Wowed by Welsh wine, the only part-Welsh Linda Johnson-Bell gives us a taster of what we can expect at the CWW Summer Party, finds strong identity and explains why it shouldn’t be lumped in with English wine.
As Welsh wines are one of the sponsors of our upcoming Summer Party, I thought it a perfect moment to share with you a quick glimpse into these wonderful and unexpected wines. I must first reveal a conflict of interest: Ancestry.co.uk confirms that I am 35% Welsh and Irish – the rest is Scandinavian – and I have a husband who is descended from the artists Augustus and Gwen John and who has been holidaying in Wales since his childhood. And we have a home there. So I began this vinous adventure wanting to like these wines and their makers, and I have not been disappointed.
Few are familiar with the wisps of the past winemaking endeavours that bestow upon Wales a distinct historical pedigree. As I was chatting to a friend in Tenby a few weeks ago, she asked if I knew that the Mathias family of Lamphey Court had had a successful commercial winery until 1978. I didn’t. When I got home, I checked a 1970 edition of Hugh Johnson’s Atlas and sure enough, there, on page 252, under the wines of the New World section (?), was a little dot on my local village, Lamphey. Today, it is a Best Western where I occasionally avail myself of their spa facilities.
And then there is the 3rd Marquess of Bute who inherited Castle Coch near Cardiff in 1848. Inspired by the historical writings of British viticulture, he decided to reintroduce commercial grape growing into Britain in 1873, planting a 3-acre vineyard in 1875. The first harvests were not good and that of 1877 produced only 240 bottles. His descendants kept the wine production active until 1920, when the vines were then uprooted. But I think that we can safely say that the oldest vineyards of recent history are Welsh. Despite this head start, the Welsh wine industry is behind that of the English in terms of production, facilities and infrastructure.
The ‘younger sibling’
But it is catching up. Welsh winemaking has increased by 70% over the past decade as production soars to more than 100,000 bottles a year. Robb Merchant, Chairman of the Welsh Vineyard Association confirms that “the interest in Welsh wines is growing as the quality improves and production is set to double by 2020.” But there are only about 28 vineyards in Wales at the moment and only one has its own winery, Ancre Hill. The rest send their grapes to two nearby English wineries to elaborate their wines for them. This is changing. With the assistance of Food & Drink Wales, a Welsh government initiative offering funding and marketing services, coupled with this dynamic and ambitious group of growers, the industry is beginning to really focus on the direction in which they wish to go. There are advantages to being the ‘younger sibling’ in this industry. They have had the luxury of watching and learning from the English sector, so to cherry pick from their successful strategies and avoid their failures. Perversely, they are able to leapfrog and to get ahead of the curve. They are craftily turning their perceived disadvantages into advantages – such as their inherent smaller geographical area. They are all resolute to ensure that the direction of Welsh wines is that of small-quantity, terroir-driven, quality wines. Several of the growers are already building strong export relationships and they all see the potential for their sector within the Tourism & Agriculture sectors – which are welcoming them with open arms.
Working towards a Welsh identity
It might be safe to say that the primary goal of Welsh wine, apart from increasing plantings, is to get its identity out from under that of English wine, to not simply be lumped in with its neighbour. With the creation of Wines GB, this may very well become a reality. In the past, it has been impossible not to notice that the UKVA’s PR coverage was strongly biased towards the English wineries. As journalists, we were underfed information about the Welsh industry. There is also a bit of politics involved – as always. The English wine industry does not get the same government subsidies and assistance as the Welsh. This has not gone unnoticed, nor has it gone unnoticed that there are a few Welsh vineyards that are not appreciative of this advantage. I try to ignore the politics – there isn’t a wine region in the world where it does not exist – and just enjoy the wine.
Top Taffy terroir
For those soil buffs amongst you, it is interesting to note that whilst the geology of south-eastern England is dominated by the Kimmeridgian chain, and its chalky, limestone soil layers, Wales has an even richer geochemical diversity – think of the rich mining and ancient volcanic activity. Wales is more like Devon and Cornwall. If you look at the British Geological Survey’s soil map, it’s as though the Severn Estuary and the Bristol Channel are a natural line, dividing this shift in soil structure, cutting them out of the reach of the Paris Basin. The British Isles, as we know, are part of the Euro-Asian landmass and south-eastern England was once an arm of the Paris Basin. During the last Ice Age, the North Sea flowed in and submerged the land ridge – cutting off this ‘arm’. So whilst this part of England is comprised of the younger formations of the Cretaceous, Palaeogene and Jurassic eras, Wales’ geology (along with that of south-western England) is from the older Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian (named after a Welsh tribe) eras. The ‘oldest rocks’ in Wales are in the northwest, particularly on Anglesey, and are Precambrian and include lavas, gneiss and quartzite. Snowdonia is volcanic, with slate from the Ordovician and Silurian eras. South-east Wales is primarily Devonian age Old Red Sandstone (Brecon Beacons) and south Wales’ coal fields are from the Carboniferous age. Wales, too, is topographically higher than south-east England, as it sits at 300-450 metres above sea level as compared to 0-75 metres.
You’ll find many of the same grape varieties being grown in Wales as in England: the successful hybrids along with the classic French/international grapes. And as with England, so far, the sparkling wines are taking the lead. That said, the still whites are on an equal par for me, and I am watching the still reds come along in leaps and bounds. I am told that chaptalisation is the exception and no longer the rule, and many savvy growers are climate change-proofing their planting strategies and are already planting other red varieties in preparation. What I like best about Welsh wine is the distinctive fruit. The maturity is there, as is the acidity and freshness. The only faults I have ever found have been in the winemaking process – mistakes in the winery – never in the vineyard. These should correct themselves as the growers gain more confidence and experience in their winemaking – and crucially, as they obtain their own winemaking facilities so that they have total control from vine to bottle.
I am looking forward to whatever Robb and the others bring along on the 14th, and I hope you will join me in my unwavering enthusiasm for the potential of these wines and winemakers.
By Linda Johnson-Bell
Find out more about the CWW Summer Party.