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A tale of four Norfolk vineyards

A guest blog post by Peter Divey

Alas, I do not have a wine cellar, but a rack under the stairs is some compensation. I can squeeze in approaching 70 bottles. I decided to do something differently this time around, with stock perilously low, and hit the keyboard to quickly research local produce. I was astonished to find 5 vineyards were within a 20-minute drive, however, the nearest, Ashby Valley vineyard was not open to the public. And then there were 4…Not exactly Bordeaux, but impressive for Norfolk. Perfect for my needs.

I am familiar with the classic grapes, but further investigation threw up names that were unknown to me. Hybrid grapes with enhanced disease and fungal resistance that can thrive in cool, marginal conditions. Just what is needed for English wine. This was going to be interesting.

Flint Vineyard – Hannah Witchell (co-owner) serving guests

Flint Vineyard was the first visit. I had telephoned several times over a few days, but the phone was never answered. Busy I supposed. The wife and I checked the website, yes, the shop was open, and we just pitched up one fine and sunny morning, led unerringly by the navigation. A beautiful spot with views across the vines as the Waveney Valley sloped gently away. A tour had just concluded and a dozen or so people were milling about. There was a blackboard extolling the virtues of the Venn Club, with special privileges and opportunities for a yearly fee. Another sign inside the shop advertised the vineyard tours.

We had a taste of the Pinot Noir Precoce (an early ripening, apparently naturally occurring, derivative of regular Pinot Noir). Nice, light, oaked. Moreish, with claims of resemblance to a Beaujolais Cru. On the nose, yes, but different on the palette. The oaking added a gentle complexity to nose and finish but stood aside to let the fruit have free reign otherwise. Pleasantly surprised, I asked about the tour. No places. My wife then asked about the Venn Club. Again, no places. Why then was it all advertised? My wife was distinctly unimpressed, and guided me away with some pressure to my elbow. I had no chance to taste further before we left. Flint Vineyard is doing well. One thing it did not need, or want seemingly, is new customers. I have since purchased a bottle of the 2020 Silex Blanc away from the vineyard. Good wine. Oak present and correct. Quite soft from the malolactic. Not the overtly crisp, greenish English fare here. Maturity will apparently bring more complexity, despite the screwcap (more about this later). Good with a warmed Cheddar and ham quiche.

Buy Flint Vineyard wines here.

Chet Valley Vineyard tour

Next up was Chet Valley Vineyard. One of those typical Norfolk experiences when you venture off the main thoroughfare onto byways. It is as if you have moved back in time even if you are only 2 miles in. Green grass growing in the middle of the narrow road, Goldfinches disturbed and flying up from a dust bath. Deer in the fields. We had ‘phoned to no avail, but we were quickly learning… just visit and hope to luck, there is a shop that should be open…

No signs of life as we parked up. Walked around, called out. Nothing. A door was open to a barn, I called through the door. A young man responded, exceedingly friendly, and guided us to the shop. “If you are generous with the tasting, I will likely bring out the wallet,” I ventured. We left with 6 bottles of fizz in the boot. Chet Valley specialises in English Sparkling Wines, a clear step up from the still for me. I admit, some of these new-fangled hybrid grapes with their different tastes were not yet appealing to me in the still wines. 

Only the top sparkler, Horatio pink, was made in classic Champagne style, with a secondary fermentation in bottle. The name Champagne must not be mentioned, the French get twitchy apparently. Different grapes from Champagne though, Phoenix, Seyval Blanc and a touch of the red Regent. Different taste too. Well-made, obviously. Less serious, but much more fun, no, more than that, flamboyant. There was a cry from the wife I recall, as she tried to squeeze more from a bottle one evening, “It’s evaporated!”. The other sparklers are fun. They are all tank fermented. Liked them all, hybrid grapes or no. Good time wine. Chet Valley Vineyard has a cottage available for rent. Just a fabulous base to explore Norwich, the Broads, Norfolk and North Suffolk from. Or you could just relax and drink the wine…

Buy Chet Valley Vineyard wines here.

