English wine: still wines soon to be sparkling (part 2)

Thursday, 14 June, 2012
Dave March, CWM
This is Part Two of my trek to find the heart of English winemaking, and follows my visit to Furleigh Estate in Dorset, previously reported. This time it was to the next county, Somerset, and Oatley Vineyard.
The visit nearly didn't happen, though. Turning into the 'no through road' and following a lane just the width of my car for a kilometre, passing Badger sets and startled Rabbits I couldn't believe I was in the right place until the lane opened into a green valley with period farmhouse and picture postcard setting. Iain Awty, owner, greeted me and the scene was perfect; quintessential Springtime England, complete with grazing cows, birdsong, fields of yellow, and vine budbreak. I expected a jug of cider and The Wurzels playing nearby (look them up, lots of accordion playing and 'ooh arghs' in true Zummerzet style - their biggest hit was about a combine harvester).

Iain and Jane left corporate life (Jane continued while Iain established the vineyard) and planted a single hectare of vines - about 3000 - twenty five years ago. Their criteria was low lying land, south facing with acceptable soil types. They found Oatley; at 35 metres above sea level, kilometres from the North Somerset coastline, with red loam, friable soil, it fitted the bill. They grow two whites; Kernling, a Riesling cross but with pink skins, and Madeleine Angevine, a fruity, Muscat-like grape.

Vines near the badger sett are grown higher so that the badgers can't reach the ripe bunches, one of their favourite snacks. Like the humble wasp, badgers don't get enough credit for eating vineyard crops. Hence their homes in the nearby lanes. Then there are the birds, including owls, watching carefully from the hedgerow on four sides of the vineyard, rabbits below them and the threat of grey rot and Eutypa (shoots dying back). Vines are wider spaced to allow air circulation and sun penetration and Iain treats both varieties differently.

The madeleine angevine vines are spur (aka cordon) pruned and the Kernling are replacement (aka Guyot) pruned. No irrigation, of course. You feel that each vine is treated according to its need, and in different places are trained and pruned differently according to nearby trees, sun angle, bird and deer attack. I joked that Iain probably has a name for each vine, which wasn't far from the truth. Yield is around 35hl per hectare, hand picked by volunteers (with a waiting list, due to the following meal and bevying) and the wine is made nearby to Iain's and his winemaker's choices. Bottles are lightweight and labels are FSC certified, carbon footprint is important to Jane and Iain, and when you live where they do, why would you want to destroy anything?

The Leonora's 2009 (Decanter 2012 Bronze Medal at £9 -R112) is 100% Kernling and seems more than its stated 11.5% alcohol. The low cropping gives it weight as it gets no skin contact. Rich, silky and of delicate white peach and elderflower, with the creaminess of a Mersault and the bracing acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc. English wines, especially the 20 or more crosses and hybrids used in the UK, defy easy recognition, they seem to draw elements of more recognisable varieties, bits of Semillon, Viognier, Muscat and young Riesling. They are definitely not boring and a welcome change.

One of the joys of wine is that it reflects where it was made (or should do), this is so true of Oatley. Once you have sat at the trestle table under the summer awning beside the pond and below the fields of wild grasses, vines and ancient oaks you are hit by the beauty and tranquillity of somewhere idolised by Wordsworth and Hardy. The wine takes on a golden lustre, it melds with the landscape and no wonder visitors rarely leave without several bottles.

People who know nothing about wine often leave with a case or two, says Iain. If wine was about place, then Oatley offers a glimpse of England as it was two hundred years ago. Oatley's wines are not a lifestyle statement and there are no plans to increase hectares. Iain smiles when I suggest no-one is going to get rich making wine in the UK, it obviously is not the motivation. The aim here is to interfere as little as possible with nature, to bottle whatever the season gives you, to allow the wines to change. "If you like them, you'll buy them", is the only marketing Iain suggests, and his 400 to 500 cases sell out easily.

Some vineyards try to add bio-diversity and create natural areas; Oatley is untouched and has natural ancient bio-diversity. Some vineyards leave a lasting impression on you. The wines may not be the most expensive or the most prized or the best you've ever had, but they resonate with you, they emit an emotion, nostalgia maybe. Coulée de Serrant in the Loire, Urziger Würzgarten in the Mosel and Henschke's Hill of Grace did it for me; and now I'll have to add Oatley Vineyard.

Family run, small vineyards, hand-made wines are still the norm in the UK, perhaps the winemaking knowledge has improved and maybe technology upgraded, but at the heart is still the pursuit of artisanal wines made with love and distinctively different. Most vineyards are less than thirty hectares, everything is done manually and the product is nurtured and cherished. Few vineyards provide a sufficient income for their owner so the wines are labours of love, not economics. For any member of the 'anything but Chardonnay' club, I suggest you try some English wines, they could re-light your fire.
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Very rural England at the Oatley farm house
Very rural England at the Oatley farm house

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