Taking another bend, the road narrows further. The beech trees bow together to enclose us in an emerald tunnel and the hawthorn growing out of the walled hedges starts to scrape at the wing mirrors. Trying not to think of the insurance excess on the rental car, I exhale and guide the vehicle down the potted road, round another bend and up a steep hill, praying all the while I don’t meet another tractor. At the crest, the trees thin, and through gaps in the old stone walls – some of which have existed since prehistoric times – we can glimpse the blue-grey Atlantic glinting under the spring sunshine beyond a wrinkled landscape of pasturelands, hamlets and gnarled, windswept oaks. Beautif– Concentrate! This is no time for sightseeing! Wits are required to navigate these lanes – to dodge wildlife, fallen tree branches and pot holes, simultaneously keep an eye out for what passes as a passing bay in case of oncoming traffic, and hope against hope that the GPS regains a little patch of signal to check we’re on the right track. The road descends again and lowers us into a wooded valley and– There it is! On the right! One or two brow-moistening reversing manoeuvres later and I’ve nestled the car to safety at our destination, and can tumble out to stretch my calf muscles, aching from all the gear changes in the manual transmission rental car.
I’m in Cornwall – the far south west-peninsula of England. Cornwall has an ancient and fascinating history and retains a strong cultural identity, quite apart from the rest of England, shaped in no small way by the landscape of rolling hills, forested river valleys, tin mines, ancient stone-walled lanes and the sea on nearly every side. A landscape that has recently become home to a novel inhabitant – Vitis vinifera, the grape vine. My travels have taken me to survey the burgeoning wine scene in Cornwall and I’ve arrived at my first stop.
Looe Valley Vineyards
Looe Valley Vineyards typifies one face of the Cornish wine scene. Established by Sue Brownlow and Charles Boney in 2008 as a semi-retirement project, the operation is tiny. Charles takes on all the roles from planting, pruning, and harvesting (with help from the extended family and local community), through pressing, vinifying and bottling. The pair sell their wine primarily through local hotels, restaurants and produce stores. This is not uncommon for English wine these days, although you will find a lot more vineyard owners selling their fruit on to one of the bigger wineries rather than making wine themselves. Perhaps for good reason too, as establishing a vineyard is hard enough, let alone making the wine and bringing it to market. The south of England provides a lot of promise for growing grapes, but not without difficulties. Cornwall offers its own particular challenges: while good soils can be found for grape growing and frosts are mercifully rare, this finger of land protruding into the sea bears the brunt of the prevailing westerly weather and is wetter than a lot of the South Coast. While Sue and Charles established their vineyard in 2008, several years of difficult growing conditions meant that 2014 saw their first successful vintage.
They now have 6,000 vines planted on what used to be sheep grazing land with room for further expansion. These steep slopes above the Looe River are home to Bacchus, Schönburger, Solaris and Frühburgunder – Germanic varieties which suit the Devonian slate soils found here. (Frühburgunder is also known as Pinot Noir Précoce and is an early-ripening mutation of Pinot Noir – convenient for the marginal climes of both Germany and Cornwall.) Charles’s winery is the tiniest, cutest winery I’ve ever seen. A little shed at the top of the vineyard with a 100l hand press and a few small stainless steel vinification tanks. Winemaking is minimal-intervention and all in stainless steel. A typical vintage might produce 1,500 bottles. The 2015 Solaris was a fascinating wine – fruity and fragrant with Pinot Gris-like notes (Solaris is a cross created in 1975; Pinot Gris is one of the variety’s ancestors). The palate had an explosive depth of flavour – notes of cantaloupe and papaya – before tapering to a dry, smooth finish.
