In 2017 after many years of love, Astley Vineyard was sold to new owners. After allowing them to settle in,we thought now was a good time to catch up with them to hear their English wine story and to find out what's in store for the future of Astley Vineyard. The following interview is a lovely personal story of the 'right timing' and passion for wine.
Hi Chris, great to have you here on our 'Vineyard Focus blog'. It's all change at Astley recently, could you provide some background on yourself and the new team at Astley Vineyard. What did you do before Astley?
We are a family of five (four of whom live at the vineyard itself) who planted our roots in this region over twenty years ago. We originally lived just 15 minutes away from where we are now, so it feels apt to find ‘our calling’ so close to where we started our story in Worcestershire.
My parents, Tim & Bev, are the owners of the business and are the ones who put forward the idea of the vineyard. Tim used to be a financial director in the City and has since retired to become Astley’s Viticulturist and Landscaper. Bev has been involved with community work for 20 years now – setting up the local village hall and countless other projects – and now she covers all aspects of the business. She’s the media shy one, but she actually makes all elements of the business work smoothly and cohesively.
My wife, Matleena (Finnish) still does some part-time bookkeeping work from our time back in London, so she helps us with our accounts, taxes and admin when she’s free. She’s also a fierce crossfitter so she enjoys helping Tim with the chainsawing and heavy lifting. She’s a tough woman.
My sister, Daisy, works in Shrewsbury and doesn’t live onsite currently, but she often stays with us to help with our landscaping from a sustainability point of view. She’s great at improving our green credentials and has put alot of work into the management of our woodland. She’s also a great artist which we would like to exploit in the future.
And finally I suppose I am Astley’s ‘wine person’. I worked at Harvey Nichols’ wine shop in Knightsbridge for 2 years before this where I was fortunate enough to try and learn about many world class wines. After leaving there, I took the WSET level 2 & 3 condensed course where I qualified with a distinction in both elements, followed by taking a quick course in winemaking at Plumpton college. I also have a lot of experience with marketing and PR from my previous (but short) music career, so I do all of our online and content creation.
How/why did you get involved in the world of wine?
I’ve always had a burning passion for food and drink. I’m really adventurous and experimental when it comes to food, as well as being a passionate cook. When I moved to Harvey Nichols, I had a decent palate and passion for quality food and drink, but none of the technical theory. My manager saw this and sent me to every trade tasting possible. When I wasn’t serving customers I was taught about some of the 20,000 bottles we had available, and also had my nose stuck in numerous books. The world of wine fascinated me, and I was keen to lap-up all of the information before me.
There were two wines (both champagnes funnily enough) that were a turning point for me and solidified my future in wine.
First was Jaquesson Dizy Corne Bautray 2002 which we were treated to at my first Christmas at HN. It was monumentally complex with a richness I had never experienced before. This made me realise my love for vintage champagne and everything ‘wine’ to be honest! Next was Dom Ruinart 2006 which we were shown at a champagne tasting evening. It had a finesse, elegance and precision that blew me away. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford either of these wines again unfortunately!
The final piece of the puzzle was the WSET qualification. It was intense and took a lot of energy, but it was thrilling to learn about the complexity and variety of wine out there. I think I took the exam as seriously at my university degree thinking back! I was setting myself up to take the Diploma, but then the vineyard stepped up a gear so I decided not to.
Why did you choose Astley Vineyard for your English wine journey?
It all started with it’s proximity to where we used to live, to be honest. Stourport is a small town, but it’s where our family really laid its roots in terms of community and memories.
After that, it came down to the quality of the wine. We are lucky that Astley Vineyard is so well established (planted in 1971) so it was more a case of assessing what was already there rather than having to think about planting a whole new vineyard.
The topic of the vineyard came up on Christmas day 2016 which was when we tried all of the wines for the first time. We instantly knew that we were tasting something special, so it then became a question of how it would work as a family business. Luckily, my parents were still living in the region, and I was about to leave my job in London, so the timing of the opportunity couldn’t have been better.
Also, philosophically the vineyard and Jonty (the previous owner) were also a very good match for us. We liked the boutique size of it, and we loved the way Jonty spoke and felt about the vineyard. It was a meeting of spirits in so many aspects. The lifestyle appealed to us massively, and although we of course want the business to be successful, it was never the money-side of the business that was driving us. We were looking forward to being together again as a family and living the outdoor life.
