This is for all my fellow lawyers yearning to escape into the world of wine. Fiona Shiner is an inspirational example of a lawyer who did exactly that, creating Woodchester Valley Vineyard & Winery in Gloucestershire, just off the A46 between Stroud and Nailsworth. Here she is brandishing the local Cotswold brash, an intrinsic part of what makes her wines unique.
My visit was part of the West of England Wine & Spirit Association tour and tasting outing, arranged by fellow committee member Richard McCraith, which fell on a cool early autumn Monday evening in 2019.
The range of wines is impressive for such a young enterprise. Twelve grape varieties are grown (photo shows Ortega grapes), both English and international varieties. We tasted 12 wines in all styles, including reds. I won’t go into details you can get from their website (see below) or from a visit of your own.
For now, take it from me that this is a wine business where things are done properly. There is no corner cutting or settling for second best. They mean to produce world class wine. It won’t happen with every variety every year – this is England, after all. But make no mistake – when the age of English wine comes, as it will with climate change, Fiona and her team will be ready to take full advantage.
Woodchester boasts some of the steepest vineyard sites in England. In such a marginal climate for grape growing, this means the sun ripens the grapes here more easily than in many other places. The down side is that the harvest has to be picked by hand, but this facilitates grape selection in the vineyard so only the ripest cleanest crop makes it to the winery. Quality is everything here. For example, the Ortega, shown above, tends to ripen unevenly, and so the pickers may well go through the vines twice, on different dates, to ensure all bunches used are ripe enough.
Although Fiona established the vineyard at the Amberley site in 2007, and gradually expanded her holdings thereafter, the winery didn’t open until 2016. Prior to that, her precious harvest was entrusted to the experienced hands of Three Choirs in Newent.
It is a good thing Woodchester has its own winery now. Harvest by tonnage has increased from 37.5 in 2016, to 68.3 in 2017, and a whopping 176.3 in 2018. 2019 will have been rather lower but the trend is heading upwards. This equates to 30,000 bottles in 2016, 58,000 in 2017 and over 100,000 in 2018.
For sparkling wine diploma students, a tour is a must. The winery now has everything needed to make sparkling wine, including a gyropalette (right photo) and disgorgement equipment (left photo), all of which were explained in as much detail by winemaker Jeremy Mount as even the most geeky student could possibly desire.
Our fizz tasting kicked off with the Cotswold Classic 2016, a refreshing, clean dry white sparkler made from Seyval Blanc grapes. All Woodchester fizz is made using the traditional method of making sparkling wine used in Champagne, so this one has biscuity notes from ageing on the lees (yeast cells) for 15 months with moreish apple aromatics and a lifted lemon sherbet finish. The Blanc de Blancs 2015, also lean, crisp and full of citrus character, has extra nutty complexity from its 29 months of lees ageing. The Reserve Cuvée 2016 is a blend of the classic Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. It’s a more approachable mouthful in style, less crisp, with fruity and floral notes. The Rosé Brut 2016 is both fresh and fruity with delicate strawberry and currant aromas, and an appetising savoury element making it a fantastic food pairing choice.
Moving on to the still whites, there are three vineyard plots, and the darling of English still white wine, Bacchus, is grown on each, giving the option of blending from all three sites, or selecting grapes for a more defined style reflecting the terroir. The Bacchus 2018, in which grapes from all three sites are blended, has a creamy weight to it, but at the same time it’s tangy with gooseberry, elderflower and a hint of stone fruit to enjoy with a long finish. At 11.5% abv it’s a refreshing summer wine, with some similarities to a Sauvignon Blanc. If kept, it develops Riesling character.
The Orpheus 2017 (named after the nearby Roman mosaic pavement) is a totally different character, and comes mainly from the Amberley site, with careful selection of grapes from individual vineyard parcels. The fruit flavours are much riper, with baked peach, lychee, very perfumed jasmine and elderflower aromatics and a long finish. There was a slight spritz to it, and the balance of acidity and ripe fruit was just right. We were told that when sampling Bacchus to assess its ripeness at harvest, the fruit character starts out as gooseberry, then morphs into elderflower, at which point most grapes are picked, and then finally tropical fruit flavours develop in hte more favourable sites, like this one. So here, weather permitting, Bacchus can be what the Woodchester winemakers want it to be.
Bacchus appears again in Culver Hill 2018, a dry white blend with crisp Seyval Blanc and fragrant Ortega. The percentages vary each year, and in 2018 it was an equal three way split. A lot of care goes into getting this blend right. The Bacchus grapes chosen have to complement, not dominate, the flavours of the other grapes in the blend, and 50% of the Ortega is barrel fermented, with battonage being used to promote contact with the lees (yeast cells) to enhance the body and flavour of the wine. There was a slight spritz and high acidity, but this was impeccably balanced by pronounced lychee, white peach, rose petal, grape and lemon sherbet flavours and a mineral edge. The finish was long. I can see why the buyers at Harvey Nichols chose to stock it. Fish and chip supper was laid on after the tasting and this went perfectly with it.
Of the impressive still whites range, the showstopper was the Sauvignon Blanc 2018. It isn’t often grown in the UK because it takes too long for the acidity levels to fall to a drinkable level. Expectations were not therefore high; and yet this example showed what can be achieved in a great year on a great site. The vineyard is their steep south facing Stonehouse site, and yields are kept low with small berries. The wine was elegant, with depth of flavour and juicy gooseberry and mown lawn aromatics. What really impressed was the evolving palate and very long finish with grapey notes, lychees and ripe red gooseberries. Bring me a plate of goat’s cheese to pair with it! It’s a brave and aspirational choice to include Sauvignon Blanc in a UK vineyard grape portfolio, and it won’t produce this quality in every vintage in Gloucestershire I’m sure. But be glad it is growing here, because this is a real gem, and almost makes one wish for climate change to warm us up so we can have more of it. It was awarded a gold medal from the IWSC and the Drinks Business Masters in 2019.
We sampled rosés from Pinot Noir and Regent, the latter being my preference with hedgerow fruits, redcurrant crunch, savoury character and an honest earthiness. It was incredibly appetising with a long value for money finish. The Pinot Noir was lovely too, peach melba with fresh crushed strawberries, but more easy drinking without the same complexity.
Finally the reds. The approachable Atcombe blend of Regent and Pinot Noir, a non vintage mainly from 2017, was a hit, with depth of sweet plummy fruit laced with vanilla, woody spiciness, violets and a hint of farmyard. The Pinot Noir 2017 was a more serious wine, and more Burgundian in character with hints of wild strawberries, vanilla and smokey character. It had been in barrel for a year, and the investment in barrels for ageing again shows the aspirations of the winemakers.
2018 was an outstanding vintage in England so watch this space for their Pinot Noir from that year when released. Even greater quality is anticipated.
My overall impression from this extensive tasting was that the still whites are the most impressive of Woodchester’s output to date, though everything tasted was of high quality; the whites simply offer particularly good value for money.
Woodchester is on an upwards trajectory, and most definitely a vineyard to watch. Though this was a great time to visit them, I’m certain that a return trip in a few years’ time will find them making further strides in terms of wine quality, innovation and prosperity.
Wines are available from Woodchester Valley directly (https://www.woodchestervalleyvineyard.co.uk), and Culver Hill 2017 is available from Harvey Nichols: https://www.harveynichols.com/search/culver%20hill/. Woodchester Valley wines are suitable for vegans.