A 45-minute drive west and slightly north, skirting the windswept Bodmin Moor, brings us to our next destination – Camel Valley. It’s really not far as the kestrel flies, but in Cornwall, one must always take into account the country lanes, as described above, and the presence of tractors and other farm vehicles even on the two-lane highways. Like Looe Valley Vineyards, Camel Valley also began life as a sheep farm, but here’s where the similarities end. Producing on average 120,000 bottles per year, Camel Valley are the ‘big boys’ of the Cornish wine scene. The focus is on traditional method sparkling wine, and while 120,000 dwarfs the mum-and-dad operation at Looe Valley, it’s worth noting that the total English wine production (sparkling and still) was 4.15 million bottles in 2016. And we can even compare the real big boys in Champagne, with a single wine – Moët & Chandon Impérial NV Brut – selling 30 million bottles in 2015.
It’s safe to say that Camel Valley is still very much a boutique operation.
The vineyard was established by Bob and Annie Lindo in 1989 with 8,000 vines – including a 5,000-vine vineyard of Seyval Blanc, which remains one of the very few vineyards to have been pruned by only one person, Annie herself. Today, son Sam is the chief winemaker and under his guidance the operation – and the quality of the wines – has gone from strength to strength. Production has grown from those early days, awards for the wines have rolled in, and Sam has become one of the most celebrated winemakers in the country. Tasting through the portfolio, it’s easy to see why the awards have been coming along strong. The sparkling wines all share balance and elegance. Some are more ‘serious’ than others: I found the 2014 Camel Valley Brut (100% Chardonnay in this year) very long, with ‘precise’ acidity and tart green apple notes mingling with the toast of the yeast and the aspirin quality of the carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, the 2012 Pinot Noir Brut (a blanc de noirs wine, although showing a deliberate light orange-gold in the glass) had an extravagant, playful nose of fresh strawberry and autumn leaves with a palate that progressed from earth and mushroom, through honey and redcurrant, finishing with tart raspberry – like a three-course meal in a sip!
All this success has not gone to Sam’s head; he maintains an admirable philosophy perhaps best expressed as: “Why make life too complicated for yourself?” Sam firmly believes that first and foremost wine is to be enjoyed. And this applies equally to the making of the beverage as it does to the tasting. You cannot make great wine if you’re too stressed out. The vinification process is kept straightforward: all grapes are crushed, there’s no single bunch pressing; the juice is extracted relatively quickly, and only the free-run juice used. Fruit from vineyards and varieties is kept separate for a two-week fermentation, generally at 13ºC to maintain a primacy of fruit aromas. After which follows one to two years on lees to create the bubbles (the European Union minimum for traditional method sparkling wine is nine months). There’s no malolactic conversion, no time in barrel, and the dosage is reliably 12 g/l. All production is vintage – there is no maintenance of reserve wines to blend into a homogenous non-vintage wine, as is practised in Champagne and elsewhere. In addition, Sam has made the decision to keep the operation small: Camel Valley is unlikely to expand much beyond the average production of 120,000 bottles per year. This way, he gets to keep a sharp eye on all operations of the business – from caring for the vines, making the wine, managing the small staff, and overseeing the sales and exports – as well as spending time with his family and enjoying the beautiful vistas from the winery. You cannot make great wine if you’re too stressed out – life in Camel Valley looks idyllic indeed, and the wines are indeed great.
Sam introduces me to what I suspect is the future of the English Sparkling Wine industry in general – that of multi-site blends. The Camel Valley site now has around 24,000 vines planted; however, these plants account for only about a third of the winery’s production. The rest of the fruit comes from vineyard sites situated around England’s south coast. Typically, a contractual relationship is established with these sites (rather than ownership by Camel Valley), which have been carefully selected not only for the quality of their fruit but a shared ethos of farming practices. Sam’s reasoning is that despite the general warming experienced by England on account of climate change, it is and always will be a marginal place to grow grapes. However, if the prevailing winds in one season bring excess summer rain in the west of the country, the east generally has a good harvest, and vice versa. Sourcing fruit from along the south coast mitigates the risk of producing wine on a cool, rainy island. This is exactly what happens in Champagne – although over a smaller geographical area.
