27 October 1995

Fine vintage grown on the slopes of the Sugar Loaf Mountain

GUESTS staying in the holiday cottages at Dummar Farm, near Abergavenny, Gwent, dont need to look far for a suitable souvenir of their stay.

They can buy a bottle of Welsh wine made from grapes grown on the farms 2ha (5 acres) of south-facing slopes at the foot of the Sugar Loaf Mountain.

It is a new vineyard just into its second harvest. The Sugar Loaf Vineyard label, the wine centre and vineyard trail will be "officially" launched next August. The first 2000 vines were planted in 1992 by Mohammed and Rina Hofayz, who bought the 8.5ha (21-acre) farm in 1982 initially to breed pedigree Suffolk sheep.

"We won lots of prizes with the Suffolks but they just didnt pay. We now have a mixed flock of 80 Suffolks and Welsh crosses which we put to a Texel ram, and we planted an additional two acres of vines in 1994," says Mohammed, a mechanical engineer who originates from Baghdad but met his Welsh wife Rina in Bristol when they were both students.

The couple, who have three grown-up children, are well-travelled and worked in the Middle East before the Gulf War broke out. A friend who used to visit them in Jordan, where Rina had set up an English school, used to bring Three Choirs English wine out to them. It was this friend who encouraged them to start up the vineyard on the farm.

"ADAS tested the soil and Tom Day (consultant to Three Choirs Vineyard, Newent, Glos) gave us lots of advice. We planted two German varieties – early cropping hybrid Seigerrebe, and Reichensteiner – and the French variety Madeleine Angevine, a good cropper with a Muscat nose. These produce dry white wine," explains Mohammed.

"In 94 we planted the red grapes, a French Triomphe DAlsace – we were going to plant Pinot Noir until we were told we would be better off with this – and a Russian variety GM94, which we had seen in Somerset and was recommended. We also planted a white Seyval Blanc and it will be another two years before we take a crop off these."

Mohammed and Rina run the vineyard, cottages and sheep on their own. Rina does all the lambing and also works as a school teacher in Aberfan.

"We have had to put the lambing back a bit. It used to be Christmas but now it is the end of February-March, by which time we will have finished pruning the vines," says Rina. "We prune ourselves because we cant rely on anyone else to do it in case they scalp the lot."

"Collecting the cuttings is the hard work," adds Mohammed. In fact a lot of the work on the vines is hard on the back and joints. He vividly remembers planting the vines, which now number 5000. He started by bending, when the backache got too much he donned knee pads and knelt as he planted – then it was knee pads plus cotton wool. "I had red knees for weeks!"

Usually vines are trained on wires 65.5cm (26in) from the ground. Mohammed has his 84cm (36in) for ease of picking except in the bottom field where they stand 168cm (6ft) tall. "I planned them like this to be anti-frost, for if we have frost it runs along there. It worked this year," says Mohammed.

The vines intrigue passers-by. "The interest is amazing. One field borders a road and a footpath and everyone is friendly and asks about the vines when we are working there," says Rina.

"The best time is harvesting which is good fun but hard work. Everyone has a row to pick and the pay is the food at the end of the day."

"Rina is a very good cook and she does Dolma, vine leaves wrapped round rice and tomatoes and gently cooked. About 15 people help out and they keep coming. We dont pick two weeks running. We give them a break to forget about the backache!" says Mohammed.

"Rina made all the pickers certificates this year, complete with our bottle label. Those brave enough to come back after last year become Master Grape Pickers."

The hot summer has brought a good harvest – the Siegerrebe particularly is excellent – but lulled Mohammed into cutting back on spraying. "Then we were hit by powdery mildew and had to spray immediately to save the lot. I learned you must always spray, even in the hot weather," he says, adding that the black plastic mulch round the vines really paid off during the drought.

Last year he took the grapes to a winery in Somerset for pressing. The result was excellent but the distance too far and this year the grapes have gone to the Three Choirs winery.

"We have had 4t so far this year and we still have a field to pick. We filled all the boxes, the hired van and a trailer, even water butts and almost our pockets, with grapes," says Mohammed." We expect to produce 1000 bottles of wine this year. The potential is 3500."

At present there are two white wines to choose from, both retailing at £5.99. "The red, when we are ready to make it, will be dearer. The outlay for a vineyard is enormous to start with and you will never really recover that. The wine is priced on immediate costs," he says.

It is sold from the wine centre at the farm where visitors will be able to taste the wine after enjoying a vineyard walk when the couple "launch" the vineyard next year. People will be charged £1.50 each for the visit, and the broad walks between the varieties of grapes, the seats and the information boards are already in place.

Tessa Gates

* Sugar Loaf Vineyard, (01873-858675).