accommodation as part of a short summer vacation. As well as the winery buildings Three Choirs has a visitor shop, fine dining restaurant, 8 guest rooms on the complex and three guest Chalets in the vineyard itself. With a per night cost equivalent to a luxurious hotel the stay is a step above Bed & Breakfast, but for any wine enthusiast it is well worth the expense. I was especially impressed by the audio commentaries available on their vineyard walk (giving a history and background information on the vineyard and viticulture) and also a row of demonstration vines showing several of the trellising techniques in use around the world. Wildlife in and around the vineyard included a local Alpaca farm, the obligatory sheep and cows, green woodpeckers and Bertie, the resident 16 year old ginger Tom cat who loves to settle down in your room given half a chance!
On the first evening of our stay we had winery tour led by Jo, a bubbly and knowledgeable guide who was happy to answer a range of questions on the vineyards, winery and the wine itself (mostly from me!). There were about 10 of us that evening, a comfortable number to try a few wines and have a sedate wander around the compact premises, but Jo mentioned that as many as 80 people have been on the regular daytime tour open to visitors (which sounded a little unmanageable).
We walked to the main building past the German (Willmes) pneumatic press, able to hold 2 tons of grapes and produce 800 bottles of juice at a time (the pomace produced ending up as feed for a nearby pig farm).
Inside the building, temperature controlled to 52 degrees, was a fully loaded riddler for sparkling wine, its bottles were in the vertical and ready for disgorgement. Three Choirs lay down their traditional method sparkling wines for 9 months minimum, 12 months for the Cuvee and 24 months for Vintage, with little or no dosage, and a new £10,000 riddler had just arrived (the Hungarian delivery truck was still parked outside) to expand their sparkling production.
On one side of the building was a wall of oak barrels mainly used for ageing their red wines, and in front was a motley collection of fermenting and storage tanks, some old, but including a new batch of temperature controlled stainless steel tanks that had cost £40,000 – winemaking is an expensive business if you want to keep your kit up to date!
Further on was the relatively new bottling plant in a positive pressure sterile room, the Italian equipment able to handle 2000 bottles per hour, although the labeling section next door is older and slower, so when bottling is on a full run extra hands are needed to prevent a log jam!
The winery is currently in a changeover from cork to screwcap – with the majority of their wines a fresh, young style designed for early drinking there is no benefit in using corks & risking TCA spoilage.
As well as vinifying their own grapes Three Choirs have contract growers providing extra fruit and also make the wine for a host of local vineyards under their own labels, such as Strawberry Hill who grow grapes in a commercial greenhouse including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (not normally successful in this green and pleasant land).
There’s always something going on since cider and beer are made on site in a winery-cum-brewery which operates all year round – with British weather the way it is having extra options to winemaking isn’t a bad idea! The Whittington’s brewery was named for Richard (Dick) Whittington, Lord Mayor of London and pantomime inspiration who was born locally in nearby Pauntley.
Three Choirs was also the location at the end of Episode 6 of “Oz & James Drink to Britain”, the recent installment of the Oz Clarke & James May road trip series on the BBC following on from France and California. Although you only see a few seconds of wine drinking on film I am informed that both of them left the vineyard significantly worse for wear after many more glasses off camera!
Onto the vineyard, and the 75 acres (30ha) are planted with 800vines/acre (2000/ha) on sandy soil using the Geneva double curtain (GDC) trellising system, designed to keep the vines high for improved ripening and frost protection. A combination of spur and renewal cane pruning is used (which, along with the GDC, are discussed at the Wine Doctor) and the vineyard is pesticide free, believing in more natural pest control methods aided by regular dosing with sulphur spray. Tree and hedge windbreaks temper some of the strong winds in the region, but air circulation around the wines is required to prevent rot so the vigorous weeds and grasses between the vines need regular trimming.