There is still hope for those (like me) who enjoy the rarefied aspect of single vineyard expression. ‘Annie’s Anniversary’ 2014 Brut is a traditional method sparkling made entirely from the Seyval Blanc vines pruned by Annie Lindo herself. The release commemorates the 20th vintage from these vines and the millionth snip of Annie’s secateurs! The wine itself has aromas of fresh, raw nuts and a generously floral, peachy palate – a hallmark of the Seyval. It’s rounder in body than the other wines in the portfolio, yet still with a characteristically taut finish. And in May 2017, Camel Valley became the first wine producer in the country to become recognised by the EU with a Protected Designated Origin (PDO), signifying a unique agricultural product. This status is for a single-vineyard expression of the variety Bacchus, made into a still, white wine, from the winery’s 28-acre Darnibole vineyard. To my mind, Bacchus holds the most promise for English still wine, both in general terms – creating a fresh, herbal, zesty wine to compete with Sauvignon Blanc on restaurant wine lists – and for the wine connoisseur of the geeky persuasion, who will appreciate Bacchus’s ability to express in the glass the differences in vineyard site.
Camel Valley’s Darnibole Bacchus 2014 began with a wonderfully succulent onset of fruit in the mouth – greengage and apple – before tapering to a long, slender expression of nettle, elderflower and sage. Dry, lean, and seriously interesting.
If Looe Valley and Camel Valley represent the extremes of scale in winemaking in Cornwall, then Knightor lies somewhere in between. Twenty-five minutes due south of Camel Valley, near Cornwall’s famous Eden Project, we pull up to a converted manor house that shows signs of serious investment. The beautiful dining room and brochures advertising the location as a unique wedding venue point towards a focus on ‘winery-lifestyle-making’ over winemaking per se, an opinion reinforced the more I learned about the wealthy, yet mostly absent, investor in the winery.
The fact is, it is incredibly difficult to make a living out of making and selling wine. Especially in England. Coupling wine with tourism is a tried and true method of generating multiple income streams that has worked for centuries. The happenstance that vines grow in some of the most beautiful places on earth surely doesn’t hurt!
Knightor’s focus on the image of the winery lifestyle to turn a profit – as opposed to needing to squeeze margins on the actual winemaking itself – has had a benefit for two parties. Firstly, there’s David, Knightor’s softly-spoken, fresh-faced chief winemaker, who has surely landed his dream job soon after graduating from viticultural college. A wealthy backer that has effectively given him carte blanche to pursue his own winemaking whims, instincts and experiments on the side of the bread and butter of the business.
The second group is wine lovers who see the huge potential in Cornish wine – as some of David’s experiments are very, very good. He has a particular palate for texture in wine, best exemplified by a small release of a 2011 traditional method brut sparkling. Chardonnay makes the majority of the blend, but it is barrel-aged Pinot Blanc, stirred through on its lees, that provides gentle aromas of white peach and proving bread, a succulent roundness contained within a taut acidic structure and a finish of raw almond, toast and pink grapefruit. I’d not had anything like it.
The rest of Knightor’s sparkling output – a typical year might see 15–20,000 bottles of traditional method sparkling – aims to please, although the non-vintage Classic Cuvée didn’t have the same level of textural integration on the palate that captivated me with the 2011 vintage release. David does well to bring out concentration in the still wines from the estate, which are made in smaller quantities, from varieties that are becoming English classics – Madeleine Angevine, Bacchus, Siegerebe, Auxerebe – although, as ever, it is difficult to balance the searing levels of acidity.
An innovative approach taken by Knightor is to take inspiration from the great traditions of the Mosel in Germany, and make a low-alcohol, off-dry, Kabinett-style wine. Mena Hweg is made from Schönburger, and named for the Cornish transliteration of a presumed pun on the grape’s name: Mena Hweg = ‘lovely mountain’ in Cornish; schön = ‘beautiful’ in German; berg = mountain. The residual sugar balances the acidity well and the floral varietal character results in a pleasingly expressive, idiosyncratic and versatile wine. An apt tribute to the Cornish wine scene in general!
*Cornish for 'Cheers'!