What is special about the specific ‘terroir’ at Astley Vineyard?
Without trying to sound cliched, our soil is a terrific match for our climate here in Worcestershire. Our county receives a lot of the rain that comes over from the Atlantic, and so drainage is hugely important for our vines. Luckily, they are planted loose, free draining sandstone over a bed of even more Triassic sandstone, and so we’re not sure we could have hoped for a better soil match! Walking around our whole site this winter, even after all of the snow that left parts of the land around our house saturated and wet, the soil on our vineyard had almost completely dried up in a couple of days. It was amazing.
Another factor that affects us is the deep wooded valley that lies in between the vineyard and our house. This has the affect of drawing off all of the cold air on the vineyard, leaving the vines with a constant flow of air. Last spring when the damaging frosts hit, we only suffered about 1% damage compared to reports of 90% at other vineyards. We were extremely fortunate to lose so little.
Finally, our vineyard is planted less than half a mile from the River Severn. I don’t need to explain this to geography majors, but this helps to moderate temperatures on our vineyard over cool periods. The river retains a lot of heat and so frosts aren’t so much of a problem for us (combined with the affect of our valley, above).
Despite this, however, it’s worth mentioning the diligence and care that Jonty put into the vineyard over the years. The vineyard was like a member of his family, and the thought he put into managing the soil, the vines and wildlife was incredible. Our vines have received so much love over our 46 year history that it seems a shame to put our success solely down to the terroir!
Apart from your recent rebranding, which looks great, are you going to make any further changes to Astley Vineyard?
We’re still incredibly early on to our life here at the vineyard – we only moved in, in July 2017 – so there are still some basic things we need to achieve before we think about the even bigger picture. The branding was a great start, and our design team from Worcester (WeAreBeard) have delivered exactly what we wanted to achieve.
Next on the list is our customer experience as our old cellar door shop and the journey up to and around the vineyard could have been better. Currently, we are laying the foundations for an improved car park and a brand new visitor centre, and we have worked on coppicing and clearing up our small woodland. The short walk to the vineyard is as beautiful as the vineyard, and so we really want to work with these natural assets and make our wood a beautiful place to stop and think.
Another change we will soon implement (drum roll!) is that we will soon have our very own winery here on site. Historically, neighbouring Three Choirs have made all of Astley Vineyard’s wines, and they have done an amazing job with it! We are not moving production away for any negative reasons at all, but more so that we can complete our concept of the whole business being family run. We want to make those minute winemaking decisions that will show off our wines the best – plus it sounds like a lot of fun! (We’re not sure we’ve told anyone this before, so enjoy the news!)
Have you considered producing any red wines or do you think this should be left to the French?
Astley doesn’t grow any red varieties (minus a few small rows of, albeit great, Pinot Noir) and we don’t plan on increasing production in the near future at all. Although we are missing a red in our range, it would mean tearing up some rows of already established vines, and we definitely don’t want to do that.
Being such an old vineyard, our vineyard is ‘quirky’ in some places (we have one single Schönburger vine, for example) so one of the things we will do in the near future is replace some of the more random rows, and plant more of what we already grow here; like Siegerrebe which seems to thrive on our vineyard.
Do you have any plans to produce a new Astley wine, to cement your arrival as part of the English wine movement?
The balance between modernising the vineyard and respecting our heritage here is a tough one. We have had conversations about this from the start, and I think the conclusion we came to was somewhere in the middle. We are proud to be one of the oldest vineyards in the UK and having unusually old Kerner vines, albeit low yielding, yet we realise that there is scope to improve on what we have and perhaps do something new.
We will slowly tweak our wines here at Astley Vineyard using our upcoming winery, but as a family we must learn to walk before we try to run. Why ruin something that works?
Having said this, one personal project of mine is to see if we can produce an orange wine in the future. My wife and I were introduced to an amazing selection when we visited Florence last year, and their application to food pairings is stunning. I don’t want to do it because it’s trendy, but because I genuinely love the style and find them fascinating. It’s only an idea right now, but one I think I’ll stick with.
Other than your own English wines, what is your ‘go to’ favourite wine?