The harvest typically starts in late September and continues on into early November. A fine 2006 produced 400 tons of fruit, but the last 2 harvests suffered from the perniciousness of the British weather and only 75 and 80 tons respectively were harvested. This has led to a severe shortage of wine left in the Three Choirs stocks, they are literally running out of wine to sell, especially the dry white award winners such as the Bacchus and Siegerrebe.
Those two names may give you a clue as to the types of grapes planted around here. There are apparently 16 different varieties over the 30ha (although I could only count 13 of these on my stroll through the vines) and the range helps spread the risk in England’s cool, wet summers. These are a mix of Vinifera and the few French-American Hybrids tolerated by the E.U. regulators, but they are all cool-climate vines with different ripening times which German and Canadian growers will likely recognize;
Seyval Blanc (England’s most planted variety) and Reichensteiner (a close second), Huxelrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Schönburger, Siegerrebe, Phoenix, Orion and Bacchus make up the whites (Muller Thurgau has been used in the past and may have been hiding while I was there). The red grapes planted are Regent, Triomphe (aka Triomphe d’Alsace), Rondo & Pinot Noir (which barely ripens in most years). For a summary of these and other varieties used throughout England go to the English Wine Producers “Varietes” page.
And so to the wines themselves, produced by winemakers Owen Davies and Martin Fowke (UK Winemaker of the year in 2004 & 2008), who is the son in law of the original winemaker Tom Day. The general style can be summarized as light, fresh & delicate – unsurprisingly there are no blockbusters or fruit bombs here!
I tried the dry, fruity non-vintage Classic Cuvee Brut sparkling (Seyval Blanc & Pinot Noir) which had nice apple tones, frothy mousse and a pleasant zestiness, however I was not overly impressed with the dry whites such as the 2008 Coleridge Hill (Phoenix blend); for me they were a little too sharp and crisp although they had their charms, especially when it came to aroma.
Much more to my taste were the medium dry whites such as the 2008 English House and 2007 Willow Brook. The latter, a Schönburger & Siegerrebe blend, had a light Alsace style with a touch of sweetness, not dissimilar to a Gewürztraminer. Moving onto the medium-sweet style and the tight-nosed May Hill was pushing the sugar hit too far but, although it worked well with cheese, it couldn’t compete with the 2006 Late Harvest dessert wine (Siegerrebe & Schönburger ) which oozed succulent lychee behind an acid backbone, a light sweetie and a serious 3+ wine.
The colour deepened with the just-bottled 2008 Rosé, with Triomphe adding colour to Seyval Blanc and giving a dry, refreshing drink with a strawberry and rhubarb taste. Finally the reds and a taste of the 2006 Four Oaks (Regent & Rondo) gave some toffee on the nose and a fruity, medium-light, easy drinking red, the best English red I’ve tried (by way of qualification, it is only the second English red I’ve tried!).
Just by looking at the wines I enjoyed the most during my stay I can see Siegerrebe as a consistent theme, and this ties in with the 2006 and 2007 vintage of their single varietal dry white taking top prize and the 2008 and 2009 English Wine Awards. Unfortunately their award winning wines, the single varietal Bacchus and Siegerrebe, were not on show for either tasting or purchasing (remember they said they were running out), but they did have a 2006 Pinot Noir and 2003 Siegerrebe Noble Harvest botrytis wine in the shop which caught my eye, so I bought a bottle of each to bring home with me plus a Rosé, English House, Willow Brook and Four Oaks.
The vineyard has made some special blends for The Wine Society and I recently saw bottles of “Ripe & Fruity” and “Crisp & Fresh” on the shelves of my local Tesco hypermarket, but if you want to get hold of their own labels then you’ll need to be in the Gloucestershire area or visit the vineyard itself, there just isn’t enough of the stuff to go around! Hopefully a run of warm summers may change this, although so far for 2009 this is not looking likely.
My visit showed me that English wines have an intriguing style of their own which is worth learning (if only to appreciate the difficulty in getting it into the bottle!) and there’s a nucleus of winemaking expertise around that should continue to develop and be successful over the coming years, weather permitting.