The English wines produced at Winbirri Vineyard have been winning many awards. With the arrival of Winbirri's English wines to our store we contacted the head winemaker Lee to find out more.
Hi Lee, welcome to the English Wine Collection’s Vineyard Focus. To start, could you provide some background on yourself and the team at Winbirri.
Well, I started out with nothing to do with wine! If you had said to me that I would be involved in the wine industry I would have laughed at you. It was a complete ‘U turn’, I had always been involved with sales and marketing roles in the energy industry.
When the catalyst happened, I was living in Thailand and It wasn’t until I discovered that my father had planted 200 vines as a hobby and I came back. He was always a bit of a hobbyist and loved tinkering around with it. He wanted to be a winemaker so he planted vines to play around with and to grow grapes to continue making his homemade wine.
I helped him out for a few years and then realised that this was something that I wanted to be involved in and I could see it really going somewhere.
In 2009 I decided to push everything forward and take my father’s initial passion and turn it into a business.
Was it by chance that you planted in Norfolk, did you investigate the terroir?
No we didn’t, I knew that the area in Norfolk is known for it’s heavy soils and that’s all. Where we are is perfect for grape growing. The soil is rubbish on the south banks of the river Yeh. We’re at an usually high point for Norfolk which is also quite a hilly area. When I say hilly it’s a slight contour which you don’t normally get in Norfolk.
The majority of the countryside around the area faces North which is not ideal either.
What is an average day like at Winbirri?
All of our vineyards are maintained by hand so it’s pretty full on every day. We have a team of six who are ‘hands on’ in the vineyard all the time.
There are 10 – 12 people involved in the business in total. We do everything from hand pruning, tucking in and down to harvest. Everything is done by hand so it is pretty full on all of the time. We have a committed team here constantly working.
How are the wines doing from last year’s record breaking summer?
It was stunning! We’ve probably made the best Bacchus that we’ve ever produced from the 2018 vintage. We heavily control our yields. We’re managing every vine of the double Guyot system and take it down to six buds per arm. If you spend the money and take the time to do the pruning right, you have a better managed yield. We heavily control the vines at the start during pruning so that we can keep the yields down to a nice small controlled amount. We try and keep it to 2 / 2 ¼ tonne per acre. In a normal year we’re into two tonnes per acre and last year that did creep up a bit as the bunch formation was slightly larger but we never let it get out of control. It might look good at face value with the appearance of a massive yield but that could not be the case. Wine making for me starts in the vineyard, It’s fundamental to get everything right in the vineyard first. If you’re not getting it right in the vineyard then what chance do you have in the winery?
I believe this is why we’re doing so well.
The awards that you have won must be a good sign that you have the right approach too?
Yes. Since day one, the first wine we made which was the Solaris ended up winning a gold medal in 2011 for our first ever wine in the East Anglian Wine Awards. At the time the Solaris grape hadn’t been seen that much.
It wasn’t until later that we got our commercial heads on.
A year later we released our Bacchus and it won gold at the East Anglia Awards. The second year we won two gold medals, gold medal at East Anglia and a gold medal at the UK Wine Awards. We also got four trophies that year including ‘most outstanding wine from East Anglia’. The best was for most outstanding wine produced in the UK, so we won the overall wine for the English and Welsh wine competition too. In 2017 we won a gold medal again, platinum best in show at Decanter which is when it went bonkers! It was for the most outstanding single varietal white wine in the world.
Which put you on the world stage!
Yes it did, not only on a commercial level but a public level too. It was also the first time an English wine had won an award of that scale at Decanter for a still wine. It was great because English sparkling wines had been winning awards and this was the first time an English white wine had won an award of such quality.
It must have been a real sign that you’re on the right path with your English wine making?
Yes, when I first started I only had one interest and that was to be making the best wines. I never intended to go and just make average wines, it had to be the best. If you don’t aim high you never get there so you have to aim for the top and you can do it!
Lee, talk me through your wines.
Our Bacchus is different compared to other English Bacchus wines in that I go for a racier profile, I like it to be more explosive and exciting on the palate. This is the joy of working with the English Bacchus grape, there are so many styles. I always thought that it served a certain style of wine and it’s gone well heading in that direction. The finish is amazing, it goes on a transcendence on the palate where the flavour just keeps developing.