I’m not much of a repetitive drinker to be honest. I love variety in everything that I do, but if I had to choose I would go for a Riesling of any variety, or a Pinot Noir – preferably from Oregon or Central Otago. I’m not much of an Old World drinker as personally I find there is a lot more interesting and exciting wine being made by the New World. Having said that, I do love Alto Adige as an area (they too grow amazing Kerner) and also Austria and Germany.
Do you prefer sparkling or Champagne?
It’s tricky as like most people reading this, I imagine, I have tried far more champagnes than I have sparkling wines. I tell a lot of people that if I had to drink one wine forever it would probably be champagne – vintage and Pinot Noir dominated (I’m not much of a Blanc de Blancs lover) – but now being a sparkling wine producer, I would love to expand my knowledge of the category.
I have tried some absolutely wonderful sparkling wines though, ranging from New Zealand made sparkling Shiraz, and obviously some here from England. Knightor, for example, do an amazing vintage sparkling wine that I love, and I have to admit that I am a sucker for Gusbourne wines. It’s a growing category and will still take some time to catch up to champagne…but I’m confident that we can do it!
What’s the perfect pairing for your English wines?
This is a tough question as I will never try every single food combination in the world with our wines. How long is a piece of a string? It’s impossible to know that the ‘perfect’ pairing is as the whole concept of pairing is so subjective.
There is also the complication of what you are looking for in a pairing. Are you looking to enhance the rich, fattiness of a dish, or looking to cut through it and freshen up the experience, for example? Both work, but It depends on your preference.
The theory of matching food from the same region as the wine is a safe place to start for me. Fresh Worcestershire asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli with our zesty Bacchus, for example. At the same time, pairings from further afield also work, like Indian spices with our apple’y Bacchus or our tropical Sabrinna, or mussels with our Old Vine Kerner.
I think wine pairing as a subject is too subjective to give a definitive answer, so just eat and drink what you like and you’ll probably come across some amazing pairings that way.
Despite the soaring popularity of English wines, the majority of the world is still unsure where to start. What would you suggest to a first time buyer of English wines?
The English wine industry is still a baby compared to the rest of the world and so a problem we have as a nation of producers is consistency. Don’t get me wrong, we are producing some absolutely world class wines as a country, but there are also a lot of vineyards still finding their way with their own wines (and rightly so! What else can they do?)
If the person drinking isn’t so experimental and brave, starting somewhere safe and well known is a good start. The largest producers are the most widely available and exported for a reason, so begin by acquainting yourselves with these names.
From there, however, consumers should look further afield than the household names and begin exploring their local area. Sometimes you’ll come across an absolute gem that simply aren’t well known because of the tiny quantities they produce. Other times the wine might not quite be so up to scratch, but in this case you are supporting local producers who are trying to make their way. Either way, somebody comes out a winner.
Me personally, I would look to grape varieties that I haven’t tried so many times before. The entire wine making world is focussing more and more on indigenous, forgotten varieties, and from the start this has been a massive strength for the UK. Just look at the success of our Bacchus for example! We love our Kerner here as it is so left field, yet also produces a fantastic quality wine. The brave often get rewarded, so start experimenting now!
English wines are generally more expensive than there European counterparts, do you feel this is justified?
The advantage the rest of Europe, and indeed the world has is scale of production. We are a small maritime island that has only recently forayed into grape growing. Because of this, our margins need to be higher per bottle than those producing one million bottles if we are to earn any kind of sustainable wage.
Of course the UK has some larger producers that are more comparable to our European counterparts, but I would imagine that the vast majority of vineyards here in our country produce less than half of your average European producer. We, for example, only produce 7k-10k bottles per year which is absolutely tiny!
Luckily, I think that the people who have started to buy English wine already know that you often need to pay a bit more to support the ‘little guy’. It’s a choice the consumer has to make – buy the usual, safe bottle from a supermarket, or take a risk by supporting your local producer. For me, it’s no question, but that’s because I am a part of this world that sees the costs, sees the time gone into producing a product, and sees the passion of the people working so hard to get something done. It’s more money, but there is often more story in the bottle itself.
Anything else you think we should know?
With our upcoming visitor centre and winery being built on site, 2018 is going to be a huge year for our vineyard! Keep your eyes peeled for developments.
That's great, thank you Chris for such a personal and informative Vineyard Focus. To see what Chris has been talking about check out Astley's wines here.
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