Winbirri Vineyard

Winbirri Vineyard did not answer the phone. We knew the routine by now. Not a soul about again, but just the most beautiful vineyard and setting as we poked about. The office was locked. I heard a noise in a large barn, went in and found a lady standing bottles of sparkling wine that had not yet been labelled. Can we taste and purchase some wine please? Lovely lady, and so apologetic, but you’d have thought we’d asked for the Crown Jewels. “So sorry, I can’t use the card reader, I really should learn. My husband deals with all that and the tasting. I will ring him, that’s him on the tractor you can hear going up and down in the vineyard”. There was no response. “Come back on Saturday, we are all set up for tasting and sales then”. Driving away from the vineyard we spied a small tractor waiting to exit onto the narrow road. I took a chance, pulled over and wound my window down, “I have been trying to buy some of your wine,” I said. He gestured for us to follow and we traced our steps back. 

This fellow, like his wife, was not young, but he had more go than most half his age. A human buzzsaw, he never stopped. He gave me a quick impromptu tour. Showed me the stock, and some large barrels marked “Grand”. Those he explained, proud as punch, may be ready in a year or so. “The best thing we have ever done”. A Norfolk Grand Cru red and then some. The vigneron it turned out was his son. He showed me the vines, pointing out how very small the grape buds were, none as big as a match head. “We are at least 6 weeks behind, too much rain, months of rain, not enough sun. We need sun, and more sun.”

I bought 6 bottles of the still wine. A varietal 2019 Solaris and a 2019 varietal Bacchus, 2 Pinot Noir, an oak-aged red wine called Signature from the Dornfelder grape and another from the Rondo grape called Reserve. I loved them all except the Reserve. The Rondo is a grape I cannot take to. Brilliantly made, just not to my taste. It has this brandy/port/spirit thing going on that I do not enjoy.

The Winbirri Bacchus is famous, winning plaudits all over the World. Sauvignon Blanc taken to finishing school, and then taught to be a hooligan again. My wife said “Wow, lemon Sherbert, love it” after her first sip. There was an initial spritz that enlivened that first taste. A persistent, yet subdued citrus fruit evolved to a deeper, drier funky mango that jostled with lively acidity without losing balance. Finished long with an echoing whisper. Olives and antipasti please.

The Solaris was great too. Is it sacrilegious to say I may have preferred this to the Bacchus? Lemon again, but softer. More Muscadet than Sauvignon Blanc. More of that trick of being gentle yet intrusively persistent. Drank this with feta cheese salad most successfully. It is a daily in our household now.

The Signature red is literally a facsimile of a top barrel-aged Rioja. Grown and made in Norfolk? Pull the other one. Only the finish is a little short in comparison to some notably expensive/famous Rioja. This style of wine is old fashioned, you could even say out of fashion just now, but do seek it out. Surprise yourself. The Pinot Noir is unoaked, fresh, fruity, an exemplary cool climate Pinot. Delicious with ham or mild cheese.

Buy Winbirri Vineyard wines here.

Humbleyard Vineyard tour

Humble Yard is a little different. The Norfolk fruit is transported off, and the wine returned. The still wines are made in Suffolk. The Fizz is made in Sussex. Not so local then. You can walk out to the vineyard from the brilliant farm shop that sells every wine. Is every vineyard pretty?

Not a dud here, and notable value compared to the others. Humble Yard provides most of our daily English wine drinking. There are vintages of still wine back to 2014…

Cabernet Cortis is another of those hybrid grapes that is unknown to me. Well, Humble Yard sell a 2014 red made with this grape. Not old bones at all. Awesome with spare ribs. This is Winbirri levels of excellence. A sturdy, extracted red, even if only 11% ABV. If this had only been lightly oaked, what could have been? Next time.

A 2014 Solaris is delicious, still fresh, same for a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, all gooseberry and juicy still. Most remarkable of all is a 2015 Chardonnay called XV. Light wine, lightly oaked, with that typical buttery melon/pineapple when it is well done. The finish is just beginning to shorten, or was it always that way? Kills most standard Bourgogne stone dead. Buy some, there are limited stocks. Before I drink it all.

Buy Humbleyard Vineyard wines here.

Reds under screwcap

Do wines under screwcap mature like wines under cork? Humble Yard seems to say not. Someone out there will know. Is it just the inherent acidity in some English wine that makes them stayers?

English wine has been “arriving” forever it seems. Now it has landed. Try some. You will probably be pleasantly surprised like me. Start with the sparkling wine. Solid, reliable, often classy and always fun. First with the classic Champagne grapes to build up your confidence. Then venture on to the different flavours of the hybrid grapes. I have found the tiniest number of these wines challenging, especially with the still wines, but it is those very grapes that are intrinsic to English wine in the marginal cooler climate. Many of these wines are just out and out exciting and deserving of your attention. Go for it.

Written by Peter Divey, guest contributor.