When aiming for this style I go for an English wine that is light, fresh and aromatic. To be a quality dry white wine you’re always aiming for lighter structure favours. To then achieve this kind of length profile from the Bacchus is incredible, every year is the same we get amazing length on the wine. I believe this is why it’s done so well.
We buck the trend heavily at Winbirri, in the sense that the industry average is about 95% English sparkling white and English white wines.
I invest heavily in English red wines. It costs nearly three times as much to make an English red wine rather than an English white wine.
In terms of style I love Rioja and you can probably see the reference that I have taken from that region in terms of wine style, I do lean towards that with long ageing in American oak barrels. We only use barrels on a one to three ageing process to keep the speed ageing process up to a maximum.
It also gives this lovely pepper, spice and vanilla that comes through in the wines. I like to keep the fruit aspect too.
It takes me nearly three years to make the signature red, I’m really pleased with it. It’s made good inroads with the hotel industry.
The Pinot Noir red is very popular. With this English red wine I aim for a fruity wine style. I won’t use oak barrels for this English red wine, l use mainly stainless steel tanks, to help bring the black cherry flavour forward.
I have toyed with using different oak but I don’t think it adds anything to it, I think it detracts from the whole wine.
Pinot Noir has a unique flavour and aroma that you can pick out very easily. It’s been said that , Pinot Noir is ‘the heartbreak grape’ for us, it’s a challenge but the results are really pleasing.
The red wines are served at the Pig’s Group chain of hotels, how did this come about?
Yes, we’re also in the Montague Arms which is a Michelin starred restaurant in the New Forest and we’re also in the Alexander House Hotel which is five stars just north of Brighton, it’s a stunning place.
Our wines have got on many places that I didn’t even know about, first class British Airways which I discovered by chance when I saw it on TV.
The wines keep popping up in very nice places which we don’t find out about until a customer says ‘we had your wine at such and such….’
Have you come across the perfect pairings for your wines?
The Bacchus pairs amazingly with local asparagus, goat’s cheese , and oysters. The Pinot pairs amazing with many lamb dishes.
Other than English wine, what do you like drinking?
I have always been a fan of Rioja. I love the area and as a region they have many outstanding restaurants and stunning architecture, so it’s quite a nice region as a whole. I’ve been quite a few times, I do love these wines.
I’m a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc which is in part the inspiration and direction behind our Bacchus.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to replicate the achievements that we’ve done and win more awards. The main goal is to continue pushing forward with the wine's quality and never let that slip. I think we’ve already achieved it this year, a lot of the wine judges and journalists say that the 2018 Bacchus is far superior already.
We’re really pleased that the feedback is coming this way already. I don’t plan to rest on my laurels. When we won the award at Decanter we were asked if we would expand and I won't ever do this unless we can expand the quality too.
Some of the vineyards in England are buying up land from other parts of the UK which aren’t native to them. Do you think you’ll do the same?
I doubt I’ll do that. One of the major limiting factors is that I am a control freak. I need to be in control of the whole process. So a satellite English vineyard on the other side of the country I would need to be delegating the control of the vineyard to someone else. I cannot delegate, I cannot release those important jobs to other people. No one will do it as well as I can. I have my style. I don’t want to dilute it in anyway.
I don’t want to be a big company and dilute what we’ve created. A small business with superior quality wine is more important to me.
I’d rather less of my wine in much higher demand than just creating millions of bottles a year.
What do you think the industry should do for the future?
I think that we’re heading in a really exciting direction. I think that the vast majority are pushing in the same direction, pushing for higher quality. Like any industry there are varying degrees within the industry.
I’d like to think we pushing forward for quality over quantity. I don’t think pushing just for sparkling is the answer. Putting all of your eggs in one basket when we have proven the English still wines are superb. I don’t think that everyone will be drinking sparkling wine during the week to chill out. Not every day is an opportunity to celebrate but every day after work is an opportunity to drink wine.
How do you take time out?
I work seven days a week, there is no such thing! It’s my life. I don’t think you can do this the way that I have done it with it being just a job. This is my life this is what I am this is what I do. Although I don’t work, I get to play, this is my ‘work’. It’s not a means to an end. My work brings everything for me.
I want to keep pushing forward. Expand my company bit by bit. Maintain our position, we’re known as being a great producer and I want to uphold that.
I’ve gone through a lot of years in life never thinking that I would find a job that would bring this much joy to me, I am very pleased that I have!
The drive, the enthusiasm over all these years has never waned!
To find out more about the award winning wines that Lee has been discussing click here.