In this English wine interview we chat to Martin at Three Choirs who has been working in the industry for over 30 years.
Hi Martin, welcome to the English Wine Collection’s Vineyard Focus. Thanks for being on board! Could you provide some background on yourself and the team at Three Choirs, what’s been your career history, how did you and the team end up in the English wine industry?
I trained in agriculture and horticulture at Cirencester, and started working at Three Choirs in 1984 whilst I completed a Business Studies degree at Gloucester University. I went travelling in 1987 to America, New Zealand and Australia, working in a winery in the McLaren Vale, and visiting virtually every vineyard in the Barossa and Hunter Valley! I still have my note book!
When I returned in 1988, there was help needed in the winery and so I put my wellies on and the rest is history! 1989 was my first solo vintage, but I have been supported by a very loyal and now very experienced team. Kevin Shayle is our Production Manager, who joined in 1988, and Paul Hale joined in 1978 and is now a senior Cellar Hand. Rob Cherowbrier joined us as an assistant winemaker last year, having completed Plumpton, travelling and a vintage or two at Ridgeview. Wendy Sheen looks after our bottled stock, controlling stocks and labelling operations, and Frances and Jacqui look after our office operations. We make wine for over 30 other vineyards, and this stable workforce is a valuable asset and appreciated by our customers.
In the vineyard, Mike Garfield looks after the growing crops and delivers us the high quality raw material that we need to make the best possible wine!
Why did you choose Three Choirs to explore your English wine journey?
Whilst training at Cirencester, I met my now wife, Elaine. Her Father was the MD at Three Choirs and so my qualifications were an asset in more than one way! I was born and brought up in Cheltenham, and this was the “local vineyard”, although it was the wrong side of the river (we were warned never to cross it when we were young!!).
We’re now heading into autumn and it’s quite possibly going to be a record year in the English wine industry. How is the vineyard looking, have you started picking yet?
Just finished! Fantastic quality and a big crop to go with it – about 30% up on last year. The earliest vintage too – we started picking on 30th August and the 16th October will be our earliest that we have ever finished. It seems to have gone on for a long time. We will have processed not far off 600 tons of grapes by the time we have finished! Not much tank space left!!
How does the terroir at Three Choirs vineyard affect the wines?
We have sandy soils, on red sandstone. The Severn Valley is well known for its top fruit growing, and grapes are no different. I think that we get very good fruit character in our wines because of the soil type, and varieties like Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Solaris always give excellent fruit character. Currently, the media like to talk about “English Wine”, but in the near future I think that we will get the chance to show off regional differences, and our fruit driven, aromatic styles will certainly be highlighted!
Do you grow all your own on grapes on site?
We grow most of our own grapes. We also work with other farmers and grow grapes on their ground. We prefer this approach to spot buying. When you need grapes they are in short supply, and therefore expensive and not necessarily the best quality. When they are in plentiful supply, we don’t need them!!
We do have a few customers on our 2 to 1 contract, where we make 1/3rd of the wine for them and keep 2/3rds as payment. The old bartering system!
Tell me about your wines, what’s unique about each of them?
So Siegerrebe is our most distinctive wine – low acid and very aromatic – lychee and grapefruit, powerful enough to stand up to Asian food. Not grown in volume by many others, so a “unique” style which has a good fan base.
Our Bacchus has strong nettle character and works because the yields are comparatively low. Nature deals us this hand, not sure why. The South East seem to produce Bacchus at higher yields than we can, but the resulting wine is more powerful in my opinion because of this small cropping.
Our Classic Cuvee, made from Seyval and Pinot, is aged for around 18 months. I found this the right amount of time to develop some complexity from the contact with the lees, but not to overpower the fruit style that we have become known for. We also believe in representing good value on the world stage, and at around £17 per bottle it is certainly well received!
We have two still wine blends – Willowbrook, which has Siegerrebe as a base, and Coleridge Hill, which uses Madeleine Angevine and Phoenix to produce a zesty off dry wine.
Our winery has good temperature control, and this helps to retain the fruit character that the grapes naturally have. We also produce reds, a Raven’s Hill Blend, made from Regent with a bit of Rondo, subtle oaking on some part, but not over-extracted. And then we have a Pinot Noir Precoce, which has just been released. Light and fruity from the 17 vintage, but raising a few eyebrows (in a good way!!!)
On the odd occasion that you don’t drink an English wine, what would be your ‘go to’ wines and why?
I have always been a sucker for Gewurtstraminer! Just so full of character and so grapey. I am also very keen on Chilean Wines (having done several vintages in the Maule Valley). I love good Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere!!
Pairing wine and food can add an extra dimension to the ‘taste experience’ Have you found there are any great pairings for your wines?
Siegerrebe with Asian Food is an interesting one! Also, our May Hill or Late Harvest with cheese. Otherwise, all good with fish or as an aperitif! Isn’t that the standard response! I think that nowadays the rules have been relaxed and people drink what they enjoy. But salmon with our rose and lamb with our reds work well!
Despite the success of English wines, English wine is still relatively unknown around the globe. What would you say to a newcomer to English wines?
Try it! There is a place in your cellar for an English wine or two. The market has certainly changed to our advantage. When I first got involved with English wine it was a hard sell. Everyone wanted heavy oaked Chardonnay from Oz, or Bulls Blood from the Eastern Block. Anything below 13% was water!
Now, we have people looking for lighter styles, less alcohol, fruit character, local, preferably local provenance, less air miles, but without compromising on quality. And here we are!!
What is your ‘adopt a vine’ idea?
We all struggle to find a unique present don’t we? So the idea of having your own vine for a year on a vineyard seemed like a good idea! Come and stroke it, have a meal in the restaurant, try the wine, stay the night! It has been very successful. Especially for children buying something for parents.
You have an AA rosette awarded restaurant on site. Why did you choose to have a restaurant onsite? If we came down to eat at the vineyard what can we expect?
We have always welcomed visitors to the vineyard. We started off with 300 coach parties every year, arriving for a tour, tasting and ploughman’s lunch. Then people became more independent, and so we needed to cater for those individuals. We also noticed that there were not any good restaurants near us, so we invested in good chefs and kitchens, and started to build a reputation for quality food as well as quality wine. This has also resulted in attracting a more local following, which has given us an all year round customer base and made the business less reliant on the summer month trade. Local food cooked well is the key. The wine and food have to be telling the same story!
Anything else you think we should know?
Having built the restaurant trade, we felt that accommodation was important, and so we now have 8 hotel rooms and 3 lodges in the vineyard, so that people can enjoy food and wine, and sleep it off before going home!!
We also have bought Wickham Vineyard in Hampshire, and have turned that into a function venue, catering for weddings mostly. We have 20 acres of vines down there as well.