In this English vineyard interview we delve into the story behind Wellhayes Vineyard and chat with Simon the head wine maker to find out why he started a new English vineyard in the rolling hills of Devon in the heart of the South West of England.
Hi Simon, great to have you on the English Vineyard Interview Focus blog. To start could you tell us about your background and the team at Wellhayes Vineyard. What did you do before English wine?
I studied Music and Maths at Leeds and was a Civil Servant for 35 years, mostly in the Ministry of Defence with secondments to NATO and the Foreign Office. My wife, Alison, started off studying Biochemistry at Oxford but got so involved with singing that after 2 years she switched to a Music degree, studied as a Post Graduate at the Royal Academy of Music and sang professionally for the next 15 years; she later retrained and worked in environmental policy. We moved to Devon in 2005.
We were fortunate in 2016 to receive LEADER Grant funding to develop a winery and tasting room which, as well as supporting the vineyard has also enabled us to fulfil a long-term ambition to put on concerts.
How long has the vineyard been there? How old are the vines?
After having first moved to Devon, we cogitated for some time with what to do with a 5 acre (south facing, well-drained) field adjoining the farmhouse; and planted 150 vines ‘as an experiment’ in 2008. These were 30 each of Reichensteiner, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Bacchus. The idea was to test whether we could get a crop. After three years we decided not to wait any longer and went ahead with a planting of 2,500 vines in 2011 over a hectare, focusing on the champagne varieties and Reichensteiner (as a hedge against the English weather).
Why did you get involved in the world of English wine?
Apart from a lifetime interest in drinking wine (not least from our time living/working in Brussels and Hungary), we wanted to do something that used the land, but also took advantage of the old farm buildings that we have. In Hungary, in particular, we were very impressed with a number of wine makers in the Villanyi region in the south of the country who are making excellent wine from very small plots of land (often no more than a hectare) and which are largely unknown outside the country.
What is special about the specific ‘terroir’ at Wellhayes Vineyard?
We are fortunate that our vineyard is on the red free-draining sandy loam over ‘Shillet’ (local name for shales) formed during the Devonian period, and not on the heavy clay of Clayhanger village below us. The soil in the field is very deep and the vine roots love this as their roots go straight down and enjoy the good drainage provided by the steep slope and soil type. Right back in the sixteenth century local farmers were very much aware which land was favoured with the almost magical red Devonian soil, as described in historian Eamon Duffy’s famous book “Voices of Morebath” (the next parish), and it is the same today!
Why have you chosen to produce a sparkling wine to start?
We are somewhat different to many of the other English vineyards, particularly those, like us, that are small in scale (~1Ha). We decided early on that we didn’t want to send off our grapes to someone else to make the wine; we wanted to own and control the whole process ourselves. This has meant that we do not have the winery capacity to produce different wines; and we decided on sparkling wine for two main reasons. First, much for the same reason that Champagne itself started to produce sparkling wine, when they found difficulties in ripening the Chardonnay grape to produce still wine, it enables us to be more consistent in producing something drinkable in less good years. Also, given our relatively small scale, it would be difficult to justify the price that we would have to charge for a bottle of still wine.
We do, however make Bacchus from the 30 vines we originally planted in 2008, but we keep these for our own consumption!
That sounds intriguing. Have you considered producing an English white wine from your Bacchus grapes to sell? Or an English rose wine perhaps?
At the moment we are focusing on trying to improve our ‘house style’, although I don’t discount potentially producing a sparkling Rose in the future. We are, however, now experimenting producing brandy (from the 2014 Pinot Noir), which we will probably start selling later in 2018, as well as using it to make liqueur chocolates.
What’s your 'go to' favourite wine?
For white wine we tend to prefer Chardonnay to other grapes and would drink a good Burgundy, given the choice. For red wine Alison’s ideal would be a good Ribera Del Duero, whereas I prefer Pinot Noir. For sparkling, we unashamedly drink our 2014 vintage!
Do you prefer sparkling or Champagne?
This is an interesting question as there are many different types of sparkling wine, including Champagne. Champagne has over time developed a more consistent style, whereas others are still experimenting. Personally, I don’t think English wine is best served by trying to be a Champagne ‘look-alike’. For us the most interesting English sparkling wines are those that have their own identity. It is not about reinventing the wheel; the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier do complement each other well; but in our case we think that the addition of Reichensteiner provides an extra depth to the wine.
If you could pick ‘the perfect pairing’ for your sparkling wine, what would it be?
As a vineyard in Devon, we are particularly interested in local food pairings. So far, we have found it goes particularly well with Porlock Bay Oysters!
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?
For still wines, I usually recommend people try Bacchus, which I think at its best can be really very good and a good distinctive English wine. For sparkling, as a South West vineyard, I tend to point people to the wide spectrum of really good vineyards in the South West, who tend to have much more individuality than those in the South East. Those I would recommend as a start would be Furleigh, Sharphams and Camel Valley.
English wines are generally more expensive than their European counterparts, do you feel this is justified?
It is an inevitable consequence of the scale of the majority of English vineyards (90% are less than 5Ha) coupled with the current rates of Duty on wine (on which there is currently no minimum threshold) and the distorting effects of the current Single Farm Payment policy (which does not pay subsidies to Farms with less than 5Ha.
Anything else you think we should know?
Our other passion is music and we greatly enjoy putting on concerts in our tasting room which we find complements the vineyard activities well – and concert-goers seem to enjoy the walk from the car park past the vineyard and the informal atmosphere and chat over a glass of sparkling wine!
That sounds wonderful, we'd love to come to the next event you have! Thank you Simon for being a part of The English Wine Collection Vineyard Focus.