Michael Caines’ idyllic country house hotel, Lympstone Manor, is set above the Exe Valley and the undulating river below. Famed for its superb food and luxurious experience, it is now home to the hotel’s very own vineyard set to produce its own wines within the next three to five years. We spoke to ground Manager James Matyear, to find out more…
James how did you get into wine?
I fell in love with wine, viticulture and working outside in my late teens while on holiday in Italy. My previous career was flying, but I was learning at Plumpton College and went down the road of viticulture. I ended up going to Italy for five months to learn and got a job at Hattingley Valley, which is really where I got my skillset regarding English sparkling wines. I was was there for 4.5 years but my life had been very much in the South West and I wanted to come home just as Michael’s opportunity came up at Lympstone Manor and it was my mission to get here and see if they needed help. I have been very fortunate to work with Steve and Michael and to watch the project grow and develop.
Why the focus on English Wine?
We’re in the South West in Devon and the English wine industry is at a very exciting stage. It’s become very clear that wine of the highest quality can be produced in this country. There is the challenge of dealing with the growing seasons and the climate is not as stable as it is in some countries in order to make it commercially viable, but that’s changing and we all know the level of investment that’s going into wine production.
Over 1.5 million vines have gone into the UK this year and it’s set to increase. We’re in a fortunate position because although we’re in early stages of production, it’s not our primary business - we’re a top end country house hotel so there isn’t the same pressure on us to turn the vineyard round commercially, quickly. As a result we can focus on quality and in the meantime it’s a lovely addition to the property.
What's special about the site on which you have chosen to grow vines?
The grounds of the hotel amount to 28 acres in total and it enjoys a wonderful aspect right to the side/front of the hotel, so most of the guest bedrooms are at the front with a view over the vineyard and onto the coast. The vineyard is all part of Michael’s ambition and dream and it’s the perfect location, atmosphere and microclimate for it.
The site itself is unique. It is right on the estuary and is pretty much at sea level. It faces south west and we are really protected by the estate - the tree line takes the wind off but gives us a good breeze to keep disease low. The ground used to be a riverbed and it hadn’t been touched for hundreds of years, it needed to be prepared, but there’s lots of stone in it - the geology is 250 million years old - and it is a mix of small and large stones which is great for drainage and stops instability in temperature. We really want to draw out minerality in our wines to make it something really unique to Devon.
The vineyard itself is 4.2 hectares and planning started in August last year with a soil analysis, looking at geology and microclimate. We started planting on 6th May in nice clay loam soil. The actual planting of the vines took two days. We had a fantastic team and conditions were spot on in the end. In total we planted 17,500 vines - including pinot noir and pinot meunier and chardonnay grape varieties; we are dedicated purely to English sparkling wines.
When do they expect the first harvest to be?
It’s very much establishment dependent. We work on a three year cycle so we hope to have good droppable fruit next year. The first year is really about root establishment.
We think it will be three years until our first small harvest, and then year five or six we should be in full flow for vintages - that’s our aim, but you never know. If the weather is like it has been this summer we could get a full crop sooner. That’s where it’s fun and we can be flexible, but then it will be on lees for a couple of years, so probably 2024 before we have our hands on an actual bottle.
Why have you chosen to focus on sparkling?
I guess it’s fair to say that arguably the best quality wines produced thus far in the UK have been sparkling wines, but I think also, after we had the initial soil analysis done and looked at what’s best for here, we decided that was the route to go down.
Of course, we say sparkling now but there are other opportunities moving forward depending on the growing season each year, because we also have chardonnay and pinot noir so it gives us other options. I think sparkling is very fitting to who we are - we’re all about luxury.
Has Michael had much input in the vineyard?
Michael has input into everything at Lympstone Manor; it’s his business, his vision and his drive that has made it happen. He brings the right people around him but he knows exactly what is going on.
Will the wines be available for sale or will it just served at Michael’s restaurants?
A lot of that again depends on volume and demand. We will certainly retail it through the hotel by the glass and by the bottle, but there hasn’t been a final decision made on that. It’s a definite maybe. When the vines take hold we will be looking in the region of 20,000 bottles and on a rough calculation we would probably need around 5000 bottles at the hotel, but by the same token we have to build up a reserve stock.
Will you be doing vineyard tours?
Definitely! Our sales and marketing team are working out packages at the moment so we can curate that experience for guests at Lympstone Manor even before the first grapes are picked. We are also building up a good base of English wines in our restaurant anyway; our sommelier is an encyclopaedia of knowledge!
Is there anything else we should know?
One of the things that makes us unique is that we will solely be a vineyard for us; we’re not building a winery so we will have a partner on that side but we will be a single estate wine, and we will not be buying in grapes. That is very much an expression of who we are. Given the commercial pressures that English wineries have it is common practice for many to get grapes from other sources as well but we are lucky that we do not have those pressures, so we can be more selective about that part of the process.